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An interview with the painter

About Joan Castejon’s Don Quixote An interview with the painter

Mar Menéndez

Don Quixote, the great novel by Cervantes, could not go unnoticed by the visual arts. Many artists have taken inspiration in the exploits of Don Quixote and his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, creating an iconographic universe whose protagonists are easily identified. A character possessed by insanity that moves him to embark upon a quest for adventures, spreading criteria of kindliness and justice in a chaotic world in crisis; a messianic idealism incomprehensible for the unscrupulous individuals he comes across on his travels. Spirituality and pragmatism, madness and sense, reality and fiction. Who could keep away from the rich imagery in this book and the decadent charm of the one also known as the knight of the sad countenance? Goya wanted to illustrate it, but his attempt was unsuccessful; Gustave Doré made the most famous illustrations for the novel; Picasso was said to have made his well-known drawing of Don Quixote and Sancho when commissioned by a magazine and Dalí added the knight’s fantasies to his surrealist iconography. Many have fallen under its influence.

Joan Castejón could not resist the charm of Cervantes’ novel either. This is not surprising in an artist who is so closely linked to the literary world since a very early stage in his career, from the series he made in the seventies about another of the great novels in universal literature, A Hundred Years of Solitude. Since this series, Castejón’s imaginative realistic style –similar to the style inaugurated by Gabriel García Márquez in his novel, magic realism– has always been closely related to literature. A relationship that the writer Mario Vargas Llosa sagaciously described as follows in the catalogue of that exhibition. “The visual arts and literature do not run parallel to each other but neither are they enemies: they can be of good service to each other, stimulate each other and successfully make love to each other.”

All this passion that Joan professes for literature probably stems from his efforts to make up for his lack of academic qualifications. During this interview, he himself speaks about the humble origins that greatly affected his life. This artist’s personal career is strangely similar to that of Miguel Hernández, another writer to whom Joan Castejón has paid tribute. Both Alicante men, they both had very little schooling, just enough to get a glimpse of a world forbidden to them because of their personal circumstances, as they did not have the access to culture that other young people enjoyed so that they had to acquire it for themselves; similar concerns and a similar nonconformist attitude led Miguel Hernández to become a militant member of the republican party and later to his death in prison, whereas it also led Joan Castejón to prison and to go on living his life and working against the mainstream, turning into the devout reader we can see in his works.

When we plunge into a novel, we inevitably start to imagine the faces of its protagonists, the places they move about in and all the things the writer leaves implicit. Joan goes further, by putting it on paper in the form of a drawing. This is his modus operandi and it has give rise to several homages to poets and writers: Lorca, Galdós, Miguel Hernández, Machado, Ausìas March, Walt Whitman, Onetti, Kavafis... Most of these authors who inspire Castejón present some distinguishing features like swimming against the current, not being understood at their time, being even anachronic, impregnated by romantic idealism, with political –and sometimes sexual tendencies– that are not officially accepted... There is in fact a kind of halo of “doomed poets” about them, which pleases us perhaps because we all feel somewhat doomed. In Castejón too, with his vehemence in making meticulous, detailed drawings, his taking inspiration from literary sources..., there is something anachronic, just like in Cervantes and his character. They are figures that Castejón had approached before: first in the seventies; then in the nineties, when he made a more extensive series on the knight’s deeds, and in those years he also tackled another Spanish knight errant, Tirant lo Blanc. And in this last year he has been illustrating Azorín’s book La Ruta del Quijote. Different ways of approaching figures so close to the artist’s heart, which now reach their peak in this series presented at the IVAM, or maybe not.

Q.: I would like you to begin by talking about the start of your artistic career. I believe you attended the San Carlos fine arts school in Valencia as an unofficial student and later travelled to France, but it seems you really had no schools or masters. What were your beginnings in art like and what influences have you received?

A.: I attended as an unofficial student because when I arrived there, at 17 years of age, I had not done my Bachillerato, and not knowing what was required to enrol in the school, all I had was a great vocation, perhaps the only tool I possess. Going a bit further back in time, I’ll explain also why I didn’t have the Bachillerato: I grew up among the mountains and lived in a very wild rural area until the age of nine, when I moved to Elche with my family. There I was able to go to school for about a year and a half. My family situation obliged me to work and earn a wage and it was my own interest that moved me to go to night classes sporadically to learn to read and do sums. My vocation is what urged me on, a vocation that came from I know not where, but that manifested itself early on, like when, for example, I arrived in Elche at 9 years of age and held my first exhibition of little clay figures that my mother baked in the oven with the bread, or when at the age of 12 I started to paint on Sundays. What I mean is that I am a kind of victim of the postwar years, the forties and early fifties, tough years when you had to survive and I was not lucky enough to have access to culture.

Q.: However, when you arrived in Valencia to continue your studies, what was the situation in that city? What kind of atmosphere was there at that school?

A.: I came to Valencia from Elche and the confined atmosphere of that city at that time. I managed to enrol in some classes as an unofficial student, and that was the education I received and although that alone changed my world absolutely, as I’m sure you understand, I was not one of that circle, but an outsider. I saw some of the atmosphere of what should have been my class... I saw they were fighting against academicism and the teachers there at the time, but it did not affect me directly. I think that lack of prejudice I have about representing the human figure stems from not having had to face up to academicism: I still want to “draw well”.

Q.: Are you a self-taught painter then?

A.: At 16 I visited the Museo del Prado and after that I think I was no longer self-taught, but absorbed Velázquez, Goya and all the great masters. Back in Valencia, I started to exhibit, first in group exhibitions with people my own age and then in 1966 I held my first solo exhibition at the Galería Mateu. I was 20 years old and I was already a full-fledged painter, I held exhibitions and started to sell. I became less and less interested in learning at school and I became a professional painter.

Q.: At the time you had your debut at the Galería Mateu, what themes did you work on? How was your arrival on the scene? How would you define it? And what kind of reception did you get, I mean what were you doing when made your debut as an artist?

A.: Let’s see... it was 1966, a time when some artists and groups of artists appear on the scene, but I was outside the movements and trends. They were very close as people, but however I had that intuition as a painter, that led me to make my own personal painting, maybe influenced a little by Picasso’s blue and pink periods or Modigliani, even a bit by Impressionism. I remember some paintings of that period, a homage to Flora with a green background and a nude. Intuitively I was bringing forth the painter who had been pushing me since I was a child against every wind and tide and every lack of culture; I saw myself as a sort of long-distance runner who does his work without following any trends. I liked and was interested in what Equipo Crónica was doing, I loved it, but it wasn’t for me. It’s as though I had a... I don’t know what to call it... a secret individual who had to come out so he just had to come out... It was as though I had been born to do something important but I had forgotten. What am I supposed to do here and now? And always pursuing it.

Q.: At around that time you were put in prison for political reasons, but that did not stop your vocation and seems to have influenced the pursuit you are talking about.

A.: Indeed, in 1967 I was sent to prison, and I started working passionately to turn that situation into my school and my therapy. There are over two thousand drawings from that time, and they form part of it, of that therapy and that school that continued through the seventies and part of the eighties, with the torn canvases, the mannequins, the testimonial work... This is perhaps where the ingenuous and, if you like, anachronic personality of mine is ratified; I have always worked like that: intuition and a certain amount of anachronism. And I have been lucky enough to live off my work; I had to make a great effort to be faithful to myself... I was more of a die-hard than a painter.

Q.: You mentioned the Equipo Crónica and other groups earlier and you yourself were in the Grup d’Elx. How did that come about? Did you all work together or each one separately within the group?

A.: Yes, Sixto, Albert Agulló and Coll, who had practically finished at the school when I started going there, were in the Grup d’Elx. They knew I was a small-town painter who was successful and held exhibitions. They showed an interest in my work, so when they formed the group they wanted me to be part of it and waited for me to get out of jail to join. I got out in 1969 with ideas for a manifesto in my head, which Ernesto Contreras gave shape to. A manifesto we could call working-class, with that idea of bringing down prices and socialising art that was quite revolutionary at the time... That was when I participated wholeheartedly in the Grup d’Elx. We actually worked individually within the group: each one did his own work but we shared our concern for mankind and society. The exhibitions were very politically oriented, we brought down prices and called our exhibitions popular campaigns. We wanted the common people to have access to them. Do you know the story? We would put a poster beside each painting explaining the material used, the wage for an hour’s work compared to a mason’s or a shoemaker’s. At that time a painting was sold for 2,525 pesetas. That was very good, some people would buy three by each author and others would not be interested and would not buy any. But we were trying to treat art as we thought it should be at that time, a sort of socialisation, a romantic endeavour. I was a member of the group until I moved to the Canaries, the furthest you could go without a passport.

Q.: In all this concern for mankind and society, which can be seen in those half-made or those torn, half-broken bodies, those mutations, in the paintings from the time you spent in jail and later, I wonder whether the existentialist slant was influenced by the philosophy of that time, which was very important in your work?

A.: Yes, I think I was a sponge lapping up everything that was going on, and what one really makes is selfportraits, that is, the experience is there and you look at yourself if you are genuine about what you do. I would have been deceiving myself if I had ignored the problems of that time, the end of Franco’s regime, terrible times for some people although others did not notice anything, but hard times in general. Those were the times I lived in and I expressed them as best I could in the context; trying to win the freedoms that have come and gone, come and gone. It was an obsession: we had to get rid of that monster that had lasted too long and make way for democracy.

Q.: You are a painter and sculptor at the same time; some of your works look like sketches for later projects and you often create three-dimensional effects in your drawings. How did you begin? How do the two artistic aspects, the painter’s and the sculptor’s, two different ways of interpreting space, fit in with each other?

A.: Sculpture? I’ve always made it; as I said before, my first exhibition at the age of nine was sculpture... I don’t notice much difference, I actually draw as though I were modelling. On many occasions I feel like working in three dimensions, at present I’m working on a sculpture and I’m dying to tackle it because I love it, but I also enjoy creating forms that probably have the same effects on the flat, on a piece of paper where there was nothing before.

Q.: During your time in the Canary Islands you worked on that huge and admired series on the novel A Hundred Years of Solitude that you presented in Las Palmas, Barcelona and Valencia. This seems to be the start of that tendency of yours, which you have never abandoned, to use literature as a source of inspiration. Tell us how this trend began.

A.: It started in prison too, the last time I was in prison was in the Canaries, because an issue with the Court of Public Order caught up with me and I was arrested and imprisoned for seven months. During that time I read the novel and loved it; I plunged into that magic world, which, as you know, is rich and generous and triggered many things that in my case became sketches and drawings. The idea of carrying out this project materialised when I got out of jail and Juancho Armas Marcelo, one of the first people to interview me, asked me what works I had in mind and I told him about my plan to paint Cien años de soledad and he was thrilled at the idea and encouraged me to carry it out. Even Vargas Llosa participated in the catalogue. I was nearly two years painting, and between sketches and drawings made about a hundred works, nearly one for every year of solitude.

Q.: This was followed by other tributes, like Lorca, Miguel Hernández... This link between your work and literature is a very peculiar thing that you alone carried out because at present there is a kind of animadversion towards literary art, but that has not bothered you, and you have continued faithful to your status as a reader.

A.: Yes, that’s true. We are living in a time when people don’t read much, but literature is like a very important ferment for me, and it encourages me to work. With Onetti, Walt Whitman... every time I pick up a text it ends up turning into a few drawings, sometimes paintings. This link is constant. My works on Don Quixote started like that, drawing sketches of the character as Cervantes described him.

Q.: There are certain obsessions in your work, recurring motifs, such as the presence of horses, anatomies, naked bodies... repeated in successive phases until they led to this series on Don Quixote.

A.: As regards horses, I feel very close to them, they are beautiful machines, very much akin to human beings, and I love their anatomy. I’ll tell you an anecdote: first I felt hatred and then love for horses. I did my military service on a stud farm because I wasn’t allowed to use arms because of my political record, so they made me tame ponies, which gave me a very hard time... but little by little I began to win them over, riding them bareback, without a saddle, which is the way I like it, until I turned into a kind of centaur.

Q.: It is a very difficult animal to draw, it is like an acid test for an epic painter. And this last series on Don Quixote has permitted you to revel in this subject, all one has to do is look at the two large paintings of the crowds on horseback.

A.: Yes, it is another of my protagonists. Before, the horse appeared sporadically, but here its presence is indispensable and I enjoyed it. As a plastic motif it attracts me greatly, maybe it is true that it is hard to paint but in my case it’s just as hard to paint a horse as a human nude.

Q.: In your most recent work you have approached human anatomy in different ways, on the one hand nude figures, mostly male, with featureless faces, than that other series of outcasts with clothes and no bodies, as though the bodies had vanished, and now in Don Quixote, faces and bodies are present again, dressed up to tell a story.

A.: I’m attracted by human masses, especially anonymous crowds, people going from one place to another, faceless in most cases... Indeed I did erase their features; in the exhibition in Chile there were no faces. Then in the clothes there were no bodies either, they were like ghosts. Thanks to Don Quixote I have been saved from all this because I didn’t know how far I was going to go in the dynamics of eliminating things and now with this work I am drawing from life again, eyes, ears, mouths, gestures, expressions... anatomies.

Q.: Don Quixote is not new for you, it did not arise for the first time in 2005; previously you had done Azorín’s La Ruta de Don Quijote and there had been some pieces in the nineties, and even in the seventies. How did you set about this characterisation and evolution of the character until this series you present at the IVAM at the present time?

A.: My memory is very bad, I imagine that I must have read the novel for the works I did on Don Quixote in the seventies. I read it again in the nineties and took the liberty of making a very personal version, perhaps rather Freudian. That’s another story, another type of approach, different from illustrating a text but without avoiding it either, when I felt the need to make a more anecdotic image I did not reject the text. But you always want to do different things, add your own contribution, which may take you away from the text and give you a chance to say something different that you invent on the spur of the moment. It’s like paying Cervantes a compliment.

Q.: I suppose that when you approach the great works in the history of painting or literature there is an intense moment when you asks yourself if you will be equal to the task, if you will be good enough for what you are paying tribute to, if what you are doing responds to the deep passion you feel for the text. And regarding your concern about the content of the series, which is very varied and includes drawings of portraits, characters from Don Quixote, more oneiric versions of Don Quixote, erotic, martial, crowned, Eros, Thanatos and Glory, there are different chapters corresponding to different episodes in the novel and personal inspiration, how did you choose the themes from a novel that offers infinite images?

A.: Actually there is a bit of everything, passages from the book that I would like to have gone into more deeply and I have addressed superficially; it’s a pity. I have some two hundred sketches, books full of rough outlines that occur to me as I read. Maybe I feel encouraged and pursue it, and it will become the start of something larger, because I feel that I haven’t done anything, that it is all a sort of side dish in a large banquet, like the surface of a big lake that I can dive into. The episodes that actually materialised were almost accidental and many things were left out of the process. The cave of Montesinos, for example, with its many levels of interpretation, from a joke to a possible reference to Plato. In general the whole book is studded with these different reading levels.

Q.: Of course, from a literal interpretation to a very idealised one, such as Nabokov makes about the representation of cruelty in Don Quixote...

A.: And it is a very cruel book: he always ends up with a thrashing, people laughing at him, like in the episode with the duke and duchess and cruel Altisidora... It makes you cross and makes you want to cry at the same time as you laugh at this poor character who tries to spread his idea of goodness, truth and heroism at a time of disorder. Such a typical book of customs and manners at many times and, however, it goes beyond realism, it always moves on to another dimension. And then this paving the way for future novels, building a path for the literary works that would follow it.

Q.: Yes, it is undoubtedly the beginning of literary modernity, literature within literature, just as Velázquez makes a painting within a painting. Besides, it corresponds to a time of splendour and simultaneous decadence that still exists somehow in today’s “Spaniard”, always more willing to notice failure than success, and that is the contemporaneity of Don Quixote, the reason we go on reading the novel today.

A.: Indeed it has that timeless character that all great novels have, which means we find something different in it at every period. Obviously nowadays we read it in a very different way from his contemporaries. It still gives rise to polemic today, which is why we are talking about it now, its different readings and interpretations.

Q.: Another aspect is its character of being a selfportrait. When one sets about reading this book one never stops seeing it as a mirror where one is reflected. Could we say that there is something of Castejón in the way you approach Don Quixote? A quixotic Joan Castejón struggling between the ideal and reality?

A.: You can certainly see it like that because I also leave bits of myself in the portraits of the characters and situations in Don Quixote. There are fragments in both. This capacity to portray ourselves in the character may well be because Cervantes put analogies of himself in. That also makes it a universal novel.

Q.: And it is tragic, or tragicomic, that every period must have its own unseasonable characters. Don Quixote is anachronic for his time, upholding ethical codes that nothing but his own obsession makes him stick to, like art, whose medium is not charcoal or oils or neon lights, but obsession. Don’t you feel unseasonable because of your obsession in doing what you do?

A.: I quite agree with that; I used the word “peripheral” earlier, but I prefer “unseasonable”, someone who fights to defend ideals that no longer exist in his time.

Q.: You have also felt the need to paint Dulcinea as a blur, a mere glimpse, as in dreams. Dulcinea is just a sweet name that promises much but is nothing, and is also a written account of a woman that represents the absent object of desire.

A.: There I was trying to enter Don Quixote’s dreams, since he must have dreamed up Dulcinea, rather than actually seeing her. Who knows? Maybe she was an old sweetheart of his that he related with the Aldonza of his town, but who is Dulcinea? Is she a beautiful or a coarse woman? She is definitely a dream, a sort of flash that illuminates Don Quixote and gives him courage to face up to adversity.

Q.: Besides, the novel has its own well-defined iconography of the main characters, a picturesque, romantic iconography that has lasted until our days. To what extent did this pre-existing iconography hinder you or contribute to your work? Did you have to ignore it or did it serve as material for you to work on?

A.: I didn’t ignore it really. Without limiting myself to mere illustration, it permitted me to make a personal work and show in detail eyes, mouths... faces, expressions and gestures, in a word, which, as we said earlier about the series of outcasts, I was eliminating too often.

Q.: And nevertheless you present portraits of Don Quixote where the gaze is blurred and disappears like the face, and you also use that translucent white “veil” that gives him a more dreamlike appearance. Those flashes of light too seem to remove the more detailed and figurative work to a more mysterious space. I’d like to hear what you have to say about this.

A.: That’s the way it came out and I’m delighted you’ve noticed. The light that appears, for example, in the “talking head” responds to an attempt to go a little further, to transform reality, as Don Quixote does, like letting magic in with the light that brightens and transforms arid Castile. It’s like the pieces with crowds of knights errant, burnt by fire, where pure white appears and you can catch a glimpse of the character.

Q.: In this tribute to Don Quixote you present at the IVAM, unlike in your earlier works on this novel, the characters are seen close up, the ground has disappeared and the only landscape you can see is human, as though the characters had come closer and closer to the public like in a play, where the actors come to the front of the stage at the end to take a bow.

A.: Well, I really want to let them act, I want people to notice they are there, that they have a stage to move around on, in a closer and more confined space. When I was preparing La Ruta de Don Quijote, by Azorín, I was concerned with the landscape because I was interested in that text, where there were landscapes. Now, on the other hand, I’ve felt the need to bring the figures to the forefront and make them the protagonists of the story. It’s nice of you to say so, although, after all, Don Quixote begins somewhere in La Mancha...