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Castejón, reader of Don Quixote

Castejón, reader of Don Quixote

J . J . Armas Marcelo

I remember Joan Castejón’s studio near the town of Arucas on the island of Gran Canaria. It was around 1973. I remember the painter passionately engaged in preparing a monumental exhibition, which was also a tribute to García Márquez’s novel A Hundred Years of Solitude, which had become a cultural phenomenon in less than five years. The Valencian artist’s idea was certainly not to set up an exhibition that would merely illustrate the text of the Colombian writer’s prodigious novel to offer the best possible company to a very successful book, but a plastic manifestation that would constitute a free reading of the book and would even reinvent the universe of magic realism that the author had achieved with a literary architecture of impeccable perfection. Joan Castejón’s Cien años de soledad was an exhibition of over sixty paintings, if I remember rightly, held at the Galería Cairasco at the end of that same year, 1973, and at the Galería Pecanins in Barcelona the following year, and Carlos Barral, Mario Vargas Llosa and myself wrote texts for the catalogue. I remember Castejón’s exhibition Cien años de soledad in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, but particularly in Barcelona, with the presence of Mercedes Barcha, García Márquez’s wife, Juan Marsé, Jorge Edwards and the above mentioned Carlos Barral and Mario Vargas Llosa, among other personalities of the Barcelona art world and writers of the boom of the Latin American novel in the sixties.

I remember the great artistic effort the writer made to reflect in his poetics the direct relationship of his work with the reading of literary texts and authors. The substantial idea behind it, in the case of A Hundred Years of Solitude, was undoubtedly based on the quest for a sacral space for his painting, which, transformed into a communicating vessel with a strictly literary text, would invent a world that, while not ceasing to be literary, would however represent and express something new, different and independent of the original literary work. I refer to this poetic characteristic when I speak about Castejón’s desire and project to reinvent A Hundred Years of Solitude in his plastic tribute to García Márquez’s novel. And it is directly linked with what Román de la Calle, in La realidad de lo imaginario, very sagaciously calls the poetic function of Castejón’s painting in reference to the painter’s interest in portraying the galleries of characters, “faithful casts of characters typical of an imaginary tragicomic work”.

If I write about Castejón starting with Cien años de soledad, I do so because I am convinced that that exhibition represents for the painter a determined and important culmination of all his plastic work, a turning point in his artistic production, his relationship with the world, his view of the world and his relationship with the universe of literature and reading. I remember that from this time onwards Castejón moved from the Canary Islands to Denia in the East of Spain, returning to his homeland after a long spell on the islands. Until that time, Castejón’s repertoire of characters, his studies, half-way between man and animal, nearly always anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, had greatly impressed me because it exuded a sort of anguish of neurotic breath, the same air the artist instilled into his creatures in a creative struggle that, as I wrote some time ago, is the equivalent of the global transformation of any of his aesthetic procedures, of all the functional schemes arising from the artist’s constant evolution and existential maturity.

This agonising struggle with his creatures in perpetual transformation was to be an important part of the materials which Castejón would use to build the foundations of his artistic edifice, from the most urgent shadow of anguish to the white fields of sarcasm, whose germ, according to the artist, is an anecdote transformed into the main subject of the work, which, in quite a few cases, symbolically exemplifies “the representation of man’s degradation, man’s destruction, his transformation into a beast,” as Ernesto Contreras wrote in Fábula y símbolo de Castejón in 1980. In this sort of constant metamorphosis of his characters, somewhere between Ovid and Kafka, resides an important feature of Castejón’s art, before and after the culmination of his Cien años de soledad, an exhibition that Barral wrote: “constitutes a personal universe of the experience of forms”, a characteristic of his painting that appears in all his work as an identifying fingerprint which the artist has not yet relinquished, on the verge of another culmination, his reading of Don Quixote on its fourth centenary.

Another of Castejón’s essential characteristics as a creator is related not only with the experience of artistic forms but with their vital contents, his life and conscience, because after many years a coherence seldom found in our day can be seen and verified in the voyage on which he has embarked and which we can describe as exceptional.

Specialised critics and art reviewers sustain that for some time the world we live in is too often nothing but a mise-en-scène and a theatricalisation of the mercantile banality meticulously promoted by certain mass media of great intellectual influence, at the same time creators of contemporary prestigious artists frivolously considered geniuses; the same media that refuse to circulate, publish or publicise, for reasons we consider purely whimsical or something even worse, artistic works and creators who are not akin to them because they smack of rebellion, confirmed in each of the steps they take on the lonely path of being in peace with themselves rather than with the universe of frequently spurious interests that revolves around the art world.

I repeat here my idea that Castejón is a painter who chooses to live in solitude, willingly shunning the mundane gatherings where hierarchies are established and rule, and accustomed for some time now to ignoring the wheedling voices that temptingly and unyieldingly lure him to change his course and surrender to worldly powers. His life experience and his work are far removed from geographies of interests that are not purely artistic and everything false and fraudulent about the chronicle of contemporary art. But his work is in no way removed from art and its most outstanding history, but quite the opposite: his apparent eccentricity, in the geographical and historical sense of the word, paradoxically places him at the centre as regards the location and the knowledge necessary in the art world and the surrounding spheres. Living in his homeland has finally marked the artist’s life and work as prime beneficiary of the light, and for that reason too I think Castejón is not only an invincible swordsman who fights his enemies with extraordinary respect but a lone voyager who has never changed the coherent course of his ship, however much the appearance of storms, hurricanes and tides may have advised the contrary.

Besides, in Castejón we have an amazing draughtsman. Any expression of his artistic creation inexorably involves a precise knowledge of the techniques of the draughtsman, who, like an expert architect, puts each plane in its precise instant, each volume in its specific space, each character on his throne, each shadow in its shade and each light at its open window. That is why the transition of the living textile of his drawings to his medium- or large-format paintings always represents for Castejón the joyful task of transferring the forms on the paper painted with the usual artistic techniques from acrylic to oil, so that draughtsman and painter are from start to finish the same interpreter of the world with the characters chosen to be raised to the category of an artwork by the Valencian artist.

I remember I was always drawn by Castejón’s taste in reading certain authors and literary works, and his determination to pay homage with his drawings, waxes, papers, oils, acrylics and canvases to the writers and poets he grew to admire after reading their works. From his countryman Ausìas March to the Mediterranean Kavafis; from Galdós, a universal islander, to the epic of the Argonauts; from Walt Whitman to Gabriel García Márquez, Castejón has always kept his work close to universal literature, as though part of his painting were paying a charitable debt to the texts and authors he admires. That is why I now recall the painter in his studio in Denia absorbed in inventing the painting titled La última escena literaria, a whimsical delirium that occurred to Castejón and myself in some long conversations we had about the contemporary bestiary of the writers in the Spanish language that interested us the most. And I take advantage of the occasion to affirm that reading certain literary works and choosing certain authors has responded nearly always to our personal taste as readers and our friendship with these same writers.

Thanks to the coincidence in taste for certain readings, works and authors, in the late eighties Castejón decided to paint La última escena literaria, which represents a gathering of writers who would be impossible to photograph together because of enmities and personal phobias. It is a triptych in which the writers Carlos Fuentes, Caballero Bonald –holding in his hand the text of the unpublished work La última escena– Cabrera Infante, Francisco Umbral, Jorge Edwards, García Hortelano, Armas Marcelo –in the hypothetical role of a singular Saint John the Evangelist– Camilo José Cela –presiding the supper and represented as the Pantocrator– Vargas Llosa, Juan Goytisolo, Jorge Semprun and García Márquez, all of them alive and active contemporary writers at the time Castejón decided to paint the picture. The figures of the writers are accompanied by two translucent images: on the right hand side of the painting, the only woman among all the male writers, a celebration of Madame Bovary and a symbol of the modern novel; and on the left of the picture, the poet and publisher Carlos Barral, as an intellectual akin to, and, in some cases, even a friend of all those gathered in La última escena, at the time of the boom of Latin American literature in the sixties, the peak moment of the Premio Formentor and Seix Barral publishing house.

The painting is full of symbols related to the writers sitting around the table, from the chameleon at the edge of the geographical centre of the picture, with which Armas Marcelo is trying to play with a burin, to the cut-out photograph of a child artist on García Hortelano’s right knee; from the stones and the sacred smoke that turn into fingerprints in Castejón’s painting to a hypothetical bust of Cervantes falling off the table to its destruction; from the skeletal dog running towards the right of the painting to the symbol of Seix Barral publishers, located at the bottom right-hand corner of La última escena. It is worth describing the portrait of García Márquez with his feet crossed while his hands play with some gold coins, and Jorge Semprun’s great similarity to the leader of the French Revolution Robespierre –pointing the index finger of his right hand at the author of A Hundred Years of Solitude –and Caballero Bonald’s likeness to Lenin in his revolutionary maturity. La última escena de la literatura, which is half-way between sarcasm and a period portrait of the Last Supper with Christ and his apostles, was exhibited to a scanty public chosen from among the closest friends only once, at a private lunch years ago in Madrid, a few days after Castejón finished painting it at his studio in Denia. From then until now, very few people have seen it and it hangs in the drawing-room of my country house in the mountains near Madrid, from where it has never budged for any public or private showing. So it can be considered as an almost “secret” painting, even non existent in Castejón’s biography, but it is also, at least in my opinion, another biographic culmination of the artist with his literary readings, a plastic encounter that crowns the painter’s preference for writers that appear in his work and to whom he pays tribute according to our conversations prior to its artistic execution. Dramatisation and inner landscape: three arches of Castejón that mark each part of the triptych, three metres long by more than two metres wide. Ochres and blues are the essential colours in Castejón’s paintings, and are also the characteristic stamp of the painter in La última escena. The result of the work is not a mere plastic anecdote, but a little almost “secret” story between the artist and his confidant, and between us both –the painter and myself– and the writers portrayed at supper.

It is appropriate to bring it up here, therefore, because the memory and reproduction of part of the text that Mario Vargas Llosa wrote about Castejón for the catalogue of Cien años de soledad can be applied to a large extent to La última escena de la literatura. “One of the most interesting aspects about this collection of paintings by Castejón is that it shows that painting today can use literature as a starting point without relinquishing in the least its own aims or abandoning modernity. [Because] like a woman, a dream or a crime, for an artist a novel can turn out to be a creative ferment, a source of experience rich enough to make him feel the need to combine colours, draw lines, build volumes, create plastic objects.”

It is not surprising then that Castejón’s best painting delves into literature over and over again and, although the painter sought it for the first time some years ago, he has now come face to face with the historical jewel in the crown of the literary genre of the novel on the fourth centenary of its publication: Don Quixote by Cervantes. The painter had explored some of the hidden secrets of Cervantes’ mad adventurer in a series on reading that he worked on very freely in the early nineties, although his artistic imagination was never limited to the mechanical reproduction of passages, episodes, characters and protagonists of Cervantes’ masterpiece.

It is evident today, in this great exhibition at the IVAM, that the result of his plastic interpretation of Don Quixote, exactly as occurred with A Hundred Years of Solitude, is far from being an illustration or copy of Cervantes’ book, but the painter has sought with his artist’s imagination, his life experience, his coherence as an attentive reader, his ideological conscience and all his technical means and artistic knowledge the utopian excellence of equivalence, as Vargas Llosa’s text about Cien años de soledad, written thirty-four years ago in Barcelona, reminds us. Since the essential aim of his reading was always to invent his own Quixote, Castejón’s amazing task can be considered one of the points of artistic culmination of all his work.

That is also why I am quite sure that the experience of painting Don Quixote, the eternal man from La Mancha, has been for Castejón a challenge of the greatest magnitude and has required an exceptional amount of time and effort. And a profound reflection of a universal painter who has dealt with the best universal literature with deep artistic conviction and complicity.