facebook twitter instagram

Plastic arts Inspired by a literary work

Plastic arts Inspired by a literary work

Raquel Gutiérrez

The connection between illustration and books has constantly existed throughout the history of literature. Although there were some earlier experiences, the most popular because of the great quality he achieved is Gustave Doré (1832-1873), who illustrated over four hundred books, including masterpieces of universal literature like Don Quixote, the Bible or Dante’s Inferno.

Some of these works have become part of the universal iconography of literature and added the illustrator’s name to the title of the work. So much so that today in the social encyclopaedia of knowledge, not the writer’s name but the illustrator’s accompanies the title of the work. Thus we have “Doré’s Don Quixote”, “Saura’s Don Quixote”, “Manolo Boix’s Tirant lo Blanc” or “Miquel Barceló’s Divine Comedy”. The combination of painting and literature updates the image with the same determinants as the different literary theories renew and modernise the contents of the written work.

Literary works incorporate the adjective “great” or “classical” when they can be updated without losing any of their initial functionality. This audacious definition of a “classic” or a “great” literary work has its artistic side in the redefinition that the different visual artists have made of them, particularly from the 19th century onwards. Many of the universal figures of the plastic arts have approached literature with their canvases and just as some of them have chosen to reinterpret the classics of painting –for example the Equipo Crónica and Velázquez– others have joined their names to the classics of universal literature.

It is not necessary to dig very deep to come up with the names of Picasso. Dalí, Barceló and so many others whose imagination has been captivated by works that literary critics were unable to bring back into vogue by means of the written word. Illustration, if you will allow me the expression, reinforced the classical nature of the work and added an innovating concept to literature: the image as an enhancer of the artistic value. One of our most prestigious scholars of Cervantes, Francisco Rico, after mentioning the group of writers and painters (Flaubert, Doré, Dalí, Defoe, Picasso or Rimbaud...) fascinated by the most universal couple of characters in Spanish literature, said, “That unanimity no longer satisfies me”.

This “unanimity” that Francisco Rico refers to was soon increased by the arrival of Joan Castejón (Elche 1945). Like what happened in his day to another artist whose death coincided with the preparations to set up an exhibition of his work at the IVAM, Zoran Music, he took advantage of the time he spent in prison to create a renovating series of images to keep him alive.

In all likelihood, in Music’s case, painting saved him from the madness caused by internment in Nazi concentration camps. For his part, Castejón kept his activity in such good order that he discovered what was to be his sanest madness: reading the novel that was one of the highlights of the boom of South American literature. A Hundred Years of Solitude was to become his personal discovery and it did not abandon him until he put down on paper the images it had created in his mind.

What was in a way a tribute to Gabriel García Márquez gave rise to a lucid reinterpretation of the creative imagery of the painter from Elche based on a literary work, which would be continued with the subsequent tributes to other classics that constituted his literary gallery of images. Part of this gallery stemmed from classics of Spanish literature like Miguel Hernández, Federico García Lorca, Antonio Machado or Benito Pérez Galdós, and extended to poets who marked his most personal feelings, like Juan Carlos Onetti, Walt Whitman or Kavafis.

But at no time did Joan Castejón shed his ideological or cultural roots. He participated in the group exhibition 9 gravadors interpreten a Ausìas March with Rafael Armengol, Arcadi Blasco, Manuel Boix, Joan Genovés, Artur Heras, Joaquín Michavila, Antoni Miró and Vicent Traver in 1997, at Bancaja, on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the Valencian poet’s death.

Before that he had had the opportunity to address another illustrious knight from universal literature, Tirant lo Blanc, who had been a model for the Knight of the Sad Countenance. So literary expression already formed part of Castejón’s picture gallery to such an extent that he himself said that his educational limitations had found in literature the necessary melting pot to arouse in his creativity the Freudian subconscious that only a classic is capable of arousing.

Don Quixote became, in this way, a leitmotif that has not abandoned him since he first read it in the seventies and reread it in the nineties. The result has been more than “two hundred sketches, notebooks full of rough outlines” and a constant flow of single images based on the literary work, such as Carlos Saura, Pablo Picasso, Antonio Mingote or Salvador Dalí have made in the last century. For some of these, illustrating Don Quixote was a festival, a passionate and rewarding challenge that they thought they would never be able to conclude and that they enjoyed enormously, putting love and devotion into it.

I sincerely think that it was behind this aegis of pleasure and challenge, devotion and difficulty, at the same time, that Joan Castejón took refuge when facing up to one of the greatest challenges in his career as an artist, because other artists before him had delved into Cervantes’ work with splendid results and in some cases the illustrator and scholar of the work had even taken their studies to the height of studies of Don Quixote. This was the case of the edition prepared by Martín de Riquer and Carlos Saura, which for many years has been a symbol of both beauty and textual exactitude and still is today.

The illustration that portrays each of the characters of the novel with which Castejón has chosen to adorn his current view of Don Quixote does not only reside in his own personal interpretation of the text but each one’s psychological state. Thus in a theatrical gesture more typical of the stage directions of one of Valle Inclán’s plays than a painter’s vision, he incorporates the veil (which we might compare to the distorting effect used in fade-outs in the cinema) as an element of contrast between reality and fiction that Don Quixote uses to face up to adversities.

The characters, in this case one of them, achieves the force of the action with his physical presence and clears the context or the landscape that on other occasions has been the centre of a work where the action seemed to rest on such icons. Windmills, inns and even the very actions performed by the characters are set aside and their place is taken by human beings whose supposed madness leads them to an almost Freudian psychologism. Who dares to get rid of the action and leave it on the margin of Don Quixote’s circumstances? Who is capable of contextualising the human being on the basis of his innermost ego?

These are some of the issues that Joan Castejón raises in a very particular manner in his interpretation of Don Quixote and that we can now see and appreciate in this exhibition of his drawings created around Cervantes’ work. In them Castejón attempts to humanise the work, offer his pencil to the human body –along with its psychologism– concealed in Cervantes’ characters. And a token of this can be seen in the interview contained in the pages of this catalogue, where he affirms they have “permitted [him] to make a personal work and show in detail eyes, mouths... faces, expressions and gestures”.

His pencil, I insist, transfigures the action and turns it into a human plasticity of gestures, ideas, imagination, and does not hesitate if to do so he has to open up part of his own ego and place it before the spectator. A large part of this exhibition is constructed on the greatness of his own ego.

This combination of mirror images and interior gazes that has been the basis of many illustrations of literary works has given rise to new works of art. The result, even though it has not always been successful, has helped many of us recognise the artistic features of a period and adapt the perspective of our glance to them. In this case, Castejón has delved into the interior psychologism and the result is, in the words of J.J. Armas Marcelo, “new, different and independent”.