“Space must be conceived in terms of plastic volume. . . . Form springs spontaneously from the needs of the space that builds its dwelling like an animal its shell. Just like this animal I am also an architect of the void.” 1
Eduardo CHillida, How profound is the Air (Lo profundo es el aire), 1996. Alabaster, 94 x 122 x 124 cm
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
Eduardo Chillida (b. 1924, San Sebastián, Spain; d. 2002, San Sebastián, Spain) studied architecture in Madrid before turning to painting and ultimately, after moving to Paris, to sculpture. His early architectural training is apparent in the underlying structure, attention to materials, and careful planning of spatial relationships that characterize his sculptures. Indeed, Chillida conceived of sculpture in relation to architecture and left behind a rich legacy in monumental, site-specific public sculptures as well as more conventionally sized works.
A sculptor versed in multiple materials, including iron, steel, wood, plaster, and stone, Chillida investigated how the solid relates to the void and the interior to the exterior. His choice of material was fundamentally informed by his surroundings as well as his travels. His early sculptures in Paris were executed in stone and plaster—materials suited to his study of archaic works in the Louvre—and were drawn from the human figure as well as natural forms. Upon his return to the Basque Country in 1951, he began to focus more on the abstract definition of spatial volume, and turned to iron and then wood and steel—materials that represented Basque traditions in industry, architecture, and agriculture, and also recalled the region's distinctive landscape and what he described as its "dark light."
Travels to Greece; Rome, Umbria, and Tuscany, all in Italy; and Provence, France, in the 1960s ignited what would be a lifelong interest in the relationship between light and architecture. Seeking to capture a quality of light that he had initially encountered in artworks at the Louvre, he began to use alabaster for its illuminated yet veiled appearance, its ability to simultaneously reveal and conceal, not unlike the atmospheric, dark, and foggy glow of the Basque countryside. Though not traditional to his roots, alabaster has a weighted presence in the history of sculpture.
Chillida’s focus on the void is perhaps most apparent in his alabaster works, solid forms with carved “windows” through which shafts of light enter. The diffused light calls attention to the carved space as it passes through the void, illuminating the air and creating a pointed contrast with the solidity of the surrounding form.
While his first alabaster sculptures date from 1965-69, he returned to the medium in 1976 and again, two decades later, in How profound is the Air (1996). The artwork combines the roughly hewn, natural exterior of the stone with a highly finished, interior architectural space. The work recalls a public sculpture Chillida created in the city of Valladolid, Spain, in 1982, How profound is the Air: Homage to Jorge Guillén (Lo profundo es el aire: Homenaje a Jorge Guillén). The title is a reference to writer Jorge Guillén and reveals the sculptor’s attitude toward space, or air, which to him is a material as essential as stone or wood.
1. Eduardo Chillida, quoted in Chillida, 1948–1998. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 1998, p. 62.
Look carefully at this sculpture. What do you notice? What words can you use to describe it? Brainstorm a list of words that come to mind when you look at it. Compare your list with another student’s. Are the word lists highly consistent or very different? Discuss your choices.
Ask students to describe the material of this sculpture (alabaster). If possible, show students a sample of marble or alabaster and allow them to touch it and describe its qualities. Chillida experimented with many materials and surfaces for his sculptures. Why do you think alabaster might have appealed to him as a material to explore? Describe, step-by-step, how this sculpture might have been made.
In many of his sculptures Chillida was interested in the contrast between roughness and polish. What do students notice about the way Chillida manipulated the alabaster?
Chillida investigated how the solid relates to the void. How would you define “void”? How does Chillida introduce the void in his sculpture?
Some of Chillida’s sculptures are meant to be placed outside. Imagine that this work has been given as a gift to the town or city you live in. Where would be the best place for it to be installed? Why? Compare the site you have chosen with those of your classmates.
Ask your students about the building materials that are typical or important to their native region. Comment on the uses of these materials through history: in shipyards, in farms, in house building. Do you know if any of these materials have ever been used to create a sculpture? Would that be possible? Ask each student to choose one of these materials and write about the associations that particular material evokes.
Chillida’s sculptures can be found not only in museums, but also in public spaces, like plazas or parks. Ask your students to take a photo of a public space in your community. Create a model for a sculpture you feel would enhance that space in some way. Describe how the space you have selected and your proposed sculpture would interact.