Eugenio Granell, the Initiated Master

Eugenio Granell in Guatemala
Granell in Guatemala, 1949

After having studied Eugenio Granell’s work for several decades, I was finally able to meet him personally, through a common friend, the art critic and collector Fernando Galán, during a trip I made to Madrid last summer. After two visits and a photographic session, my wife and I decided to go to Galicia and visit the Granell Museum and Foundation in Santiago de Compostela. Apart from the amazing museum’s own collection of the artist’s work, there was also an exhibition of pieces belonging to private collections from different parts of the world. I therefore had the opportunity of seeing most of Granell’s creations, as well as filming and photographing it for posterity.

My first reaction to Granell’s work was like visiting an imaginary island, endowed with unusual geographic features, with its own fauna and flora. Granell was like “the guardian of a garden of new species.”

I spent several months returning time and again to his images and the complexity of his message, to that way of approaching things so full of humor and poetry and, suddenly, I understood his magic: Granell frees captive ghosts in kingdoms that hide from and reveal themselves to our eyes.

His message does not belong to any specific time. It is eternal and obstinately universal. Most of his techniques have to do with metamorphosis, by means of montage geomorphology, which, in his case, is the morphology of animals and plants. Granell, as the initiated master he is, has several aspects:

As an innovator, he created his personal mythology, examples of which are the Pi Bird, the Animal/Man, Pegasus and the Centaur.

As an anthropologist, he portrayed the aspect and ceremonies of South American Indians; and he collected, as a typical fetishist, objects from Africa and the Caribbean; folkloric kachina dolls from Mexico.

As an urban shaman of space and forms, he painted radiant landscapes, astrologers and totem sculptors.

As an alchemist, he made cures with colored elixirs.

And, finally, he revealed himself to us as a poet and prophet.

Granell was also a multidisciplinary artist: musician, writer, set designer, painter and sculptor. In an instinctive or deliberate way, he oriented his talent and his visions towards a «ritualistic art» of changes and cures. He showed us tribal celebrations, such as Ceremonia del cultivo del grano, and instructed us about exotic underwater plants and geomorphic architecture. Thus, we came across the magic fish, the aquatic bird, the mask dike, and that river cascading out of a mouth.

There is an abundance of surrealist combinations and, like the artists belonging to that movement, he invented new potions and imaginary stories, like those of the Pájaro cactus or El rey y la reina buscan a Marcel Duchamp.

The life and art of Granell took him along roads beyond time and space.

In 1936, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he was an active militant of the Republican cause against Franco’s forces. When the Republican army was defeated, in 1939, he went into exile, which took him to the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and New York during a period that lasted almost forty years.

Influenced by great Spanish geniuses such as Picasso, Miró, Buñuel or Dalí, Granell adopted surrealism as his aesthetic creed. During his trips, he had the opportunity of meeting André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Pierre Mabille and Saul Steinberg.

During the exhibition that the surrealists held in Paris in 1947, Breton placed him alongside Giacometti, Matta, Lam, Gorky, Brauner and Herold, defining them as the second generation of surrealists, one of the transitional groups that adopted abstract expressionism. These artists also took an interest in the occult, as Breton described in his “Second Manifesto” (1930).

Granell familiarized himself with things by means of research and the realization of hidden desires. And in his mentioned facet as an urban shaman, he experimented with hybrids of Western art and the primitive aesthetics of African objects, Santeria and a mixture of the animism practiced by Central American natives. In order to become familiar with this surrealist, we should accept his art as a way of seeing the invisible, of overlooking the triviality of reality, immersed in constant changes and imbued with ironic magic of the absurd. On Granell’s absolutely free isle, a future zoology is developing, accompanied by a feast of chromatic intoxication.

The volcanoes flow with lava and melted metals, filling the alluvia with tongues of incandescent fire in a combustible landscape. It is a kind of literary painting. In short: a new narrative language. The artist’s creative spiral—in the form of oil paintings, engravings, painted sculpture, collages or ready-mades—can be arranged according to a biographical chronology. It would include the Caribbean period, his stays in Guatemala, Puerto Rico and New York, and his return to Spain, coinciding with this return to figurative art; and, finally, his mature period.

It is not my intention to identify and classify the elements of Granell’s work for people who are not so familiar with it. Clauede Tarnaud describes some of its characteristic iconographic components, in Braises pour E.F. Granell (Phases, Paris 1964), as follows: “Those animals, with their skin still dripping from rain dyed with the pollen of carnivorous flowers, are rushing towards the flotsam of happiness, while escaping from a forest in flames. Animals of ivory, noble sparkles, furs in which the embers of so many gestures have left impalpable ashes, wild beasts that tremble, sparkling play.” In his text, Tarnaud does not intend to condition the reader’s opinion about the painter’s work but merely share the joy it gives him.

Granell is an independent surrealist. Without ever having been a member of this movement, he participated in the majority of its activities: he created exquisite corpses with Breton, Lam and Jacqueline Lamba; he exhibited along with the group and illustrated books by other surrealists. Non-specialists could easily mistake his art for that of Masson, Brauner, Toyen, Matta or Gorky.

Granell reveals the mysteries of the hidden regions to us, giving us back the energy to restore life and question the dark forces of destruction. By means of an automatic reflex, free association, the occult? Who knows! From his faraway expeditions, Granell brings us the magical eloquence of new continents. Like those Spaniards who went off to America in search of fortune and returned with it, he became the great initiated master, the tribal witchdoctor who dominated a new pictorial language, only equaled by Tanguy, Domínguez and Paalen.

His healing powers are erotic, and in the union of the couple—a characteristic of his painting—the human figures seem to be perfectly harmonized. His style is centered on the movement of dark molecules with which the bodies are assembled: separate pieces of statues, furniture, theatre sets.

The couples play with the planets, look at the stars out of the corner of their eyes, embrace the clouds and embrace each other, in a universe of sexual confusion—half man, half beast—where the symbolisms of Freud and Jung’s dreams are glimpsed.

The childhood soul is another recurrent theme in Granell’s work: games, humor and mockery. Forms from the folkloric bestiary, crystals that flower and exotic animals intoxicate the spectators of his work, filling them with the playful spirit of children.

Granell, in the twinkling of an eye, travels to the past and the future, and his visions minute our history, from the caves of Altamira to future revelations.

Eugenio Granell has given us timeless ceremonies that transcend linear reality. In his art he permanently questions himself and the forces surrounding him. With effort and tenacity, he penetrates, as if by osmosis, other worlds that are off limits to other mortals.

Underneath his primitive and religious objects, and in his nucleus, Granell creates a complex hybrid of tribal mythology and classical tradition, from which new, constantly transforming myths arise. In this process, he manages to erase the borders between art and orality, the real and the unreal, the possible and the impossible, the conscience and the subconscious.

Granell’s new dimension is an autobiographic mythology, which settles in limbo, serene and vertiginously disturbing, confused, chimerical and, at the same time, impressive.

Eugenio Granell’s forays into the creative unknown will continue to resound and perplex us.

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