ABOUT ANTONIO FUENTES · TEXTS · EMILIO SANZ DE SOTO
ANTONIO FUENTES: MEMORY FROM TANGIERS AND FORGOTTEN FROM SPAIN
Emilio Sanz de Soto
I speak about a small square, completely different to what is normally understood as a square. It is small, asymmetrical, with no buildings of any artistic or historic worth, but, is quoted by very important writers from both the XIX and XX centuries. The same happens with drawings and sketches from very important painters also from both centuries. I am referring to the “Zoco Chico” (small Moroccan market) in Tangiers.
I ask myself the following question: What did the “Zoco Chico” in Tangiers have to make it interesting to such important artists and writers? Nowadays it has nothing: it is just another unmistakable small square in the old Arab cities, always hidden from the sun and the heat, and always in search of natural water sources or manmade wells. Without that magic sound it is almost impossible to understand the Islamic world. This sound was donated to Andalusia and that the genius Manuel de Falla should have to perpetuate.
These small squares are created, or better said, are made naturally due to a confluence of side streets. That is how “Zoco Chico” of Tangiers was created. Why do I speak about the "Zoco Chico" in the past tense? For the simple reason that it is not the magical place it used to be. Magical places can not last forever. Everybody knows that “time” and “magic” do not go well together.
In the “Zoco Chico” in such a small space, day after day and night after night for a century and a half, an unusual and unique performance took place. The scripts and the actors were always unexpected, always new, but the content and the meaning were always the same. The audience changed along the years and even some people left us evidence on how much they had enjoyed it.
Not everyone could feel the real meaning of that “performance”, with the comings and goings from the “Zoco Chico”. That performance expressed the meaning, the summary, the essence of what Tangiers was: the uniting of races, cultures, religions, languages, behaviours, and customs without blending them together. A miraculous uniting converted into daily reality. The chance to see this daily reality in the Zoco Chico show, free of charge, was only given to a few privileged people: to Camille Saint-Saëns at the start of his “Danza Macabra”, a happy, festive and unspoilt symphony. However there was a feeling that in the future it was going to be consumed by the deafening noise of materialism, or influenced by the meeting of mythical people from the occidental culture, all in peace and harmony having a green tea in the “Camino Real” of Tennessee Williams. This masterpiece changed location for fault of the scene director Elia Kazan. I continue believing that the work original, as it was created and written will be published one day.
Tennessee Williams watched the “Zoco Chico” show from the small terrace of the “Tingis” café-bar, which she called “my small private box” –she usually said it in French: "ma petite loge privée”– Camilla Saint-Saëns started to compose his well known symphony from the Fuentes hotel terrace, now that was a privileged box.
Although it seems I have moved away from the subject of this text, that being Antonio Fuentes the painter, I will later prove that this distancing is more than justified. Or at least, I believe so.
Not long ago I read in the biography of Saint-Saëns, that “monsieur Camille” met the Spanish composer Jaoquín Valverde in the very same hotel, Fuentes hotel, of where he was a regular customer. He always stayed in room number four, from where he said he could hear the throb of the city. It was Joaquín Valverde who was the “magical collaborator” with Federico Chueca in “small masterpieces” like “La Gran Vía”, work on which Nieztche wrote as “so wonderful it is impossible to classify”. He would listen to Saint-Saëns play the piano at Fuentes hotel, a selection of the main themes from “El Año Pasado por Agua”, composed by Valverde and as other times in collaboration with the highly individualistic Chueca. The French composer became so enthusiastic that the following year, he made his debut in Paris and half of France sang:
" Faites moi le plaisir
seulement deux paroles"
Joaquín Valverde’s son known and recognised as “Quinito” Valverde,“celebrity” that distinguished musicologists have mistaken for his father, was a premature composer. Despite being young he composed songs that immediately gained huge popularity, like for example “El Polichinela”, “La Fornarina” or “El Pai-Pai”debuted by a girl as young as him, Lola Membrives. In time Lola would become a huge actress that had the ability of uniting Spanish-speaking theatre from both sides of the Atlantic.
The always happy and brilliant Quinito Valverde also composed high quality songs like “Clavelitos”, which gave the mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervía the opportunity to become famous everywhere, she became a Covent Garden in London idol.
Quinito Valverde like his father was also successful in Paris. He gave to his compatriot Carolina Otero (known throughout the world as “La Bella Otero”) “La Machicha” song, paradigm of the Parisian “Belle Epoque”, a song that in its original Spanish version went like this:
"Tengo dos lunares,
el uno junto a la boca
y el otro donde tú sabes"
We anticipate that the son of Joaquín Valverde was connected to the son of the painter Antonio Fuentes, the proprietor of Fuentes hotel. This will be proven later.
Apparently Truman Capote once said –Jane Bowles also said the same thing a thousand times– that in front of the Athens Acropolis, some felt a “state of wisdom”, in front of the San Pedro of Rome, some should have felt in a “state of grace”, but in front of the “Zoco Chico” in Tangiers, everyone felt a “state of freedom”.
The Fuentes hotel –or better said: the Fuentes family– was the most specific meeting point between Spain and Tangiers; according to many people including me, which was a more direct and efficient way than our diplomatic authorities, with some exceptions of course.
For example, two celebrations that took place at the Fuentes hotel. If the Spanish government had paid more attention to those, our realities of history would have modernised, at least a little, from its age-old lethargy. I am referring to racial and cultural recognition, always made by almost all of the Spanish Sephardic Jews, who left obvious evidence of this.
Two famous Spanish people, one from our political history and the other from our literature, deserved the moving tribute of the Hebrew- Sephardi colony of Tangiers: Emilio Castelar and Benito Pérez Galdós. This happened –as always– in the Fuentes hotel.
The tribute was presented to Castelar by the scholar Abraham Pimienta and to Galdós by an outstanding woman, the writer and journalist Rahma Toledano. She was ahead of her time in terms of ideas and feminist ideals, and was the most decisive collaborator with Doctor Angel Pulido at the time of writing his prophetic book, “Españoles sin patria” (Spanish people without a country) a book that Galdós paid particular attention to.
One year after Galdós’ tribute, Antonio and Ana Contreras had a child, who had an early vocation for painting and in time he would have to live the artistic-literary bohemia in Paris, in mythical and unrepeatable years.
He was born as Antonio Fuentes named after his father. He was an extremely exceptional person, so exceptional it was difficult to understand. We could say he reached absurdity when using his relentless brilliance. His opinions immediately seemed like a contradiction to us, but after rethinking we realised it was down to his shear brilliance. Something similar to the image Cervantes gives us from his “loco cuerdo” (someone crazy but at the same time sensible or wise) Antonio Fuentes’ effort to be sane was evident. I mean: he did this to avoid any signs of craziness.
For years I believed that Antonio Fuentes was (chronologically speaking) the first Spanish painter born in Tangiers, until I discovered that the artist-illustrator –an excellent illustrator– at the time of our upsetting civil war, in the pro-Franco party, Carlos Sáenz de Tejada, was born in Tangiers in 1897, where his father was then on a diplomatic mission. After Antonio Fuentes the other great painter born in Tangiers was José Hernández.
Antonio Fuentes lived in a world that was connected to art, specifically to painting. His family were friends with the family of the extraordinary Catalan water-colourist Josep Tapiró, who was invited to Tangiers by Mariano Fortuny where he ended up living.
I vaguely remember Ana, Antonio Fuentes’ mother, when she was an old Andalusian lady. She was always a straight-backed person, very solemn, walked confidently, although sustained by an ebony walking stick with a silver handle. She wore colourful hats of exquisite French style, bought for sure in Madame Boissonet’s shop, a famous Parisian hat maker that had to flee to Tangiers after a scandal that put in danger the President of the French Republic. Madame Boissonet was like a second mother to Mariquita Molina and was also her teacher, who was going to inherit the hat shop. Mariquita Molina’s only child was the unusual novelist Angel Vázquez, from Tangiers, author of the following unique book: "La Vida Perra de Juanita Narboni" (The Dog Life of Juanita Narboni).
Antonio Fuentes worshiped his mother. He found out she was going to Josep Tapiró’s funeral, whose wife was a close friend of her. If I remember well Josep Tapiro's wife belonged to an important liberal Spanish family, whose surname was changed from “de la peña” to “Lepen” (Lepin in English) as a result of the English protection scheme. Given that Antonio Fuentes, then an 8 year old boy had insisted on accompanying his mother to that funeral, Ana agreed, because she knew the enthusiasm her son had for the works of genius, created by the Catalan water-colourist. Through Josep Tapiró, Antonio Fuentes’ vocation in painting was activated. Years later, he discovered Rembrandt through an Encyclopaedia of painting, more specifically through his painting “The Slaughtered Ox”. Antonio Fuentes agreed with those who believed that in his expressionism, which was always alive in his work, they could see the influence from his first encounter with Rembrandt’s “The Slaughtered Ox”.
He went to Paris, to Montparnasse in 1929, where he lived as the norms of an authentic bohemian require, and where, according to Antonio Fuentes “I spent my life in La Grande Chaumière or meeting a person and a half per day”. Curiously he did not become friendly with other Spanish painters. As Antonio Fuentes said "The majority were obsessed with Picasso, but what in Picasso’s art was pure instinct, the people from my town reconverted to intellectual algebra”. This explains his heated debates with Francisco Bores and Antonio Fuentes added with irony: “I was so fascinated with the spirit of the “Zoco Chico” in Tangiers, of living among Arabs and Jews, that the two only painters I was friendly with were two Jews, one Polish and one Lithuanian: Möise Kisling and Chaïm Soutine”. This is not strange as both painters were, in their own way, Rembrandt’s “grandchildren”, and above all, both had interests in expressionism very similar to that of the then young Antonio Fuentes.
We must not forget that in Tangiers he met Oskar Kokotschka, with whom he had a lot in common, especially in his Tangiers scenes.
Antonio Fuentes confessed to us that one day he decided to overcome his natural shyness by going to visit, in his Parisian apartment, a fat and single man, that in "tout Paris” (all of Paris) was known as “monsieur Quinito Valverde”…pronounced with a deep French accent.
Quinito of course knew of the friendship his father had with the Fuentes of Tangiers family, and it was him who introduced Antonio to the daughter of some very close friends, Rosa Castelucho, curator and owner of an exhibition hall that carried her name: "Galerie d'Art Castelucho". A gallery where the first individual exhibition of Antonio Fuentes was held. I have always thought –forgive me for my indiscretion– that Antonio Fuentes never stopped being in love with “Rosita” (little Rosa) Castelucho. It was in Rosa Castelucho’s exhibition hall where Antonio Fuentes met Picasso. With regards to this meeting I have read a moving and autobiographic text from Antonio Fuentes, which like some of his other texts, remains unpublished.
There exists a period in Antonio Fuentes’ pictorial work where I always felt a particular predilection, a period that he called “the Zoco Chico waiters”, where some waiters with white clothes and bow ties, some black and others red, emerged from a disorganised and dark world of moving objects. The great French Hispanist Pierre Gassier, an important Goya expert, also shared this admiration with me for the “Zoco Chico waiters” period and it was him who spoke about Antonio Fuentes as the “Toulouse-Lautrec of Tangiers”.
However, Antonio Fuentes, always self-enclosed, did not share our admiration for this period of his painting. Both Gassier and I started to suspect that in a moment of crisis he destroyed all the work of this period. Within time he confessed to me that this period reminded him of the years that he drew caricatures on the café terraces in Paris and Rome in order to make money to survive. This was how he made friends with the wonderful dancer Antonia Mercé “La Argentina” in Paris and how a nice meeting took place with King Alfonso XIII in Rome after having drawn a caricature of King Alfonso. The following was written by hand from King Alfonso under the caricature: "Yes sir, that is me by the grace and misfortune of God”.
On must take into account that even in his most difficult times he refused to sell his paintings. Antonio Fuentes was a man with lots of really strong obsessions. There were days, lots of days, when he refused to open the door of his studio to people. That way he lost –those who knew him were witnesses of it– meetings and sales that would have brought lots of opportunities; but he defined himself as: “an introverted man”.
Those who did not visit his studio-house in the old quarter of Tangiers can not have any idea of the chaotic and surreal atmosphere where Antonio Fuentes stayed hidden for years.
I really regret that nobody filmed –the film maker Marion Ruspoli thought about doing it– such an unimaginable world with incredible chaos. Curiously for Antonio Fuentes it only looked like chaos, as when he went to look for the most insignificant of papers he always knew where it was.
The studio where Antonio Fuentes lived hidden away –yes, hidden away– until his advanced age of ninety, was situated as I think I have already mentioned, in the old quarter of Tangiers, specifically in the small square of the “Aissauas” in front of the new Mosque. For decades by this Mosque there was a miraculous giant palm, until one day with east wind, its long and slim trunk broke and the palm was buried almost religiously in the old Arab cemetery near to the “Mendubía”.
Without a doubt one of the most personal pictorial and suggestive periods of Antonio Fuentes was called “Las Catedrales” (The cathedrals). In these cathedrals a mysterious and ancient system of symbols appears mixed together, where the Jew, the Catholic and the Arab, seem to emerge from the one same religious ceremony. The most beautiful examples of this period were shared out in equal parts –I was a witness to it– to Barbara Hutton and the Princess of Ruspoli, Marthe Chambrun.
In his last creative period he was influenced by “abstraction”, a period that was kept secret until his last days. You can notice the influence from the Mallorcan painter, from Sóller, Juli Ramis who lived in Tangiers during the important years of the evolution of his refined painting. For some art historians and Spanish contemporary art critics –fortunately not all– shamefully remains forgotten.
As Picasso mentioned, “the Benjamin”, as Pablo called Juli Ramis, was one of the most unquestionable precursors of the artists forgotten in Spain.
The friendship between Juli Ramis and Antonio Fuentes was so peculiar. It was hard to notice which of the two had the most difficult character. They could spend lots of hours together without saying a word to each other. They both used adolescent Moroccan models that were difficult to get hold of and that even Gauguin would have wanted to use. Once the agreed time with the model was over, she got dressed and went surreptitiously without making any noise. This was when both painters observed their works of art, work that was always different or sometimes even the complete opposite. While Ramis with a hard pencil created refined settings, almost Japanese painting, Fuentes, with a soft paintbrush, created the total opposite, violent and striking scenes. After having observed the results, they would destroy the work. According to them, they did this only to practise keeping a steady hand when painting.
I think –I have thought a lot– that a global and all-embracing history of the XX century Spanish painting still does not exist. When I speak about painting I also mean other types of art, literature, investigation and science. There are a lot of reasons for the above. Although I still think that both parts of Spain have an unresolved problem with a lot of consequences: interior exile, things that have been forgotten intentionally and unintentionally, rebuilt lives in the most obscure places of the world…
Furthermore: if forgotten things exist within mainland Spain referring to cities other than Madrid or Barcelona, how many more forgotten things happen here?
This article pretends to add another name to those “forgotten from Spain”, who “Jovellanos” already spoke about.
In this case it is to add the name of a Spanish painter, although a lot of Spanish people have never heard of him: his name is Antonio Fuentes.
Article Published in “El Pais”- Babelia, 23rd August 1997, for the first exhibition after the death of Antonio Fuentes.