An exhibition inspired by Federico García Lorca’s beloved country house sheds new light on the poet
It is said that those whom the gods favour die young. Federico García Lorca, along with Keats and James Dean, is one of that select band. His brooding matinee-idol good looks (a cross between Dirk Bogarde and Antonio Banderas), his homosexuality, his friendships with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, who exposed the young poet to surrealism, and the mystery surrounding his untimely death have all contributed to the legend. Arguably the most important Spanish poet and dramatist of the 20th century, he was born on 5 June 1898 in Fuente Vaqueros, a village near Granada, the son of a liberal landowner and a pianist/former schoolteacher mother. As a child, he showed a talent for language and is said to have held conversations with inanimate objects, which he imbued with their own personalities.
While Lorca was still a schoolboy the family moved to Granada. Summers were spent at the Huerta de San Vicente, a country house on the edge of the city, which became a sanctuary where he could “write … with the greatest serenity”. Now the Huerta de San Vicente has been turned into the Lorca Foundation, which is run by his niece Laura García-Lorca de los Rios. Inside, the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, normally resident at the Serpentine Gallery in London, has created the first part of an innovative three-part exhibition for which he has invited international artists to interact with the house and Lorca’s work in a spirit of “curiosity and freedom”.
Driven by an interest in the crossover between literature and the visual arts, Obrist wanted to enable artists to connect with what Lorca called that momentary burst of inspiration found in “duende”. And what is duende? In Andalusia, people speak of it as containing what is dark and atavistic. Goethe referred to duende when he described Paganini’s playing as “a mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain”. At the centre of this passion is a point of stillness, found both in flamenco and in Lorca’s poetry, which provided the catalyst for the show’s title, Everstill/Siempretodavía.
In a development that Lorca would surely have enjoyed (the poet himself drew), art punctuates the stillness of the house, with its traditional tiles and wooden furniture. The spiritual affiliation between Lorca and the city of Granada, with its Arab influences, its gypsy music, its searing summer heat and deep Andalusian shadows, reverberates throughout his work like the refrains within flamenco. In 1922 Lorca organised the first “cante jondo” festival, in which Spain’s most celebrated guitarists and singers of “deep song” participated. After the success of Romancero gitano (The Gypsy Ballads) in 1928, he went on a trip to New York. Although he took neither to Anglo-Saxon culture and the dehumanising life of the modern city nor to the crowds holidaying on Coney Beach, he was entranced by Harlem, where the African-American spirituals reminded him of his native “deep songs”. Most evocative of the newly sited works, therefore, is the soundtrack of Granada’s haunting church bells, interwoven with flamenco rhythms by the great singer Enrique Morente. This emanates from the kitchen, with its iron range and stone sink, like the heartbeat of the house.
Tacita Dean, Lorca Olive
Also in the kitchen, spouted clay water jugs decorated with text by Pedro Reyes stand in rows inside the kitchen cupboards, and a dish of oranges and lemons inscribed with the letters of the alphabet by the Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander sits on the table.
In the main living room, Cy Twombly melds text and image in a delicate pencil drawing with the famed quotation from Lorca: “Verde que te quiero verde” (“Green because I want you green”). Observant visitors might notice on the dining table a single postcard, sent from Dalí’s home near Cadaqués, in Catalonia. Tacita Dean has organised for a new card to be sent every day from the Dalí Foundation, thus emphasising the early bond between artist and poet. The Viennese artist Franz West has created a small sculptural work in a vitrine in the corner of the room that is accompanied by a rather arcane text about Lorca and the unconscious.
Gilbert and George
To enter his bedroom is a bit like entering a monk’s cell. Small, with a large desk, single bed and tiled floor, this is where a number of artists have chosen to work. They include Gilbert and George, who have photographed themselves lying side by side and fully dressed on Lorca’s narrow bed, like stone effigies on a tomb. Wickedly, they’ve entitled the image In Bed With Lorca. Beneath the foot of the bed, the young Spanish duo Bestué e Vives have created a drama of small animated insects inspired by a little-known early Lorca play on the same subject. The bed is covered with a counterpane embroidered with local birds by Rivane Neuenschwander, who has also placed an old Olivetti typewriter on the desk next to a couple of green ceramic jars by Roni Horn.
Across the narrow hallway, Cristina Iglesias has filled a narrow alcove with tendrils of green bramble that echo the view through the bedroom door and out of the window into the garden, reminding us that the forest is synonymous with the unconscious, the site of creativity. On the stairs, the Albanian photographer Anri Sala has produced a moody, black-and-white photo of a tree, not inspired directly by Lorca’s writings, but evocative of his lonely ending.
Other works are fairly minimal interventions – for instance, Philippe Parreno’s repainting of the window grilles in the original silver grey and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s blue carpet in the piano room, surrounded by her favourite books, which link, rather enigmatically, to her feelings about Lorca. The poet’s suit has been altered to fit the small Korean artist Koo Jeong-a, and hangs in the cupboard under the stairs. Sarah Morris has produced the only painting based on the tile motif in Lorca’s bedroom, while in the garden the American poet and performance artist John Giorno, a one-time friend of Andy Warhol, has created texts inscribed on ceramic tiles in the traditional blue and white, which he has placed in the shallow water of the fountains.
In the turbulent days preceding the Spanish civil war, Lorca, who was living in Madrid, was uncertain whether or not to return home to Granada as he did each summer, unclear where he would be safest in the event of a Nationalist coup. In the end, he took refuge in the home of a fellow poet, Luis Rosales, whose family had connections with the local Falangist party. Another guest, the civil governor of Granada, ordered Lorca’s arrest; he was executed by firing squad three days later on a hill above his beloved city. For many years, his death was a forbidden topic in Spain. Not only was it an embarrassment to the Franco regime, but there were rumours that it had as much to do with a homosexual liaison and his association with flamboyant bohemian artists as it did with politics.
This exhibition is evidence that Lorca’s work continues to influence new generations of artists and writers. Although some of the works feel rather slight individually, as a total installation they puncture the static history of the house, detonating bursts of inspiration that revitalise our relationship with the great Spanish poet.
The Lorca exhibitions continue throughout 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Image 1: © Roni Horn
Image 2: © Rivane Neuenschwander
Image 3: Tacita Dean
Image 4: © Gilbert and George
Image 5: © Philippe Parreno
Published in New Statesman