In the summer of 1985 I happened upon an exhibition of little note at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, called “Representation Abroad”. The idea of “representation” was hardly a presence in major art circles in the United States and it has never been clear to me why this exhibition even took place—-recognition of a frail new figurative movement in Europe that seemed to have no influence here whatsoever. But in it I discovered a small group of artists from Spain who constituted a movement called “Realismo Español” —-Spanish Realism. The papa bear of this group was Antonio López-García but the artist whose work froze me in place was of a disciple of his, named Isabel Quintanilla.
I don’t know that Quintanilla’s work was ever shown in the United States again; not in any major show that I was ever aware of. Intermittently I have searched for it—-longed for it, nearly—-wishing I could see roomsful of her simple moments, her carefully framed domestic scenes, with their gorgeous, perfect light. None of the art people I knew at the time considered this to be important work. But it was important to me. And seeking her out yet one more time, just yesterday, online, I discovered that she died in October, at the age of 79. So, first, doña Isabel: Requiascat in pace.
I looked at web images of her work for a good while yesterday (there aren’t that many of them posted to look at, see links below), and all these years later, encountering these images once again, I think I finally have some idea why they mattered so much to me. I knew even then that what she was doing with oil on canvas was something I wanted to do as writer of fiction, a vocation I was just beginning to undertake; I wanted, as she did, to get common things so exactly right that you—-the viewer, the reader, either or both—-see them completely anew, see them as redefined and, more than that, glorified, glorified in the exactness of the loyalty the artist has given to their truth. Such work is a form of prayer, I think. What moved me in Quintanilla’s work, I can now see, was the force of an artist’s love for the physical world. The real force of the love it revealed: as in, I love this moment, this normal, mundane, kitchen-reality, this life, so much I will dedicate hours, and every bit of craft I have painfully acquired, to its representation. To see the paintings, especially live, as I got to see four or five of them, allows you to feel Quintanilla’s devotion to reality as she labored to perceive it. The paintings are—-some would say to a fault, I suppose—-flawless.
Sometime in my undergraduate years I read an essay by Lionel Trilling, an introduction he’d written for a particular edition of Anna Karenina. I was very affected by this piece: indeed, as with Quintanilla’s work, I never forgot it and long associated it with my own inclinations and development. In it Trilling wrote that Tolstoy’s great strength as a writer, his unmatchable achievement, resided in his love for his characters. I came to think, eventually, that there is no way to do ‘realism’ in fiction of any importance without something close to this Tolstoyan love. For more modern approaches, that relationship of author to created persons, scenes, circumstances is not a necessity, but in realism it is. Otherwise, why bother? This is why, for instance, I have never been a fan of the longer fiction of John Updike or any that I’ve found so far of Saul Bellow: I don’t think they like people much. I think they like their own sentences, their own ability to describe reality, but the people in those sentences, those realities, not so much. Updike has a humanity (by which I mean a tenderness) in his short stories sometimes that is not to be found in any of his novels that I’ve tried. I’d go so far as to say, Tolstoy aside, the kind of precision of effect that Quintanilla’s work suggests can better be matched in short fiction than in long. In long fiction there is so much furniture to move around, so many bills to pay, one loses touch with the quality of the light, as it were.
This love and devotion for a perceived reality is an idiosyncratic critical principle. I don’t mean to claim it as comprehensive or even, for anyone but me, useful. It’s not easy to resist infusing it with one or another unnatural form of style, and too much style applied to such subject matter, to the essence of lived reality, to felt life, would lead quickly to myth (think, everything that Hemingway wrote after 1930 or so…). Of course the realism itself you might call a ‘style’ but you’d be hardpressed in Quintanilla’s case to attach it to any but the most pious and selfless kind of artist. It is suffused with humility, and the pleasure to be discovered in the basic truth of this vision is overwhelming. I still remember standing there, thirty-odd years ago, galvanized.
http://www.artelibre.net/autor/5772 (Linked here with gratitude: that’s the site from which I lifted the images shown above…)