Benlliure, the great sculptor who considered himself "a worker, a stonecutter"

The squares of many Spanish cities are dominated by statues modeled by Mariano Benlliure (Valencia, 1862-Madrid, 1947), the most famous and popular sculptor of the Restoration era for half a century. Goya, Alfonso XII or Martínez Campos, in Madrid; the painter José Ribera, in Valencia; the bullfighter Joselito, in Seville; the writer Antonio Trueba, in Bilbao; or the tenor Julián Gayarre, in Pamplona, ​​are just a few examples of an enormous work of monumental sculptures, mausoleums and monoliths that bear the signature of Benlliure. A member of a family of painters and draftsmen of humble origins, a precocious genius, he was rich and successful, a tireless worker and portraitist of the bourgeoisie and the monarchy at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, a kind of chamber sculptor. However, the figure of him has been diluted over time. A more ideological than artistic criticism of a Benlliure always close to power, including the post-Franco war, is at the root of this neglect, according to experts. Now, the city councils of Madrid and Valencia are taking advantage this year of the 75th anniversary of his death to review with all kinds of acts a work that on his day was admired in Spain and abroad.

"Criticism after 1980 devalued him for having worked during the Franco regime with religious themes, which is a political, not an artistic, motive that should be repaired with a knowledge of his work in his time with the partiality that History demands." This is how resoundingly Violeta Montoliu, professor of Art History in Valencia and one of the best specialists in the life and work of Benlliure, manifests herself. In fact, the precocity of Benlliure's genius, together with his longevity (he died at the age of 85 in full activity), led him to work in three different regimes: the Restoration monarchy, the Republic and Francoism. Head sculptor of the families of Alfonso XII and Alfonso XIII or of leaders of the Restoration stage such as Antonio Cánovas or Francisco Silvela, the Civil War surprised him instead by sculpting a bust of General José Miaja, one of the main republican military chiefs . Old and almost blind, Benlliure gave up going into exile and remained in Madrid during the conflict, unlike other colleagues. After Franco's victory, the artist was pigeonholed as a sculptor of religious imagery and bullfighting themes, a cliché that has weighed heavily on his legacy. Víctor Nieto, former professor of Art History at the UNED, believes: "Benlliure was well known and recognized in his time. But after his death in the postwar period, sculpture underwent a huge transformation and other sculptural trends and other fashions replaced the work of the Valencian master".

Although he always declared himself apolitical, perhaps to please all kinds of clients, Mariano Benlliure never forgot his working origins and pointed out that the work of a sculptor should unite "artistic inspiration and the awareness of being a worker, a stonecutter". The son of a draftsman and decorator from the old town of Valencia, who instilled in his children the culture of effort and learning in the workshops, Mariano had three older brothers who were painters of some importance in their time and with whom he maintained a relationship not only familiar, but also professional (Blas, José and Juan Antonio).

Author of a reference biography on the artist, Violeta Montoliu has always highlighted the enormous artistic stature of the sculptor and pointed out that "Mariano Benlliure turns painting into sculpture, or rather, he makes a sculpture that is reminiscent of painting". "Hence", he adds, "we can conclude that his works are the meeting of the two arts: composition, space and drawing fused with volume, shape and texture, even color is translated into the combination of volumes, in the achievement of shadows and in the combination of materials: marble and bronze, patinated terracotta, natural stone and glazed ceramic". For his part, Víctor Nieto, responsible for an exhibition at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts entitled Mariano Benlliure. The mastery of matter, which will remain open until June 30, explains: "The master sculpted in a tactile way and for this reason his sculptures are not smooth and finished. appearance of brushstrokes. Benlliure was, without a doubt, a genius of rapid and spontaneous modelling".

Awarded in several national exhibitions in Madrid, Rome or Paris from a very young age, self-taught, largely trained in workshops of other artists, Benlliure moved to the capital of Spain when he was just over 20 years old, where he lived all his life. Anyway, he never lost the link with his hometown. His artistic prestige reached its peak in the first third of the 20th century when he came to occupy the positions of general director of Fine Arts and of the Museum of Modern Art in Madrid. Very close friend of the painter Joaquín Sorolla or the writer Vicente Blasco Ibáñez —which offers an idea of ​​his political eclecticism—; an opera lover and married to the singer Lucrecia López de Arana, one of the divas of the time, the Benlliure studio-dwelling in Madrid's roundabout of Quevedo and, later, a chalet near the Castellana became for decades in one of the most famous artistic cenacles. Usually wearing a cap, exhibiting a cheerful character and sporting a mustachioed village, there he received high society or fashionable singers and painters. In any case, Benlliure remained on the crest of the wave throughout his life and some of his monuments were commissioned by institutions or individuals from Latin America and Europe. A master of modeling and a reference for naturalistic realism after rejecting academicism, Benlliure took refuge in work in recent years, especially after the death of his wife in 1927 and his brother José de él in 1936.

Despite a very extensive work, present in the public space of large cities or in the National Sculpture Museum of Valladolid, as well as in private collections, the artist's footprint has gradually faded. The art historian Víctor Nieto also attributes this neglect to the lack in Spain of a pedagogy on sculpture. "Madrid could be a huge open-air sculpture museum," he says, "but people pass in front of the monuments as if they were passing in front of a tree. In that sense, it is unforgivable that most of the statues do not even have the name of the character, nor the author, nor the date, nor the context of the time".

Thus, in an attempt to recover Benlliure's footprint, the 75th anniversary of his death has served the Madrid City Council to organize during these months a extensive program of activities, which include a cycle of conferences at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando between May 3 and June 7, under the direction of the Mariano Benlliure Foundation; concerts, guided tours of the artist's sculpture ensembles, especially in the Retiro area and the Prado Museum, or the restoration of some of his monuments. For its part, the Valencia City Council has declared 2022 Benlliure year and, in addition to the rehabilitation of some monuments, has announced an exhibition in the house-museum of the sculptor's family. All this to place that famous sculptor in his time and in his context. Perhaps with some other indicative plate.

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