Or Briefly Stepping Through the Door to Silence
The steps of most pilgrims are directed to holy places – physical journey coupled with metaphysical journey – or to places linked in some way to family – following old routes and digging up old roots.
Our steps tend to lead us to see pictures.
In early March this year, as we were planning to attend the opening of the SWISS DESIGN IN HOLLYWOOD exhibition in Valencia – packing up paintings, checking customs forms and insurance values – something was nagging in the back of my mind. I’ve learned to pay attention to those little alerts, faint as they are, and suddenly a name came to mind: José Segrelles.
Wasn’t he from Valencia, I thought. A quick net search later, I wrote to the organizers of the show, saying “You have to arrange for us to go to Albaida. We have a museum to visit.”
So they did.
But, first things first. The show itself was really lovely, perfectly lit and presented, and Valencia is a truly sparkling city, with the bed of the Turia river (diverted elsewhere) transformed into a seemingly endless park running through the centre. We also got a chance to properly meet Christian Scheurer and his adorable little family, who had come over from L.A. for the occasion. (You know Christian’s work even if you aren’t aware – he’s worked on every major effects film to come out of Hollywood over the last decade.)
Swiss Design in Hollywood: Exhibition
From left to right, more or less in order:
Swiss Design in Hollywood, on the university campus. Arriving at the show itself, which was composed of the basic panels, and augmented with printouts of Christian Scheurer’s and H. R. Giger’s work, sculptures by Giger, and a few originals of mine. Documentary films were also running more or less permanently in the show. Inevitably, autographs, though it is wise not to get caught in that pleasant enough trap, or you end up signing things all evening. Signing the guest book – any chance to doodle something on a nice blank page…
Swiss Design in Hollywood: Conference
From left to right, more or less in order:
Carlos Arenas, curator of the show, making the introduction, followed by Patrick Gyger, who did a presentation of the Maison d’Ailleurs – incidentlally, the ONLY public science-fiction museum in the world, along with a much more modest institution in Seattle. Christian did a lovely chronological overview of his work, which includes film credits like Matrix, Final Fantasy, What Dreams May Come and loads more. (Unfortunately, his lips were contractually sealed concerning the last few years’ work on more recent projects, so we’ll just have to wait until the films are released.) After I was finished my short presentation (really more of a glorified Q&A than a conference), it seemed like the whole audience rose up and lined up for signatures.
Promenade in Valencia
From left to right: Valencia exploding in a paroxysm of noise and smoke and ground tremors. The Fallas is basically a spring carnival, and the Town Hall Square is fenced off and filled with explosives and fireworks which are set off every day at two for about two weeks, leading up to the final conflagration on March 19th. As one spectator said to me as I was shaking my head to ascertain if my eardrums were intact: “Great isn’t it? The louder the better!”. Valencia has a beautiful Art Nouveau main station, with stunning decorations. The “Silk Exchange”, built in 1492 as headquarters of the various powerful merchant’s guilds is a small grove of fantastic torsaded gothic columns upholding a vault at least 15 meters high. Creatured corbels studded the outside. You have to admire gothic sculptors, Europe would be much blander place without them. I love balloons, especially when a good clump of them are tethered in a strong wind. (My tarrying to take this kind of pointless shot exasperates my poor – and patient – wife to no end.) Romanesque, with a slight Moorish influence, though Valencia doesn’t have (or no longer has) any real Moorish architecture. (Pausing to wait while I snap needless pictures of street graffiti is another cross which anyone wandering a city with me is fated to bear.) Floats for the Easter processions, some a couple of centuries old – it was like stepping into the back lot warehouse of a Terry Gilliam movie. Art Nouveau figured cornices on the tomb of some wealthy benefactor in the atrium of the City Museum – can’t recall his name, but thoroughly photographed the busts. More Gothic bits on the main cathedral, but down the side – the front entry is now triumphal Baroque. Futuristic structures in the Turia Park – I think this one is the Imax theatre.
Palacio de Marques de Dos Aguas
Well if you want Rococo, or even better, Churrigueresque, this is the place. Originally a gothic building, the florid facade was added in 1740 when it was re-vamped to Baroque by Hipolito Rovira, (The sculptures are from the hand of Ignacio Vergara, who also contributed the Baroque entrance to the cathedral.) I’m not quite sure which two rivers are represented, but my guess would be the Nile is on the right. (If that toothy creature is indeed a crocodile…) The ugly little windows in rows down each side, which make it practically impossible to take photos, are a modern addition.
But, the most unforgettable part of the whole voyage was the side trip. To see an artist: José Segrelles.
José Segrelles was born in Albaida, on the 18th of March, 1885.
By the age of nine, his uncommon talent propelled him to Valencia (distant only by 90 kilometres, but remember, this was the 1890’s, so it must have been quite a step for a nine-year-old.) to lodge with his older brother Vicente (José was one of 13 boys in the Segrelles family) and take lessons at the Crafts School, as well as the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts. Three years later, his older brother died, and 12-year-old José went to continue his studies in Barcelona, living at an uncle’s home.
After a degree in Fine Arts, he found employment retouching negatives and photographs for a local photography studio, the “Napoleon”. By the age of 27, his illustrations were being published regularly, first for Granada Publishing, later for the more prestigious Araluce.
In 1918 Segrelles exhibited in Barcelona where he met fellow Valencian Vicente Blasco Ibañez, who was profoundly impressed and moved by the work and requested to meet the artist, immediately commissioning illustrations for four of his novels: “The Cathedral”, “The Intruder”, “The Dead Rule” and “May Flower”, followed by “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis” in 1923. In 1926 Segrelles was contacted by The Illustrated London News and travelled to Paris in 1927 in order to sign with them. In that same year, he published eleven works on Beethoven, as well as others depicting the music of Wagner, Chopin and Mozart. “The Little Flowers of San Francisco” was published in Italy, the first edition selling out completely – unless I’m mistaken, the only foreign edition of a book containing his illustrations. In 1929 Segrelles was awarded the Gold Medal at the International Exhibition of Barcelona for his illustrative interpretation of ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Dante.
1929 saw him on his way to America, where he worked for a variety of prestigious magazines, doing ad campaigns and having his only gallery show outside Spain. In 1930, Salvat Editores published his illustrated ‘The Arabian Nights’, the same illustrations also being featured in The Illustrated London News. Nevertheless, homesick, he returned to Albaida in 1932, a packet of sketches and notes of his dream studio and home in his suitcases. (He did, however, make a portentious side trip to Chicago, to visit the Yerkes Observatory, sparking off his lifelong fascination with the Moon.) In 1932, Segrelles illustrated and published “Aladdin”, “Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves”, “The Prince Diamond”, “Farizada” and “Sinbad the Sailor’ – a total of thirty-two watercolours. He also published four illustrations on the theme of “Famous Dreams” with the London weekly and illustrated the story of Cabeza de Vaca for the editor Araluce.
Segrelles worked in a studio in his parents’ house during the three years of the Civil War, and in 1940 finally laid the cornerstone of the home he had dreamed of in America. He married a childhood sweetheart, Rosita Tormo, but she died only 20 months after the wedding. They had no children. Segrelles accepted commissions to refurbish churches that had been damaged or destroyed during the unrest, notably in Albaida, but also in Valencia and beyond. One room was devoted to his books, an extensive library of several thousand volumes. Segrelles turned it into a lending library for his village, opening it to the public in on July 18,1943. The library was closed to the public in October 1967. Museum curator Fernando Tormo and editor and tireless Segrelles enthusiast J. J. Soler re-opened the library in February 1982 and currently it is still open in the evenings. (I can think of worse places to be than Albaida – imagine an evening there poking through his books and copies of the Illustrated London News. I think I need to go back to Valencia.)
In the fifties, Segrelles turned his eyes up to the night sky and his imagination to the stars, beginning with charcoal drawings of imagined moonscapes, eventually creating, in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, his unique oil paintings of nebulae, solar flares and faraway planets. He painted the craters of the moon, and even the dark side, in a series of impossibly beautiful watercolours. (His first lunar craters in the 1920’s were inspired by the holes in dried bread and he found his documentation for his paintings of solar flares in his own fireplace.) He even turned to H. G. Wells, but above all painted the most stunningly accomplished imaginary portraits of space. He fully indulged his abiding fascination with the Moon, and towards the end of his life painted beautiful fantasy moonscapes which are undefinably surreal. His science fiction is devoid of spacecraft and technology (with the exception of the eerie crash of a sky-blue space ship on the moon), the conventional trappings of science-fiction are swapped for a landscape painter’s intimacy with the terrain and a preoccupation with the light; except in Segrelles’ case, he couldn’t wander through his space-scapes except in his mind. He painted solar flares and nebulae, all of which have a lyrical and poetical quality beyond the best Hubble can offer, simply because he is painting how he feels they should look, painting the idea of them, unaided – but unhindered – by sophisticated telescopes. They are simply astonishing. (Segrelles also constructed a paper maché lunar disc, as well as several planets the size of oranges, with marbles as moons, for his observations.) He also created an intriguing series of imaginary “medical illustrations” depicting the microscopic inner workings of the human body, possibly the only lyrical medical fantasy art ever done.
Professor of Fine Arts in the University of Valencia, he eventually abandoned the position in favour of a lifetime appointment as official painter of the Valencia County Council, contributing over seventy originals to their official publications.
His illustrations for Don Quixote, on which he had been already working as early as the ‘30’s, (several were reproduced in the Illustrated London News) were finally published in 1966. He considered Don Quixote his best work. All in all, he created 106 watercolours and 125 ink drawings for Cervantes’ classic. Segrelles’ images rival and often surpass Gustave Doré‘s ubiquitous engravings, but they are practically unknown outside of Spain.
He died in Albaida on March 3rd, 1969, at the age of 83, shortly after watching Apollo 9 lift off into orbit. His house in now the Segrelles Museum.
Left: Casa-Museo José Segrelles. To find it, go to the Albaida cathedral, then left and turn right behind the orange trees and down a short street.
Right: Visiting the museum. In the entry, being greeted by the curator Juan Carlos Tormo and translator María Molina. The first main gallery – the museum lighting is very muted, and it was hard to take decent pictures. (The museum people very kindly allowed me to snap away to my heart’s content, but many of the photos are alas, somewhat out of focus.) Spacescapes (for lack of a better word) comprise the top row, watercolours, notably the Tower of Skulls and other illustrations for the Arabian Nights and Dante, are in the glass-fronted recesses below. Another photo of the same gallery, with a “Moonscape”. Segrelles painted many nebulae in oils, there are several in the museum, all amazing. Chatting with the curator – the house is on level after level, with mezzanines and orientalist motifs inspired by mauresque themes. One of Segrelles’ paintings for H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. With Carlos Arenas, curator of the Valencia edition of the Swiss Design in Hollywood exhibition. Yes, that is a self-portrait of Segrelles as a young man on the wall behind. Two very happy tourists. (We also signed the guest book. The page before was signed by King Juan Carlos.)
It’s very difficult to decide where to start with Segrelles’ work. (We even had difficulty getting to Albaida – road works – and once in the village, were stumped, as we had run out of signposts – we asked at the police station and were directed up past the cathedral and down a short narrow street to one side to the plaza to his house.) He is one of the most unjustly ignored fantasy painters of all time. To my knowledge, no books on his work exist outside of Spain, and none of those have seen English translations. With the exception of a gallery show in 1931 at the Nicolas Roerich International Art Center in New York, no exhibitions of his work have taken place outside of Spain.
Left: Doing my best to capture at least some trace of the different works. Two moonscapes, which were absolutley incredible. (You’ll have to bear with me for posting such awful snapshots, most of my pictures came out poorly.) An impressionist view entitled “New York”. Two angels, reclining on clouds, from his watercolours for the Arabian Nights. They are not very big, but are absolutely exquisite – finely detailed and incredibly painterly. (Once you’ve had your nose up against the glass in front of a pictue like this, you can never complain again that watercolour isn’t a fine medium.) More spacescapes, notably a dark side of the moon, perhaps the best watercolour in the museum – apologies for the poor photo. (You’ll have to trust me, it was my favourite.) In Segrelles’ library, at the central reading desk.
Right: The Illustrated London News.
Impossible to take photos, but I wanted to share some of the excitement at seeing these pictures from the late 20’s and early 30’s. From left to right, illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Beethoven’s symphonies, Don Quixote, and more Beethoven. Such a shame we had to rush through the library. I was about ready to suggest I hitchhike back to Valencia on my own and stay all afternoon.
Many of Segrelles’ images are known world-wide – they feature occasionally in fantasy omnibuses, but most of his work is out of print. There is a slim catalogue in Spanish, entitled “J. Segrelles y Su Casa Museo”, very well produced, which can serve as a good introduction to his work. It is published by the museum, and can be obtained directly from them. There is also a museum catalogue, “José Segrelles: Les Mil i Une Nits”, by the Museum of Fine Arts of Valencia, for an exhibition in 2007. (It’s bilingual – Catalan and Spanish.) For the best science fiction artist and illustrator of his time, (and seriously worthy of being shortlisted in the category of best of ALL time) that’s pretty slim pickings.
And that’s about it. You can stumble on Don Quixote, but there are several editions about, and not all have the full complement of illustrations. (It helps if you read Spanish, or you you can do like me, are content to just admire the pictures.) Otherwise, if you possess old copies of the London Illustrated News, Red Book or the American Weekly from the 1930’s, then you are very fortunate. (If you have extra copies, I’m sure I have a birthday coming up…)
So, you have no choice but to go to the museum itself. There is something of the pilgrimage in it, and Segrelles himself called the door to the museum hall the “Door of Silence”, conferring on it already a solemn sense of introspection and reverie. Museums made in the houses of deceased writers or artists often have something of the shrine to them, a hint of privacy grudgingly revealed, making any visit, even for the most fervent of pilgrims, an intrusion of sorts. (Not to mention tidily arranged writing desks and studios, I mean, come on…) There is none of that in the Segrelles museum, as his house was already open ot the public during his lifetime, with the lending library and piano recitals and other events held in the grand hall. One imagines Segrelles, seated perhaps in one of his cubbyholes – there are several small chambers in he house where you can sit unobserved and look down through oriental latticework windows on rooms below – listening to the music rising from the piano, and observing the faces of the villagers. Nothing voyeuristic or seigneurial, just the desire to be a part without necessarily taking part. A curious house, which makes you feel priviledged to enter; welcome, even though the master of the house is not about. I wish we could have spent more time there. We will go back. Perhaps to finally finish the pilgrimage.
Left: Plaster cast of the hands of José Segrelles. The ring finger of his left hand was curiously short.
Right: The master’s studio, on the top floor of the house. The curator kindly took down the rope that cordoned it off and we were able to wander about and gawk to our heart’s delight. The last image is a stunning solar flare that hangs in the kitchen, in a part of the museum not open to the public.
If you are in the region of Valencia, you have no choice. Albaida is only an hour away to the south-west.
CASA MUSEO JOSE SEGRELLES
Pintor Segrelles Square, 13
Phone and Fax: 96 239 01 88
Before you go, you can visit the virtual museum. (There is also a little interview there about our visit.)
But why isn’t the art of José Segrelles better and more widely known? He is of the same illustrious calibre as Dulac, Rackham, Parrish and other household names. You’ll have to pardon me if I go resolutely out on a long thin limb, the one that overhangs the oh-so-inviting abyss of self-ridicule, but I have a thought or two on the subject.
Part of the responsibility lies with Spanish publishing; (but then every country has dozens of not hundreds of illustrious image-makers who have fallen from limelight into shadow) that no co-editions illustrated by Segrelles have actually appeared in any other language is incomprehensible. (Unlike neighbouring Portugal, whose bookshops happily mix books in many foreign languages, Spain, with Galician, Castilian, Basque, Catalan and Occitan already, does not.)
José Segrelles’ oeuvre is harder to “classify” than other painter-illustrators. It doesn’t fall into one easy-to-close drawer. Unlike Rackham, for example, he was a prolific painter in oils, much of his later work is of a religious nature, his spacescapes are impossible to slot into any simple category, perhaps many of his originals are lost. Thus, making a representative volume of his work would mean combining several books in one, with the diverse editorial sensibilities and competences such an ambitious project would require. (Afterthought: it wouldn’t honestly be that hard to do properly, I’ve already worked out a flat plan.)
Nor does José Segrelles belong to an epoch. A child of the last century, but not truly Victorian in spirit, nor entirely an exponent of Arts either Nouveau or Deco, dabbling in the extravagent 30’s’ glitz and glitter, and ignoring the heady post-war 50’s in favour of a unique approach to modernity, the art of José Segrelles is not easy to pigeonhole, not easy to stick a handy label upon. He fits seamlessly into too many categories, in a sense, there are too many Segrelles for our comfort, we who so adore arranging Art into manageable genres. This is not to say the was an opportunist of any sort, to the contrary. Outside of illustration commissions, all of which he treated beautifully and skilfully, with the possible exception of Anglo-Saxon themes like King Arthur, which may well have been a little less his cup of tea, he was entirely his own master.
Perhaps somehow, José Segrelles lived at just very slightly the wrong time. His illustrations are jewels of the Golden Age of Illustration, but a couple of decades “late”. His paintings, especially the space themes, are jewels of modernism and surrealist fantasy, but in an age when minds were tied up with machines and the layering over of our lives with technology and progress (layer upon layer, from vacuum cleaners to i-Phones), José Segrelles did not seek to put man in space (he was content to watch that on TV, and the only spaceship he seems to have painted is one that has crashed on the Moon) but he put space itself in the centre of his preoccupations. But he did it in a world so full of itself that the public had no taste for the pure lyricism of his spacescapes. A public yearning for automobiles and men in orbit, not the anti-technological visual poetry of an elderly Spanish artist in the small Spanish town of Albaida.
This is in no way to say he was “behind” or “before” his time, his art is independent of fashion. Perhaps more simply, it is “outside” of time.
But José Segrelles was right. Now that we are filling up our Earth, now that we are questioning notions of progress, the visionary beauty of his work is a clear sign that we need to think both wider and sharper, consider the place we occupy, consider our intimate intertwining with our world and just what we plan to do with it. No other artist has so magisterially combined science fiction and myth, future and past, than José Segrelles. Somehow, his passing away, practically at the same instant as the first manned American orbital flight and 6 months before man actually landed on the moon (an idea that did not at all appeal to him – trading Selene’s sublimity for a few sets of dusty footprints), is one of those stunning coincidences of worlds brushing close to each and then drawing away forever. We could grandly use his vision now.
It’s high time a retrospective of his work was done in Paris, New York, London, Rome or Tokyo; the opportunity for his unique vision to find a new public is vastly overdue. It would do us all a wealth of good.
In the meantime, here are a few of his paintings.
Left: José Segrelles provided 106 watercolours and 125 ink drawings for Don Quixote. (Well, he was Spanish, wasn’t he, so there is a certain inevitability to such an undertaking.)
Right: Pages from the Illustrated London News, where Segrelles painted visions inspired by Beethoven’s music. (Segrelles had an abiding passion for the composer, doing numerous portraits and a very unusual oil showing God from the Sistine Chapel reaching out to touch not Adam’s outstretched hand, but the very centre of the forehead of a Mount-Rushmore-like bust of Beethoven.)
Left: Two of Segrelles’ illustrations for H. G. Wells, followed by a nebula and several moonscapes. The last one is one of the few spaceships he painted (to my knowledge, of course, which is not very extensive).
Right: Segrelles’ “medical” watercolours are entirely imaginary. That he should choose such a subject for interpretative paintings is most curious. Whatever his reasons, the result is striking and intriguing.
A few of Segrelles’ remarkable paintings for The Arabian Nights.
Apologies for not being able to put captions on many of these, I have no idea what they illustrate, or what their original titles are.
Left: The first image is for a theme I’ve failed to identify, the next two are illustrations for Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen” and the 4th may be for Dante. The 5th and 6th images are definitely from Dante’s Inferno. Next, the Tower of Skulls is an illustration for a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. Two images along, Bedivere throws Excalibur back into the lake, so Segrelles must have done at least a few Arthurian illustrations. Following is another image from Dante’s Inferno, depicting the greedy. They are followed by another painting (this one is hanging discretely in a stairwell in the Valencia City Museum) entitled The Avaricious, which is also for Dante. The next two paintings, “Fate and Destiny” and “Metropolis” come from Red Book, followed by a Crucifixion (1945-50), and “The Sacred and the Profane” (also published by Red Book). Lastly, a watercolour for a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez.
Right: The Pot of Ink (1929). The next two are unidentified. The 3rd image is from Dante’s Inferno (1928-30), followed by Judas rolling up his sleeves. Another unknown subject, followed by a Crucifixion. The man sleeping in what looks like a shallow grave is an illustration for the tale of Cabeza de Vaca. (If you’ve not read de Vaca’s “Relación”, the story of his 10-year trek across America between 1527 to 1537, from the shipwreck off Florida until his meeting with some very surprised Spanish explorers on the Mexican coast, you really should.) An autoportrait of the artist from 1911, followed by his last autoportrait, shortly before his death (1965-67).
The photos in this newsletter are © the respective photographers: Fataneh Ramazani, Christian Scheurer, Carlos Arenas, Patrick Gyger & J. J. Soler/Casa Museo José Segrelles. Used with their kind permission and my thanks.