Chillida Session

Javier Montes at the reopening of Chillida-Leku

Iwan and Manuela Wirth, Conxa Juanola, Luis Laplace, and Miquel Camps. All photos: Manuel Viturro.

“WE ARE always returning to the House of the Father.” This verse of Novalis, the über-romantic German poet, haunted me as I approached Chillida-Leku, the sixteenth-century caserío, or farmhouse, on the leafy outskirts of Donostia-San Sebastián, in Spain’s Basque Country. This is where the now legendary Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (1924–2002) achieved his dream of finding a permanent home for his works from 1983 onward. His ashes rest there as well. Chillida may well be considered the father figure of Basque art during the twentieth century: After the Spanish Civil War, the man and his work became rapidly associated with the (yes, so romantic) telluric and ancestral notions of the Basque land, the ages-old folklore and traditions of the Basque people, and the timeless expression of the Basque Country’s national spirit.

The place itself (leku means “place” in Euskera) is a total work of art, a Gesamtkunstwerk not without ambitions in the most German sense of the term. In the renovated interior of the old house, and in the meadows and forests that surround it, Chillida installed monumental sculptures and smaller pieces that provide an all-encompassing vision of his work and the world at large. Yet time has passed, and now Hauser & Wirth is taking a further step in its international expansion by supporting the reopening the renovated Leku, following a presumable—but undisclosed—golden handshake with the Chillida estate that also throws the worldwide commercial representation of the artist’s legacy into the deal.

Claudia Mugica, Eduardo Chillida's grandson Pablo Chillida, dealer Blanca Soto, and Susana Chillida.

It’s good news also for Euskadi and Spain at large: Since 2010, economic and management disagreements between the Chillida family (he had eight sons and daughters) and the Basque government have kept the place closed or at half gas (it could only be visited by appointment). Now, Argentinian architect Luis Laplace, already a household name at H&W, and Dutch landscapist Piet Oudolf (yes, the High Line guy) have converted the reception pavilions and slightly reformed the arrangement of the sculptural pieces. On the afternoon of April 11, the all-too ancestral and very Basque tenuous but maddening rain (txirimiri, it’s called there) decided to give everybody a break. The cream of the art intelligentsia and the art world of both the Basque Country and the rest of Spain attended the merienda high tea, dinner, and dance garden party on the premises and in the tents installed to receive in style.

Manuela Hauser and Iwan Wirth, sitting at one of the sheltered tables of the new restaurant, chatted with Susie Guzmán, the madrileña who directs their New York venue, Laplace, and Conxa Juanola, the mayor of Mahón, Menorca. Menorca is the most elegant of the Balearic Islands (having nothing to do with the flashy bling of Ibiza) and the art world should keep an eye on it: Hauser & Wirth has reached an agreement with local authorities and is awaiting further planning approval to develop a new project on the premises of a tiny islet close to the port of Mahón.

Artist Cristina Iglesias and curator Lourdes Fernández.

The dealers acted as cohosts along with the numerous representatives of the Chillida clan, of all ages: As a good patriarch, the artist has twenty-five grandchildren of a highly distinguishable physiognomy and aire de familia. His niece Alicia Chillida, with many years of experience as a curator of contemporary art behind her back, gave her approval to the “microsurgery” of the new display and model of private management of the house.

Another famous clan of Basque and San Sebastián art, the Iglesias, were also well represented. The sculptor Cristina Iglesias and the curator Lourdes Fernández (former director of the ARCO fair) talked about the permanent installation of a site-specific work of Iglesias’s on the island of Santa Clara. This piece will inevitably be in dialogue, from shore to shore, with Chillida’s most famous outdoor project, El Peine del viento (The Comb of the Wind), 1977, a historical landmark also in the bay of La Concha. Meanwhile, Cristina’s brother, the composer Alberto Iglesias, who has received three Oscar nominations, commented on the subtleties of his beautiful soundtrack for the brand new (and splendid) film by Pedro Almodóvar, Dolor y Gloria.

Señora Gregori Rodríguez and her niece, June Caro.

Collectors, dealers, curators, museum directors (among them Miguel Zugaza, who boosted the Prado Museum in Madrid and now runs the fabulous Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao), and artists swarmed the premises. They danced as if there were no tomorrow (although there was, because the party continued until the wee hours of the morning at the Nautical Club of the port of San Sebastián). They drank txakolí, the cider-like tangy Basque white wine, and Basque cider, as solid and solemn as the best of white wines, almost. And, of course, they tasted the best of Basque cuisine, which reaches its glorious peak in a city whose restaurants sum up to eighteen Michelin stars. It included a Chillidaesque cheese buffet, carved and arranged with an art that the sculptor himself would have approved of.

I was quite taken with a discreet, distinguished, and kind woman who presented a remarkable familiarity with the place. After we exchanged a few words, I found out she was the señora Gregori Rodríguez, who was born in far-away Extremadura, and who for more than thirty years worked at the Chillida house and helped to raise the family forward. She had as a companion her young and bright niece, June Caro, who plans to be a dancer. Gregori spoke with great esteem of Eduardo Chillida, and she knew every inch of the place and its thousand stories. It was perhaps also Gregori, more knowledgeable in a way than any of us guests, who was most happy to be able to return, at long last, to the house of the father.

Dealers Max Menke, Noel Estrada, and Stefan Ropke with architect Luis Enguita.

Tents on the premises of the renovated Chillida Leku.

Art Basel's Itziar S. Mangas and Gonzalo Quintanilla.

Rosa Ferré, director of Matadero Madrid with publishers Patxi Eguilaz and Carlos Copertone.

Small format sculptures in the renovated interior of Chillida Leku.

Roasting lambs at one of the dinner party tents.

Dessert buffet by renowned Basque patissier Rafa Gorrotxategi.

Dealers Pedro Maisterra and Lucia Mendoza and Maribel Lopez, co-director of ARCO.