Julio González - Biography and Legacy
Arcueil, Paris, France
Biography of Julio González
González was born Julio González Pellicer in Barcelona to a family descended from a long line of metal smiths. As a child, he began learning decorative metal working in his father's workshop. His father, Concordio González, was a part-time sculptor, and his mother, Pilar Pellicer Fenés, came from a long line of well-known artists, her father having been an important 19th century Catalan illustrator and designer. As the youngest of four children, González was particularly close to his mother and to his older brother, Joan. As his family loved music, he learned to play the mandolin at an early age to accompany his singing. He attended a Catholic school that followed the educational model of medieval craft guilds, where technical training was highly valued.
Early Training and Work
As a teenager, González, along with Joan, took evening classes at the Barcelona School of Fine Arts. He was influenced by the Impressionists, often painting and sketching the female figure, and by Art Nouveau in his decorative metal work. The brothers also joined Circol Artist Sant Luc, an artistic society that advocated humility, Catholic morals in the arts, and the craft emphasis of guilds. Their uncle was the president of this society that included the prominent Catalan artists Joan Limona, Joseph Limon, Antoni Utrillo, and the architect Antonio Gaudi. González was attracted to the society because of the group of young artists, known as Le Cénacle, that he met there. Le Cénacle aimed to remove the distinctions between applied and fine arts and therefore included artists from across the arts: the painters Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Josep Pijoan, Ramon Pichot, the poet Eduardo Marquina, and the musician Antoni Ribera. The group frequented Els Quatre Cats, and would sometimes gather at the González home for informal discussions, and for drawing sessions with a model.
Like many of these artists, González originally wanted to be a painter. He began exhibiting his paintings and metalwork in Barcelona and even sent pieces to the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. However, he was often over shadowed by his older brother, Joan, who took a more active public role as an artist. Art historian Josephine Withers wrote, "..the picture emerges of a shy and sensitive man, eager to become an artist, but uncertain of how to go about it. González appears to have been plagued with a certain hesitancy and skepticism which was to remain with him for many years." As a result of this profound uncertainty, he didn't arrive at his own innovative artistic maturity until he was in his fifties.
In 1898, the death of his father had a great impact on the family. The metal workshop was subsequently sold, and in 1900, his brother Joan, who had become the head of the household, moved the entire family to Paris. In Paris, González quickly became friends with the artists, Pablo Gargallo, Juan Gris, Manolo Hugué, Max Jacob, and Jaime Sabartés. He and his brother Joan also renewed their friendship with Pablo Picasso, whom they had met in 1896 at a Barcelona exhibition. The three men became close friends until 1904 when an acrimonious quarrel erupted. Some of Joan's artworks that had been left in the safekeeping of Picasso's family went missing. Valuing family loyalty over friendship, González wrote to Picasso, "You say you do not want to meet my brother and because of that you do not come to the workshop, now I am telling you: until this matter is settled, for the honor of my brother and me, I forbid you the entrance of my house as of my workshop." The break with Picasso was to last until 1921.
In 1908 after a long struggle with tuberculosis, Joan died. González's daughter Roberta would later write of her father: "Now began ... a solitude that always increased. These eighteen years from 1908 to 1926 were without doubt the most dramatic of his life up to that time. Practical difficulties, mental anguish, above all artistic anguish, the bitter fight with himself over the search for his true personality, were certainly the most depressing things he had to overcome." He withdrew from artistic society and only saw Brancusi, his closest friend, occasionally.
In 1909 he married Louise Berton, a model who was the subject of many of his drawings, but the marriage ended shortly after the birth of their daughter Roberta. To support his extended family he established a Parisian shop, "GONZÁLEZ - Jewelry and Works of Art" in 1915. He sold what he called "antiques from Spain," hats and clothing made by his sisters as well as his own decorative work, made using the metal working technique, known as repoussé. In 1918 at the end of World War I, he worked at a Renault armament factory, where he learned oxyacetylene welding.
In 1922, he had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Povolovsky in Paris, and a solo exhibition the following year at the Galerie du Caméléon in Paris. At both shows he exhibited paintings, drawings, jewelry, small sculptures, and objets d'art. He worked as a studio assistant to Brancusi from 1925-1926, making sculpture armatures and renewed his friendship with the artist Pablo Gargallo who was creating works that used sheet metal cutouts and who wanted González to teach him welding. Gargallo encouraged González to pursue sculpture more seriously.
The late 1920s were a period of radical innovation in González's artistic practice. His friendship with Picasso had been renewed, when they ran into each other by chance. According to his daughter Roberta, "Picasso called out: 'Hey, we are not going to stay angry all of our life! Let's hug each other!'' The friendship became an artistic collaboration in 1928 when Picasso hired González for metalworking. Over the course of the next three years, González and Picasso worked together on six Cubist metal 3D sculptures based upon Picasso's lattice-like drawings. For the most important work they did together, Picasso's Woman in the Garden (1929-30) Picasso found objects and scrap metal, while González forged or cut pieces based upon Picasso's drawings. The piece changed modern sculpture, and influenced both artists. The art critic Margit Rowell explains: ''It was Picasso's first large-scale sculpture...The found elements, as opposed to the carefully cut sections, brought a new and unexpected expressivity to Picasso's art...González, on the other hand, discovered the assemblage principle and the potential force of combining disparate parts...He learned the evocative power of images distilled into skeletal lines and planes.''
During this time, González was also friends with Brancusi, Joaquín Torres-García, Georges Vantongerloo, and Jean Hélion and knew Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, and Fernand Léger. These artists were often engaged in intense debate about abstraction in art. Participating in these discussions, González was gradually working toward his own sense of the possibilities of metal work and sculpture. Abstraction appealed to him, but he felt also that art couldn't give up nature, as he said that all of his work came from direct observation. His highest praise for an artwork was that it was serious. Characteristically, he still seemed to doubt his own authority, as he asked Picasso for permission to work independently in the manner they had both developed.
In 1929, he made his first noted sculpture in iron, Don Quixote, a figure deeply connected to Spanish culture and, subsequently, began creating the abstract metal sculpture for which he is most known. In the 1930s, while creating the masterworks of abstraction and collaged constructions, González needed to continue making a living as a metal smith. In 1937, he married Marie-Therese Roux, who also helped support the family by bringing in commissions for jewelry and fashion fittings.
The Spanish Civil War, particularly as it affected his native province of Catalonia, had a profound impact on him. His work, La Montserrat with its naturalistic treatment of peasant resistance made him known to the public, and the subject matter continued to haunt him. The outbreak of World War II deepened his sense of anguish, as the fascism that had triumphed in Spain became a worldwide threat and a source of personal anguish. His daughter Roberta had married the German artist, Hans Hartung, in 1938. As Hartung was wanted by the German secret police for his anti-Nazi activism, he and Roberta went into hiding when the Germans invaded France. Deeply worried, González focused on his art. As welding materials were unavailable due to the war, he drew extensively and began working on plaster casts for bronze pieces, Most of them were never cast, as he died unexpectedly in 1942.
The Legacy of Julio González
Called "the father of all iron sculpture of this century" by the American sculptor David Smith, González's use of metal and welding revolutionized modern sculpture, and his abstract and linear open forms that he called "drawing in space," had a profound influence on abstract art forms and Constructivism. Most modern sculptors who work in metal are implicitly, if not as consciously as Smith was, his artistic descendants. His influence has been felt internationally in the work of Anthony Caro, William Tucker, Hans Uhlmann, Carel Visser, Eduardo Chillida, Jean Tinguely Roberto Lardera, noted English, German, Dutch, Spanish, French and Italian sculptors respectively. His influence continues into the 21st century, notably in the works of post-minimalist artist Richard Tuttle.