BORN TO PAINT
From street child to celebrated artist—Lita Cabellut has a remarkable story to tell.
From street child to celebrated artist—
Lita Cabellut has a remarkable story to tell
LITA CABELLUT IS ONE OF SPAIN’S MOST SUCCESSFUL LIVING ARTISTS. Her work is exhibited around the world, and her huge canvases sell for six-figure sums. At 55, she is master of her craft and living a life that even she could never have imagined as a street child, doing whatever it took to survive in a Barcelona ghetto.
Cabellut no longer lives in Barcelona, but is visiting the city from her home in the Hague, dining at a smart restaurant surrounded by uniformed waiters and suited businessmen. In contrast, she is every bit the glamorous bohemian star: part gypsy, vivacious with a
throaty laugh and tumbling jet-black hair.
As she talks about her life and work, it is clear that sheer force of character is as much a key to success as her phenomenal talent.
“My life gave me a landscape with a lot of darkness,” she says, “but I believe when you are trapped in a dark place, you can draw a door in your mind and go through it into the light. Always. Even when you think ‘I am too tired’, or ‘it is too difficult’.”
Cabellut grew up in Franco’s Barcelona, a “terrible, broken place where poor people, especially gypsies, and women with children and no money fell through the net”.
She grew up in the barrio of El Raval, which in the 1960s was a notorious slum and red-light area, full of drunk sailors and sleazy bars. “We had a room, a very dark room,” she says, “and it was better and safer to be on the street. For children to live on the street, and for women to get into prostitution to survive, was normal.”
She ran wild and used her guile to survive. Her life had its moments of joy, but it was ultimately a lonely, insecure and “miserable existence”, she says. At the age of eight, she took her fate into her own hands: she went to a police station and asked to be put in an orphanage. “The desire to change my life was so strong,” she says. “I had the right to a better life.
“That was the first time I drew a door and went through it. I drew the second door when I was 12, to allow me to pass through and accept help and a new life from a very strong lady with a lot of ethics and love who came to the orphanage and adopted me.”
“For children to live on the street, and for women
to get into prostitution to survive, was
BESIDE THE SEA, IN THE CALM OF THE AFFLUENT suburbs of El Masnou, the adoptive mother and feisty child forged a deep bond that lasted till the lady’s death seven years ago. “She gave me my intellectual life, education and possibilities. When I give thanks for my life, I think of her.”
For the first time, Cabellut attended school (no education was provided for girls at the orphanage) and learnt to read and write. And on a life-changing day at the age of 13, was introduced to art at Madrid’s famous Prado Museum.
“The first thing I saw was The Three Graces, a big painting by Rubens. I’d always wondered how to create an imaginary world, and here was someone who had done that through painting. From that moment I saw how I could create my own world, hide things in it, express myself through it.”
She decided she would become a great artist; the fact she had never painted was not an obstacle. Cabellut
took lessons, studied the works of Goya and the old masters Velásquez and Rembrandt, practiced obsessively, and—fortunately—showed a magical talent.
By 19 she was in Amsterdam studying fine arts at the Rietveld Academy, and, after graduating (and an eightmonth bike ride through West Africa with a friend and dog, which ended in a near-fatal case of malaria), stayed in the Netherlands, living the life of the struggling artist. Her desire to perfect her technique was overwhelming: “As with Kung Fu, I practiced the same thing over and over again. I would say to myself, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, or where this is leading, but I know I need to keep practicing’.
“In the beginning I bartered my work—you pay my electricity or supermarket bill, I’ll do you a painting. But I remember the first time I sold a painting, through Galerie Artline in the Hague. The owner, Bill Barends, said, ‘Sit down, Lita. I have something for you’, and I felt shame. Shame! I said ‘How can I accept money for this? I’m not ready, I’m not good enough!’
“My God, I felt I was stealing. And I had that feeling of shame until the age of 45. Now it’s OK. I think, ‘Thank you, I’ve worked for it!”
IT WAS NOT ENOUGH FOR CABELLUT to master painting flesh and blood: she wanted to capture souls. Her massive vibrant portraits seem ready to lean forward to confide in the viewer. She paints the beautiful but troubled, the proud, fragile and unguarded (artist Frida Kahlo and fashion designer Coco Chanel among them).
In her series ‘Portrait of Human Knowledge’, she captures the essence of iconic figures from Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Neruda to Mother Teresa, “people who in very difficult times were singing, dancing, and writing—strong people who kept their dignity even in terrible circumstances”.
These are things she knows about, and the creative process is both comforting and cathartic. “I spend a lot of time in silence, but when I’m painting I am never alone—I am with my people. And if I couldn’t be, I think I would die from sadness.
“Someone once returned a painting, saying they found it hard to live with. I know, like me, that they had a difficult childhood. After two weeks the person came back to say they had to have it: ‘It reminds me of something I want to forget, but it’s better I don’t forget it’ they said.”
The ability to convey shared human experience through art gives her life a great sense of purpose. “Part of me is very melancholic,” she says, “and this can only be exorcised by being involved in something much bigger than myself. To live like a big lion in a small cage, would be pointless.”
THIS YEAR CABELLUT IS BUSY TURNING HER past into new beginnings, and preparing for two major exhibitions. She has, almost surreptitiously, become Spain’s most successful living female artist. “A friend called to tell me that I am in fashion,” she chuckles.
A retrospective of her work opens at Barcelona’s Fundació Vila Casas on 5 October, and later that month another exhibition, Testimonio, opens at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in La Coruña. The latter show amounts to a multi-faceted self-portrait—or autobiography, because Cabellut is very much a storyteller who happens to use paint.
She is also working with the theatre company La Fura dels Baus, channeling her passion into scenery and artwork for a production of Rossini’s Le Siège de Corinthe at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, in August.
Ever conscious of her own lucky break, she has begun work on a social project designed to help gypsy girls pursue further education.
“We make big
monsters of memories… In the end we can’t find
a solution for everything which
SHE LEAVES THE RESTAURANT AND takes a walk, opting for the labyrinthine medieval streets of the Gothic Quarter rather than her old neighborhood, now a fashionably edgy area with vintage shops and gastrobars.
”We make memories big monsters,” she says. “It’s good to go back and see things in perspective. So I’ve been there, I’ve made my peace, but the memories stay in the stones, the colors of the walls, the street lamps, and they talk to me.”
What do they say? “They say it’s good you went away!” she laughs. “You know, in the end we can’t find a solution for everything that disturbs us.” says Cabellut.
It’s too late, it seems, to reset the fractured family relationships of the past. She has contact with one sister, but none with her birth mother, and as for the fate of her father: “No idea!” She has, however, created the family life she always wanted as a child: close-knit, rambunctious and loving.
She has three sons and a daughter, Marta, who works as her right-hand woman. “We created a beautiful family together,” says Cabellut. “I love my children. I taught them to be strong, to have opinions—and they give them. Discussions around the table are always about art, philosophy, politics.”
She has never married. “I’m very happy how I am. I’ve had two big big loves, and maybe there’s another coming, but if I do find someone I won’t know where to put them. There are so many people around me already, and I have so much to do.”
Reaching the end of a dark street, Cabellut steps out into a plaza filled with sunlight. She is beside herself with glee: “This is perfect! Symbolic! To be emerging from the dark into the light… a very good sign. I have mastered my craft, I can devote myself completely to creating art. Suddenly, the comfort of a small studio is not enough. After the opera, who knows? Maybe a ballet!
“I am full of energy. This is what age brings: the energy of knowledge and peace and serenity. Because I have met a lot of ghosts and kissed a lot of monsters from my past. Now my past is under control, my life is under control, and my children are safe.”
Cabellut at her studio in the Hague: “When I am painting I am never alone.”