BORN TO PAINT

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY SOR­REL DOWNER

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

nor­mal.”

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

dis­turbs us.”

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.”

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