Agustín Ibarrola, artist of memory, land and dignity of the Basque Country, dies

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Agustín Ibarrola (Basauri, 1930-Galdácano, 2023) has been many artists and a single citizen, a granite and seamless man until the news of his death at the age of 93, arriving this morning from Bilbao. As an artist, Ibarrola made land-art, painting of testimony and denunciation, Basque ethnicist research, social realism, geometric abstraction, public sculpture, constructivism and brutalism. As a citizen he did the classic tragic journey, from the backlash of Francoism to being haunted by ETA, just like the booksellers of Lagun, just like the writer Raúl Guerra Garrido. Guerra Garrido died a year ago and Lagun closed this summer. Ibarrola’s death is also sad because it means the disappearance of a generation, of a witness in the recent history of Spain and the Basque Country.

More Baroja than Unamuno, more Oteiza than Chillida, more Dau al Set than El Paso, more Romanesque than anything else, Agustín Ibarrola was an almost self-taught painter who was born to art through a series of oil paintings linked to his land. His first images of the Bilbao steel industry and the nostalgia of the hamlet He painted them with cheap oil paints on low-quality brown sheets and fabrics, mounted on handmade frames. The teaching of the Andalusian painter Daniel Vázquez Díaz, a cubist very much like him, helped him intellectually expand his work and, at the same time, tie it to politics. Vázquez Díaz was from Río Tinto, a region of industries and union struggles, like Bilbao.

Politics would change Ibarrola’s work. First, because his disgust at the leaden years of Franco’s regime led him to associate with other dissident artists and writers, the members of Estampa Popular, a group that was a friendship more than a school and that was united by realistic aesthetics and sense of of denunciation of his works. Ibarrola had to pay for this activism. In June 1962, at a time of special discontent and the penetration of Workers’ Commissions among mining and steel workers, the police arrested the painter, accusing him of instigating the workers’ revolt in Sestao. Ibarrola later narrated the torture he suffered at that time; he described the raw skin left on him by his interrogators. When he went to trial, He was sentenced to nine years in prison, of which he served five.

In the Burgos prison, Ibarrola had permission and material to paint as a form of reintegration. Before the jailers, he composed more or less innocuous landscapes that served as a technical exercise. In secret, he painted other clandestine work, of a testimonial type, paintings on silk, drawings with Indian ink on paper and wax paintings on stone and paper that, in some way, discovered the vein of material art.

In that secret work, Ibarrola documented prison life, He portrayed his fellow inmates with psychological zeal and recreated the world of repression, arrests, torture in police stations and trials. The artist also composed a “general mural of repression in Spain” that he painted in parts and that he secretly left prison for the Communist Party (PCE) to assemble and display as denunciation and propaganda. Ibarrola’s wife, Mari Luz Bellido, was his main accomplice.

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