Text published in the series ‘Gallegos on the stairs’ in El País
One of the best artistic interventions ever carried out in a public space in this country is the unfinished Mural da Canteira, which Leopoldo Nóvoa painted in A Coruña towards the end of the 1980s. The painting has been damaged by time and political indifference. Twenty years earlier, in Montevideo, he had created another of his major public Works, the Cerro Mural, a large-sized painting in which he wished to describe “our times, letting people understand our ongoing efforts to build a more harmonious society, and also our ongoing failures“.
Some people have two dates of birth – the one that marks the day when they came into this world and another that marks an event whose magnitude leads to a new start, year zero after rebirth.
In the life of Leopoldo Nóvoa we come across this double reference. His father was Uruguayan, a diplomat exiled in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. He abandoned his native Salceda in 1938 and settled in Montevideo.
At the same time as registering at the School of Architecture, he started working in a pottery factory, which turned out to be most useful for taking on some of his plastic works for public spaces.
In the late 1940s his nomadic spirit took him to Argentina, and he settled in Buenos Aires. In 1952 he held his first exhibition there, under the auspices of another great Galician artist of the diaspora, Luis Seoane. He collaborated in the “Galicia emigrante” magazine and designed the poster for the First International Congress on Emigration. His return to Montevideo and his relationship with Torres-Garcia, Onetti, Oteiza and later with the critic Michel Tapié, defined his painting, built up from an abstract vocabulary which he developed and deepened.
In 1965 he went to live in Paris, where he met Cortázar, Tomasello and Julio le Parc, among many others, a circle of Latin American scholars with whom he shared friendship and creative longing. These were years of intense work, in which he held exhibitions in various different European cities.
Nóvoa was now a painter with his own language – his painting grew in size as if there was a heart beating under the surface. 1979 was a key year in the life of this genius from Pontevedra, a year when he was reborn, a year zero when he reinvented himself after a disaster. His study in Paris was totally destroyed by a fire, and he lost over 2,000 works of art that were in storage there. Virtually nothing survived from his past, and only ashes survived from the annihilation, the only remaining witness for him to reinvent himself.
Nóvoa started painting ceaselessly, observing the ashes and making them his main ally, his faithful creative companion and the basis for a style that would never abandon him. His paintings were now colourless, black or white, austere, sober, created on material, space and light, shorn of all accessories; they achieved the most complex beauty, that which is obtained from simplicity. It was the end of a long, complex and painful process of synthesis.
Within the walls of his house in Armenteira, where he had been coming every summer for various decades, Leopoldo Nóvoa reigned in a world of light and space. We could say that he and the ashes he built his works of art with reached a perfect symbiosis. Nowhere else can we understand an artist as extraordinary as Leopoldo as in this monastic space, the house that was restored by his friend Celestino García-Braña. There is nowhere else where we can so appreciate the beauty of his work, above all the wisdom and humanity of this citizen of the world from Galicia.
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