The rather brief and unsigned New York Times obituary (Aug. 8, 1999) for Alberto Gironella is not very informative about his work (inaccurately called “surrealist”) and unusually vague about his life (“He is known to have married several times and fathered a number of children, but other details of his personal life and on survivors were not available.”). It does, at least, establish a few facts: he was Mexican, deeply involved in literature as well as visual art, fascinated by Velázquez and Goya, and definitely not a follower of the Mexican muralists. Adrian Dannatt, writing for the English newspaper The Independent, was more perceptive, noting that “Gironella’s affiliations and influences were with a whole range of art practices including Cobra, Nouveau Realisme and Tachisme.”
Born in 1929, Gironella had early ambitions to be a novelist, but by the late 1950s, after launching several literary magazines and starting a gallery, he found his way to painting, developing a figurative style whose subjects ranged from Mexican history to the legacy of European art. Drawing on his hybrid heritage of a Mexican mother and a Spanish father, Gironella plumbed the violent chronicle of the Mexican Revolution in paintings of Zapata and Pancho Villa and the equally tormented arc of Spanish painting from El Greco and Velázquez to Goya and Picasso. His paintings have the allusive density and intellectual heft of Kitaj’s, with whom he shared a commitment to anxious figuration. Sometimes they are set into wooden, doorlike frames or festooned with antique photographs or symbolic objects.
An active participant in avant-garde culture, Gironella designed sets for visionary Chilean filmmaker and playwright Alejandro Jodorovsky’s scandalous 1962 theater piece The Opera of Order. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, he produced painterly reworkings of classic paintings, mining an expressionist, historicizing style that would become fashionable in the 1980s. His bravura, sometimes macabre and frequently Eros-ridden canvases were gathered in a 1984 retrospective at the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City. Nearly every page of the catalogue for this show is defaced with a fake hand stamp reading “Esto es Gallo.” This is typically literary allusion—the volume is filled with photos and quotations from the artist’s talismanic writers, including Ezra Pound, Fernando Pessoa and Georges Bataille—to chapter 71 of Don Quixote where the Knight tells Sancho Panza of a painter who would inscribe the subjects of his pictures underneath the image: “If he chanced to paint a rooster he would write under it, ‘This is a rooster,’ for fear they might think it was a fox.” This leads into a famous self-referential passage where Cervantes has Quixote comment on the very fiction he inhabits.
Gironella’s reiteration of “Esto es Gallo” can be read as a twist on Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” targeting not the treachery of images but the often uncontrollable, and always doomed, desire of artists to oversee the reception of their work. This past summer, Gironella’s passion for books belatedly gave birth in Mexico City to a 10,000-volume library of art, literature, science, history, philosophy, as well as other topics such as wine, gastronomy and popular art. The library, which he had planned for in his will, is called “Esto es Gallo.”