The art of Montserrat Gudiol (1933-2015) must be understood in the context of a society under the control of an authoritarian Francoist state in which a woman’s role was strictly that of meeting her husband’s needs, taking care of the children and the house. And so she did, but combining the tasks of wife and mother with art meant having to give some things up, meant confrontations and losses. Through painting, she shows us her form of struggle based on introspection and isolation.
From the shadows and in secret, painting allowed her to send a message underlined by a call for gender equality in a world ruled and controlled by men. In an interview with La Vanguardia on 21 January 1981, she spoke of the letter she wrote to her father in which he said “although according to you, we women will not do anything good, I decided to become a painter, to make a living from my work. And that’s what I did.” Montserrat Gudiol embodies a life full of work, with successes and failures that led her to expose great contradictions of human existence.
Montserrat Gudiol was born in 1933 in Barcelona into a family dedicated to art and beauty. Her father Josep Gudiol i Ricart was an art historian and architect. She was closely linked to art galleries and artistic institutions such as the Institut Ametller d’Art Hispànic and the Galeries Laietanes, but after the war she had to go into exile. Thus, Montserrat’s childhood took place between the Civil War and her father’s exile, in the hard years of the early Franco regime. Perhaps for this reason she defined herself as a pessimistic person, as a result of the era she had to live through. Her painting is the day-to-day struggle in search of the meaning of life, a life full of contradictions that she faced through constant seeking, creativity, feelings, experience and sensitivity.
Her sources of learning are several, from medieval art, which was the subject of her father’s work, to the multiple influences of the artists of her time. She was involved in the worlds of literature, dance, music, health, sports and law. A clear example is the Christmas drawing she made for La Vanguardia on 25 December 1983; an original vision of motherhood to celebrate Christmas. A child hugged and protected by his mother who looks at him with love and tenderness. To the right there is a candle, a symbol of the light of a new life coming. The colour blue is the symbol of heaven and love, as well as sadness. as we see in the work of Pablo Picasso, who influenced her so much. Christmas, for many people, is still a mix of feelings, life, family and longing for loved ones who are no longer with us.
Wife, mother of six children and artist. She was chosen as a member of the Reial Acadèmia de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi (Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Saint George) in 1981, becoming the first woman to be part of it. Normally, new members of the academy made a speech at the time of admission. Montserrat Gudiol explained that she was not used to speaking in public, that she had been educated to listen and not to speak and that because of this, instead of addressing academics with words she did so with a painting: the portrait of Frederic Marés, who was its president at the time.
She was successful, but her success cost her her marriage. It was not easy to combine the facet of wife and mother with the strong will of being an artist.
The background of the work with a soft ochre gives a chromatic uniformity to the whole. She plays with chiaroscuros to approach the duality in colour like the same duality we find in life.
Motherhood is the protagonist of the painting. Joy for the birth of a child that makes her a mother, discovering unconditional love, feeling that you have a compelling reason to continue fighting in this life that goes beyond yourself. But it is precisely this contrast that arouses fear and anguish. A fear of losing what you love, what you care about and that gives meaning to existence.
This fear comes across in the mother’s gaze. The mother’s eyes look into infinity as if seeking explanations, answers to multiple questions. They represent not only fear but also terror, anguish, uncertainty. How can we control the anxiety that comes with living?
Protection is the action that love and dedication to the child awake within us but, in turn, protection becomes a necessity in the face of the fear generated by this life that can be lost at any moment. How can she struggle to overcome this fear that immobilises her? There is only one place where we are completely safe: in the maternal cave, in the womb. That’s why the mother mimics it, embracing the child with her arms, helped by of the piece of clothing with which she safeguards the child until he is ready to survive for himself.
Slender hands with long, thin fingers seem weak and at the same time, the Gudiol duality leads us to feel that they are able to protect, love, warm as only a mother knows can. Hands that implore, that fold in themselves, lovingly welcoming while offering peace and comfort.
The child seeks the security that only a mother knows how to convey through her arms, as if they could avoid all dangers, and settles in by curling up lovingly. He rests his small, delicate head on the space of the arm that holds him. He seems motionless, safe, calm, and happy like any other baby when his smother hugs him and proudly spoils him.
And even though her son is a small child, she also feels protected. They are together, and the love that unites them is what will allow them to overcome all obstacles, loving each other. Together they will be able to overcome the obstacles of life.
The strength and, at the same time, sadness and desolation of her gaze are in contrast with the inexpressiveness of her face. All emotions are inside, no feeling crosses the boundaries of the skin.
A life devoted to representing the intensity of feelings, fears and love. Montserrat Gudiol was taken away by Alzheimer’s. In the final years of her life, the disease stole the power of her gaze, but we are lucky that her works last.
CORREDOR-MATHEOS, J (1990); Montserrat Gudiol. Realitat i símbol, Edicions Polígrafa, Barcelona.