She grew up on the streets of El Raval in the 1960s and is now the most sought-after Spanish artist on the planet. Her life is like a fairy tale but she refuses to be "a Dickensian character". Lita Cabellut, the gypsy artist who pounces "like a puma" on her canvases, displays her work for the first time in La Coruña and Barcelona.
Lita is traveling with a troupe of eight people. Four of his five children have come to the opening of his exhibition in La Coruña -only David is missing, the eldest, 30 years old-, his partner -Robin- and some of his assistants -his friend and administrator, Christina, Alain and Eddie, your photographer- When they meet her for lunch after a morning of interviews, they surround her, they cover her with kisses, they joke, they ask her about her punished knee - she is pending a cartilage implant. Lita is the matriarch and she is happy. At times, it seems that an orchestra of gypsies is going to appear behind them.
His studio, in The Hague, is a former car body factory surrounded by high walls. A fortress in the heart of the city in a residential neighborhood dominated by embassies. He bought this building six years ago. 800 square meters of studio and 240 of house -a kind of Italian mansion- separated by a patio and a garden. "I bought a ruin and I have built a temple," he says. "As a child I used to play at making shacks with sticks and cardboard, and somehow I still do. The houses where I have lived are made to measure."
Industrial aesthetics mix with Egyptian art and Gobelin tapestries that decorate the house. To enter you have to hit a wooden gate. There is no doorbell. "It's like a monastery," he says. His house is order and harmony. His studio is chaos. He wants the border between these spaces to be very marked. In the middle, trees and flowers that she takes care of herself. Sometimes it doesn't come out for several weeks. Within these walls you have everything you need. Some of her children live with her and others come to stay or eat. They bring their girlfriends, their friends and sometimes their ex-girlfriends too. Three of them are artists and collaborate with her. At one, Andrea, the cook, serves the food at a large wooden table. Ten, fifteen, twenty get together... Around four, her two assistants, a Colombian and a Pole, return to the studio and prepare the canvases she is going to work on.
Each painting by Lita has several layers, sometimes up to twelve. This structure, made from pigments, inks and oils applied at different temperatures, forms what she calls the skin of her characters and weighs up to twenty kilos. When Lita considers that the surface is ready, with the cracks and reliefs requested by the character she is going to portray -that crackle that has made her famous-, she physically pounces on the painting. It is a process of alchemy in which she also feels a bit like a witch, like the gypsy shuvanis. "In my studio I become a savage. I work with the canvas on a table, horizontally. I am a short-distance athlete, explosive as a puma. I go into a delirium that sometimes I am not aware of," she explains.
He moves frantically like a tribal dance around the painting. Throw cubes, hit rollers with whips, use spray paints and graffiti inks. He wears a mask, because of the gases. She's barefoot. The floor is covered in paint splatters. "In this absolute chaos, the palette, the canvas and the studio become one. The materials, the dirt, the fluidity and the blows are represented in the painting. All this matter is for me like the relationship of a believer with God. The materials are the divine voice of art. By the time I'm done I'm exhausted. Like a rocker after a concert. It's like a bomb fell on the studio. My helpers take over an hour to pick up and clean up the mess every day. So I cross the garden and soften when I enter the house. My brutality stays in the studio. I'm a volcano on the inside, but velvet on the outside."
Two years ago, Art Price (the reference index in the art market) ranked Lita Cabellut as the most sought-after Spanish artist on the planet, ranked 333rd, with around 500,000 euros in auction revenue. Her gallery, Opera Gallery, is in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Dubai... Today, each painting by Lita reaches 100,000 euros. His work is not found in Spanish museums and he is barely known here. She doesn't like to talk about numbers. "It's ridiculous. We all know it's a market game. The artist is above the ratings," he says. This 2017 is the year of his landing in Spain, with a display of 40 new works (at the Gas Natural Fenosa Museum of Contemporary Art, MAC, in La Coruña, until April 1) that he has painted for the occasion in the last year and a half; and a retrospective at the Vila Casas Foundation in Barcelona (until May 27).
Lita grew up on the street. She is annoyed that the curiosity of a miserable childhood takes precedence over her work. "I'm not a Dickens novel," he says. A few years ago, she told someone in confidence the details of her life, that person betrayed her and when Lita began to be known, she saw her story published on the Internet. "My biography can be tremendous, but I am much more than an abandoned child. I am a woman, a mother and an artist who has much more to tell than the drama of her childhood. There is a temptation to remain in sorrow, in self-indulgence I did not accept misery. I always wanted to be better."
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He was born in Sariñena (Los Monegros, Huesca) 57 years ago. His mother abandoned him and he was left in the care of his grandmother, in Barcelona at the end of the 60s. "I ran away from home. I lived on my own looking for a life in the streets. I played in the puddles, drew figures with a few drops of oil , he created scenes with little plastic soldiers. That sentimental part that most people regret about a traumatic childhood is false. When you're a street kid, the only thing you care about is surviving. You're not aware of misery. You get used to it to deficiencies. You don't yearn for a life you don't know. That sentimentality from outside is much more painful than the reality that street children live".
At the age of ten, her grandmother died and Lita entered an orphanage. There she imitated the dancers, put on plays with the children. She was a difficult girl to control, full of vitality, she did not know the minimum standards of behavior. It is easy to find parallels with the life of Coco Chanel or Edith Piaf, whom she has portrayed in her paintings. At the age of twelve and a half, she was adopted by a wealthy family from El Masnou. "I was scared to death. An adoption is a violent transition to another world. You'd rather stay in the reality you know than risk the unknown. I went from absolute nothing to affection."
Paquita, who was called her adoptive mother, was "a godsend." She was already an old lady, with her daughters emancipated from her, and this allowed her to focus on Lita's education. "She was a sober woman, of few words but with great spiritual strength." He enrolled Lita in a religious school, but it didn't last long, they kicked her out. "I did not accept the rules. Suddenly they told you sit down, eat well, time to go to bed... I still did not know how to read or write. A brother-in-law of my mother gave me private classes in history, literature, philosophy, he discovered the poetry". At thirteen they traveled to Madrid and went to the Prado Museum. In front of the Three Graces, by Rubens, Lita felt a brutal blow. "That painting moved me in a way that I have never felt again. That emotion stirred something inside of me. I told my mother: I want to do this. I thought: I want to be like them, I want to create other worlds because mine is not I like it. Until then, I was closed in on myself. I didn't communicate. When I returned home, we looked for a painting teacher. From there, another life began. Art gave me the tools to connect with the world." According to Antón Castro, curator of her Testimonio exhibition, in La Coruña, her first painting teacher, Miquel Villá, who had experienced the pictorial avant-garde in Paris, transmitted to Lita "respect for classical values, for tradition, for chromaticism more emotional and disciplined forms".
Always in rebellion, in a permanent internal conflict, Lita felt that she had begun a path that could not end in the comfortable life that her adoptive family offered her. "I have a deep need for freedom," she explains. "I think that we are not educated to be free, but rather to accept what is imposed on us, to allow others to think for us and choose what we are supposed to want. I have always felt free. My goal is art and that leads me forward".
With this thesis, which has been the goal of his life, at the age of 19 he went to study art in the Netherlands with a scholarship, and never returned. His adoptive mother suffered greatly from this decision. "I wanted to travel, meet, live with people. In Holland, the mixture of races struck me. I traveled all over Europe. I traded drawings and paintings for rent and electricity. I decorated the walls and ceilings of the houses where I lived, restored Furniture, I lived by bartering. I traveled through Africa for eight months on my bicycle. I never received a penny from anyone. When you have knowledge, money comes by itself. I have never met so many poor people as in recent years, people who only have money ".
His beginnings in painting were complicated. At the same time, he began to form a family. He met Velázquez's Innocent X and Bacon's, which inspired his spectral figures. He studied the tenebrism of Rembrandt and Goya. He became fascinated with the perspective of El Greco. He explored the Spanish Baroque tradition, portraits ranging from Zurbarán to Picasso, the use of black, chiaroscuro. Castro explains: "It is a direct heir to the tradition that still evokes today that adolescent gaze in the Prado; all its reds and blacks are Spanish, and make explicit the memory of lived events, linked to the old Barcelona neighborhood of El Raval, to its mountebanks , to its clowns, to its prostitutes".
"Art is a great cathedral and I feel part of that collective creation", explains Lita. "To create you have to surrender, suffer, learn to stop the blows... I am very Lorca. In my house there are always flowers. I prepare the bouquets myself, which sometimes occupy the entire kitchen, wild flowers. Even when I was very poor , we had flowers. I don't like defined, assembled, perfect works. My technique is to break down and then rebuild. I think of faces, traces and remains, of the path I've walked to get here. I'm a hysterical artist. I need that my team is aware of me, that they tell me that I am going 250 per hour and that they warn me that I have to slow down in the curve. I have no fear. Death? It is a constant theme in my work because dying is natural. Death is the only certainty we have since we are born. Being an artist is easy. The difficult part is when you try to make art to achieve something else. I think, as Duchamp said, that art should not be taken so seriously. I prefer to talk with musicians and people from the theater. Artists are usually very annoying".
Lita has been talking for almost two hours without interruption. Her monologue is volcanic, her black eyes gleaming as she points to her pearly paints. "I paint the less favored, the lonely, those who are not conditioned by what they will say, because I believe that wisdom is beyond the norms. We are saturated with rules that prevent us from seeing the truth of things. I am moved by the fragility of people, submission, patience, understanding... They speak to us of strength, but the natural state of human beings is fragility. We are very vulnerable. Acknowledging weakness is not a defeat".
Perhaps this explains why Lita's portraits are misplaced characters, survivors, solitary. Her models are fat, ugly, dwarf, standard-breaking anti-models whom she dresses, photographs and brings to life on her canvases. He turns a 130-kilo girl into a ballet dancer; he transforms an almost blind albino Korean woman into his muse; He makes an old man who won't stop crying a magician... "Brutality and sensitivity are not that far away, you just have to know how to handle them. I never think that things go wrong. They can turn out differently than you had planned. To my children I tell them: Do not worry about the future. Accept things as they come and fight to be better. Be like that aquatic plant that is carried away by the eddies of the river, be patient and you will come to the surface. Joy, suffering, everything is temporary. I do not feel my life as a tragedy. I have had many ups and downs, but now I cannot imagine a fuller life. The artist's privilege is the possibility of escaping, of flying to other worlds".
Throughout the morning in which we did this report, he asked several times for them. "Have they arrived yet?" Her children accompany her wherever she goes and some collaborate with her. "I need your love when I come out of the studio massacre," he says. Marta is his personal assistant. Luciano (with a cap, second from the left), studied Anthropology at Oxford and "wants to change the world." Winston (the blond one and the only one who doesn't speak Spanish) is adoptive, he works in video art and has inspired some portraits in his City Acrobats series. And Arjam, also an artist (he has an installation in the museum hall), is his model for the portraits of Camarón, Lita's great idol. In this photo, the only thing missing is David, the eldest (30 years old), who is a musician.