The Zubiaurre brothers: an ode to the essence of the Basque Country

At the dawn of the 20th century, Basque regionalist painting experienced a moment of splendor that had two of its greatest strongholds in the Zubiaurre brothers.

Throughout the history of art there have been great family sagas that have marked and defined the course of the artistic practice of their time. In the case of the Zubiaurre brothers , their work contributed significantly to the proliferation of a type of painting, the central motif of which revolved around the representation of life, customs and characteristics of the Basque identity .

Ramón de Zubiaurre Aguirrezábal "The julepe"

Despite their Basque roots, Valentín and Ramon de Zubiaurre were born in the city of Madrid, where their family had recently moved for professional reasons. Deaf-mute from birth, both brothers developed a keen sense of observation that they cunningly transferred to the pictorial field. Together they also began their studies at the Royal Academy of San Fernando, where they received the teachings of great teachers such as Carlos de Haes and Muñoz Degrain. After completing their training and after undertaking a trip to Europe, they obtained a scholarship that allows them to settle in Paris where they could contact the latest pictorial trends of the moment, and especially with the later Impressionism.

However, the weight of his strong academic training determined a way forward, whose main aesthetic references will be the early flamenco artists and their contemporaries Ignacio Zuloaga and Dario de Regoyos. Parallel to their training, both brothers showed from their youth an interest in those traditional themes, set in their land of origin, where each year they used to spend the summer with their family. During these summer stays in the town of Garay, they approached the representation of the Basque landscape, also beginning in the practice of painting in the open air. Undoubtedly, the feeling of love and roots towards their land, marked the work of both painters, developing a special sensitivity towards the landscape and the Basque people that lasted until their last days.

Starting in 1915, the first exhibitions arrived and with them, the first successes and recognitions. However, his work remains rooted in an academic aesthetic that still denotes an excessive influence from his teachers. In the 1920s and already in full creative maturity, his time of greatest international success began exhibiting his work around the world incessantly until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Despite their reciprocal influence and their affinity regarding the themes they cultivated, their approach to them will be built under a plastic and expressive language that at that time was already perfectly defined and differentiated.

In this sense, the Basque regionalism and to a lesser extent Castilian that Valentin practiced, is impregnated with a more reflective and melancholic spirit that will manifest an accentuated symbolic charge. The protagonists of his work represent physically and morally an exalted idea of the region, trying to express a feeling of roots, admiration and nostalgia for peasant life and its people. His concern, therefore, not only concerns the external, but also affects the psychological aspects that distance him, despite his impeccable mastery of drawing, from strict realistic representation, to give birth to an almost mythical image of ” be Basque ”.

Valentin de Zubiaurre Aguirrezábal "Pedraza"
Valentín de Zubiaurre Aguirrezábal "Basque types"

This is the case of the canvas “Basque types” starring 3 locals that Valentín portrays in the broadest sense, paying special attention to the gestures and attitudes that define his essence. In this way, the realism that the painter practiced is sifted by a deep sense of color and by the Byzantine hieraticism of his solid figures through which he builds – as Ortega y Gasset said – a true lyrical inventory of Basque existence.

More colorful and expressionist than Valentin, Ramón’s work showed the mark of modern painting to a greater extent. His trip to Holland marked the evolution of his personal style, which from then on will turn towards a much freer and more modern conception of color, close to Gauguin and the “nabis”. Likewise, the youngest of the brothers captures the essence of the Basque people with large doses of humor and sardoniness visible in works such as “el julepe”, where a more daring and imaginative compositional richness also shines through. His work, halfway between tradition and modernity, ethnography and manners, offers us a wonderful portrait of the Basque village world full of irony, humanity and sensitivity.

At a time marked by the unstoppable rise of modernity, the work of the Zubiaurre brothers represented a true ode to Basque ruralism based on the exaltation of the vernacular and autochthonous of their traditions and atavisms. Because, as Juan de la Encina rightly pronounced, “The brothers do nothing but follow an aesthetic trend that began in Bilbao a few years ago and that is slowly contributing to national art, the spirit of a region that was silent until recently.”

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