top of page


International art collectors and enthusiasts have arrived in the city these days. The reasons are more than justified.

San Sebastian is always a must-see, and now even more so. Two important artistic events coincide there: so much so that they have generated interest among collectors and international art lovers who have arrived in the city these days. First, there is the first exhibition of an artist who is not Chillida in the hamlet of Zabalaga, a few kilometers from the city: the fact that Chillida Leku hosts the works of Antoni Tàpies is already a conjunction within the conjunction. But we also have Hondalea, the monumental site specific that the sculptor Cristina Iglesias has made inside a lighthouse keeper's house on the island of Santa Clara, and that only a few (and foresighted) lucky ones can visit at the moment. In addition to this, Cy Schnabel, curator and gallery owner, son of painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, has inaugurated his second exhibition at Villa Magdalena, his family's beautiful house in San Sebastian. It sounds like a lot, but it's not even all of it. Let's travel to the capital of Gipuzkoa to check it out.

First stop. Tàpies in Chillida Leku.

From the last time I was in Chillida Leku two years ago, when it was reopened after the last renovation, Mireia Massagué, the current director of the museum dedicated to the sculptor Eduardo Chillida in the town of Hernani, assured me that someday not too far away they would start exhibiting other artists there. And I was suspicious. Because that place, the farmhouse of Zabalaga, was bought and modeled by the artist in his own image and likeness almost four decades ago and then opened to the public in 2000 (two years before his death). It is one more of his works and it was hard to imagine that it contained paintings or sculptures signed by anyone else. Of course, in another sense the plan did have a certain logic now that Hauser & Wirth, one of the most powerful galleries in the world, was beginning to represent Chillida's legacy and had invested a considerable (but undisclosed) amount of funds in bringing Chillida Leku up to date.

Tàpies at Zabalaga, the exhibition that has just opened there, is a smart move for several reasons. The first is that it fulfills that forecast that was so improbable at the time. The second is that it does not do so in an obvious way, since the legacy of Antoni Tàpies (an artist who died in 2012) is not currently on Hauser & Wirth's roster. There is still a third reason: there are links between the two creators, who shared a personal harmony and also a particular interest in a material, chamotte earth, from which they extracted very different results. And, if we hurry, there is still a fourth reason that encompasses them all: the operation has gone well, and confirms that, indeed, there is life beyond Chillida in Chillida Leku.

Mireia Massagué and Mikel Chillida, the sculptor's grandson, guide me through the exhibition of seventeen pieces (most of them created by the Catalan artist in the eighties, many belonging to the Tàpies Foundation and others to private collections) that occupies the second floor of the farmhouse. It begins with the sculpture of a gigantic slipper with the characteristic engraved signs and letters of its author and ends with some cement niches painted with graffiti on the back. In other words, we open "with the most hooligan Tàpies" (in Massagué's words) and close with an almost funereal solemnity. In between, paintings and murals full of material strength, everyday objects fossilized in bronze or editorial works with the poets Joan Brossa, Rafael Alberti and Jacques Dupin that culminate with the bibliophile tribute of the sculpture Llibre I, a huge book cast in bronze and endowed with an ear, a book that listens, well, a book that listens. Another highlight is Huella de cesta sobre ropa, a large-format painting from 1980 that currently belongs to the Valencian Hortensia Herrero Foundation but was once treasured by Eduardo Chillida himself. "It was in the house of the aitonas (grandparents) on Mount Igueldo," Mikel explains to me, "So bringing it back now, even if it's on loan, has been like bringing it home."

Many of these works include chamotte among their materials. This dense and resistant clay, the result of pulverizing bricks or tiles, was discovered by Chillida from Joan Miró, and thanks to the former it was in turn found by Tàpies. Its use unites the three artists in a chain that also serves as the common thread of the new exhibition. "It is very comforting that the first artist other than Eduardo to exhibit here is Tàpies," says Mikel Chillida with great conviction. Soon he will travel to the Hauser & Wirth headquarters in Somerset (UK), where another exhibition will open on June 25, this time dedicated to his grandfather.

Later, while we eat in front of one of the fields dotted with sculptures, we talk about the next part of my trip, which will take me to the work that Cristina Iglesias has done inside the lighthouse keeper's house on the island of Santa Clara, in the middle of the bay of La Concha. A work that has received praise but has also raised controversy both among environmental associations and from the artistic sector itself. "But there was also controversy when my aitona put El Peine del viento on Ondarreta beach," Mikel recalls, "In fact, it was so much criticized that, although it was installed in the seventies, it was not officially inaugurated until 1997. And now nobody disputes it. You have to give things time: once the novelty has worn off, I'm sure Cristina Iglesias' work is also seen in a different way".

Second stop. Hondalea, by Cristina Iglesias, on the island of Santa Clara.

Hondalea ("marine abyss" in Basque), the work in question, has had its official inauguration shortly after being installed on the island of Santa Clara. With all the authorities of rigor. And it has not lacked illustrious visitors such as Norman and Elena Foster.

From the beginning, much has been said about it, for and against. The latter focuses on the possible environmental impact and its cost to the city council, which, between civil works and the production of the work, amounts to about four and a half million euros, VAT included. The artist has donated her fees, so this item has been saved from the budget. Much has been said about all the tons of bronze transported by helicopter and assembled in situ, about the liters of the closed water circuit of its stage machinery, about the working days and the dimensions of the artifact itself, as if it were Mankiewicz's Cleopatra instead of an installation, so there is no reason to repeat it.

Let's say instead that before seeing it I thought a number of things about it, and I continue to think them after. Above all, that it does not seem very questionable that a current and internationally recognized artist from San Sebastian should form a sort of axis with two other emblematic works in the public space, those of Chillida (El peine del viento) and Oteiza (Construcción Vacía), at both ends of the same bay.

This axis is extended to the east with the Paloma de la Paz by Nestor Basterretxea, which by the way is usually left out of this equation. Iglesias herself says that the piece really begins in the port of the city, when you get on the boat that takes you there. And it is understandable that she emphasizes this, which on the other hand is absolutely true. To get to Hondalea you have to embark on a journey that begins with a brief water journey to the island of Santa Clara in which you feel as if you were on Charon's boat to the island of the dead in Böcklin's painting (although the boatman from San Sebastian is a small company called Aitona Julián, which has been doing the same route for three generations), and that does not happen every day. 

Once there, it is clear that a transformation has taken place in the place, an islet to which the Donostiarras used to go traditionally during the summer months ("the beach season") without going beyond its strict sandy coastline. And it is this transformative capacity of the environment what is most praiseworthy in Iglesias' work. The ascent to the old lighthouse keeper's house where it is installed (house in disuse since the automation of the lighthouse in 1968) has something of religious pilgrimage. And when we finally enter the house, illuminated by natural light filtered by white alabaster plates, we witness a somewhat theatrical exercise of mimesis of nature, through a false bronze abyss whipped by tides that are actually a mechanical device that expels water contained in some tanks: but that is only one piece of this whole set that is larger than the work itself and is at the same time the work itself. This ensemble is made up of an intensified natural space where everything that was already there -the strength of the sea, its smell and its changing sound, the beach, the rocky coast, the vegetation, the nesting seagulls, the lighthouse itself and the annexed house- becomes even stronger thanks to an artistic action.Hondalea must be seen to properly perceive all this. The only drawback is that you need to book in advance, that there are few places available each day and that at the moment everything is full until well into August.

Third stop. Villa Magdalena with Cy Schnabel.

The pandemic changed Cy's life. "I was working for my brother Vito in New York," he tells me under the wisteria pergola that adorns his house. "And I decided to take six days off to go back to San Sebastian, which made him very angry. But that was in March 2020, and while I was here the confinement came, so I stayed six months, and that time served me to change course. If it hadn't been for the covid, I would now be working for my older brother, the gallerist."

Cy is Cy Schnabel, the son of painter Julian Schnabel and designer and model Olatz López Garmendia from San Sebastian. And Vito is his brother (on his father's side) Vito Schnabel, perhaps the world's best-known young art dealer thanks to his widespread social profile. Cy and I had coffee at Villa Magdalena, the family home - right next to the funicular that climbs to the top of Igueldo - which he has converted into a gallery, following in his brother's footsteps, but with a very different approach.

Villa Magdalena can only be accessed by appointment, but it is well worth it. Downstairs, a room with moss-covered walls that served as his father's studio ("here he painted some of his pictures, such as a portrait of another artist, Albert Oehlen, of whom he is a close friend"), is his showroom, and is now occupied by the paintings and drawings of Mie Yim, a Korean painter living in New York. They are works somewhere between the figurative and the abstract, the organic and the monstrous, which integrate very well in this already quite organic space thanks to the humid vegetation that climbs its walls.

Curiously, in all this, parallels can be seen with what happened in Cristina Iglesias' installation. "It's true," Cy agrees as we walk up the stone stairs that lead to the living quarters of the house. "People may come to see the art I exhibit, but they end up taking away a more complete experience." During that experience you still see art in the rooms, but you can also admire the views of the bay, and the exquisite yet unpretentious interior design that his parents once chose for the San Sebastian home: black and white Moroccan tiles and French church chairs for the kitchen, worn leather armchairs for the living room, whitewashed walls and some handcrafted jewelry here and there.

"Plus in this place I have the quiet I need to write," she explains to me. "New York is a very self-centered city with too much activity, and there I wouldn't have been able to devote myself to my other project, which is to research and prepare a dossier for an anthological exhibition that I want to dedicate to my maternal uncle, the painter Alejandro Garmendia." His goal is to make Garmendia known to an international audience. Deceased in 2017, he once exhibited at the Reina Sofia Museum and also in galleries in the United States or France, but today he is a somewhat forgotten figure that he would like to recover. As for the house, the plans are to turn it into a meeting point, to hold artistic events taking advantage of its terrace and garden, and perhaps also to make it a residence for artists.

But this does not prevent him from considering a future like that of Vito, who also began promoting more alternative projects and today has an old-fashioned gallery with two locations, one in New York and the other in the Swiss ski resort of St. Moritz. "He is already a blue chip. What I want to do for the moment is to bring my international experience to the San Sebastian scene, where there are not many young people with new projects."Indeed, going up to Villa Magdalena is an experience.

...and an artistic tour of San Sebastian.

Let's add some interesting extras to this trip. To begin with, the truth is that there are some other young artistic initiatives in the city. Like the Cibrián gallery, opened by Gregorio Cibrián and Martin Lahitete in front of La Concha beach, but which in September will move to larger premises in the Gros district. Before that, in July, their first ARCO awaits them: they will participate in the Opening section with a project by two artists, Esther Gatón and José Ramón Amondarain.

Amondarain from Guipuzcoa is also the protagonist of a fantastic retrospective in the Kubo Kutxa hall, located in the Kursaal palace designed by architect Rafael Moneo, which has become one of the best encounters of this trip to San Sebastian. The painter and sculptor contemplates the art world from a vitriolic vision, including the great names of the twentieth century but also, more veiled, some of his fellow generation. Nor does he hesitate to apply the same irony to himself, questioning the very concept of retrospective. Bravo.

The new exhibition presented by Tabakalera is not to be missed either: based on the figure of composer Mikel Laboa, it reflects on language, folklore and power thanks to the work of local and international artists like Txomin Badiola, Itizar Okariz or Lawrence Abu Handam. The San Telmo Museum, for its part, dedicates to Hondalea an informative room in which Cristina Iglesias exhibits preparatory pieces of the installation and a video with images of the nature that has inspired her and music by her brother Alberto Iglesias. If there is still time left, visiting Sert's canvases in the museum's church is something that should never be missed. Finally, although more modest, the room of the Basque Institute of Architecture, with an exhibition on the pioneering designer and architect Eileen Gray, is another recommended stop on this itinerary.


The encounter between Chillida and Tàpies, the abyss of Cristina Iglesias and Cy Schnabel’s villa: a trip with art to San Sebastián in three stops and a few extras

Ianko López, Vanity Fair, June 13, 2021


bottom of page