JOSEP MARIA SUBIRACHS SITJAR was born on March 11, 1927 in Barcelona. From the age of nine to the age of twelve he experienced the tragic events of the Spanish Civil War, the overthrow of the Republican government in 1939 and the beginning of the Franco regime.
Subirachs retouching one of his works.
Photograph by Joan Iriarte
Born into a working class family in the Barcelona district of Poblenou, the precarious economic situation suffered during the post-war period forced him to renounce studying architecture and he began working at the workshop of a gilder and amateur sculptor when he was just fourteen years old. By then, he was already modeling clay figures which he used to bring to the furnace at a local roof tile factory. From 1942 to 1947 he worked as an apprentice under the sculptor Enric Monjo at his workshop, acquiring technical skills. But the person who taught him most profoundly was Enric Casanovas, with whom he worked for a brief period because, unfortunately, the 'Noucentista' died in January 1948, just a fews months after Subirachs entered his workshop as a collaborator.The influence of Casanovas is apparent in the young sculptor's early works, although the stylization of the figures exhibited at his first individual exhibit held in Barcelona in 1948 were already showing signs of what would later become his expressionist phase.
The expressionist aspect of Subirachs' works is more formal than conceptual and can be found, above all, in the typically distorted angular bodies and in the treatment of textures, when he incorporates grattage, refraining from leaving surfaces smooth, making them rough, jagged, coarse, in order to accentuate the expressive capacity of the material.
In 1950 Subirachs founded, alongside the sculptors Francesc Torres Monsó and Martí Sabé and the painters Esther Boix, Ricard Creus and Joaquim Datzira, the "Postectura" group, which presented itself with an exhibition and a manifest at the Galeries Laietanes in Barcelona. The following year the Circle Maillol of the French Institute of Barcelona awarded him a scholarship to extend his studies in Paris, where he came into contact with the latest European avant-gardes and took great pleasure in discovering the work of the British sculptor Henry Moore. On the other hand, his participation in the II Saló d'Octubre, held in Barcelona in 1949, brought him public acclaim and until 1957 he participated steadily in this showroom. It was precisely at the Saló d'Octubre where the Belgian painter Luc Peire discovered the work of Subirachs and took an interest in it, inviting him to move to Belgium. Accepting the offer, the Catalan sculptor moved to Belgium, where he lived and worked between 1954 and 1956, holding both individual and collective exhibitions in Brussels, Bruges, Knokke and at the Antwerp Biennial Exhibition in 1955. It was then, when Subirachs saw that he could make a living out of his work, that he became a professional sculptor.
From expressionism he moved into abstraction, in a process towards a new personal style which, towards the end of the 1950s, led him to take an interest in iron. Around this time he worked with other materials such as stone, bronze, copper, cement, fibrocement, clay or wood, striving to bring out of each material the plastic qualities of their varied structures, colours and textures.
Between 1957 and 1960 Subirachs began his significant contribution to the field of public sculpture. In the year 1957 Form 212
- his first abstract work in a public thoroughfare - was unveiled in Barcelona. The following year his relief The Tables of the Law
, created in conjunction with the ceramic artist Antoni Cumella, was incorporated into the façade of the University of Barcelona's Law School building; and in 1960 he caused great controversy with the work Evocation of the Sea
located in the Barceloneta. During this period he worked on the Virgen del Camino sanctuary, which was inaugurated in León in 1961, and for which he created the thirteen bronze monumental figures in the façade, four bronze doors and several other elements housed within the temple. This group of monuments, the culmination of the artist's expressionist stage, has been considered a milestone in the artistic renovation of Spain in the 20th century.
In the midst of his experimentation with abstract language, Subirachs begins the stage that J. Corredor-Matheos classifies as the 'penetrations and tensions' stage, with stamps and shims fit together and straps and iron bolts as the most commonly used plastic elements. Towards 1965, he sets his sights on endowing his work with more communicative elements and, in order to achieve this, he opts for a new figuration. However, this is not a representative figuration, but rather a new meaningful figuration characterized by the introduction of plastic resources such as continuous profiles, moulds and turned shapes, as well as classical elements such as niches, capitals, caryatids and balustrades. And in the early seventies, he also incorporates realistic pictorial elements. This is also the stage in which he consolidates the analysis of dualities and oppositions: horizontal and vertical, positive and negative, male and female, space and time, life and death, whilst also incorporating a series of symbolic elements such as the Tower of Babel, the labyrinth, the phallic obelisk, the pubis tree, the stairway of intellection, Moebius' strip and other elements which comprise the iconographic universe that singularly defines his work.
In 1986 Subirachs was commissioned to undertake a project of extraordinary proportions: the groups of sculptures on the Passion Façade of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona; the emblematic work by the brilliant architect Antoni Gaudí. Subirachs dedicated almost twenty years (1987 to 2005) to this group of works, which can be considered the synthesis and culmination of his career as a sculptor, comprising more than one hundred figures sculpted in stone and four bronze doors. To represent the last two days in the life of Jesus Christ, he revisited his figurative expressionism stage in search of the dramatic effect the theme required. However, when he sculpts with greater freedom, in the privacy of his workshop or outside of the Sagrada Família project, he manages to capture great command of technique, his great formal scrupulosity and his cultural baggage with creations of a profoundly metaphysical conception.
A multi-faceted artist, Subirachs has not only expressed himself through tridimensional creation, but also by means of other techniques such as painting, drawing, graphic art (etching, drypoint, serigraphy and lithography), tapestry, book illustration, medal minting and designing jewellery and other utilities.
In addition to a significant international projection, with numerous exhibitions held and works on show in cities and collections all over the world, mention should be given to the presence of his work all over Catalonia, with several monumental works.
During the last years of his life, Josep Maria Subirachs could not continue to be active in the world of art due to his neurodegenerative disease. He passed away in Barcelona on 7th April 2014 at the age of 87.