Biographical and artistic points of reference
Javier Ciga Echandi,
although born in Pamplona, had ties to Baztan through his mother and
wife who were both from this Navarre valley. In 1917, he married
Eulalia Aritzia, who was born in Elizondo. He would often paint
Baztan landscapes, working class figures and traditions.
The roots of Ciga’s work dig deep into both post-romanticism and realism art movements. The former draws on his abiding love for his native land and the people living there, a constant source of inspiration. The latter provides an outlet for his obsession with form and his desire to reach the perfection of reality while taking his artistic expression beyond academicism. Thanks to the technical precision of his well-honed craft, the artist succeeds in transcending his topic to produce a balanced and serene painting.
Staying in Paris provided an opportunity to steep himself in new styles and techniques: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Constructivism. Yet Ciga consciously remained true to his aesthetic ideal, his bond with realistic perfection and the high values of painting, whilst Europe witnessed a succession of avant-gardists taking art along unexpected, less beaten paths.
Ciga used a wide range of genres and techniques: portrait, ethnographic and landscape painting, academic nudes, still life, religious topics, historical, allegorical and symbolic themes, subjects inspired by Basque legends, etc. The techniques used are oil, gouache watercolour, pencil, charcoal and lithography.
Ciga’s painting is based on truth and reality, providing an opportunity to contemplate a world that no longer exists today. Thanks to his painting, the viewer can still discover this world as if through the eyes of a sociologist and ethnographer.
1.The formative years and his first works (1892 – 1908)
Ciga demonstrated great talent for drawing even as a child. In 1892, he began his apprenticeship at the School of Applied Arts in Pamplona. He was a pupil of renowned masters Carceller, Zubiri and García Asarta. In 1908, 1909 and 1910, he received first prize in the competition for the Pamplona festival poster. He completely renewed the fiesta poster style by creating a pictorial aspect. It was at this time that he also took his first steps in portrait painting, a genre in which he acquired great skill and mastery and which later became one of the cornerstones of his career as an artist.
2. The Madrid years (1909 – 1911) and travelling around Europe
Ciga’s career took a serendipitous turn thanks to patronage from the Urdampilleta family, American relatives originally from Elizondo. They helped him set up in Madrid and then later in Paris. The year 1911-1912 saw him enter the San Fernando Academy in Madrid where he studied under Moreno Carbonero and Garnelo. He obtained the title of professor and was not only awarded five 1st class diplomas and two 2nd class diplomas, but he also received the gold medal. He was a keen visitor to the Prado Museum and learnt much from observing the great Baroque masters, developing particular admiration for the works of Velasquez and Goya. Most memorable from this time spent in Madrid are Ciga’s drawings for the Academy and his working class figures. In 1911, along with his master and friend Garnelo, he embarked on a trip around Europe that proved to be very profitable with regards to his artistic apprenticeship.
3. The Paris years (1912 – 1914), further training and growing artistic maturity
Ciga’s stay in Paris, from 1912 to 1914, was the most prolific period in terms of the number and quality of works produced. The artist integrated Impressionist influences into his technique with isolated brush strokes and Post-impressionist ones with Cezanne-like geometry applied to the architecture of farms and still lifes that he painted. The best example of this can be seen in his small panels depicting Parisian landscapes in which he captured the atmospheric variations and nebulous effect of Paris’ subdued and ethereal light.
In addition to his visits to the Louvre, the mecca of classical and realist works, Ciga attended, as an external student, lessons given by the most renowned academies at that time: the Grande Chaumière, Colarossi and, above all, the Julian Academy where he studied under the very famous Jean-Paul Laurens, the last great master of French academic art applied to historical and religious paintings.
The most significant events from this period were Ciga becoming a member of the Grand Salon de Paris and the exhibition at the official Salon in spring 1914 of his painting Le Marché d’Elizondo. That same year, Ciga produced five large canvas paintings in a narrative and decorative style for the Basque Centre in Pamplona, drawing inspiration from the celebrated work Amaya or the Basques of the 18th century by essayist and novelist Francisco Navarro Villoslada (Viana, Navarre, 1818 – 1895). In these paintings, he combined historical themes with an everyday, costumbrismo interpretation in order to exalt Basque ethnicity in line with aesthetic and ideological premises of the time. There are two examples in this exhibition: Au pied de l’arbre de Jauregizar and Proclamation du premier roi de Navarre.
His Parisian career came to a halt with the outbreak of the First World War and the financial ruin of his patron relatives. He returned to Pamplona where he commenced a new and very prolific stage in his career.
4. Full maturity (1915 – 1936)
The period 1915 to 1936 was a significant and prolific time for Ciga during which he produced such works as L’Attelage, Txakoli and Sagardian (the apple pickers). His major works, Le Marché d’Elizondo and Viatique au Baztan, bear remarkable witness to this epoch with their display of the Basque people’s customs and traditions that were still so very conspicuous in Baztan at that time. From an artistic point of view, these paintings represent the peak of his career as much for the mastery displayed in his drawing as for the skill in his composition, perspective and treatment of light and colour. In drawing inspiration from Velasquez, he introduced real space and a genuine atmosphere to his work.
In 1915 and 1917, Ciga participated in National Exhibitions in Madrid and the most distinguished artistic events at that time. Among the different genres tackled by Ciga in this period, special emphasis should be given to the landscapes, religious paintings and, above all, the portraits that he painted, a genre which he raised to the highest level. Indeed, his craftsmanship was such that he became the official portraitist of the bourgeoisie in Navarre. In line with romantic art tradition, Ciga painted his portraits against a neutral, but nuanced, background. He captured the physical and psychological aspect of the model by emphasizing light on the face and hands in the aim of conveying dignity to the portrait.
5. Political involvement, the Civil War (1936 – 1939)
Ciga’s involvement in politics was an important aspect of his life. Loyal to his Basque nationalistic ideals, he defended both the Basque language and culture, actively participating in nearly every organisation that promoted them. He represented the Basque Nationalist Party as municipal councillor in Pamplona from 1920 to 1923, in 1930 and 1931. In 1938, at the age of 61, he was arrested, tortured and thrown into prison for 18 months. This was such a painful experience for a man of his age that he remained affected by it for the rest of his life. He endeavoured to dull the cruelty endured during this imprisonment by depicting scenes of prison life. He went before the judges on two occasions before being freed on 23rd September 1939 and, in the second judgement, was ordered to pay a fine of 2,500 pesetas, which he settled through funds raised by painting the Calvary for the Aesculapian Fathers, a painting that came to be known under the name of Christ de la Sanction.
6. The latter years (1939 – 1960)
Alongside his activity as a painter, Ciga played a major role in the education of young artists. Right until the end of his life he taught at the Academy of Pamplona, which today bears his name, and which reminded him of the Parisian academies where he studied. The free methods he established required firstly an absolute mastery of drawing before learning proficiency in colour, light, perspective, composition, etc. In fact, a great majority of Ciga’s disciples went on to become renowned painters of the following generation.
Imprisonment, humiliation, the long dictatorship of Franco, old age and health problems (hemiplegia and eyesight disorders) all had an impact on our artist and inevitably led to a decline in his creativity. Ciga took refuge in his world and reproduced the aesthetic ideal that he himself had created. His paintings retained an immense dignity although some are of varying quality. Ultimately, in terms of exhibitions and tributes paid in the 50s, the decade only made a minor contribution to his opus.
But for forty years he continued to teach at his “Ciga” Academy, which retained its excellent reputation, and trained the next generation of painters.
This sincere and honourable man, a reference for painting in Navarre during the first half of the 20th century, master of masters, an accessible intellectual and idealist committed to his beliefs, died in his home town of Pamplona on 13th January 1960.
Message from Ciga’s paintings
With its natural simplicity that combines two ways of thinking and being, Ciga’s work is the best representative of Basque Navarre painting and his works have made the largest contribution to its renown.
His painting is honest, going beyond simple appearances to focus on the deepest inwardness both of Man and his material existence in order to seek and shape the spirit and truth.
Ciga’s work possesses an ontological dimension. The being shapes and permeates through his work giving it an existential nature that leads us to describe his painting as transcendent or metaphysical realism, embracing the literal sense of the word. Above all, Javier Ciga is a painter of the essential and the authentic, an interpreter of the soul and his contemporary society.
Pello FERNÁNDEZ OYAREGUI
Chair of Secondary Education, Professor of History of Art and Secretary of the Ciga Foundation, author of the biography Javier Ciga pintor de esencias y verdades