Xavier Corbero: Spain’s Best Living Sculptor, Architect and Dreamer

Story by Viki Psihoyos. Photos by Louie Psihoyos

Xavier Corbero, considered by many to be Spain’s premier living sculptor, is finally settling into his dream home, a sprawling labyrinth of buildings seamlessly blending 17th with 21st century elements. After 40 years of design and creation, the compound has itself become a habitable sculpture, reflecting the artistsí vision. Located in the town of Esplugues de Llobregat, so named for the twisting maze of manmade caves it rests upon, some dating to Roman times, Corbero’s walled suite of structures wind down a quiet lane in a suburb of the revitalized Barcelona. Decades ago, Corbero managed to rescue this tumble of ancient masia from a planned highway off-ramp.

Occupying one of those doomed buildings, Corbero, at the time a starving artist, began a crusade to buy and preserve much of the town. His original vision of the property has since expanded to include a retreat for artists, studio spaces, workshops, a foundry, dozens of surreal chambers for residents and guests, sprawling galleries, living rooms, a myriad of hobbit nooks all connected by serpentine stairways filling over 10,000 square meters. Indeed, even after spending a week within Corberoís domain, a visitor can discover previously overlooked wings. And more than one foreign guest has found it easier to locate their host within the enclave by placing an international call. “There are some buildings I haven’t seen in over a year,” confides the gracious yet elusive host. Yet despite the amplitude, the effect is not overwhelming.

“The space is big, but it is only big mentally, because the space isn’t more than any lobby in Chicago,” says Corbero. “What is good is the scale, if you get the scale right, space stops being space to become mind. And this happens in a sculpture and it happens in architecture.”

First he occupied just one of eight existing houses, yet with time the project evolved. “I saw they were going to make a mess of the street, so I bought it, he says. Although building was gradual and deliberate, he was still shocked one day to find himself paying for hundreds of arched windows. “And it’s like life itself, one day you wake up and shave and look in the mirror and you are 70 and your hair is gone or very white!”

The early years were lean and daring. He tiled his kitchen with color samples, creating a minimalist, random effect. “I got the tiles by being poor. I went to the factory next door and said, I want the cheapest tiles you have, tiles that are not in service anymore or out of order or broken.” He was shown two piles of 120 year-old useless tiles and paid one peseta each. “I recently saw one in the flea market here and they asked me for 5000 pesetas (70 Euros)!”

Back in 1959, he settled into the remote Esplugues, confounding his urban comrades. “I remember a gallery in Barcelona saying, “you’re crazy, it’s so far.” “ Although only 11 kilometers from The Ramblas, heart of the bustling metropolis that lures the world to view Gaudi and modernism, Corbero’s encampment would be a world away. “In Spanish terms, it was very far from Barcelona, back then there were no cars or taxis, but in American terms, not so far. In Europe, you can travel the distance from Manhattan to Brooklyn and you could have two presidents and six kingdoms.

The haven sheltered behind high stone walls also offers a refuge for artists seeking to work and live within its fairy tale bubble of boundless possibilities. “I try to do for them what I would have liked to be able to do when I was in their situation,” says Corbero. Absent are mundane pressures like paying rent and answering phones. Given a room and studio space, painters and sculptors have stayed six months or six years to explore their creative capabilities.

“It was great, I just had to get up and paint everyday,” says Steve Hormsher, an American landscape painter who works in oils. “It was what everyone there was doing.” During his six-month retreat at Fundacion Xavier Corbero, Hormsher rarely saw his spirited host. Corbero is a silent patron.

“I stay very low, as low as possible,” he says. “Because they are here to find themselves, not me.” Not only is the lord of the land busy with a multitude of his own projects, he rejects artspeak. “I hate artists talking to artists. You have nothing to explain to each other.” So what transpired during Corbero’s years of consorting with noted visionaries? “I didn’t see Man Ray very much but when we had dinner, we had dinner. We spoke about women or chairs or finances or who is going to pay for the dinner, but not about art.”

And Salvador Dali bought much of Corberoís early work without revealing himself. “Dali was my first patron,” says Corbero. “But I didn’t know it until many years later. Somebody had called on the phone and said Hello, this is Dalií and I thought it was a friend of mine pulling my leg so I said Yes, and I am the bishop’ and hung up.” And that was it. Many years later I had an exhibition in New York and Dali came every day. And I said to him, “Why do you come every day,” and he said, “because I find your work very interesting. The only problem is that you are not very polite.” “Why am I not polite?” I said “Because I bought every thing at your exhibition with Arturo Lopez (a patron of Daliís who lived in Paris and was very very rich.)”

Corbero, whose elegant manner evokes an era of graciousness, was born on the eve of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona. Having survived smallpox and the war, he grew up exposed to art and the potent process of apprenticeship from his father and grandfather, who founded what is now The Massana School of Art in Barcelona. “It was a school for working apprentices who polished themselves with school, which is how people should do it. You learn the craft working and how to speak and draw and how to think geometrically. But today there are no masters so there is not anything worth apprenticing, and that’s why most schools are like factories with diplomas.”

The war years were culturally rich at the Corbero home. “Even with the war, people were coming to the house, sculptors and poets and musicians or something.” It was the post war era that the young artist found grim. “After the war, it was very boring, there was no food, no books, no films, no nothing. I left Barcelona when I was 19 and went to Sweden because I thought Sweden was a very modern country and it was socialist and it was fantastic.” Not surprisingly, there ware other reasons. “Also, there were some models that had come to Barcelona and they were the 20 most beautiful legs in Europe.”

“I met the legs in Sweden and they were married and all living in horrible very dark places because in the North, it is very dark. And they were living in this very small country. Everyone was ready to die, to work, to be ill. Not ready to laugh or to have fun. I had heard that socialism was something very interesting and that everybody should be the same and everybody should be happy. But they had the biggest suicide rate in Europe.”

Corbero went on to London to study and eventually established a fervent following. His powerful pieces, the result of a skilled hand and refined eye are now in collections public and private from Milwaukee to Madrid. “I make sculptures to make fun, or to be in front of a school, or sculpture that has to be in front of the parliament, or a sculpture of a lobby in Chicago and if the lobby is of lawyers it is different than that of doctors or a hospital, And I try to be very respectful to those commitments.”

One thing that makes me happy is that some of my sculptures are liked by everybody. And when I say everybody I mean people that are not exactly in the arts, or they are not intellectuals, or not art critics. And me, even if Bob Hughes (notorious art critic) doesnít agree, I think a sculpture, is something theological or liturgical, oriented to religious feeling, but in a very open manner. In other words it is obvious that nature itself is something that is bigger than a little human bastard. And that this feeling is why you become a sailor, or I became an artisan, in my case, because I know that there is something in nature that overwhelms me more than myself, more than humanity. And I think that sculpture from the very beginning of time has always been something to remind you of that.

“Sculpture has lots to do with tragedy, like Shakespeare or the Bible or like those things that are bigger than stories to become something to do with nature and humanity moving in that nature. And this probably has something to do with god, with the whole, with very big ideas, yes.”

“When you are young you don’t have the time to know how to do what you want to do. And then there are the details of money, knowledge etc. These are details, the problem is time. By the time you have used your time, you have used your time and there is not enough time and people begin to do their best work when there is no more time. Now I am making the sculptures I wish I could do when I was 20. By the time you can do the sculptures that you wanted to do, you are almost dead. Because Life is a Mafia-Invention.”

Corbero has perhaps influenced Barcelona more than any artist since Gaudi. In preparation for the Olympics, Corbero coordinated bringing in numerous artists to create public art projects and many of his own massive works line major boulevards.

He was also called upon to create the Olympic medals in 1998. “Giving medals started with the modern Olympic Games. No one knows what the ancient Greeks gave . they probably got flowers.” With the commission, the whole ritualistic token was reexamined. “In Rome they made the medal and put some non-existing coliseum on the back of the medal then they produced a lady sitting down with a torch, a goddess of sports which doesn’t exist all.” Corbero convinced the committee to eliminate the irrelevant structure but the lady had to stay. “I told the Olympic Committee that this is a little bit Victorian-looking, because it really looked like Queen Victoria and I said perhaps we could make it more Greek and less Victorian, we could make her a little thinner and with a different hair style. I didnít want to put the lady on at all.” It is not coincidence that the new Olympic Goddess, clad in Hellenistic flowing robes, long hair parted on the side bears a striking resemblance to Corbero’s wife at the time. “She is much prettier than Queen Victoria” he says.

Then there was the issue of the metal. “There were lots of rules about how they should be made, one should be bronze, and one should be gold and one should be silver, gold plated but it was silver. I was amazed there was no gold in the gold medal! Gold plated! It was better to get second, at least it was made of real silver. They run their entire lives and they run for shit, to get a fake and the Olympics themselves make so much money nowadays. It wasn’t even real gold. And finally I got them to produce the biscuit, that’s what we called it at the foundry, in gold, the small bit in the center is gold. It was the first time in the history of the games they used real gold.”

Crusader for artists and athletes alike, Corbero’s grand space is also an act of graciousness. Along with dramatically lit examples of his skin-smooth marble sculptures, one finds playfully scattered tableaus arranged in lit nooks, lining shelves, perched on a beam. Stacked vintage luggage sits in a corner, an elegant cane draped alongside. The man collects things. Series of mathematically aligned arches frame compelling rooms beyond. “What I tried to do here is make something that is not boring, so that if somebody comes to stay, or to visit or to whatever, think of what they would do if he was here more often.” The visitor can’t help but feel touched by the generosity of vision.

“You must leave things open so the person enjoys or looks,” says Corbero. “I feel that when people look at a piece of art they become artists, they see what they see not what there is. What there is helps them to see something else and they feel better because they see something they were not seeing before seeing that. That’s what I like to do. And that’s why I play a little bit of a trick, so there is a Chinese bed next to a sculpture, next to a football from Nicaragua.”

Like Corbero’s feats of juxtaposition, his totemic sculptural creations in basalt and marble also touch the viewer. “There is a friend of mine called Russell Page who was a fantastic landscape gardener, said that the garden was a song of praise, an act of faith and the embodiment of hope. And sculpture is very much the same.”

As the ultimate gesture, the building, like Dali’s Teatro Museo, becomes the ideal showcase for Corbero’s work, vision and spirit.