Carmelo Ortiz de Elguea as a main figure of the Basque School and founder of Orain group

  • Born in  Aretxabaleta (Álava) 20th of December  1944 

The art of Carmelo Otriz de Elguea represents a hegemonic and  unique field, although  never having been regarded as a revolutionary one. Some critics say that his works are closer to the baroque tendency than to contemporary art and yet at the same time remark that the  origin of Elguea style can be found in the Renaissance. His creative conception  is current but a strong anchor places him close to Spanish and Italian styles of the XV, XVI centuries.

Although it is true that he always follows his personal thoughts and artistic statement It is without doubt Elguea introduced some changes throughout his forty five artworks. For example, transformations of composition, which include A temporary color fascination  playing with different structures and textures.  As an artist he went through a specific evolution on his  way just to avoid predictable, mechanical, sterile repetitions. Everything that stimulated him to create, was transposed through his frame of mind, also  historical events, and political  changes  have a significant impact on his attitude. Elguea, as he claims,  is a self-taught painter, after two short stays in Madridwhere he was supposed to complete his training at Círculo de Bellas Artes.   As a young  – 17year old painter he became fascinated by and related to the associative environment of Basque artists. In 1966  he founded the Orain group, together with Joaquin Fraile and Juan Mieg, later on. the group gained new members like the photographer Alberto Schommer and the sculptor Jesus Echevarria. Apart from the Orain group, others had arisen in the Basque Country such as the Gipuzkoa group Gaur (Oteiza, Chillida, Zumeta…) , Emen in Bizkaia (Larrea, Herrero, Ramos Uranga…) Danok in  Navarra (Morrás, Askunze…).

We were the artists doing rough things, willing to raise the communities, finally to show reality through  art. I can say that our exhibitions were a ‘physical assault’ by the sheer novelty of what we had to offer.

But it was worthbetterwhile.   The bad thing was that it didn’t last for  long . The members, with their incoherent perspectives and different approaches , didn’t give continuation a chance. The Alava and Gipuzkoa groups lasted longer than the others.

The style  of the  Basque school always oscillated with expressionism, this manner is very typical, not only for Basque artists but for the whole of Spain.  A variety of different reasons led to this choice : of course with no hesitation we can say that the generation from 1930/40’s in their adolescent artwork pursued  some new formula, located far from realism so as to express themselves and their existence better in a new world after the war. Moreover this hunt for new tendencies gave the chance to place them in a new contemporary art world . There exists a manifesto that was founded in 1965 . Its postulations consist of what the critics called the ‘Basque School’ which stated the following :

We all already know who we are and this power which we posses as young Basque artists claimed the place we’re living in, the attention, the rights, which should be maintained in our country. We have the past, present and the future to know what  our expectations are, our needs, our goals, our means to conclude with the cultural and material prostration  that we suffer because of insulation between us and our country.

After such sharp direct claims some famous affairs took place during the exhibitions.  They claimed the truth, the situation of their country through their art. The group finished it’s activity, but afterwards, the members  started to gain  great success in continuing their individual careers both here and beyond the borders throughout the international art field. However, returning to the beginning; Carmelo Ortiz de Elguea started his adventure, an adventure that has become the main aim in his life, as many people do in primary school – playing with brushes and paints.

   I think that all of us posses a creative nature from the beginning, in this first term of our life, painting and modelling in clay is so natural as children. The level to the state of becoming an artist is only an evolutionary step along the  way. When this appears, is the moment that you start to appreciate  the effects of your actions. This is the difference.

Moreover as he claims, the most important thing in your conversion to artist, is the expression- not caring about the details nor anatomical truth, because these only annihilate the creative faculties.

As previously mentioned,  this artist discovered his art skills very suddenly at the age of 16, and he was drawn into the art venue in Vitoria,  then a couple of months later in Salone de Cultura de la Caja Municipal  his first public exhibition was held. In 1963 he received a  stipend from the Fundación Vidal y Fernando de Amárica  to continue his art studies. The training was situated in Madridat the Círculo de Bellas Artes  but, as the artist admits, he found that frequent visits to the PradoMuseum  more valuable! It would be hard to say that he was a totally self-taught painter in the pure sense.

I’m sure I was born to paint and I haven’t done anything different in my life. From that stand point I am completely self – taught. Nobody taught me to mix colors. Although I had a multitude of teachers. I was like a sponge receiving all the feelings of painting. The main fact about visiting the Prado museum is that it makes you a receiver and stops you being a self- taught person. You go to the viscera of the works of the masters like Uccello, Velazquez, Piero de la Francesca.. just to name some “pintorcillos” which impressed me the most.

During that time Elguea purchased the workshop of an another Basque artist Luis GarcíaOchoa.  He returned fromMadrid accompanied by his closest and lifelong friend Juan Mieg and they founded the Orain group.

Ranging from the first steps in the artistic field, the most inspiring motive he found was in the landscape; the essence of nature and its transformations. Therefore this visions aren’t the exact transpositions of the concrete places although it is possible to recognize the known reality of the forms from the surroundings  like hills, houses, trees and fields. This landscape evolves to be a universal one. Never working outside to reach the final stage. The act of painting seems to be a confrontation with the empty canvas, with your instantaneous emotions. Although thousands of square meters of canvas are behind him, Elguea still regards painting as an amazing adventure that never ends.  It’s like a path that you’re walking on but you never know where and what place  it will lead to.  According to his words:

I’m still in this adventure of discovery. I enjoy it when the picture surprises me and when there’s something that I find provoking. That makes me feel that I’m on the right track. I always begin with the white canvas which I then mark with hundreds of various lines, and choose one or seven to follow them. Removing items, I discover how far I can reach in this experiment. Mostly the work is driven by chance, suddenly something unexpected, a not so obvious line or patch appearing on the canvas.  Matching them together, to give them their own life. The artist is the person who has to discern what should be hood of course everything transposed by his or her aesthetic taste. The wealth of creativity is what is a great celebration. it’s inside me and in an appropriate moment it is evoked.   A strong emotion without control that amazes me all the time.

Three main aspects which define Elguea’s works: form, material and colour are the constructive bases for a universe of ideas and tension of compositions. Naturally, as mentioned the artist always  follows the structures, the range of textures that attracted him during the creation.  Meanwhile, during his adventure with an informal style, he attempts to use materials related rather in the manner of a collage . He chooses the primitive  way but not in pejorative sense, rather as a direct language to express the wildness and truth, avoiding use of unwanted details. He never works with preparetory sketches. Everything goes directly onto the canvas. This is the exact moment of inspiration- although he avoids this selection, when everything is transferred direct from the mind without  planning.  According to his claim, there’s no sense in copying the ready images from your head, the true one will be something that does not exist even in your imagination. His work engine is searching for  newly appearing forms, merging them, —nothing but the pure painting. Colour is introduced among the rough surfaces and the violent contrasts that  paradoxically create a fine harmony. This strong intensive chromatic, drawing that constructs the silhouettes impersonally defined by recognizable shapes.  As he claims: Nothing is abstractive. There’s always some concentration of color and form that is related with the thinking process, its  nature and truth hidden in the subconscious. His painting adventure started with figurative landscape held in a style of  lyrical naturalism  but after discovering intensive stimulus  like van Gogh’s art, he radically puts effort to focus on an expressive approach. He found van Gogh’s as a splendid, incredible revelation which from that moment he retains the fascination for his master. The artist liberates himself totally.  He begins to show domination of technique especially the game with colour and light. The patches non-transparent, the brilliant gamut of tonal variation, tensions in their own purity, harmonies of pairs of contrasting colours like violets and yellows pressed directly from the tubes or in layers overlapping on themselves. The light fulfills the role of a balancing element for the compositions that align deep valor differences between the figures and background. He introduces forms taken from the animal and floral world, he doesn’t determine them, he gives only light suggestions of their existence. He shapes them in a synthetic manner while all the attention is focused on the wild dangerous landscape. It seems to be a trap for a human or animal being.

One of his most recognizable  works is the last series : an interpretation of Guernica. It was ordered to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the tragic event. Of course it was hard to compete with Picasso’s vision. But it was not easy to avoid this.  Guernica has a great emotional depth, and is regarded as a masterpiece of the art world, broadened by the special symbolic sense . But Elguea took the challenge, undoubtedly it was not an easy  task , with his tendency to ‘baroquize’. Sometimes the leitmotif is not enough and what really gives a value is a manner of painting. If Picasso’s Guernica is so important it’s because that it a great picture. If it hadn’t have reached that it wouldn’t have such universal life. A bad picture wouldn’t have become a symbol.  He prepared eleven paintings for a Museo Euskal Herria de Gernika, exceptionally he worked with sketches caring about the details. But only in one he gave vent to imagination and worked according to his previous  manner. The whole work is inspired by bombing and a village devastated by fire and bombs. The exhibition lasts till the middle of June, then the artist is planning to present his Guernica through the whole of the Basque Country, and afterwards, wishes to exhibit including this series outside ofSpain.

The essay is based on books:

La pintura en Alava / José Antonio García Díez.,  Caja de Ahorros de Vitoria y Alava, 1990

Carmelo Ortiz de Elguea : pintura., Zarauzko Udala, 2009

and an interview published on site:


  1. Mary Carousso-Cohen · · Reply

    Hello, do you know if Carmelo Ortiz de Elguea is still alive? I have a piece of Art, that I am almost positive was paited by him, I wanted to send a picture of the painting to him for his confirmation for provenance. I love the work, I obtained it back in 1990 in NYC, and would love to know the history.

  2. I think yes, here you have the video from the exhibicion that was held in 2012

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