Manuel León Moreno

How did you get started in the world of art?

My first memory related to painting is a Masaccio soldier that my uncle Rafael made me paint. At the time I used to painted religious images for my parents’ friends and I made a little money from it. A teacher at school saw me do these assignments in our painting class and encouraged me to study Fine Arts. I was a teenager, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study and that impetus led me to enrol in the school of Fine Arts in Seville.

So your training was purely academic?

Initially I was entirely self-taught. My parents didn’t want me to study Fine Arts because they knew that the art world wasn’t easy. When I had to take the entry exams to art school they didn’t support me, but I took them anyway because I was very determined. I often think that luck in life is all about having to do something that excites you; a goal that motivates you without being self-imposed.

"My first memory related to painting is a Masaccio soldier that my uncle Rafael made me paint. At the time I used to painted religious images for my parents’ friends and I made a little money from it."

Is art a way of life for you or has it become a profession?

Some days I’d define it as one thing, and other days as the other. I feel like a painting civil servant, because I get up at 7am every day to paint. My wife, the artist Celia Macías, describes this very well when she says that if I don’t paint for three days I become neurotic and very annoying. I end up painting on holiday because it sometimes becomes a compulsive obsession. When you enjoy what you do and you’re faced with something new, there’s a sado-masochistic, self-harming aspect to it, because things don’t turn out well or you’re not happy with the result. That gets addictive: you need to take yourself to that limit in order to go on.

When did you make the leap into galleries?

I wasn’t a very good art student but I got good grades. In my third year I signed with a gallery in Seville and I had my first solo exhibition in Sancti Petri (Cadiz). At that time I became a professional painter but I didn’t earn any money. Then I had exhibitions in some other galleries before I got a big break in Malaga with Javier Marín. It was an exhibition curated by Fernando Francés that worked very well and almost everything was sold. After that, Fernando Francés began working with the prestigious Javier López gallery and they signed me. That was like opening the door to Wonderland, because the gallery has a very strong clientele and exposure at international art fairs.

 

manuel león moreno

"I understand the codes; I’ve been part of that culture and I’ve actively experienced Holy Week, from my heart."

Your work shows a clear inspiration in Andalusian tradition – how has this very specific iconography been received by the international public?

The Asian public is strongly attached to tradition; people are moved by it. They like flamenco as much as Argentinian tango, polka… they like deep-rooted things. If you create a body of work about your life and tradition, that work is universal. I think there’s not much difference between human beings.

What is it about that tradition that inspires you?

I understand the codes; I’ve been part of that culture and I’ve actively experienced Holy Week, from my heart. I know when it’s time to keep quiet during a procession, and when it’s time to laugh. Even though I practise a kind of iconoclasm – although that’s not what it is, really – I like those codes because they’re mine; I don’t get lost because I know the map. I feel comfortable.

manuel león moreno

Your paintings combine classical elements with very contemporary characters – how did this blend of classical references and contemporary culture emerge in your work?

That’s personal depending on each artist’s work. When I started painting Nazarenes, I reviewed the European pictorial tradition of characters wearing hoods. I realized that by covering the characters’ faces, a psychological mirror is created, as you don’t see the face, you see yourself reflected in that character, in this case a Nazarene. There is also an element of voyeurism in this concept. For me the great voyeur of Holy Week is the Nazarene, not the public. It is the Nazarene who observes the faces of others. That interested me a lot. At the time I was taking part in a project with the Mopa Contemporary Dance Company and I asked the tailoring team to find a fabric that would stick to the face, so that the hood became the face itself, with an expression. The only thing left to bring to the painting were the mouths, so I began to sketch mouths. The Nazarenes began to speak.

From then on, I felt an organic need to remove the hood. This happened in my solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Centre in Malaga, when I started to worry that people outside Seville would know me as the painter of pointed hats, in reference to the hoods of the Nazarenes.

How did the figure of the Nazarene evolve?

I took the hood off and started painting myself, but I realised that didn’t work. So I decided to work with the actor Fran Torres, who models for my paintings. I moved away from references found in historical paintings and started creating my own narratives. This worked on an aesthetic level and also in terms of sales. I realised that a contemporary character dressed as a Nazarene becomes a costume, and may even look like a priest. Aesthetically it’s very appealing, but it didn’t work for me, so I started painting the same character dressed in a two-piece suit, using repetition. On the recommendation of the art critic Octavio Zaya, I read “The Logic of Sense” by the French philosopher Deleuze, where he talks about repetition. I played with the concept of expressing the fact that the character who is suffering in real life dresses as a Nazarene because he is doing penance; while the person who controls his reality is dressed in a suit, because suits represent power. Then this developed into characters wearing sports clothes and tracksuits, and those are the people who enjoy reality without thinking about it. In that repetition we find the person who controls, the person who suffers and the person who enjoys life. Ultimately, they are all the same person.

"There has always been a direct link between my painting and theatre. In my work there are characters inspired by Italian commedia dell’arte."

So in your compositions you create a scene based on a story?

It’s a story that is created with the passing of time; it’s not something I think about in advance but rather an account that is continually developing – it’s alive. It’s like flamenco: at the very moment it’s pure, it dies. There’s a transfer of stories; it’s not conceived as a linear narrative.

Where does that staging come from, which is so present in your work?

It’s an obsession I have with the Spanish Golden Age: Calderón de la Barca, Velázquez, etc. I’m interested in how human beings study self-representation, from classical painting to modernity.

People talk about a theatricality in your work.

No doubt, even in the suits my characters wear. There has always been a direct link between my painting and theatre. In my work there are characters inspired by Italian commedia dell’arte.

Recently plants have become a key aspect of your paintings, particularly the ceriman plant, also known as Adam’s rib. What is the significance of this plant in your iconography?

I didn’t draw Adam’s ribs at university – it’s a plant that has been growing in the patio of my family’s home ever since I can remember, and I associate it with grandmothers’ patios from the past. One day I used it as a resource in a piece of art, and I started researching it and that led me to do my “Santa Clara” exhibition, which was a homage to plants in which the Adam’s rib plant plays a vital role. There’s one key painting in that process: “Tócame con el ojo, he visto color” (“Touch me with your eye, I’ve seen colour”), which is a reflection on the Adam’s rib plant, painting and the loss of imagery. For me, in Adam’s ribs masculinity and femininity merge in a neutral gender.

You have continually surrounded yourself with artists from other disciplines, collaborating with the flamenco singer Rocío Márquez, with music bands such as Pony Bravo and you’ve also talked about your collaborations with theatre companies. How does this influence your own work?

At the moment I’m taking part in a project related to urban fashion. This is making me research and get into different scenes, which are also reflected in my work. It’s a natural stage of creation.

Is it a way of seeking inspiration?

Inspiration is living, the resources that life gives you. It’s a question of not stopping work and not setting limits. If I don’t work I lose the flow.

Which projects bring you the most satisfaction?

My children, my two sons. Seeing a little person grow and learn is a huge reality check, and I doubt that painting could give me that.

And on an artistic level?

At the moment, learning from plants is what motivates me the most. The more I know about them, the more they fascinate me. To me, painting a plant seems to be part of the logic of art and culture; every plant is unique – it’s a portrait.

We’ve seen how you use media other than painting – when do you make use of these other media, such as sculpture?

Whenever I feel the need. Being a painter is a cheap way to express creativity, in the sense that you only need your hands and little else. I’ve even painted with coffee grounds and fruit. On the other hand, sculpture is a process; it’s harder work. When I started working with galleries, I had the chance to express myself in other languages, such as sculpture. I felt the need, but I wasn’t able to do it. Now, I’m even exploring other media and materials, such as jewellery. I’m creating sculpture-earrings.

What are you working on at the moment?

On my exhibition “Hacia una nueva botánica” (“Towards a new botany”), on the possible relationships between ecosystems, ecology, feminism, architecture, design, crafts, psychology… A bit of everything, even politics, because plants are very political – they have a very cool matriarchal thing going on. I’m also interested in plant economy, which is all about survival without harming others.

If you took us for a walk through Seville, where would you take us?

There are two must-see places. The Triana market, which is an ecosystem that functions alone in a very organic way. And the other is the Alcázar, which I think is worth visiting. The same decorators who created the Alhambra also made the Alcázar, and it’s incredible. It has a water cooling system that is completely modern, like air conditioning.

"Inspiration is living, the resources that life gives you. If I don’t work I lose the flow."

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