Although I have visited Spain dozens of times during the past 35 years and have often lived there for months at a time, Spain still remains a mystery to me. I have often wondered, Why is this so? One would think that if you speak Spanish reasonably well, have several close Spanish friends — who have also been your teachers — and have traveled throughout the country, then Spain would become familiar to you, no? like a friend. But it hasn’t. Resolutely, it resists familiarity. This resistance fascinates my imagination.
Why both resistance and fascination? I don’t know; I don’t understand either one. But Spain, that ancient, enigmatic peninsula, bordered between the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas and the Pyrenees mountains, conquered by the Romans, Christianized by Barbarian Goths, occupied by Muslims for nearly 800 years, Spain will tell you stories about itself — and about you, too. You have to open your eyes and ears and your heart and be patient and listen carefully.
And yet, in spite of all that, you still may not get answers.
In posts from the past two weeks, I’ve written about an enchanting house on the outskirts of Valencia. The generosity of friends, Toti Romero and her husband, Manolo Blasco, opened the doors to that house so I could make it my home during some early June visits years ago. While I lived there, I drew and painted, and became more aware of how un-modern and anachronistic the place was.
In this photo of the East side of the house you can see in the shapes of the windows and the arches above them the presence of Muslim architects and builders. What’s especially interesting is that, although the last of the Islamic rulers were expelled from Spain in 1492, this house was not constructed until the beginning of the 20th century. In other words, more than four hundred years after the end of Muslim rule, Islamic architecture was still inspiring Spanish architects.
On the inside, this watercolor sketch of a corner of the living room and a part of one of the bedrooms shows how the arches have been covered (in leather panels, no less) in order to diminish the force of the relentless Mediterranean heat.
The House in Paterna – Sketch – Watercolor – 9 x 12 inches
Architecturally speaking, large cities Spain are just as modern as those in any other country. In fact, you can find yourself in parts of Barcelona or Madrid and assume, from the buildings around you, that you were in London or Los Angeles. I suppose this provides comfort to the increasing numbers of tourists who become uneasy when the places they visit are too unlike the places they come from. So, much of Spain has succumed to the elimination of differences in favor of sameness, and is plagued, like everywhere else, with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks.
However, this quiet, lovely, temporary home was different: it was a relic of the past. The light sifting into the rooms attracted me immediately. Fortunately, drawing and painting are slow activities and give you time to think and reflect. (The question, “why in the world am I bothering to paint all this, anyway?” usually appears — and usually more than once.) During the weeks I worked on the canvas, it felt that the light revealed only hints of something, clues to something I couldn’t see. Only later, as I added the last touches, did I come to realize what had attracted me on a level deeper than that of the light: I had found a subject that embodied the strangeness and enigma of Spain. Or perhaps better said, I was trying to paint my own feeling of the mystery of a country I love but do not understand.