One of the towering figures–both literally and figuratively–of the Basque cultural world, Nestor Basterretxea, was born in Bermeo, Bizkaia, on May 6, 1924. Although renowned for his work in sculpture, alongside the two Basque giants of the art form, Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003) and Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002), Basterretxea distinguished himself in the Basque cultural arena for his wide and varied work in a number of different fields from painting and design to film making, as well as carving out a major commercial name for himself as an entrepreneur, and with his death at age 90 in 2014 he left a major legacy for Basque culture as a whole.
Although born in Bermeo, he was forced to flee the Basque Country with his family during the Spanish Civil War. Finding refuge initially in France, the outbreak of World War II once more forced the family to flee, this time to Argentina. As a young man in Argentina, alongside his studies in industrial design he also took an interest in painting and worked initially in the advertising industry, drawing up designs for publicity campaigns as well as exhibiting some of his own paintings as well.
In 1951 he married Basque-Argentinian Maria Isabel Irurzun, and the couple went to live initially in Madrid. He became involved in the European cultural avant-garde of the 1950s, a member of the Equipo 57 (Team 57) experimental painters’ group, and eventually settled in Gipuzkoa in 1958. Thereafter, without giving up painting, he also began to study sculpture as he found in this a better means to express the concept of space.
In 1966, he was a founding member of the Gaur (Today) an avant-garde artistic group also including (among others) Oteiza, Chillida, Remigio Mendiburu (1931-1990), Jose Antonio Sistiaga (b. 1932), and Jose Luis Zumeta (b. 1939), which in its short but highly productive existence became a leading force for cultural change in the Basque Country, challenging entrenched ideas about art and aesthetics.
Poster for the film Ama Lur (1968).
At the same time, Basterretxea was also taking an interest in film as another significant means of artistic expression. Together with filmmaker Fernando Larruquert (b. 1934) he made the documentaries Operación H (Operation H, 1963), Pelotari (1964), and Alquézar (1965). The two of them also later made their key work: Ama Lur (Mother Earth, 1968); a documentary film intended to celebrate the strength and resilience of Basque culture that faced multiple hurdles in overcoming the predominant censorship of the time in Franco’s dictatorship in Spain; and, incredibly, the first feature length film production produced and shot in the Basque Country since the Spanish Civil War.
The iconic “Gurpilla” (Wheel) chair designed by Basterretxea in the 1960s.
Besides this artistic work in the fields of painting, sculpture, and film making, somewhat remarkably Basterretxea also found the time to create a business empire, designing tables, offices, chairs, couches, lamps, chimneys, bar furniture, and even a chess set for his company BIOK. He had actually been designing furniture since the late 1950s, first for the H Muebles company owned by a great Basque patron of the arts, Juan Huarte. Seeing a gap in the market for contemporary designed and Basque-made furniture, Basterretxea later set up BIOK and its showcase store Espiral with a group of investors, introducing, for example, the bestselling “Gurpilla” chair, based on a curved wooden design, in the mid-1960s.
Thereafter, he returned once more to strictly artistic pursuits, presenting arguably his most famous work, the Serie Cosmogonica Vasca (Basque Cosmogonic Series) in 1973. This was made up of 19 works, made in wood, showcasing Basque Mythology and included individual pieces like the goddess-like figure of Mari and Akelarre (Witches’ Coven). This collection is today housed in the Bilbao Fine arts Museum.
Olatua (The Wave) in the port of Bermeo, Bizkaia. Photo by Telle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
After a brief spell as an art adviser to the newly implemented Basque government in the early 1980s, he continued to produce emblematic sculptures throughout that decade and into the 1990s and 2000s: these included the Bakearen Usoa (Dove of Peace) in Donostia; Solitude, the National Monument to the Basque Sheepherder in Reno; the monument to the Basque saint, Francis Xavier, in Tokyo; Goldea (The Plow) in Tolosa, Gipuzkoa; and the monument to the memory of the Basque sailors who died in the Battle of Matxitxako (near his home town of Bermeo) against Franco’s forces in March 1937.
Monument to the fallen Basque sailors at the Battle of Matxitxako. Photo by Telle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
He won numerous prizes and awards throughout his long life and will be remembered fondly here at UNR, where his Orreaga held pride of place in the old Getchell Library before being rehoused in the new Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, as reported in an earlier post here.
Basterretxea’s work is discussed in both Basque Culture: Anthropological Perspectives by William Douglass and Joseba Zulaika (available free to download here) and Beyond Guernica and the Guggenheim: Art and Politics from a Comparative Perspective, edited by Zoe Bray. Be sure to check out, too, a couple of other publications by the Etxepare Basque Institute that talk about the influence of Basterretxea in different fields: Architecture and Design by Peio Aguirre (free to download here) and Basque Cinema by Joxean Fernández (available free to download here).