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The indomitable thinker – Jorge Oteiza

A short dissection on the life and work by one of the greatest minds of Spain in the 20th Century.

London, 26th October, 2020.

Thinker, poet, sculptor, creator, philosopher, linguist. Jorge Oteiza (Orio 1908 – San Sebastian 2003) displayed an array of talents during the span of his extended life. He was born in the comfort of a Basque medium class family that went broke in the late 20s resulting in his father and brother immigrating to Argentina. Oteiza became head of the family in his early twenties and was left alone to take care of his mother and 5 younger siblings. These struggles, and his inner fights would contribute to forge his strong temper, and difficult personality according to some, later on.

A few years later he would move to Madrid where he, for bureaucratic reasons, had to sign in to Medicine studies instead of pursuing his vocation in Architecture. He only coursed three years at the faculty before he abandoned the studies when he started producing sculpture works. In 1935, right before the beginning of the Civil War in Spain (1936-1939), he left the country arriving in South America with the intention of studying the Pre-Colombian art and sculpture. There he travelled extensively throughout the entire continent until 1948 when he returned to Spain. Upon his return, he found a totally different Basque country, oppressed under the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The vivid cultural and artistic life that the region had enjoyed during the years of the Republic had been eradicated. 

The Aranzazu Apostles and his disagreements with the Vatican

Short after his return to Spain, Oteiza won the artistic competition to create the sculptures that for the entrance of the Aranzazu Basilica designed by Oiza and Laorga. His arch-rival Eduardo Chillida would be in charge of making the doors.

This sculptural set is a controversial work of art from its inception. Oteiza’s political position was openly progressive and left wing and he decided to represent 14 apostles instead of twelve. When he was asked about this, he simply responded that he couldn’t fit any more figures in the space that he was given, and that if he could, he would’ve made more.


The apostle overpopulation, represented in an abstract and modern sculptural language, wasn’t appreciated among the ecclesial institutions lead by Pius XII in Rome who decided to halt the project leaving the sculptures abandoned, lying on the floor on the side of the road. It wasn’t until thirteen years later in 1968 when the project was allowed to move forward.

The language chosen by Oteiza to represent the Apostles made in solid stone, although abstract, modern and provocative, was still influenced by the figurativism of those Pre-Colombian sculptures that he had discovered during his spell around South America. One can also see the influence of the work of Henry Moore, whom he highly admired, and early traces of his concerns about the concept of void and the transcendental. He intentionally sculpted humanoid figures, emptied of their organs, representing a concave space in each of them instead.

Towards a mystical abstraction

The 1950s was a decade that Oteiza dedicated to reflect on the dimension of the transcendental and how to represent it through sculpture. For him nature was a source of fear, a threat  more than a source of inspiration. His homeland was a region flanked by mountains, grey rainy skies and a rough sea. He often admitted that, rather than nature, he was more interested in the philosophy and rational thinking, in finding answers to transcendental questions and, in his own words, to create a “new man”. An optimist new man, born after the two world wars that had taken place in recent years, a man in a world where there could be no more conflict.


He deliberately departed from a kind of sculpture that gravitated around mass and its qualities, and chose a path towards the representation of the void. His interest in nuclear physics lead him to experiment with what he called “light units fusions”. On this works he would combine folded thin sheets of steel to create and highlight the void space in between them. This way he diverted the tension in the sculpture and the attention of the audience from the mass of the piece to the space in between.

This is the time of his series on cuboids followed by geometrical explorations of the sphere researching different ways to represent a portion of space. The results of these studies were presented at the Art Biennial in Sao Paulo in 1958 at which he won the Great Prize for Sculpture.


At the zenith of his career as a sculptor and after being awarded at the biennial, he received numerous offers from art galleries in France and Germany. Surprisingly for everyone, except for those who knew him well, he decided to abandon the discipline. Oteiza considered that his explorations on the reduction of sculpture to its essence had reached its full potential and he couldn’t find any further argument to keep repeating this line work.

A tireless creator and a cultural agitator


After spending nearly ten years dedicated to poetry, cultural debates and intellectual explorations studying philosophy, in 1971 he retook his experimental sculpture work through his chalk laboratory. He produced hundreds of little pieces made with chalk, but also paper. He sought to represent a moment in time when different units collapsed due to the tensions between them. The new whole would become a new entity with a new meaning in itself,  impossible to separate back again.

Oteiza was an artist that explored multiple disciplines and produced a vast range of work including poems and linguistic studies on his pursue to bring the Basque culture to the place it deserved to be and often confronted the public administration with hard critiques. From the 1980s onward he was also involved in architectural projects with his long-time friend Oiza, resulting in proposals such as the polemic project for the Alhondiga in Bilbao and his last collaboration, the Oteiza foundation on the outskirts of Navarra.


This last work of art, a void container built in concrete, to display his work to everyone after his death and planned as an extension of the house where he lived and worked ever since he moved in with the love of his life Itziar, the Basque girl living in Argentina that he had met as a young explorer travelling around South America.


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