Hubert Burda Media

Face the Truth

Large-scale and evocative, the works of Spanish-born painter LITA CABELLUT demand that we celebrate the human spirit, says Lauren Tan

There are some four dozen portraits hanging in the Opera Gallery. Each one is huge and confronting, as if the essence of the subject is right there with you. The trio by the entrance are of a middle-aged man, attired in a kimono and depicted with an elaborate headdress that is really a skeletal ribcage (see opposite). His eyes are always averted; his lips always rendered in black. You sense this is a man who has come to accept his own anguish, maybe found some peace even. “He was once a warrior, but now, now he has nothing,” I am told.
My guide is the person whose brushstrokes speak a thousand words — Lita Cabellut, a painter who is at once an anthropologist and a humanist; a visual poet who herself came from nothing. Born a gypsy girl into the streets of Barcelona, she was adopted in her early teens and later encouraged to pursue her art at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. She is now aged 52 and has exhibited in cities as varied as Paris, Singapore and Dubai, but it takes no stretch of the imagination to gather that it is adversity, as oftentimes triumph, that are the common denominators in her staggering oeuvre.
She explains that Dried Tear, the exhibition she’s walking me through, has a broad oriental theme and it is her way of connecting with her Asian audience. The title alludes to a resistance against the forced ideals of beauty, subservience and ambitions placed upon the daughters and sons of this vast continent. So like the warrior who has fallen on hard times, her subjects radiate quiet solitude. There is the woman of unknown ethnicity, with her face painted white, slouched over like a marionette at rest; the albino model of Korean lineage who is portrayed deep in reverie; and an African child dolled up like a geisha.
“I don’t differentiate between China or Japan. I see Asia as whole, like a flower with many petals,” she tries to explain. But before you go charging Cabellut with dramatising the allure of the East, a la Orientalism in 19th-century art, she tells you that the paintings largely outline the discoveries of one woman — her. And boring through the layer of stereotype, what one witnesses is a study in self-respect. “The power of dignity and the power of beauty is stronger than suffering,” she states.
This is not the first time Cabellut has chosen to theme her work to the geopolitical and sociocultural landscape in which she is exhibiting. Her 2012 exhibition in Dubai — Memories Wrapped in Gold Paper — depicted female subjects in Islamic headwear. It was “my particular campaign for the veil” she said in an interview with a Gulf-based magazine at the time, referring to the hostility the veil faces in her native Europe. One of her portraits was of Tawakkol Karman, the first Arab woman and the second Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
The Hague-based artist is clearly drawn towards those who make the world a richer place. Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, Igor Stravinsky, Franz Kafka and many more have had their likeness rendered on her canvas. Asked why and she says: “Because we are in crisis — in Europe and America, at least. And we need idols, people who exemplify how strong and beautiful a human being can be. So I paint people like them to remind us of what we are capable of.”
A self-professed admirer of all the greats, Cabellut has been said to borrow her artistic style from the light of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the brush strokes of Frans Hal, the bravery of Goya and the sincerity of Francis Bacon. But in terms of actual inspiration — that, comes from “everywhere”, she tells me. “The music of Stravinsky, the sculptures of Donatello, the poetry of Pablo Neruda, which gives me strength to look at people in alternate ways…so many artists have been an influence,” she elaborates.
Consequently, her signature fresco technique (based on the ancient mural style of painting on plaster) is itself a cocktail of mixed-medium practices honed from experimentation and chemical research. Because of this, the surface layer of her canvases crackles with “wrinkles” and “pores”, magnifying a very real range of emotions, much like the hurt and emptiness which she tellingly expresses on the face of my aforementioned fallen warrior.
But why paint only portraits, I have to ask. “Because as human beings, our main interest is other human beings.”