Images by Sistiaga

It is years since I saw Sistiaga, yet I clearly remember the conversations we had for the purpose of writing that book, El trazo vibrante. The fragments of the artist’s life, as he told it, rise up in my mind, ordered as though in photo albums.

The little boy who lived with his Mother and his two aunts in the Antiguo district of San Sebastián, they sewing at home, and he reading and drawing. They were wise and educated women, he said of them, and it was they who opened the doors to another world through the books they brought home from the library for him, like the biography of Nijinsky.

The war, running to the air-raid shelter, his Father imprisoned, the bombing of Gernika and escaping by boat to France. Life in Ustaritz, accompanying the baker on his rounds in a cart, the potatoes that his aunt sowed and which grew ever after in Sistiaga’s imagination.

At school, a classmate who stood up to the teacher, the greatest symbol of power for a child, a scene that excited in Sistiaga a profound admiration for that boy.

The adolescent who forged his grades at school—for everything except drawing—and skipped whole days of school to go and draw at San Telmo museum or simply to watch the waves on the new promenade.

In a second album we see Sistiaga walking around the Paris of the sixties, a handsome, sharp-eyed young man. He frequented the Art Faculty, not to attend classes, but to clear up the dining room in return for meals.

We see him thinking about the structure of the painting as he walks the city’s streets in the company of Manuel Duque, with whom he attended the Norman McLaren sessions in the cinema at Montparnasse and thinking, again, that one day he would paint his own film on celluloid, though it would be a silent film.

Back in those days, Sistiaga found what would be first a working method and, later, a whole way of painting, the gestural art that first emerged spontaneously and then developed as it was created.

The hands of the artist, “the hand knows” said Ruiz Balerdi. Hands as the origins of intelligence, said Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, the Nobel Prize in Physics. The gesture expands on the canvas to human scale when Sistiaga draws with his whole arm, and at the end of his arm, his hand, and in his hand, the brush. The tiny gesture of a small brush on the film frame, as small as a matchbox, and behind the brush, a hand, and behind the hand, an arm, and behind the arm, Sistiaga.

The huge canvases and the tiny pieces of celluloid painted at the same time by the same knowing, intuitive, decisive hand. No difference for the painter, the relation between hand and brain is the same. And, in the end, the cinematographic image expanded exponentially to reach a length of 13 metres on the cinema screen is presented to us, linked and twinned with the huge canvas we saw hanging in the museum.

The images of the life that Sistiaga the painter began to weave with others, featuring children, together with the artist Esther Ferrer at the Funcor cooperative during the Freinet modern school experience, family, children in the garden painting transparent strips of celluloid, lots of colours and a little monkey.

Sistiaga’s first film, De la luna a Euskadi (From the Moon to the Basque Country, 1968), is an excited experiment born of that Parisian desire to make film using his hands, among other things discovering that the process is full of surprises when the image is amplified. The pen drawing has a double line that gives the motifs an unexpected force. The colour vibrates with a visual buzz that causes the viewer’s eye to catch its breath.

Yes, it was possible to make films using your hands, on a piece of plastic.

Impresiones en la alta atmósfera (Impressions from the Upper Atmosphere, 1988) absorbs you like a black hole, inviting you on an intergalactic journey or leading you through the microcosm, depending what day you see it on. The size of the frame is slightly larger than usual, about the size of a box of kitchen matches, 70 mm, and the definition of the lines and blots are a delight to the retina.

The eyes enjoy and enjoy every minute of massage and intraocular stimulation, and there comes a moment when the brain, which is behind, taking care that nothing escapes logic, has to surrender and get carried away by the hypnotic tunnel that is the film.

A deep buzzing accompanies us, it speaks of the speed of light, and in the end an irrintzi, a shout, rips and tears our mind from its dream and brings us violently to our last stop: the Earth.

When Ere erera baleibu icik subua aruaren… (1970) was born, it did not have a name. It had taken the painter months to finish it, and he hadn’t thought of a name for it. Ever since he had presented to Juan Huarte, the patron, the light-hearted idea of making a film, lasting one hour or six, he wasn’t sure, and which, to top it all, the filmmaker could destroy if he didn’t like it, we see Sistiaga in a frenetic exercise of painting more than a hundred thousand frames, one by one, on the floors of the various studios he borrowed, on the floor of his house, almost always squatting.

Throughout the weeks and months that Sistiaga spent painting his film, an almost symbiotic relation was forged between the two. The painter slept beside the celluloid and carried on working when he woke up. Only when his thirst became extreme did he stop for a moment to eat a yogurt, which also provided his scant diet. The artist’s body worked like a perfect machine. It ate what it needed and slept, without entertaining a single distracting thought, whenever tiredness intervened to restore its accumulated weariness.

Psychologists call this state flow, being totally absorbed in an activity, to the extent that time and surroundings cease to exist.

This is when the patch of colour takes over the centre of the screen and remains for seconds and minutes. The paint splashes on the right and creates lines of direction towards the left. Then the angle changes to the other side and the droplets, by moments round and static, become arrows in the opposite direction.

Everything vibrates: the background, of a colour that is meant to be homogeneous but is full of nuances, details and forms, and the objects presented to us in the foreground, with a concrete yet abstract formula. There are 60 phases in the image, moving from an embryonic state to a foetal state and then emerging into the light.

Sistiaga realised that the organic structures he was creating were like the birth of a living being, poetically speaking at least.

He even came to think that, to give life to that being, he would need to paint beyond death itself, and it was then that he decided to give birth to the world and to the screen: he set out with some metres of transparent celluloid and his inks under his arm for the torrid sun of Ibiza in summer, where, in the street, he painted the end of Ere erera, the paint drying even as he applied it. It is interesting to see that these shots of the film, the last in a colourful, hallucinogenic series, are the darkest of all the footage, the moment before the end of the reel slips out of the projector that bathes us in white light.

The only full-length film on the planet to be painted directly on celluloid was born. It was time to give it a name. A name that was also one of its kind, that offered no clues as to the type of images it titled and would never allow anyone to translate it into a language that was not abstract.

Sistiaga was in a hurry because at the office of the ministry where he went to register his film he was told that a title was mandatory, so he went down to a telephone box and called Balerdi, who had lost his mother tongue during the dictatorship and would sometimes play at reconstructing it, pretending that he was saying words and phrases in Basque. It was one of those strings of sounds that gave its name to one of the most impressive pieces of cinema ever to exist.

It is precisely this lack of relationship with the figurative that, contrary to what we might think, makes Ere erera a film which, if watched attentively, adapts to what the spectator most wishes to see. In a similar phenomenon to pareidolia, at screenings to a lay public, different people often see anti-dictatorship messages written, or colours that overlap to create a subversive meaning.

The artist agrees: everything is there and there is room for everything in painting. The world painted in films is a non-representative world that represents us all. The screen is the mirror of the stardust from which all people and all things come. The same stardust to which, sooner or later, we will return, of course.

Begoña Vicario

Begoña Vicario is a Doctor of Fine Arts, a lecturer at the UPV/EHU and a film director. She is a researcher at IKERFEST, a research project that analyses film and audiovisual festivals in the Basque Country, University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU): EHUA 16/31.