Michael Mullan - Juan de Ávalos - Obituary
Spanish sculptor recruited by Franco to create pious statues for his mausoleum
The Guardian, Monday July 10, 2006
It is hard to ignore the artistic legacy of the Spanish sculptor Juan de Ávalos, who has died aged 94. Its location is signalled by a crucifix 150 metres tall and 46 metres wide, looming over the Cuelgamuros valley, north of Madrid. The site is the monstrously extravagant Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a monument built with slave labour by the dictator Francisco Franco. The general initiated its construction a year after his 1939 overthrow of Spanish democracy, and he was buried there in 1975.
In 1950, Ávalos was hired to fit it out with vast marble figures representing the evangelists, archangels, the pietá and the classical virtues of prudence, justice, strength and temperance. Franco meant to celebrate the "national-Catholic" ideology in which his tyranny clothed itself as a crusade against the left.
Like many servants of the regime, Ávalos claimed in later life that he had always been a democrat, or at least an apolitical artist with deep religious convictions. He was born in the ancient city of Mérida, in modest circumstances: his father being blind, the breadwinner was his mother, who was a housekeeper to a schoolteacher. But he did well as a student, earning a place in the San Fernando School of Fine Arts.
Ávalos claimed that the then mayor of Mérida personally recruited him to the socialist party, the PSOE, though he was never an active member. However, as a young artist acquainted with leftist intellectuals, he was briefly under suspicion after Franco's war was launched in 1936 and said that only a parish priest's intercession saved him from a firing squad. He was disqualified from public employment in 1942, prompting a voluntary exile in Portugal two years later with the aid of a study grant. He was not long out of favour.
Ávalos was sought out by Franco himself to be offered, in 1950, the statuary contract for the Valle de los Caídos. The self-styled caudillo had been impressed by some of his earlier work, though little of that - or his later output - is of great value. He specialised in religious imagery, monuments, portraits of bullfighters or society ladies, or equestrian sculptures. He is noted for the late 1950s alabaster memorial to the Lovers Of Teruel, in the city of that name. One hesitates to label it pure kitsch, since it is a decent representation of a venerable local legend. He was responsible for a triumphal arch in the Dominican Republic; a Sacred Heart in Guayaquil, Ecuador; a ghastly Franco on horseback in Santa Cruz, Tenerife; a monument to Franco's assassinated premier, Carrero Blanco, in the latter's hometown of Santoña; and even for the last portrait of the caudillo on the peseta coin from 1966.
But his reputation is damned by his collaboration on the Cuelgamuros project, on which 20,000 prisoners were forced to work. Designed on a Pharaonic scale by the architect Pedro Muguruza, the mausoleum and basilica became Franco's obsession during the 16 years of its construction. At a time of unemployment and malnutrition, public funds were lavished on it to the lasting benefit of some of the regime's cronies in the construction sector. The forced labour of prisoners of war helped found several private fortunes.
There are still those who argue that the Valle de los Caídos represents postwar reconciliation, since the 40,000 buried there include some defenders of the Republic alongside those who overthrew it. Franco's own speeches at the site, invariably triumphalist, suggest otherwise: perhaps the democrats were put there as trophies of war. To this day, all over Spain, archaeologists and volunteers are excavating roadside ditches and fields to restore some dignity to the tens of thousands to whom Franco's crusade denied even a niche in the local cemetery.
At the time of his death Ávalos was working on a monument to Spain's King Alfonso XIII, in Madrid. He is survived by his widow, Soledad Carballo Nuñez, whom he married in 1937. They had three children.
· Juan de Ávalos García-Taborda, sculptor, born October 21 1911; died July 6 2006
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