As a young man, Fernando Gerassi, like a number of Spanish intellectuals including Ortega y Gasset, went to Germany to study philosophy. "I wanted to find out the meaning of life," Gerassi recalls. After studying with such men as Heidegger and Husserl he was disappointed, "I didn't find anything but speculations." To conquer his disappointment he went to Munich to study art history with the great art historian Wolflin. When it came time for him to submit a thesis, Gerassi fooled them again. "I decided to become a painter," he says, "and Wolflin really liked painting so he encouraged me."
Gerassi's first master was Stanislas Stueckgold of Munich, a student of Matisse. "Stueckgold died in poverty, virtually unknown, but he was a great painter," Gerassi claims, "and it will be a great happiness when his work is recognized." A period followed when Gerassi was influenced by Cezanne. He went to Provence to study where the French master lived and worked. Cezanne's influence can still be detected now and then in Gerassi's paintings, for example in the "Still Life with Oranges and Grapes" as well as an earlier work, "Three Figures."
With these few exceptions, the formal element in Gerassi's painting has been reduced to a minimum. What the pictures lack in content of line and structure, they make up in color and texture. The result is "a warm and sunny kind of innocence." Gerassi's preference for emotion over thought is expressed even by the fact that curves take precedence over straight lines or angles. When angularity occurs it is usually accompanied by a more structural effort, where space and form are more defined, as in "Ulysses." But on the whole, the curve, that is the lyric sense, prevails.
Gerassi seems to strive for the elemental freedom and simplicity of Matisse. There are instances where he achieves this, but when he fails, I think it is because of a basic weakness in technique or an attempt to be overly primitive and spontaneous. Successful spontaneity is something earned by great genius or worked through to, by great effort. The failure of spontaneity is written in the unevenness of Gerassi's paintings not only from one to the next, but at times within a picture. A telltale sign is the smudges which occur in various places where the artist has tried to correct himself. For this reason, as well as others, the "Fighting Cocks," a brilliant picture, strikes me as more satisfying than the long bird that hangs to its left.
The desire to be as free of preconceived ideas as possible has allowed Gerassi to paint in a number of different styles. There are very abstract red blotches on green backgrounds that have an affinity with Pollock and the Rorschach tests, as well as recognizable still lifes and landscapes. In this sense, Gerassi reminds us of his compatriot Picasso although the fluent shifts in style by Picasso are motivated by a more intellectual problem-solving mentality.
The area of intellectual struggle, if it has been shifted from within the painting to the surface, is not entirely absent. "Sun Landscape" shows a sucesful and deeply probing resolution of the problem of color and texture. This painting radiates heat by close color combinations and it is no wonder that it has made some people nostalgic for desert country of the West. A very different but equally successful atmosphere is created in the more subtle here than usual, more wintry and thoughtful than the favorite spring and summer brightness of Gerassi's latest period.
It is only in this way that he suggests he was once a general in the Spanish Civil War. During his lifetime he has had as many as 50 different jobs which he believes have added to his ability as an artist. "50 jobs," he says, "makes one painter." He advises others to follow his example. "It is most important," he feels, "for a young artist to take a job so that he will be financially free to paint as he pleases. Never try to make money by painting what you do not feel by painting pictures as you would produce merchandise."
The philosopher is hidden in the painter, but Gerassi does come forth with a Spanish sense of tragedy combined with hope. It is reflected in pictures like the black and white jug with its tragic air or in such remarks as: "Each time you fail, you learn something. If you have faith in yourself, you go on. The more failures, the better."