Treasures from the Vault: Julio de Diego

Naomi Vanderleest, Education Assistant

At an early age, Julio de Diego was defiant. Born in 1900 in Madrid, Spain to a wealthy merchant family, de Diego’s life was set until he chose his own path at fifteen. He left his home after his father destroyed all of his drawings and found work at the Madrid Opera behind and on the stage, as a set muralist and an extra. At seventeen he landed his first exhibition in a gambling casino and sold one painting, but his family still refused to recognize his artistic ambitions. Later, de Diego served in the Spanish military, an experience that would impact his work. In 1922 de Diego broke his family ties completely and fled to Paris, where the abstraction of Surrealism and Cubism spoke to him. He believed that abstraction is the best way for an artist to express their ideas.

 After studying in Europe, de Diego took his knowledge to the United States and settled in Chicago in 1926. Familiarizing himself with the art scene, de Diego soon landed a show at the Art Institute of Chicago. His use of religious figures sparked the interest of St. Gregory’s Church, which led to a commission to paint their chapel doors. His work in the city would increase, with commissions for magazine covers, fashion illustrations, and even a popular laundry bag for the Hotel Sherman. While his career was on an upswing his family life had deteriorated; de Diego’s first marriage was dissolved in 1932, and his only daughter was sent to live with a family friend. 

Continuing to develop his artistic influences, de Diego departed for Mexico, to learn from muralist Carlos Merida. He worked in book illustration and jewelry making throughout the 1940s in Mexico. His life experience continued to fuel his artwork, and each of his works is a snapshot of the world around him. Symphony Fantastique (Fantastic Symphony) captures 1945, the end of World War II.

A surreal painting that features a man in black, hooded, facing off with another man in black wearing a mask. Both men have shadows of blue and around them are fantastical creatures. The subjects seem to square off, as preparing for battle with their separate army of magical creatures.
Julio de Diego, American b. Spain, 1900-1979. Symphony Fantastqiue (Fantastic Symphony). Oil on board, 1945. Gift of the Farnsworth Corporation, 1956. 02. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

An oil painting on board, the surrealist figures are shrouded in smoke. The figure on the left has a human face, cloaked in black. It parallels another figure in blue in the distance. Facing the human is a figure that is masked. The masked figure is poised for action, and it also parallels a blue figure in a slightly different pose. These repeated figures remind me of shadows, but they could be separate entities. The fantastical beasts around them fill the space. Each creature is colorful, and abstracted in a way that is otherworldly. The beasts mirror the division of the board, as everything is facing to look at each other, completely ignoring the viewer.

The title Symphony Fantastique comes from a symphony of the same name, by Hector Burlioz, about an artist that has vivid dreams. When I first look at this painting I notice the figures, but then my eyes start to dance, looking at each creature surrounding them. Are the figures themselves a part of a dance or a battle (or a dance battle)? De Diego could be discussing multiple subjects in this work: war, creativity, or even death. A notable consideration is de Diego’s opinion of war; as a veteran, he openly discussed the horrors he saw, and opposed numerous wars, such as the Spanish Civil War.

This painting is one of many varied works he created until his death in Sarasota, Florida, in 1979. De Diego regularly altered his method of abstraction, from folk depictions to politically-charged motifs. Some may argue that this was his downfall. Does an artist need to have a consistent style, like Homer Davisson, to become famous?

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