I live in a town in southern Spain, famous for its stark white cubist beauty. Famous, that is, among artists. The town is Mojácar, ruthlessly clasping the final hill in a fall from the high Spanish mountains behind, overlooking a bland and unexceptional beach. The town has narrow streets, far too narrow for modern transport, just wide enough for a donkey and its load. The colours are harsh and primary under the strong sun: blue, white and brown. At night, before the terrible sulphur lights were installed to smash the mystery and romance of the darkness, the shades and shadows from the moonlight and the odd light-bulb would cloak the town in an ambiguous romance. No wonder that many outsiders came, their senses alert for poetry, story, magic and mystery. And so on a corner or a roof, an artist finds his angle, his view or his inspiration and pulls out his crayons or his brushes.
Mojácar has changed since the artists arrived... and ultimately left again. Romantic arches, old buildings and emblematic corners have been torn down in favour of ugly shops, souvenir stalls and neon-lit pizza houses. The old fountain was pointlessly remodelled twenty years ago, a small number of indifferently built homes were recently razed, and a small, expensive and ultimately useless underground car-park covered by a granite plaza were built in their stead. High and greedy rents keep away the dilettantes. Mojácar, like her artists, has suffered.
Juan Guirado was never just another artist, even among the tradition of those who were inspired by Mojácar – this cubist Moorish town that has always been so unappreciated by the local population. Like the town itself, he was unique
My first memory of Juan takes place in a nearby village, when the artist, myself and a young local journalist were, for some reason, standing around near some seminal event – the opening of a new and relentlessly modern looking plaza, I think. A local politician came over and said hello. He took my hand and then reached hold of my elderly companion. Juan's mouth dropped open in apparent shock and he ran to a nearby spigot to wash his hands in a pantomime of horror. Well, we laughed. Juan Guirado didn't like politicians, bankers, priests or lawyers, or 'catetos' – village thick-heads. He would arch his fingers into a grasping and ugly pose, peel back his lips, and show us how they were chasing after your vote, your money or your soul. Some of his paintings would show this same bunch of predators, looming and squirming under his palette.
We called him 'El Maestro'. He had a rich and rewarding life. Not a wealthy one, but a busy one. The type of life that looks like it must have been a lot of fun to have led. He had spent several years in Australia, painting (of course) and working odd jobs in the 'bush'. He had forgotten most of his English, but had a few phrases that would sometimes pop out of his mouth, invective in a heavy Australian accent. The Maestro was a man who painted a lot, or drew pictures, always with some story or message hidden within the lines. This became evident in a series of cartoons that appeared in El Indálico, a local monthly newspaper, where a cartoon of two vultures evidently feeding over the flesh of Mojácar would enter into Faustian dialogue.
Juan drank too much: brandies, beer and wine, and didn't look after himself very well. He smoked Ducados, holding the cigarette between his thumb and his first finger like soldiers do. He didn't drive and travelled by bus or sometimes transported by a friend.
In his studio – I knew two of them, the first in Mojácar the next in Vera – there would be piles of paintings. Piles. The current one would be on an easel and a home-made frame was at hand to put on top for effect. He sometimes did portraits – strong and forceful pictures. Following another passion of his, he painted bullfighters in their suits of lights. There were landscapes, harsh views of Mediterranean ramblas or orchards. But, above all, there were his special views of chaos, produced in a singular and fascinating technique, scraping the colour into the canvas. Magnificent.
Mojácar has been the home to many artists, although they have sold few paintings there. The Indalo, the stick-man that birthed a group of artists called Los indalianos in the 1950s, artists that kicked the town into the attention of the European bohemians, attracting investors, painters and a patina of culture while making it in passing the richest per-capita town in Andalucía, is now a provincial logo for cucumbers.
For el Maestro, that was a terrible thing to see.