Not too long ago I received a call from a woman who introduced herself by saying that she had been given my number by the Instituto Cervantes, the international Spanish cultural institution. She had phoned them to ask if they could provide her with the addresses of taurine magazines in Spain. But as far as the Instituto was concerned, bullfighting was not part of Spanish culture– so they referred her to me. She said she was the niece of the Dutch artist Willem Wagenaar (1907-1999)
Years after clearing out his studio, the family wanted to sell some of his work. Her mother, the artist’s sister, owned two portraits. One portrait was of a bullfighter. On the back, written in black crayon was Cordoba, Manolete, 1942. The other portrait showed a distinguished lady, suppposedly an intimate friend of the matador. Whether this was the actress Lupe Sinó, the torero’s fiancée, she was unsure. The family hoped placing an ad in a Spanish bullfight magazine was the frst step. Could I help them?
For a moment I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was she talking about a portrait of one of the most revered bullfighters in history? A portrait nobody in the vast taurine universe had ever seen or knew about? An ad in a bullfight magazine? What was she thinking? This discovery would create a sensation! These paintings should be in a major Spanish museum! The people of Cordoba should see them! Could she please send me a photograph?
But who was Willem Wagenaar?
He was a Dutch artist who became known as a surrealist. Winning the Prix de Rome art competition, provided him with the finances to travel to North Africa and Spain. In 1942, in Cordoba, he must have met Manuel Rodríguez, “Manolete” and his alleged fiancée. But how did he persuade them to pose for him? Or did he go to the bullring and watch him perform in a corrida? Was the lady someone he had seen in the crowd?
At that time Manolete was 25-years old and already a famous bullfighter. The start of his career had been severely hindered by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in which he served as a machine-gunner on the Cordoban front. Once the war was over he was given the alternativa in 1939 and even though the following period was marked by a limited offer of four-year-old bulls, Manolete’s star rose to unknown heights. Up until his last season, he performed in more than 70 corridas each year while in 1943 and 1944 he was placed at the top of the annual listing. And today, in the year of the 75th anniversary of his death in 1947 on the horns of the Miura bull Islero in the ancient bullring of Linares, “El Monstruo” as he is called (or “The Fourth Caliph of Bullfighting”) is still worshipped as one of the most sacred icons of bullfighting.
Following my request I received two small black and white photos. One was a portrait of a bullfighter in full regalia, the other showed a Spanish lady holding a fan and wearing a black lace mantilla held up by a high comb. Perhaps Manolete’s face wasn’t like we knew him from the many photographs, in the painting his characteristic expression and the detail in the texture of his suit of lights were remarkable. The woman’s Andalucian dress were equally well excuted. Her comb and fan were painted with such a fine precision, they almost became three-dimensional. Even though the photos were in black and white, I could see they were fine paintings.
Unfortunately the dream did not last. A few days later I received a second letter in which the artist’s niece apologized saying: “When I told my mother how interested you were, she suddenly realized how attached she was to her brother’s paintings. If she ever were to sell them, it would be done posthumously. I’m sorry if I built your hopes up”. Not much later after my introduction to the unknown paintings, a small exhibition in the Central Museum in Utrecht featured the life and works of Willem Wagenaar. In one corner of the room hung Manolete’s portrait, in another that of his female Andalucian companion.
At this moment I have no idea where the paintings are. The woman never contacted me again and the museum assured me they were not in their collection. Maybe they went back to the family but it is a pity they were never introduced to taurine society. A portrait of the great Manolete deserves more than to be hidden away in a closet.
The supposed meeting in 1942 of Dutch painter Willem Wagenaar and the cordoban matador Manolete and the two portraits that resulted from that meeting (of which I told you earlier) kept me occupied. Even more so with the discovery of a drawing, offered for sale by a local art gallery. The Marcel Gieling Gallery presented a pencil drawing of a full length matador in his suit of lights. The information accompanying the image read: “Pencil Drawing Manolete Famous Bullfighter By Willem Wagenaar”. It was followed by: “Around 1942, the painter Willem Wagenaar must have managed to immortalize the famous bullfighter Manolete on paper.”
Intrigued by the existence of this drawing I emailed the gallery: “How do you know the bullfighter is Manolete?” To which came the reply: “Because in the upper right hand corner of this drawing, invisible on the picture on the website, is written in pencil ‘Manolete’. Judging by two small holes at the top of the drawing, it looks as if it was taken from a sketchbook. The drawing comes from Wagenaar’s estate”. I had hardly overcome my excitement when the gallery owner sent me another email: “In my Wagenaar archive I found another leaf from that sketchbook with more drawings of a bullfight. I’ll send them to you”.
Cordoba’s 1942 feria was made up of three corridas and one evening of family fun with El Bombero Torero, the ‘espectaculo-comico-musical y taurino’. Manuel Rodríguez, “Manolete” took part in all three corridas. On May 25 he faced bulls from Tassara and was awarded the two ears and a tail from his first- an one ear from his last bull. The following day the bulls came from the Viuda de Villamarta for Pepe Bienvenida, the second branch on the abundant Bienvenida family tree and Pepe Luis, the eldest of the Sevillian Vázquez dynasty. Manolete could not repeat his glorious performance of the day before because of the disappointing quality of the bulls. His third appearance in the Cordoba «Feria de Nuestra Señora de la Salud» was on May 27, a corrida of eight bulls and four matadors, the poster of which you can see in the december 2022 edition of Las Noticias.
The leaf from a sketchbook the gallery owner sent me (and of which I am now the proud owner) showed a right handed ‘trincherazo’, another saw a picador driving his lance into the bull’s neck with two toreros trying to lead the animal away and in the third sketch a torero opend his cape in front of a bull while a companion watches from the burladero. In the middle the artist has tried to visualise a bull. Even though he looks a bit porcine, the fluttering ribbons of the divisa are seen attached to his back. If only the artist had taken color pencils to the bullring, we could have determined the ganaderia by the colors of their ribbons, which would have given us the exact date these sketches were done. However, something does tell us about the event. In the lower right hand corner, next to the detailed image of a ‘divisa’, Wagenaar had drawn a banderilla. Or –in taurine terms– a ‘banderilla de lujo’, an abundantly decorated banderilla, mainly used in special corridas like benefit performances or the ‘corridas de prensa’. Even though the poster doesn’t announce it, I’d like to think the eight-bulls-corrida was a special event. With four top matadors (Manolete, the brothers Pepe Luis and Manuel Vázquez and Manuel Alvarez, “El Andaluz”) it must have been very attractive. It may well be that these banderillas were used by the regular banderilleros to bring a touch of glamour to the afternoon. But in spite of high expectations, the corrida was no succes. In the national newspaper ABC, correspondent Francisco Quesada reported (by telephone): “A corrida with eight bulls is always an exhausting event, but when an equal number of unwilling bulls exit through the toril-gate, it becomes unbearable. This is exactly what happened in the third and last corrida of the Feria. The cattle señor Conradi sent to Cordoba were docile and passive and in these circumstances not even the good intentions of the bullfighters could change that.” He ended his commentary with: “It was a dull affair… of which no pleasant memory will remain among the aficionados.” Still I like the image of Willem Wagenaar with his sketchbook in the stands of the Cordoba bullring, trying to record everything that went on below.
I have tried to uncover the connexion between the artist and the bullfighter. That remains a mystery. But in spite of this I am happy to have “met” him and to have introduced some of his work to you. It shows the fascination the Dutchman must have felt for tauromaquia and for the young torero from Cordoba. I am sure Manolete never sat for the painter. The portrait that started my search was meant as a tribute to a bullfighter whose gruesome death five years later in Linares must have affected the artist as much as it did every other aficionado. Wagenaar left Spain in the summer of 1942 and returned to The Netherlands where he founded a new art college and became part of the resistance against the German occupation. He died in 1999
Cronica de Pieter Hildering