by Pieter Hildering

Several weeks ago the president of the Peña Taurina La Utielana asked me if I would design a poster for the upcoming October novillada sin picadores (or “clases practicas” as they are called) for their plaza de toros. By now it had become a tradition which started eight years ago when my friend Ronald Sales submitted the first ever taurine poster designed by a Dutch artist. When he died in 2016, just two weeks after completing his second cartel, the peña asked me to continue.

For this year’s poster I decided to choose one of the many images I had been working on for some time, the red and blue shadow of a bull which had already covered the front of my last book. I was curious if the enlarged image would be strong enough for a poster size but by doing so I also realized I was committing—although mildly—a designer’s deadly sin: cultural cannibalism.

In March 1998 I visited the renowned Valencian painter Juan Reus in his studio. Reus (1912-2003) was one of the last cartelistas—painters like Ruano Llopis, Arturo Ballester and Roberto Domingo who worked for the Valencian printer Litografia Ortega producing legendary bullfight posters of the taurine golden age. Reus painted his first poster in 1939 for them, illustrated corrida tickets and numerous other items such as ladies’ fans. He also designed the poster for the special corrida that was put together after the death of Manuel Montoliú in 1992. 

On leaving his time-capsule-studio the maestro surprised me with a signed copy of his autobiography Mis Vivencias (My Lessons of Life). In this richly-decorated volume he not only talks about his own experiences of growing up and finding a career as an artist, he generously adds work of contemporary painters he admires. Unfortunately the reproductions are in black and white and only two are directly linked to the taurine world. One is a pase de pecho by fellow-cartelisa Roberto Domingo and the other is a portrait of José Gómez, “Joselito” by the Valencian painter Jenaro Paláu Romero (1868-1933), an artist whose work, in my opinion, was greatly influenced by the great Spanish impressionist Joaquin Sorolla and is not really known for his taurine inspired art.

Palaú’s painting shows Joselito nonchalantly holding a cape over his shoulder as in a larga cordobesa. A black-headed white bull narrowly passes the relaxed looking matador. Looking at the illustration in the book, it seems to be part of a larger work and is probably a taurine poster produced by Litografia Ortega. Even more so because after an intense search on the internet I found the same image of Joselito and his larga cordobesa on two posters: One from 1915 announcing a corrida in the Valencian bullring with Joselito facing six Miuras and again two years later for a “Gran Festival of six beautiful, six-year-old toros from the famous GAMA (now A. Pérez) ganadería for the matadores El Gallo, Paco Madrid, Joselito, Limeño, Felix Merino and Angelete” in that same plaza de toros. On both posters the matador is surrounded by garlands of flowers and a balcony with smiling ladies. Here too Joselito faces a black-headed white bull, although the animal in the Reus book varies with that on both posters. 

 Four months after I met Juan Reus, Guillermo Ciscar, “Chavalo” was invited to design the main poster for Valencia’s Feria de San Jaime. Chavalo is a former matador de toros. Born in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria in 1951, he took up residence in Valencia and in 1975 was given his alternativa in Madrid (Vista Alegra) by the Venezuelan matador Curro Girón. The ceremonial bull was named Oleaje whose stuffed head can still be seen on the wall of the Valencian peña Tinto y Oro. Chavalo never confirmed his alternativa but after a career of injury as well as glory, retired in 1983 to concentrate on a life as a painter with a special affection for the light of the Impressionists and the bold coloring of the Fauvists. 

Looking closely at the July poster, I knew I had seen the image before. It showed a torero standing by the wooden barrier nonchalantly holding a cape over his shoulder as in a larga cordobesa. It seemed Chavalo had copied Jenaro Palaú Romero’s painting of Joselito but had copied it badly. The whole project looked like a rush job: the rich details in the suit of lights were smudged brush strokes and the contrast in the face was a blur of brownish pinks. I thought it strange that the organization of a feria, thought to be summer’s number one, was satisfied with this bland result.

Twenty-four years later, José Antonio, “Morante de la Puebla,” announced he would be celebrating his 100th corrida of the season in the quaint plaza de toros of Ubrique on October 29. I immediately noticed the rather unusual poster advertising the event. Designed by Gonzalo Quesada, a visual artist from Utrera it seemed to be a mix of styles. One image was pasted over another and to me it looked more like a celebration of a hundred years of art history than a hundred corridas. The background and the typography breathed Art Nouveau while at the front I recognized a familiar figure nonchalantly holding a cape over his shoulder as in a larga cordobesa.

 It is no secret that Morante de la Puebla is a great admirer of José Gómez Joselito. He has several objects that once belonged to the legendary matador. On the cover of the book of photographs by Olga Holguin, Morante is pictured behind the desk Joselito once sat at. So it should be no surprise that the designer chose him for his poster. But I thought it strange that neither Chavalo nor Gonzalo Quesada mentioned the name of Jenaro Paláu Romero whose painting surely had been the inspiration for their work. 

Little did I know that my assumption that the Paláu Romero’s work was the original source of Joselito’s portrait was wrong.

 José Gómez Gallito, also known as Joselito was born in 1895 in Sevilla in a gitano family of bullfighters. He was considered a child prodigy and formed his own troupe of boy-matadors at 14 who performed in all major bullrings around Spain. Three years later he was the youngest bullfighter in history to receive the title of matador de toros and his almost instinctive knowledge of toreo, of terraines and distances, stunned the audience. (Since then bullfighters younger than 17 have been given their alternativa, like Emilio Muñoz, José Miguel Arroyo, “Joselito” and El Juli, who were all 16) His so-called rival, Juan Belmonte approached the bulls closer than anyone had done before. His tranquil composure while moving the bull by a gentle flick of his muleta was thought to be impossible. It is thought that their performances in the Seville Fair of 1914 completely changed the face of bullfighting. Their era would later be called the Golden Age of Toreo. 

One morning in 1914 the 19-year-old star matador entered the photographic studio of Calvache in Madrid to have his picture taken. He changed into his suit of lights and posed for the camera in front of a painted backdrop depicting the wooden barrera of a bullring. The result was an instant commercial success and it was this photograph that Jenaro Paláu Romero copied for a painting which now is one of the main exhibits in a room dedicated to José Gómez Joselito at the Sevillian Taurine Museum.

So, how did it become a poster? As the name suggests the Litografía Ortega (as any other printshop at the time) used large, prepared lithographic stones to print its posters. As cartelista for the firm, Jenaro Palaú copied his own painting and transferred it onto a stone. The black-headed white bulls, the floral arrangement and the balcony of smiling ladies as well as the necessary typography were added later, albeit in such a way it could be taken off and adjusted to announce following events. However lithography is a lengthy and painstaking process. One poster needs four, life-sized stones to print the four main colors. Subsequently each separate stone goes through the printing process for the print shop to obtain the sought after result. 

Calvache’s 1914 original print—the start of it all—can be found in the country’s National Archive. It is now part of bullfighting heritage, a memento to a legendary young torero who would die a hero’s death at 25 on the horns of Bailaor in the bullring of Talavera de la Reina. A legend that inspired Guillermo Ciscar Chavalo and Gonzalo Quesada almost a century later when they designed their taurine posters. However, the question remains if their versions do justice to the bullfighter at the center of it all.