Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 8.II.1887 - 6.II.1938.
Modernist-Symbolist Painter, designer and set designer and precursor of Canary Island folk art.
Néstor was the son of Rafael Martín Fernández and his second wife, Josefa de la Torre y Comminges; with whom he had six children. Despite the large number of siblings, plus two more from the first marriage, Néstor felt especially close to Miguel (1894-1980). He was the one who, with time, was to stand out as one of the most highly-acclaimed Spanish rationalist architects, and he was the one that Néstor worked with, shoulder to shoulder on many projects.
From an early age, he liked to draw things, with perfect lines and composition, enabling him to participate in a collective exhibition promoted by the Sociedad de Amigos del País de Tenerife at the tender age of 13, with three oil paintings: "Paisaje" (Landscape), "Marina" and "un Naufragio" (a Shipwreck). This was around 1900 and this notable success was due to a large extent to the notions of drawing he had acquired at the San Agustín School of Las Palmas, under his first teacher, painter Nicolás Massieu y Matos. But it was the figure of Eliseu Meifrén i Roig who was to set his moderate impressionist technique. His palette was still limited; as Pedro Almeida Cabrera pointed out in an early catalogue about the painter: "...greys, blues, greens, white; rarely red or warm colours". A good example of this period would be "Paisaje de Tafira" (Tafira Landscape); as are his works known as "Marina", "Paisaje de las Canteras" (Landscape of Las Canteras) or "Camino Nevado" (Snowy Path) – oil paintings, mainly on wooden fibre board, kept in the Museo Néstor).
With a grant from the city of his birth, in 1901 he settled in Madrid with the intention of sitting the entrance exams for the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Faced with the difficulty of passing, he decided to study on his own, using the Prado Museum as his school. There he made countless copies of paintings by Velázquez, Goya and Rubens; before studying under painter Rafael Hidalgo de Caviedes. Under Hidalgo de Caviedes, he gained corporeality in his work. The best example of this learning period, where the beat of Meifrén persists, is his 1904 work "Calle Mayor de Madrid" (Main Street, Madrid) (Néstor Museum). This year marked a milestone in the artist's life, his first trip to London. The impact that these trips to London had is beyond doubt; trips made up until 1906 that connected him with the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics of Dante Gabriel Rossetti or Beardsley, from whom he took his refined, decadent style. The insight he gained into the work of symbolist painter James Abbot MacNeill Whistler was just as fortunate. Over time, this list would also include artists of the prestige of Gustave Klimt; from whom he picked up a tendency that was to lead to nuances of fully symbolist inspiration. The canvass that best summarises this amalgam of artistic identities is beyond a shadow of doubt, "Epitalamio o las Bodas del Príncipe Néstor" (Epithalamius or the Wedding of Prince Nestor) (1909, Néstor Museum); set out as a clear allegorical image in which the artist represents himself in androgynous fashion.
After spending time in several European cities, in 1907, he settled down in Barcelona and once again, it was Meifrén who introduced him to the artistic environments of the city. He participated in the V International Exhibition of Fine Arts and Art Industries and the exhibition Self-portraits of Spanish Artists. His creative activity grew and developed, without forgetting his native land, which maintained an intense presence. In fact, he designed the set for the Pérez Galdós Theatre for Maeterlink's play, Interior.
He organised his first individual exhibition in 1908 in the prestigious Círcol Eqüestre. He took sixteen works to the exhibition, between canvasses and sketches, but two stood head and shoulders above the rest. The first of these, "La Hermana de las Rosas" (The Sister of the Roses) (Néstor Museum), a beautiful portrait of María, the daughter of Santiago Rusiñol, strikes us as a transmutation of love as a passionate feeling and, together with "La Dama Austriaca" (The Austrian Lady), is the best reflection of Whistler's influence. Fully settled in, a year later, in 1910, he took part in the exhibitions "Selection of Catalan Art" and "Old and Modern Portraits and Drawings"; before going to the Universal Exhibition of Brussels. He repeated his trips to London, Belgium and Paris, where he became a member of a Masonic lodge.
Over time, Néstor became the alma mater of a small group of artists imbued with the aesthetics of refinement. With an ephemeral time-line, the ambiguous platform that aimed to set itself apart from the noucentist presumptions did not gain sufficient traction to survive in the tangle of "isms" that appeared, one after another at a dizzying rate. But if there is one plastic aesthetic approach that exemplifies Néstor's ideas, one would have to look for it in the series entitled "Poema del Atlántico" (1913-1923) and "Poema de la Tierra" (1927-1938) whose genesis persists in the poems of ill-fated Canary Island poet Tomás Morales; precursor of Spanish modernist poetry. The wonderful friendship that they enjoyed enabled Néstor to dream about the idea of creating a set in which four would be blandished as a fetish number. "Poema del Atlántico" (Atlantic Poem) comprises two series, the one known as the "Horas" (Time) ("Amanecer" - Dawn, "Mediodía" - Midday, "Tarde" – Afternoon - and "Noche" - Night), together with the "Aspectos" or Appearances series ("Bajamar" – Low Tide, "Pleamar" – High Tide, "Mar en Reposo" – Calm Sea - and "Mar en Borrasca" – Stormy Sea). "Poema de la Tierra" – Poem of the Earth – should also have included a similar kind of systemisation, with "Horas" – Times - and "Estaciones del Año" – Seasons of the Year, but death overtook him on the sixth of February 1938, weakened by pneumonia.
In 1924, he had exhibitions in the Palacio de La Biblioteca and Museos Nacionales, in Madrid, where he was acclaimed for the "Poema del Atlántico" and he also exhibited at the XIV International Art Exhibition of Venice. In the same year, the city council of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria also commissioned him to decorate the Pérez Galdós Theatre. This is a single ornamental programme that includes not only the canvases that cover the walls, including the frieze of Apollo and the Muses and the song to dance, good examples of a personal treatment of mythology, impregnated with an exotic tropicalism tied to the essence of an alleged Canary Island character. Thus stained glass, marble, lamps and furnishings offer a rich display of the refined and perhaps a little decadent-style Néstor. These works were possible thanks to the magnificent craftsmen and artists who contributed to the splendour of one of the most significant theatres in Spain and, by extension, in Europe, such as Sergio Calvo or Eduardo Gregorio.
In 1925, the golden age of Art Deco, he took a stained glass window made by the reputed house of the Maumejean brothers to the Exhibition of Decorative Arts of Paris. He once again took part in the collective exhibition of the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, where, in 1926, he was to return on a journey that also took him to Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles, Toledo, Philadelphia and San Luis. According to Doctor Pedro Almeida Cabrera, it was at this time that he completed the first stage of his maturity. Later on, in 1927, he would opt for set designing for the Spanish Ballets of Antonia Mercé and the costumes for "El Fandango de Candil", with libretto by Gustavo Durán and "El Loro", composed by Gustavo Pittaluga. The former of these pieces was premiered successfully in Germany before opening in Italy and Paris. In 1928, the paintings that decorate the Pérez Galdós Theatre were presented to the public, not without a scandal caused by the explicit sensuality of the figures.
1929 was a great year for Néstor's creative output, especially in the field of set design. He presented "Triana" by Albéniz; Salomé, El Aventurero, etc... His theatrical vein continued with the props for Don Giovanni commissioned by María Kousnezof; the props for Conchita Supervía for "Carmen" and for Grace Moore, he made the props for "Manon". Even with all this, he managed to start on the oil paintings for "Poema de la Tierra". In 1932, the Casino of Santa Cruz de Tenerife commissioned him to paint the great murals that were to decorate the ballroom. Back in Gran Canaria, in 1934, he was absorbed by the idea of creating a major Museum. In Madrid, he was awarded the gold medal for the fabulous performance organised for the Canary Islands in the parade to celebrate the Anniversary of the Republic. In 1935, after the halls of the Casino of Tenerife had been opened, he returned to Paris for a short time. The Pérez Galdós Theatre entered the modern age with sets designed by Néstor for Alejandro Casona's play "La Sirena Varada" (The Beached Mermaid), which received its premiere on the 4th and 12th of July 1936, with the following cast: Paquita Mesa, Pancho Guerra, Cástor Gómez, Néstor Álamo, Juan Hernández Cabrera, José Mateo Díaz, Isidro Bermúdez and Tomás Christiansen. The surrealism deployed by Néstor invites us to believe that the artist's plastic philosophy was evolving. The stage, centred by a an arched door, is accompanied by a large ear that appears to be hanging in the air, as do a wing and an eye with references to the aesthetics of the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Pedro Almeida Cabrera suggests that the furnishings used to provide atmosphere also had an enormous visual impact and were highly contemporary for a society that was somewhat anchored in the classical, although the staging was well-received by the audience and by the critics. From 1936 until his death in 1938, his concerns focused on projects for the Parador Nacional Hotel in Tejeda, in the high mountain peaks of Gran Canaria and the grounds of "El Pueblo Canario".
Today, much of Néstor's works are in the custody of the Museum that bears his name, since it was opened in 1956, built to plans by his brother Miguel. The complex known as the "Pueblo Canario", or Canary Island Village, showcases a set of ideas sketched out since 1934, when Néstor returned to Gran Canaria from Paris. It was also the year that the artist developed a campaign that he entitled "Tipismo" - Local Character – which, in his own words represented: "...a programme of revaluation, to extol the virtues of the region, of the Canary Island character". He always promoted the recovery of popular traditions, but as a painter however, he shied away from folklore, to gaze out on the world as a prestigious artifice of international nature that Salvador Dalí never denied was his source of inspiration for his well-known canvass "Pesca de los Atunes" (Tuna Fishing).
DANIEL MONTESDEOCA GARCÍA-SÁENZ
MANAGING DIRECTOR OF THE NÉSTOR MUSEUM
Doctoral candidate in history of art at the University of Salamanca.
Master in museography and exhibition design from the Complutense University of Madrid.
Expert from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.