Once upon a time, a group of hunters went into a small remote hut in the countryside and asked the owner for a drink of water. Inside they saw some pictures painted by his son, and told him that the boy ought to be sent to the Arts and Crafts school in the village. That man was a charcoal seller, whose wife had left him, and the hunters clubbed together to buy the boy a bike so he could start the course.
Seventy years have passed since then and Cristóbal Toral is back in Antequera again, walking through the door of the Palacio de Nájera, turning right into what is today the reception area of the Town of Antequera Museum: "The classroom was right here. This is where I began, where I took my first steps from the wild into civilisation," he says.
Those steps have taken Toral to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Reina Sofía National Art Centre in Madrid, the Guggenheim in New York and the Hispanic Society, among many others, and now, 40 years after his last exhibition in his hometown, Cristóbal Toral is displaying a collection of works which are a retrospective and at the same time fiercely up-to-date, because an invisible thread connects the pieces separated by four decades of career through subjects such as migrations, loneliness and the history of art. Things which interest him, and which he has found a way of communicating through an object which for Toral has become an artistic fetish and visual metaphor: suitcases.
A powerful installation welcomes visitors to the exhibition: 500 suitcases piled up to the windows of the inside courtyard of the 18th century palace. "This is an image of our times. It's a language which works anywhere because it is the same language everywhere. These are the symbols of travelling," says the artist, who for the first time is also displaying his portrait of Benedict XVI kidnapped by Daesh.
That, however, is inside. Beforehand, the piece in the atrium deserves to be walked around, physically and mentally. "The cases aren't just placed any old how; the colours, the volumes, the lines, are all carefully studied. They're manipulated artistically to make a colour composition," says Toral.
So the old cardboard suitcases are piled up beside modern fibreglass versions, rucksacks and large sacks make a space for umbrellas, prams and packages tied with string. And this acts as a bridge, a door to enter the time machine and travel to the mid-70s. The picture called 'The packet' (1975) even hangs suspended in a black cover on the upper floor of the collection at the museum. There is the same detailed realism, the same slow focus on those who abandon their homeland in search of a life and too often find death instead. Like 'The dead migrant' (1975), which won an award at the Sao Paulo Biennial, which is displayed facing 'The train' (1975), which four decades later still maintains intact its melancholic evocation of solitude.
A journey in time
One of the great attractions, something unique about this project, is the way works by Toral coexist despite being separated by almost half a century, united by their visual potency and conceptual coherence. It occurs again with the apples, another of his particular icons, painted from the 1960s onwards, which now preside over the last room in the Antequera museum with 'Triptych of apples in space' (2018).
Apples, packages and suitcases distributed around the corridors and rooms of the palace make the 'Painting As Witness' exhibition a wonderful, peaceful invasion of the whole building. This display, which has only just been inaugurated, is sponsored by the Unicaja Foundation, Dcoop, Grupo Antequera Golf and 'El Sol de Antequera' and can be seen until 26 April 2019.
"Cristóbal Toral always stands alongside the poor people, the youngsters, the disadvantaged. Cristóbal manages to make realism modern. It is an imaginative realism, not a way of copying reality," says the curator of the exhibition, Carlos García-Osuna.
The mayor of Antequera, Manuel Barón, describes Toral as "the universal genius of pictorial production," who has now returned to his home town. "It is a matter of pride for us that your Antequera is now hosting one of your exhibitions," he said at the inauguration.
Toral has returned with a baggage which is not just retrospective, but also current, because for the first time he is displaying his portrait of Benedict XVI kidnapped by Daesh. It shows the former pope held by two people in black hoods, with a neutral background behind.
"I wanted to play with the tremendous contrast between the savagery of the jihadists and the peace transmitted by the pope, between the white of his robes and the black of their hoods," says Toral, who produced this piece after a thought kept whirling around in his head: "If these people can demolish the Twin Towers in New York, maybe they could also kidnap a pope".
Death and travel
The artist then does a 90-degree turn to the right and presents another of the great novelties in this exhibition: a triptych called 'The Execution' (2018) which shows the process followed by a hazy figure cutting the throat of an anonymous kidnap victim wearing an orange jumpsuit.
There is more death, and more suitcases, in Toral's reinterpretation of 'Isle of the Dead', the classic symbolist painting by Arnold Böcklin in 1880, which the artist of today has brought to exhibit in his home town.
Toral often says that artists have to be "witnesses of their time", and "fly the flag of commitment" but, obviously, with the other hand they have to wield their brush and concentrate on their focus, because a work is nothing more than one-dimensional if its interior does not contain an artistic value of its own.
This, then, is the journey made by that child who began on a bicycle and then travelled to the most important museums in the world. It is the journey Toral spoke of in his memoirs called 'Life in a suitcase', which he dedicated in the same way, perhaps, as every picture which beat destiny, every success which defied the misfortune which was dictated for him from birth: "For my father, the prestigious charcoal-seller".