Cristóbal Toral walks around the room before the opening of his exhibition. He gives a few last-minute instructions and even gives the glass which covers one piece a wipe with a handkerchief. This day is bringing him "enormous satisfaction", and he wants everything to be perfect because at the age of 82, he is making another debut.
This is the first solo exhibition in Malaga city by this artist from Antequera, an ambitious retrospective of half a century of creation which does justice to one of the province's most internationally acclaimed painters. After visits to the Guggenheim in New York, the Pompidou in Paris, the Sofía Imber in Caracas and the Reina Sofía inMadrid, among others, Toral's suitcases have stopped off at the CAC Málaga-La Coracha, organised by the council's culture department.
More than 100 cases take centre stage in an installation created specifically for this exhibition, which is curated by Sebastián Gámez: dozens of them, superimposed in blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. "It is a tribute to the bravery of the Ukrainians and the five million people who have had to leave their country because of an autocrat," says Toral. But this is not the only piece he has created in 2022: Putin's barbarity has inspired him to portray that population in transit at the station, or walking the streets of a devastated land.
Toral never rests, he is "obsessed" with painting. "I work at the same pace as I did 40 years ago, in fact I would say a bit faster now, because time is running out," he says. That's why he is now seeing things differently, and progressing, he says. "You always have to do better."
He speaks calmly about death. "That's how life is. You're born in one place and disappear in another and in-between there's a journey. Everything has a beginning and an end," he says. In fact The Last Journey is the title of one of the sections of this display, with paintings that recall Arnold Böcklin's Island of the Dead and a striking sculpture: a fully wrapped body lies in a coffin surrounded by shoes that marked his steps, postcards to show where he has been and photos of people he admired, like the one of Paul Newman. Ahead, heaven does not await him; space does. "The end is cosmic, a planetary and unknown journey," he says. "I wanted to be an astronaut, but then I became a painter instead," he says, with a huge smile.
But make no mistake, Cristóbal Toral is proud of what he has achieved, of having been able to create works from zero. In the last part of A Creative Adventure, he shows some of the drawings he did as a teenager in the hut where he lived in Antequera. He hadn't the slightest knowledge of art (he didn't even have a chair), his life was all about working in the countryside, until those drawings were seen by some hunters who came to ask for some water. They recommended to his father that he should sign up for the school of arts and handicrafts in Antequera and there, at the age of 19, he began his journey around the world: from Antequera to Seville, Madrid and New York, always with his suitcase on his back. The one which has been in his paintings since the start.
"The painter is witness to his time, and there have never been so many suitcases or luggage as in our time. I myself have been a participant in this world of emigration, moving from one place to another," he says.
Displacement, exodus and waiting are constant in his painting, sometimes disturbing, sometimes painful. Because Cristóbal Toral is hurt by the world and he shows it in works which are tremendously realistic and raw. Like La Gran Avenida, with bodies scattered on the ground, surrounded by luggage. A painting over three metres tall, "inspired by the Balkans War in 94, but it could be a scene on TV news today," he says.
A few metres away, El secuestro del Papa Benedicto XVI introduces visitors to the threat of jihadism with a powerful image of Ratzinger cornered by two assailants with their faces covered. Apart from its message, the technical precision of the work (look at the Pope's hands) is only achievable by a very few.
This figurative artist, anchored in reality but open to the avant-garde, admits that he has always gone his own way, outside movements, generations and groups of influences.
"I have always felt very alone, like a sniper. And I'm proud of it," he says. He has never kept quiet. "I have even openly criticised certain situations in the world of art, and paid the price for that," he remarks. But he insists that artists have to exercise their freedom and says that is what he has tried to do. And that is something that can be seen in this exhibition of 70 works, most from his own collection, which runs until 13 September.
Has he ever dreamed of there being a Cristóbal Toral museum? "That is the nicest thing that can happen to a painter, because when they disappear, unless their heirs control the situation, there is a danger that their works end up all over the place. To have a museum in Malaga or Antequera, my places, would be a huge reward," he says.