Nicolás de Lekuona donation - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2023-12-15 • 2024-05-20

Nicolás de Lekuona donation

Room 17

The museum is displaying a set of personal effects, printed materials, notebooks and sketchbooks, along with two oil paintings on cardboard and letters signed by the painter, photographer and designer Nicolás de Lekuona (Ordizia, Gipuzkoa, 1913–Fruiz, Bizkaia, 1937). This important document collection was bequeathed to the museum in 2019 through the donation by the artist's family and is now being partly displayed, accompanied by a selection of works that were acquired by the museum in 2019—sixteen photographs and two photomontages—and in 2022—ten drawings of architecture and design.

The museum also conserves two iconic paintings from Lekuona’s oeuvre: Painting (c.1936) and Portrait of Beatriz Lekuona (1935), which were acquired in 1981 and 1982, respectively. It has also been a pioneer in recognising the artist through three memorable exhibitions held in 1979, 1982 and 1983, two of which were curated by the historian Adelina Moya, the leading expert on the topic.

This small exhibition traces the interests and artistic ideas of Lekuona, a restless, experimental personality who was iconic within the Spanish avant-garde despite his early death in the Civil War.

The collection includes private correspondence with his family, notebooks, sketchbooks, books with quotes, literary and artistic annotations as well as two Kodak cameras and other personal effects, such as his painter’s palette, his pipes and his student card. The most unique ones include eight masks that Lekuona himself made, which are also depicted in several of his paintings and photographs.

The donation of the Lekuona collection to the museum continues the effort to expand the collection’s databases through the addition, study and digitalisation of the documentary archives and corpuses of artists, critics, historians and spaces related to art in the Basque country. The most recent examples include the donations of the Sol Panera archive from the Bilbao gallery Aritza in 2023 and the donation of the archive of the professor, historian and art critic Xabier Sáenz de Gorbea in 2020.


Made of papier-mâché and gouache for a Mardi Gras dance at the Círculo de Bellas Artes during the artist's formative years in Madrid, these and other masks appear in several of the artist’s paintings, drawings and photographs as a surreal element concealing identity. A clay mask is also included, probably made by his classmate, the sculptor Restituto Martín Gamo, which Lekuona used in a 1935 photograph which the museum acquired in 2019.


The donation also contains nine letters from Nicolás de Lekuona to his mother, María Nazabal, and his uncle, Eugenio Lekuona. The first ones are written between 1932 and 1935 during his stay in Madrid, important years in his life when he befriended the Zubiaurre brothers, met Jorge Oteiza and interacted with other artists and writers associated with the avantgarde. In one of the letters, he tells his mother:

Around a month ago I showed Ramón Gómez de la Serna (the writer) the photographs that I took there of Pedro Mari, Trini, Gregorio, etc. and he liked them a lot; he asked for one to put on the wall of his house; he told me that I was in the going in the right direction and that the field in Spain is wide-open. He doesn't know anyone else who takes photographs in my style. Plus, there's a bright future for cameramen for films and graphic reporters. 

In the other letters, he describes the last months of his life (he died on 11 June 1937) from Burgos, where he went through his military training, and Saturrarán (Mutriku), where he was sent as a member of the mountain detachment of the Military Health Corps.


The museum has also received three books with Lekuona's notes from his years of training, between 1932 and 1935. The historian Adelina Moya, who was the first to draw attention to these notebooks that always travelled with the young artist, says that they introduce us ‘to both his aesthetic concerns and his artistic times’.

One of them contains thirty-seven pages of transcriptions of poems by José María Iparraguirre, Juan Ignacio de Iztueta, Bilintx and others. Another contains annotations of quotes and excerpts of texts by writers, artists, philosophers and theoreticians like L’Isle-Adam, Francisco Guillén Salaya and Ángel Ferrant, texts about cubism and others on Picasso, Manuel Abril, Schopenhauer and Leonardo da Vinci. This notebook also contains eight loose pages with poems by Federico García Lorca. The last one is filled with sayings, adages, proverbs and literary annotations.

Sobre el artista

Nicolás de Lekuona (Ordizia, Gipuzkoa, 1913-Fruiz, Bizkaia, 1937) 

With his eclectic training, and largely self-taught, Lekuona was nurtured by his readings on art and literature in books and magazines, and by his close relationships with intellectuals and artists associated with the avant-garde moments. Interested in architecture and design, in 1929 he enrolled in the Arts and Crafts School of San Sebastián while he was working as an assistant to the rationalist architect Domingo Unanue.

He moved to Madrid in 1932 to study at the School of Quantity Surveyors. He lived in that city for three years and attended the celebrated gatherings at the Café Pombo led by the writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna. He also connected with the sculptor Alberto Sánchez, the painter Benjamín Palencia and other artists from the Vallecas School. At that time, he also interacted with the painters José Sarriegui and Narkis Balenciaga, the sculptor Jorge Oteiza and the poet Lauaxeta.

One important year in his biography as an artist was 1934, when he contributed twenty photographs, a photomontage and eleven paintings to the show pintura-escultura-fotografía. balenciaga-lekuona-oteiza held at the Kursaal gallery in San Sebastián. In the words of this artist’s top connoisseur, Adelina Moya, ‘This exhibition put him in the sights of the local critics, who cited Lekuona as the most ground-breaking’.

After he deemed his training complete, in 1935 he returned to Ordizia and began to work in San Sebastián as a quantity surveyor in the studio of the architect Florencio Mocoroa, where he made a series of projects for homes and furniture in the rationalist style.

His avant-garde activism led him to explore a range of artistic techniques and media, including photography, photomontage, collage, painting, drawing and poetry. His personal imaginary combined elements of late cubism, constructivism and surrealism. His photomontages are particularly interesting: he used clippings from periodicals which he glued onto paper, sometimes also adding drawings or watercolour. There are only a few of them—twenty-nine are known—but Lekuona’s photomontages are his most prized works in the field of photography.

The Civil War caught Lekuona off-guard on the national side in 1936, and he was sent to serve as an orderly at the front in Fruiz (Bizkaia), where he died in the bombardment on 11 June 1937. His untimely death, just before he turned 24, abruptly interrupted an oeuvre that is still relevant within the Basque avant-garde today.