Cecilia Ayala: el adiós del último minotauro / Marjorie Delgado Aguirre

Cecilia Ayala: The Last Minotaur’s Goodbye

Who knows why, during the first days of October of 2006 someone called the editorial offices of El Nacional to say that Cecilia Ayala, the owner and director of the Galería Minotauro, was retiring. The expression on our face was one of surprise, but we had to corroborate the information. Because of the desire for a tempting interview, rather than speaking over the phone, we chose to visit her house, her kingdom of art. It was a bad and good decision. Bad because her scolding wasn’t brief, good because between the lines of the reprimand, among the justifications for her negation of the supposed retirement, Ayala narrated some of her life, one which couldn’t be told without mentioning fundamental protagonists of the history of 20th century painting.

With her particular voice, her frontal posture and her hands resting on the fur of her sentry dogs, she said: “I’m not retiring. I will at some point, of course, but it will be on the day of my death.” She didn’t say it like someone who talks just to talk. And that’s what she did. She passed away a month ago.

To say she dedicated herself to the business of fine arts would almost be like offending her memory. Although we know a gallery is a business, she didn’t see it with such a simplistic view. In fact – she insisted – the verb to sell never made her lose any sleep. Other topics made her toss and turn in bed, such as that young people might not be stirred when hearing names like Wilfredo Lam, Roberto Matta, Luis Caballero or that they might not even have had contact with their work. She believed, without the possibility of revoking her faith in this posture, that to share the creative work of the artist was to create as well: “It’s easy to display and sell paintings, but it’s very mediocre to just do that.”

In the mid fifties, Ayala ran the Galerie Dragon in Paris. Later, at the end of the sixties, she came to Venezuela and for 30 years worked to maintain another gallery with a mythological name. In Caracas she did the same thing she did in the French capitol: to never fear risk when it came time to support young artists who, at the time, had no one else to offer them even half a wall.

Ayala wanted to know about those who no one wanted to hear about. In this way, she gave a space to painters such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst or Roberto Matta, who were at the time mere unknowns is Europe. Thus, alongside her partner and husband Max Clarac, she became an almost anonymous protagonist of the first projections of surrealism in Paris.

If she was proud of anything it was her eye, the one that was shaped by looking at art, by reading, by not being afraid. And also of her instinct, although a few years ago she acknowledged she also made mistakes with a few artists she considered to be good and who later never lived up to that first impression.

At 82, Ayala still wanted to see more, although not everything that emerged from the present interested her. With her imperative mood, this year she attended the Feria de Arte Iberoamericano, without delegating to others the responsibility for her stand. Even when the weight of age imposed a slower walk on her, she kept planning and displaying shows at her gallery in the neighborhood of La Florida, she kept giving signs of a memory that didn’t forgive an oversight.

Her gallery was also an enviable library. In a large closet she kept enviable information and unique opportunities for reading curatorial texts not to be found in any other archive. There were also catalogs that would go straight into the purse or backpack of visitors, especially for those for whom the thirst for knowledge dried their lips.

Ever since moving to Caracas she couldn’t help getting on a plane every few months to go to Paris. A dedicated cinephile, she not only tried to keep up with the fine arts scene in France, but also tried to be first in line at films that never reached, and never will, Venezuela.

Cecilia Ayala was able to say what few could. She was friends with Roberto Matta, her house was the center of operations for Julio Cortázar’s reflections, Salvador Dalí signed an exclusive contract with her for his sculptures from the thirties and forties, and she had a close friendship with masters like José Gamarra and Luis Caballero.

The gallerist was in charge of showing in Paris the work of Venezuelan artists such as Pancho Quilici, Jacobo Borges, Pájaro and Alirio Palacios.

Translator’s note: I visited Galería Minotauro once, in the summer of 2002 with my sister. Before leaving, the woman at the front desk spoke with us for several minutes telling us about the artist and the gallery. When she found out we were visiting from abroad she warned us to be careful on the street, that Caracas had changed since we’d lived there. The conversation stood out enough for me to include it as an episode in Caracas Notebook years later. Reading her obituaries I now realize the woman we spoke with was Cecilia Ayala.

{ Marjorie Delgado Aguirre, El Nacional, 6 December 2008 }

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