Feature Documentary Reviews

Built Lands (2022) – 4 stars

Director: Arturo Dueñas Herrero

Writer: Arturo Dueñas Herrero

Cast: Félix Cuadrado Lomas

Running time: 1hr 20mins

A portrait of the artist…as an old man.

The subject of Built Lands, Arturo Herrero’s feature length documentary, is the life and work of the Castilian painter Félix Cuadrado Lomas. As Lomas was primarily a landscape painter, a key theme of the film is the landscape of Castile. Herrero highlights how humans have shaped the look of the land – hence the title.

Built Lands has been a long time in gestation – it is, in a sense, a historical artefact. From what we glean from internal evidence in the film most of the footage was shot in 2015 when Lomas was aged eighty-five. Looking up Lomas on the web, I discovered that they died in November 2021, so I am assuming the movie’s release in 2022 is intended as a commemoration of the artist. And a fine tribute it is – yet I had the feeling that the director had made the piece unnecessarily difficult for any audience who, like myself, had never heard of Lomas prior to watching.

The movie essentially falls into two parts – a biographical scene setting followed by an exploration of Lomas’ artistic philosophy and method of working. The latter part is powerful and has one of the most insightful takes on the production of a painting that I have seen on film, but I found the introductory section problematic – cliched and with many longueurs. My worry is that many viewers coming fresh to Lomas will, particularly if they are streaming the movie, fail to make the effort, give up and consequently miss out on some tremendous cinema.

Herrero bravely eschews the use of an external narrator – apart from occasional voices of some of the participants in scenes involving Lomas’ family and professional life, the sole voice we hear is that of Lomas. Lomas tells their story of growing up in rural Spain during the Civil War and then recounts the troubled life of a non-conformist artist under Franco’s fascist regime. We learn that Lomas and a group of artists moved to the small Castilian town of Simancas with the aim of establishing a bohemian arts colony. Lomas informs us that they are the last member of the group still alive.

The mood that Herrero evokes in the early scenes is one of a world closing in – of its dimensions narrowing with old age. Lomas gives a long and detailed description of a dispute with their neighbour over a tree that is blocking the light in their studio. There is long and what seems interminable footage of the artist’s painting tools – lingering shots of paint tubes, canvas, and brushes. We have an extended scene where Lomas is shown looking through a box of photos – the camera closes in on each photo. The photos are from the past – old, and presumably dead, friends and fellow artists. Herrero gives us no context – an old person looking at old photographic images which mean nothing to the audience – the scene goes on for an age and is essentially very boring cinema.

The director continues the lack of contextualisation in these early scenes with their depictions of Simancas and its environment. This part of Castile is hard-scrabble country – rocky outcrops and the large, hedge-free fields of industrialised farming. The camera seems to pick out every electricity pylon or wind-turbine, of which there are a great many. On the soundtrack, we hear at frequent intervals gusts of wind which feel edgy and malevolent. We are shown Lomas in their garden which, OK it is filmed in winter, has to be one of the ugliest artist’s gardens of all time – we are most definitely not in Monet’s Giverny. The overall effect is one of a claustrophobic anti-picturesque.

The director’s approach makes the first section of the movie a hard slog for the viewer but then something magical happens – they provide us with some context – we are shown the range of Lomas’ paintings and we begin to see what the fuss is about. The soundtrack comes alive – Herrero uses Vivaldi’s Four Seasons violin concerto to accompany some beautiful footage of Lomas’ landscape work. The Four Seasons holds terrors for anyone put on hold by a call centre – but the vibrato violin and baroque back beat seem to work well here. The cinematography by Álvaro Sanz Pascual is well realised – there is a marvellous sequence of landscape shots through the agricultural seasons beginning with the first green shoots and culminating in a ready to harvest wheat field, albeit with a prevailing and portentous wind blowing through the fronds.

Herrero gives Lomas time to take us through the various genres they have worked in – though concentrating on landscapes – these encompass nudes, bullfighters, and a whole series of depictions of mules. Weirdly for your reviewer, as a lifelong vegetarian, I was particularly taken by Lomas’ stylised portraits of animal carcases – look out for them – they engage the viewer.

From what we see in Built Lands, I would not place Lomas as a globally significant painter, I find their work pretty derivative and very much mainstream mid-twentieth century modernism – emphasis on the line and flat plains of colour – for UK viewers think Paul Nash or maybe Patrick Caulfield . However, Lomas was a fine technician who found a style that was perfectly suited to conveying the feeling and texture of rural Castile.

In a wonderful sequence, starting with a blank canvas, Herrero gets Lomas to take us through the process of painting a landscape. We see Lomas out in the countryside sketching – coming back to the studio and painting in oils their characteristic bold lines and then adding the flat planes of colour. It all seems deceptively simple, but we begin to realise this is the result of Lomas’ lifetime of experience and mastery of technique. Lomas says to camera that, when they were younger, they could produce two landscapes in a day. They certainly appear to have been incredibly prolific – in the later part of the movie we see Lomas moving through the local art world and every office or municipal building seems to have one of their landscapes on the wall.

Lomas definitively established themself as the painter of modern Castile. Herrero draws out from the painter their thinking as to their relationship with the landscape. Lomas notes that any landscape is created by man using nature as the medium – a symbiosis of man and the environment – hence the eponymous built lands. The artist then concludes that man is formed by the influence of the landscape – Herrero cuts to a stunning final backshot of the frail octogenarian looking out on the view they have just painted.

Pascual’s cinematography is so intelligent. One of the features of Lomas’ rendering of the landscape is that it emphasises land not scape – the skyline is hardly ever shown – we are forced to focus on the plains of colour of the fields. The filmmakers follow the same formula, and it works to immerse the viewer in Lomas’ way of seeing.

I also particularly enjoyed the footage that accompanies the end credits where the camera roams over the canvas of the painting that Lomas has just completed – closing in on particular fields of colour right down to the grain of the canvas as though we were a drone, or more elegiacally an eagle, flying over the swathe of countryside depicted.

There are several examples of roads not taken in the movie which I found enigmatic and mysterious.

When Lomas is telling us a story about life under Franco, we are informed that one of the Simancas artists’ group exhibitions was cancelled because it coincided with A Week of Religious Cinema – the masochist in me dearly wanted to know what films were featured.

During the scene where Lomas is taking us through their painting technique, off camera, we hear the harsh, loud buzz of a chain saw in action. Lomas ignores it and we are left none the wiser but are, presumably, asked to wonder whether the dispute with the neighbour over the spreading tree had been resolved – were the filmmakers signalling a subtle and intriguing intrusion of nature into Lomas’ immediate environment?

Built Lands is a gendered film and is very much of Lomas’ time. Artists are men and women are nude models – it is as though modernism has become our antiquity. We are shown Lomas alone at home and in the studio and gain the impression that Lomas lived by themself. Towards the end of the movie, there is an eruption of children and dogs into the house – Lomas’ son and grandchildren have come to visit and one of the grandchildren asks where grandma is. Subsequently, in one of the scenes when Lomas is putting the finishing touches to their painting for us, we catch a glimpse of a figure in the background. The camera homes in to show us a woman of the same age as Lomas with immaculately braided silver hair and a sepulchral white blouse. The woman looks blandly at the camera. Watch out for the shot – it is very much a Mrs Rochester comes down from the attic moment.

Strange enigmas aside, Herrero with Built Lands has given us a compelling account of an artist at work and how an artist can, of themself, come to represent a landscape – Lomas is, through Herrero’s lens, Castile.  Try and catch this film. If you can make it through the hard yards of the movie’s introduction, you will find out a hell of a lot about a particular artist working at a particular moment in time. And as the added bonus, Herrero provides you with a ringside seat at the creation of a work of art – this is certainly a Good Place to be.

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