Santiago Montes Luengas
Mago de la Arruga
(Magician of the Folds)
IImages of Santiago Montes' work at the family home
(Click to Enlarge)
Santiago Montes Luengas1911-1954
Born in 1911 Laredo, Cantabria, Spain.
Considered a poor student at school, Santiago is left to his own devices and begins to sketch and draw. He does little else and shows early promise. Occasionally he is called upon to demonstrate ability in front of inspectors.
Laredo is visited by Flavio San Román, a locally famous artist who is working on a project involving Spanish Landscapes. The artist is surrounded by curious kids every day including Santiago, who remains behind and helps the visitor cleanup and pack his things.
Out of curiosity the artist asks Santiago what he does and Santiago shows the visitor his drawings.
The two remain in touch and the visitor helps Santiago to get a scholarship at the Madrid School of Fine Arts (Colegio de Bellas Artes) where he has among his fellow students the sculptor Jesus Otero from Santillana de Mar. Santiago spends two years studying painting and aquires the title of ‘magician of the fold’, reflecting his expertise in making the folds in clothes and fabric in paintings.
Santiago gets married and has four children in quick succession.
At this time Santiago works in local furniture workshops and helps with the restoration of the altar artworks in Laredo’s church (Iglesia de Santa Maria).
In July of 1936, the Spanish Civil War affects the life of Santiago, who fights on the side of the Republican Government. When the Nationalists are about to take the city of Santander, he joins the Republican exodus of political exiles to France, but is unable to make it onto the available departing ships.
Santiago uses his skills to repair an unused boat so that a group of Republicans can sail to France, and to safety, as the Franco forces invade Santander.
While Santiago retrieves his rucksack from his home, the boat sails, leaving him stranded.
Santiago is left with no alternative but to walk the 50 Kilometres to the family home in Laredo instead.
In Laredo, he is hidden by his family in the attic of the family home. Several members of the family who by now are in Franco’s Government’s political positions, help Santiago to evade inspectors whenever the family home is searched. This is done by sneaking Santiago to a friends home across the street under the cover of darkness, every time the family is warned of an expected inspection. On one occasion he even has to disguise himself as a beggar, to avoid detection!
Santiago remains in hiding for eight years (1937 to 1945), emerging late at night from his hiding place to eat and sleep in the family home . Even the young children are unaware of his presence, though they suspect something, and Santiago is content to catch occasioanl glimpses of them through holes in the doors and windows.
Miguel Angel (our guide and Santiago’s son) tells us a story where he, as a child, hears a commotion outside his room at night and emerges from the room to come upon a stranger having a discussion with his mother and uncles etc. He jumps on the stranger demanding to know who he is and asking if he is the missing father. The stranger keeps laughing and keeps bundling Santiago into his room. The family stage a theatrical show the next day to convince Miguel Angel that who he saw was one of his uncles.
At another event, when the children have their first communion all together, they are watched having the traditional breakfast by the father through a small hole in a window which separates the living room from the mother’s bedroom.
At the end of the war (around 1945) there is a general amnesty for political opposition, and it is safe for Santiago to give himself up and go through the legal process of prosecution. He is imprisoned at the State Prison in Santander, and the family start the legal process to have him released as quickly as possible.
At the prison Santiago spends his time sketching the portraits of every prisoner at the prison using paper and pencil.
Finally the family lawyers assemble enough ‘good character’ references including one from the Mayor of Laredo referring to Santiago’s services in saving the religious artefacts at the church, documented later in the ‘Church Documents’ assembled by Angel Cavia in 2002.
Santiago is released after 18 months in prison, in 1946.
The prisoners make a beautiful wooden box which contains an album, in which most of the portraits that Santiago has made are beautifully presented as photographs, with a silver dedication on the cover.Pages of the album
Santiago is reunited with his family but faces difficult times. The family tries to emigrate to Argentina, but Santiago’s criminal record makes that impossible.
To make a living Santiago decides to try his luck in Madrid. He discovers that The Prado Museum employs copiers of master works to sell to rich clients. He is not impressed with the quality of the work. He trials for a job as a copier and is quickly put to work. He spends the rest of his life making copies of the Prado owned works for prospective clients. These copies are so good that even a trained art critic cannot tell the difference between the original and the copy.
Santiago dies prematurely at the age of 43 in 1954.
In 1979, on the 25th anniversary of his death, a retrospectve exhibition is arranged, to bring the work of this 'hidden' paintor to the attention of the public. In this exhibition many of his portraits, landscapes and copies of old masters from the Prado Museum, such as Mantegna, Van der Weyden, Murillo, and others are exhibitted.
Read the article in EL PAIS of 17 November 2007 Pages of the album with photos of the portraits made by Santiago in the Prison, Santander 1945-1946.