La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Santiago Ydáñez

Meet the production painter of Tosca

Jasper Croonen
Reading time
4 min.

Colossal images of barking dogs, naked bodies, a grieving Mary Magdalene, and an emblematic beheading scene. Spanish painter Santiago Ydáñez brought out his brushes for our production of Tosca. We asked him how these newly created works came to be.

Have you seen the poster for our production of Tosca yet? A sad face looking back at you. Purpled eyelids. Dark puffiness under the eyes. The bridge of the nose an off-white applied with thick brushstrokes. The face is pale, almost colourless. Except for one pink spot on the right cheek…

The poster image is a portrait of Mary Magdalene by the Spanish artist Santiago Ydáñez. For almost two decades, he has been recording his surroundings on canvas in a distinctly figurative style: portraits of people, birds, dogs, and a rare horse. Male and especially female nudes. His works seem almost monochrome. Only rarely does he use pronounced colour accents, and then it is usually a few sanguine spots.

For our new production of Tosca, Santiago created a series of new works at the request of director Rafael R. Villalobos. ‘He explained the structure of the opera and his vision of the work to me,” says the painter from his studio in Jaén. “Originally, we toyed with the idea of making portraits of martyrs. We wanted these to bring out the religious aspect of the opera. But I wanted to play more with the contrast between the spirituality and the cruelty of the story. It is, after all, a gruesome vendetta. Then some of my earlier works caught Rafael’s eye: the aggressive dog heads and my nudes. “Creo que eso está bien,” (I think that’s good) he said immediately, and I started to elaborate on that. By bringing these different series together, you get the interesting fusion of beauty and horror that we were looking for.’

One of the works Santiago made for Tosca looks like a facsimile of Caravaggio’s Judith beheading Holofernes. ‘Caravaggio’s oeuvre also contains that raw aesthetic that Rafael takes from the story. There is, of course, the very literal link to the story: the young woman who kills a figure of authority. That balance between passion and violence. Are you familiar with Les histoires d’A by Catherine Ringer and Les Rita Mitsouko? They sing, “les histoires d’amour finissent mal en générale" (love affairs usually end badly). It always reminds me of that.’

‘At the same time, it is also a painting that gives the viewer an indication that the story takes place in Rome. I originally thought of working with Piranesi’s engravings, but eventually ended up with Caravaggio. He’s not a Roman, of course, but he was most productive while in Rome. Moreover, the painting I am referring to also hangs in that city, in the Palazzo Barberini. This is how we frame the story both thematically and geographically with this one image.’

After Ydáñez had entrusted his works to the canvas in Spain, he passed the paintbrushes on to the artists in La Monnaie’s painting studios. With all their savoir-faire, they magnified Santiago’s images to superhuman dimensions in recent months. ‘I have some experience with large formats myself, but the special thing is that they painted my works on a particular kind of fabric, which adds that extra touch. It was a very pleasant collaboration and I found it fascinating to see how the canvases were transformed from my studio in Jaén to the stage in Brussels. How the smallest movement of those heavy canvases creates a very emotional experience. After all, that is what opera is all about.’