He was born in 1899 in San Vicente de Alcántara, the son of a prominent local celebrity. His mother dies when he is six years old. He finishes secondary school in Salamanca, but refuses his father’s suggestion to follow university studies, due to his marked gift for painting, which he practiced without tuition since he was a child. He then moves to Madrid in 1919.
From October to November 1919, Ortega Muñoz sends to his family postcards reproducing some of the paintings he copies in the Museum of Modern Art or the Prado Museum, in order to convince his father of his true artistic gift. He continues his self-tuition, and he starts experiencing with open-air painting, in the whereabouts of the Dehesa de la Villa, together with other young artists as the Philippine painter Fernando Amorsolo. After staying for some time in the capital city, he decides to move to Paris.
Ortega Muñoz arrives in Paris in 1920. Apart from the capital’s artistic atmosphere, he is marked by his friendship with Gil Bel, which would continue till the poet’s death. Thanks to Gil Bel, Ortega takes part in a collective project that attracted many youths in his time, and which promoted the reunion of town’s folk with the most deep-rooted Spanish features, assuming a fundamental aim of insurgence and renewal in Spanish art at the end of that decade. Ortega had arrived in Paris led by his fondness on modern painting (whose cardinal references were Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne). However, due to the ideological and formal crisis experienced in post-war Paris, he decides to travel to the South, to Italy, in order to rediscover in past masters the most authentic values of spirituality, simplicity and purity.
Ortega arrives in Torino in 1921, whence he travels to Milano, Lago di Como, San Remo, Vichy, Juan les Pins —in France— and maybe Spain. In February 1922 he spends a short stay in Florence and then he travels Italy: Napoli, Pompey, Rome, Genova and Milan again. In the Lago Maggiore he meets an English painter, Edgard Rowley Smart, with whom he takes a short learning period, and whom he would later portrait, as a means of acknowledgement to the influence he had at the beginning of his carreer. His acquaintance leads Ortega to the convincement that in the face of human nonsense in contemporary world, there should be a return to nature, thus giving to art the authenticity of spiritual truths and simple emotions. After summer 1926, Ortega travels to Geneva and Lyon, whence he returns to Spain.
VALLECAS SCHOOL. FIRST EXHIBITION IN ZARAGOZA.
This quick return to Spain was of great relevance in the whole of his long voyage, since together with Benjamín Palencia and Gil Bel he makes one of the foundational visits to the School of Vallecas. Some time later, in March 1927, he holds his first exhibition in the Círculo Mercantil of Zaragoza. In these occasions, his friendship with Gil Bel must have played a very relevant part. His influence and that of Vallecas School’s, made the artist “return his gaze toward the field in order to gather the soul of simple people and of Spanish inland”, as well as to paint some of the Aragon pictures that were exhibited in his first exhibition in Zaragoza, after which he leaves Spain once more, this time heading for Switzerland.
CENTRAL EUROPE. WORPSWEDE.
1927 and 1928 were pilgrimage years. He starts in Zurich and continues in Brussels, Bremen, Hamburg, Hannover, Frankfurt and Berlin. The most interesting of all is his visit to Worpswede in 1928, where a colony of painters and artists had been settled, with figures like Fritz Mackensen, Heinrich Vogueler, Paula Becker and Clara Westhoff. All of them showed their interest for bucolic landscapes and field pictures, as a reaction to the sophisticated artifice and decadent refinement of the avant-garde. Field life and the atmosphere around expressionist painting were a remarkable influence.
IN PARIS ONCE AGAIN.
Ortega returns to France at the end of 1928 in order to look for commissions. With that aim he travels to Nice, Montecarlo, Vichy, Biarritz and Paris, where he joins his friend the surrealist González Bernal to travel to the Netherlands.
THE NETHERLANDS, ITALY AND BALCANIC REGION.
Ortega continues painting in 1930 and 1931, travelling Holland and later Genova, Lago Maggiore, Venice, Wien and Budapest. This is the first time Ortega escapes the referential routes of European art. He does so out of his own curiosity and also by suggestion of his friend and representative, the Hungarian actor Heinrich Domahidy, who contacts some newspapers in his country to refer the unexpected visit of the Spanish painter.
MIDDLE EAST AND EGYPT.
In 1933, Ortega arrives in Cairo, after visiting Greece and Constantinople. His qualities as a portrait artist have already given him a loose lifestyle and important contacts. He holds an exhibition in Alexandria for the first time, with such a reception that he holds another one the following year. In this second exhibition he presents forty works illustrating his trajectory. His love for nature appears already here, as well as the balance between colour and mood, and that ambiance of quietness and sadness that are characteristic of his painting. He returns to Italy and in March 1935 decides to go back to Spain.
1935. CIRCULO DE BELLAS ARTES.
In Extremadura, Ortega devotes the year to prepare an exhibition to introduce himself to Madrid. This exhibition finally took place in the Círculo de Bellas Artes, and was inaugurated on April 13th 1936, an important year for its hideous landmark in Spanish history. In spite of the unstable political situation, Ortega’s activity leads him to be selected for the Venice Biennale as well as for the National Exhibition of Fine Arts. The latter is delayed and takes place in a chaotic political atmosphere. Ortega decides not to wait for the inauguration, and leaves Spain before the war starts. Both exhibitions were finally a success, and the critic remarked his “cosmopolitan rambling”, his “exceptional faculties” and the “equidistant” position he keeps with Spanish painting in his time.
THE CIVIL WAR, FAR FROM SPAIN.
After leaving Spain he waits in Marseille for his fiancée, Leonor Jorge Ávila. They get married in December 1936 and settle in Switzerland, without declining his usual travels: Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. In Blomqvist Gallery (Oslo), which had previously worked with painters as Edvard Munch, he holds an important exhibition showing his last works, painted before returning definitely to Spain. In these years he gains dexterity and maturity in his way of painting, although it will be on his return to San Vicente when the painter will give a definite detour in his career.
Immediately after the post-war period, he settles in San Vicente de Alcántara. It is then when the artist finally revisits the silent and lonesome expanse of that landscape with the close reality of that world he feels as authentically his own, and which supports and gives definition to his painting.
1940. POST-WAR COUNTDOWN.
In 1940 he inaugurates his first post-war exhibition, and the second one in Madrid’s Círculo de Bellas Artes. He thus starts a professional career that would lead to great national and international success. He starts an intense exhibition activity, from which it is worth highlighting his solo exhibitions in Fayans Catalá Gallery in Barcelona, 1942, and Madrid’s Estilo Gallery in the years 1948 and 1949. He exposed there a set of oil paintings representing the rural world with the austerity, simple shapes and brownish colours that would be characteristic of his work. At the same time, there appear the first notes of modernity through some influences of Italian art, such as primitivism, metaphysics and Novecento.
LANDSCAPES IN THE CENTRE OF THE PERIPHERY.
In 1951, the writer Gerardo Diego discovers Ortega through the painting Los Membrillos in the First Iberoamerican Biennale in Madrid, which would start his thorough recognition in the Spanish artistic scene. He thus decides to move to Madrid, where he would remain till his death, though he continued spending long stays in the field. In 1953, and curiously enough, Academia Breve de Crítica de Arte held the last Anthological Exhibition, in which the “academics” decide to include one of his paintings. He was already preparing a great exhibition in the room of the Directorate General of Arts in the National Museum of Contemporary Art and in Syra art galleries in Barcelona, which made a wonderful success.
THE SECOND IBEROAMERICAN BIENNALE.
From 1954, his national and international renown becomes undeniable. Deemed as one of the innovators of the Spanish artistic scene, his success encouraged his real wish of representing in his paintings the lands of Extremadura. Among these successes, he participates in 1953 in the 2nd Iberoamerican Art Biennale in La Habana, where he received the Grand Prix of painting. In 1954 he participated in the 27th International Art Biennale in Venice, and the following year, in the 3rd Iberoamerican Biennale of Art in Barcelona, which dedicated room of honour to him. He took part as well in the Contemporary Spanish Painting and Sculpture Exhibition, held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Arab countries, which would lead him to travel for ten months in different capitals in Near and Middle East: Beirut, Damasco, Bagdad…
LA RÁBIDA, THE ATENEO DE MADRID AND BILBAO MUSEUM.
In May, 1956 he presents an anthological exhibition in the headquarters of the Escuela de Estudios Hispanoamericanos [School of Iberoamerican Studies], held by the Club la Rábida in Seville, and at the end of the year the Sala Santa Catalina in Madrid’s Ateneo shows thirty-three paintings dated from 1926 to 1956, which represent his artistic production. The exhibition’s critique was quite varied, from adjectives qualifying him as a defender of ideals of simplification, depuration and purification, to opinions of very important art critics as Camón Aznar, who regarded those elements which determined silence in his works; Gaya Nuño, who was focused in the dramatic character and in the generational context of the artist, or Luis Trabazo, who considered his work within the concept of the Modern. At the end of the year he exhibited in the Museum of Arts of Bilbao, where with fewer critics than the previous one, his painting was already defined as “authentically his own”, announcing an independent and self-owned style.
IN VENICE BIENNALE.
In April 1957 he holds the first anthological exhibition in the city of Badajoz, specifically in the rooms of the Culture Delegation of Provincial Government. Ten days before its closure, the conference room of Cáceres City Council dedicates a solo exhibition to the artist, in whose catalogue there is a vindication of a painting deeply rooted in Extremadura, a simple and straightforward painting. He continues his unstoppable career abroad, taking part in the 2nd Biennale “Países Ribereños del Mediterráneo”, started in Alexandria, and in the following year the 29th International Art Biennale in Venice, where he is dedicated a room of honour. The fifties end with a solo exhibition in the rooms of the Directorate General of Arts and his participation in a group exhibition in the Inaugural Exhibition of Contemporary Art Museum in Madrid.
NUEVA YORK, THE SIXTIES.
The early sixties will be characterised by a frantic exhibition activity. For example, he takes part in 1960 in a group exhibition in the Guggenheim International Award in New York. In 1962, he holds an exhibition celebrating 20 years of Spanish painting in Madrid’s Ateneo. In 1964, a group exhibition celebrating 25 years of Spanish art in the Crystal Palace at Retiro Park, and he inaugurates his second exhibition in the room Santa Catalina in the Ateneo. In 1967, Biosca Gallery in Madrid presents his latest works. Camón Aznar writes about the momentum lived by the artist, saying: “supreme synthesis: everything is deeply studied, calmed, reduced to the scheme of soul”. Finally, in 1968 the National Exhibition of Fine Arts dedicated to him a monographic room of honour.
IN THE “CASÓN DEL BUEN RETIRO”.
His artistic career is completely consecrated in 1970, with a retrospective exhibition in the Casón del Buen Retiro in Madrid, followed by solo exhibitions in the Gothic Rooms of the Catalonian Library in Barcelona, in the Pabellón Mudejar in Seville and in the tombs of the Culture Delegation of Badajoz Council. Abroad, he takes place in the group exhibition Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries, organised by the Metropolitan Museum of New York, where he exhibits later at the end of the year, in the Hastings Library of the Spanish Institute. By then, numerous critics from differents generations dedicated the most praising words to his work: Camón Aznar, Llosent y Marañón, Luis Felipe Vivanco, Gaya Nuño, José Mª Moreno Galván, Manuel Sánchez Amargo, Alonso Zamora Vicente, Santos Torroella, Baltasar Porcel, Corredor-Matheos. Without loosing its relation to figurative references, his work achieves an extreme abstract conceptualisation. He is considered as an innovator of the Spanish landscape and one of the most relevant painters in contemporary Spanish art.
His works were included in numerous group exhibitions: Contemporary Masters of Spanish Landscape in Sur Gallery, Santander; Arte’73, Fundación March, Museum of Contemporary Art, Seville; Trees through a Century in Spanish Painting, 1874-1974, Banco de Granada; A Homage to D’Ors, Biosca Gallery, Madrid. After seven years with no exhibitions in the capital city, Ortega Muñoz reappears, this time in the Felipe Santullano Gallery, with an elegant, discreet and measured art. It is not in vain that José María Moreno Galván dedicated an important essay in the exhibition, which resumed all his production, and was entitled “Ortega Muñoz: The Sign of Landscape in Spain”. Among the last great exhibitions in which he takes place, there is that in Mexico City in 1978, in the Museum of Modern Art in Madrid the same year, and the group exhibition Spanish Landscape Painters in the 20th Century, held in Bogotá. His last two solo exhibitions in Spain took place in 1980, in Badajoz and Barcelona.