First published: Fall 2018
A strange creature looks out at us with its bulging insect eyes, opening its red-lipped mouth that is filled with large fangs. It has the front legs of a lion, the rear legs of a horse, the tail of a rodent and the horns of a bull. Its back bristles with reptilian scales, but, despite its efforts, it doesn’t manage to appear truly menacing.
This is the first imaginary being in the bestiary of Josep Baqué. Impossible creatures have been assembled by the whims of this Spanish policeman, who joined together the parts of various animals, mythological beasts, humans and inanimate objects. A total of 1,500 creatures await our gaze in the pencil box where Baqué catalogued and stored them, biding their time for captions that they would never receive. All we know of the captions is their absence, highlighted by the blank spaces reserved at the foot of each monster having never been filled in by their creator.
What could have impelled this secretive man, about whom even his family knew very little, to devote his free time over the decades to the creation of a bestiary?
We can only speculate as to his motives, but one thing is obvious: Baqué was busy playing, and entertaining himself. When we enter his world of mocking hybrids, then observe how he learns as he progresses from one monster to the next, and how the combinations multiply or incorporate the odd feature that inspired him, we see the enjoyment of a child at play. We can discern Baqué the child imprisoned in an adult body, wearing a uniform (which he was ashamed of) and having little or no desire to exercise authority. Baqué was an atypical policeman. He walked his beat slowly, to warn street vendors of his approach and give them time to gather up their items and make off.
Frontispiece for the first biological family “Animals and Wild Beasts” of the bestiary of Josep Baqué, from a total of nine families
It is possible that this collection of images was a kind of regression to the warm coziness of his solitary childhood. A way of retreating to that bastion of pleasure where serialisation and variations create a comforting setting that enabled him to feel like a demiurge.
Julio Cortázar wrote an inspiring text, “The Feeling of Not Being Quite There”, about the child-adult (or converse) which may shed some light on Baqué:
“I will always be like a child about so many things, but one of those children who from the very start bear the adult within them, so that when the little monster actually reaches adulthood he too still bears the child within him, and in the middle of his life experiences a rarely peaceful coexistence of at least two outlooks on the world.”
This double outlook on the world and the feeling of “not being quite there” has echoes in the account of Baqué’s life that has reached us through the testimony of his nephew.
Baqué was born in Barcelona in 1895. His mother would have preferred a girl and dressed him like one until the age of five. To cap it all, the town clerk who filled out his death certificate recorded his marital status as “spinster” (soltera) rather than “bachelor” (soltero) by mistake.
During his childhood, Baqué was supposedly rebellious and eccentric. He had trouble concentrating on schoolwork and loved to escape into the pages of the Art Deco magazines his uncle gave him.
After trying his hand at various jobs in the port and market in Barcelona, he left home aged 17 to earn his living abroad – a move that was somewhat unusual for those times. During this first European adventure, he went to Marseille and Dusseldorf, working as a kitchen helper and a stonecutter, among other trades.
Upon returning to Spain at the outset of World War I, Baqué had to complete his own military service, an obligation he performed as reluctantly as punishments would allow.
In 1920 he decided to leave Spain again, and lived in Germany, Belgium and France, working for the most part as a stone engraver. He specialised in funeral chapels, monuments to the fallen in battle, and shop façades – jobs that probably helped stimulate his imagination.