The context of Francisco Leiro’s development as an artist says a great deal about the pieces he created early on in his career, including the sculpture Benito Soto (1986). Leiro was born in the traditional, seaside town of Cambados in Rias Baixas in 1957. As a child and teenager, he learned woodcarving from his grandfather, one of the most respected and sought-after craftsmen in the region. After finishing school, he moved to Santiago de Compostela to study at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios. Shortly thereafter, he was accepted into a fine art programme in Madrid. These chapters in his personal life are crucial to gaining a deeper understanding of the kind of work he would later create. After his first exhibitions at the Montenegro gallery in Madrid and with the “Atlántica” collective in 1983, he was celebrated as one of the most promising artists of his generation and invited to participate in prestigious events such as the Biennials in São Paulo and Sydney. In a time of change when interest in Conceptual art waned, albeit only temporarily, Leiro was one of the internationally recognised artists investing the most energy into reviving techniques and genres—such as wood sculpture or statuary—seemingly destined to being shunned or forgotten. Popular culture and Neo-Expressionism, tradition and modernity came together naturally and spontaneously in his artistic practice, uniting handicrafts, Romanesque influences, Baroque polychrome sculpture, even immaterial legends and folklore. Much like other Galician artists of his generation, Leira decided to bring traditional crafts like carpentry and masonry, often in imminent danger of being lost, into the field of representative art. The formal character of his early work has an immediately apparent rustic quality, driven by the idea of man’s struggle with the material (a metaphor for the battle between humankind and nature) and the artist’s interest in experimenting with its intrinsic properties. While the piece Benito Soto references this universe, it is also the result of a creative and humorous interpretation of popular mythology. Benito Soto was a Galician sailor who, at the beginning of the 19th century, decided to seize a Brazilian ship working the slave trade between Rio de Janeiro and the Gulf of Guinea. This marked the beginning of his career boarding and pillaging vessels throughout the Atlantic region. He attacked renowned ships and galleons of the era, such as the Morning Star or the Topaz. Soto’s adventures gradually entered the realm of legend and became the subject of stories and oral tales told across seafaring, Galician towns to this very day. Leiro decided to pay tribute to the bravura of this unique character, an amalgam of reality and fiction, and immortalised him in a rough, brusque and impassioned statue recalling the tragic moment when his adventures came to an end: alone, but full of determination, the pirate walks up to the English gallows, witness to his last breath, “with black, tangled hair and skin burned by the sun, in the style of a London preacher of prophetic and anti-poetic renown”.
Pedro de Llano