He spent his childhood and teenage years in his home town of San Sebastián. In 1943, he moved to Madrid to study architecture. He abandoned his studies three years later to devote himself to sculpture. During the 1948-1949 school year, he went to Paris. There, he lived in the Collège d’Espagne of the Cité Internationale Universitaire and started working on his first plaster compositions. While visiting the Louvre, he was impressed by archaic Greek sculpture, an influence patent in his works during his first phase, dominated by archaism and the influence of Moore.
In 1950, he married Pilar Belzunce in San Sebastián. They went to live in the French town of Villainnes-sous-Bois, where they met Palazuelo. One year later, due to the birth of the first of their eight children, they returned to Spain. During the move, several of his sculptures broke, an event that seemed to foreshadow a break with his previous artistic period and the birth of a new phase.
Already installed in Hernani, Chillida started working with iron, creating his first abstract sculpture, Illarik, later cast in Manuel Illarramendi’s forge. In 1954, he had his first solo exhibition in Madrid’s Galería Clan and was commissioned to create the doors of the Basilica of Aránzazu. Here he introduced motifs that would shortly reappear in his drawings, etchings and collages.
He moved from Hernani to San Sebastián, in 1957. His talent began to be recognized in high official distinctions, both national and international. One of the first was the Grand International Prize for Sculpture of the Venice Biennale, followed by the Graham Foundation Award for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Kandinsky Prize and the Carnegie Prize for International Sculpture awarded by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
In 1958, he visited the United States for the first time, participating in several exhibitions. A year later, he was still investigating new materials, working with wood and then with steel. In the early seventies, he travelled through Greece. As a result, he began experimenting with alabaster and produced the series Elogios de la Luz (In Praise of Light) and Elogios de la Arquitectura (In Praise of Architecture).
In the winter of 1971, he went to Harvard to teach at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts as a visiting professor. Upon his return, he continued studying different materials: first, concrete, with the help of engineer José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez; later, ceramics with Joan ArtigasJr., who supported his work; and finally, with Hans Spinner, he began working with terracotta.
Over the course of his brilliant career he received practically every award and honorary mention, including the Wilhelm Lehmbruck award, the Príncipe de Asturias, the German Kaiserring prize and the Praemium Imperiale of Japan; he was also named Honorary Academic Member of the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts. After suffering from Alzheimer’s, Chillida died in 2002.