Julio De Diego, Landscape, c. 1940, Oil on board

Over the course of an epic life Julio De Diego, one of the more flamboyant Woodstock characters of any era, supported himself as a costume, scenery and textile designer, a jewelry, sculpture and furniture maker, performed on stage, in film, circus and ballet, illustrated bodies, books, and magazines; was a printmaker, draftsman, romantic legend, and throughout it all, a painter of remarkable ambition and accomplishment. A rare, authoritative retrospective of his work at the Fletcher Gallery opens at 5 p.m. Friday, December 7 (in conjunction with Woodstock’s Open House) and runs through January.

Born in Madrid in 1900, Julio left home at age 15 when his father destroyed every drawing in the house. The boy found work apprenticing backstage at the Madrid Opera as a set muralist — distinctions between “art” and “craft” blurring forever. His first show at a gambling casino resulted in the sale of a painting at 17 — an early success which failed to diminish his father’s disapproval. Augmenting his income as a dancer (he shared the stage momentarily with Nijinksy in Petrouchka) Julio soon spent a few detested years in the Spanish army, including active service in North Africa. Cutting off all contact with his family, Julio fled to Paris in ‘22 where Surrealism, in particular, cast its spell. Further European wanderings included studies in Rome where Julio concluded a youth, he later recalled, wherein “mysticism and sensuality became indistinguishable.” In 1924, the New World beckoned and undaunted by the Great Depression, Julio landed in America, eventually finding his way to Chicago where, in 1935, he finally earned himself a one-man show at what then was, arguably, the most important fine art showcase in American, the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the gems of the retrospective is “the audition” piece De Diego submitted winning him this breakthrough. “The Annunciation” is an archetypally traditional painting (complete with Renaissance miniature landscape in the background) featuring Mary and the Angel, both of whose elongated hands are rendered with remarkable facility — hands, ever the foremost test of draftsmanship. It is also, almost certainly a prototype for one of several commissions he received at St. Gregory’s in Chicago.

Painting expeditions to Mexico and excitement surrounding the work of Carlos Merida, among others, garnered further breakthroughs. Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst soon took an interest in Julio in New York in the 1940s. Several from the large number of futuristic paintings of that period are represented at The Fletcher Gallery, work originally shown at The Whitney and The Met and high-end Manhattan galleries. In 1947, a mature De Diego exhibited with the Surrealists in Paris and London.

Visiting Woodstock first at 50 in 1950, Julio moved here permanently in ‘61, having become an indispensable member of Woodstock’s “last wave,” prior to the town’s identity shifting from paint brush to guitar. Perhaps even more memorably than his three amigos — Fletcher Martin, Eduardo Chavez, and Herman Cherry — the Spaniard set this bucolic art colony ablaze with a sensual energy he once described as, “the enemy of idleness.”

I remember him appearing in the entrance of the Joyous Lake in a black cape, long hair and beard, wild sombrero, a gold hoop at his ear, those large, full-lidded eyes scanning the room, a giant ring or two clasped to his huge hands. No other artist of his day fit so effortlessly into an era seeking to embrace The Gypsy. Rather than “join in” to a Dionysion age, indeed, Julio seemed — as some peripherally phantom captain — to lead it. All except for one major difference…industry!