It’s an hour before the opening of Cristóbal Toral's new exhibition in Madrid and he’s feeling nervous.
"This is always the worst part — just before the opening night," he tells The Local by telephone.
Toral should be used to this by now. The 74-year-old, well-known for his realist paintings, has been exhibiting in Spain and around the world for decades. But this show is a little different.
This time around, the artist has left the still lifes and nudes at home in favour of a group of very personal artwork based on the themes of exile, migration and transit.
There's some added spice too in the form of the storm of controversy surrounding Toral's new installation titled 'The Abdication of the King', which features a rubbish container containing a photograph of none other than Spain’s King Juan Carlos.
The piece has seen Toral labelled “irreverent” and “cruel” by some media commentators.
“I admit it’s pretty tough seeing the king in a rubbish container next to an old toilet or a bathtub,” the artist explains.
“But it’s reality and — well — reality is a cruel thing."
“Let’s say you have a chair or a television that you like: eventually it gets old and you change it, and it ends up in a rubbish container. The same is true for the king — he did a good job, a very good job for 30 years or so but now he is finished.”
Torcal explains he was already working on an artwork based around the idea of a container when the king shocked Spaniards by announcing he would abdicate in June.
“I was actually already throwing things into the container when the news came through and I thought ‘Great! I'll chuck the king in as well’.
“The king finished my artwork for me,” he jokes.
The container — smaller and lighter than those typically seen on the street — also houses objects including a broken television and two suitcases. The photo of the king was found by Torcal’s son and enlarged for use in the exhibition.
But the artist from Andalusia stresses that the controversial piece wasn't fuelled by rage against Spain’s royal family, which has been rocked by several high-profile corruption scandals including alleged tax fraud on the part of the king’s daughter Cristina.
After the abdication, many people in Spain took to the streets calling for a referendum on the future of the country’s monarchy — an institution which played a crucial role in providing political stability after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco but which many now view as irrelevant.
However what Torcal felt while making the artwork was the “sadness” and “melancholy” that “always comes at the end of an era”.
“For 30 years of democracy (after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco), the king was always there, a likeable and approachable figure,” he says.
Torcal even has a fond personal memory of the royals. He recalls how in 1994, Queen Sofia came to one of his exhibitions in Madrid and stayed for an hour and a half, although protocol said she would only be there for 15 minutes.
“While she was there, she spent some time looking a picture of a man, and turned to ask me who he was. I told her it was my father — a man who had spent his whole life working in the countryside.
“At that point, Queen Sofia took my hand and caressed it. It was a small gesture but it meant a lot.”
Torcal also justifies 'The Abdication of the King' by explaining that there is a world of difference between a rubbish bin and a rubbish container: "One is a place for junk while the other is for things that have done their service."
A container can also be seen as a symbol of renovation, the artist believes. When you see one on the street, it means that changes are being made somewhere. Light fittings are being replaced and rooms refurbished.
“Spain’s (1978) constitution and Spain’s political parties have done a good job but maybe now is the time for a change. The system is exhausted.
“But I’m an optimist by nature and I think Spain can get through this crisis. The country is not alone here: other countries are suffering too. I’m hopeful things will improve in the future.”
Cristóbal Torbal's exhibition 'Cartografía de un viaje' is on at Madrid's Centro de Arte Tomás y Valiente until October 26th 2014.