Century’s trends in Spanish art

If Picasso’s «Guernica» is regarded as one of the most famous works of 20th-century art, this is largely because it is an image that welds an avant-garde style with a liberal political stance. The merging of an avant-garde style and content is, of course, typical of much of 20th-century art. But in the case of Guernica it became especially prominent, probably because of the painting’s exhibition at the Spanish Pavillion of the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1937; the fact that the painting was commissioned by the Spanish government – then fighting a civil war – for a public, international event turned the image from a sideline, avant-garde statement into a symbol of official anti-war expression. An outcry of violence, the painting holds a symbolic position in respect to art and world history but also captures a crucial period in both Spanish history and art. It depicts the country’s internal strife in the midst of the civil war and the divisions that permeated both Spanish society and the course of its avant-garde art. This is what makes «Guernica» the symbolic starting point for the large survey of 20th-century art which is currently being exhibited at the Athens National Gallery. Curated by Maria Jose Salazar, «The Century of Picasso» brings together a hundred works from the permanent collection of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and examines the diverse aspects of Spanish avant-garde art throughout the century. Contrary to what the title might suggest, this is not an exhibition on Picasso, who is here represented with just a few preparatory drawings of «Guernica» and with a model of the 1937 Spanish Pavillion, rather unfittingly placed in a prominent position. (There is also a photo-reproduction of «Guernica.» The original painting belongs to the permanent collection of the Reina Sofia since 1981. Before that and since 1939 it was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art). «The Century of Picasso» is a symbolic title probably suggestive of the exhibition’s attempt to focus on Spanish avant-garde tendencies. In general, the exhibition provides a taste of Spanish art rather than a full survey of it, and is only understood if seen in combination with the catalog’s explanatory texts. Structured in chronological order, the display begins from early in the century with cubist works. Apart from Picasso’s drawings there are paintings by Juan Gris, Julio Gonzalez, Pablo Gargallo and Maria Blanchard, all artists of the same generation who adhered to the cubist style during the ’20s and ’30s and became the first major advocates of an avant-garde style. Indeed, some of the most prominent names of 20th-century innovative art come from Spain: Picasso, Gris, Dali and Miro are the most obvious examples. But most of them made a career in Paris and not in Spain, partly because – as the curator explains in the catalogue of the exhibition – avant-garde art in Spain during the first two decades of the 20th century did not have the same favorable reception that it did in other European countries. With the exception of Catalonia (the seat of late 19th-century modernismo) and the Basque region, the Spanish bourgeoisie showed a preference for more conventional art and occasionally looked for traces of folk culture and local tradition in art. Avant-garde art in Spain during this period did not follow the smooth course it did in other parts of Europe. Many Spanish artists were making a career abroad while back at home the art scene was ridden with contradictions and divisions. There were artists opting for renewal and others who adhered to a conventional style. There was also the strong presence of distinctive local movements. Out of Catalonia came the Novecientos movement, a blend of a back-to-the-roots approach with aspects of modernism. During the early ’30s, which was when the State gradually began to support modern art, the Vallecas school emerged. This was an artistic movement formed by Benjamin Palencia and Alberto Sanchez which raised issues of traditionalism. There were also some endemic expressions of avant-garde art: Vibracionismo, which was a blend of futurism, and cubism was one of the early expressions of avant garde. As in other parts of Europe during the ’20s and ’30s, a realist mode marked the strongest current in art, although in the late ’20s surrealism was also becoming prominent in Spain. Structured chronologically, the exhibition then moves to the period from 1939-1975 which coincides with Franco’s regime. It begins with the end of the civil war, which is when modern art gathered renewed momentum after a period of relative standstill. Official art, however, was not tuned in with the advances made in modern art, a situation which started to change after the mid-1940s. The first Spanish-American art biennale organized in 1951 by the goverment itself was a sign of this transition. Already, large exhibitions on modern art such as the one organized in 1945 in both Madrid and Barcelona on contemporary French art were bringing the Spanish public into contact with the latest developments in modern art. Conditions surrounding the production of art grew more favorable. In 1948, artists Modesto Cuixart, Joan Ponc, Antoni Tapies and Joan Jose Tharrats formed Dau al Set, an association that became a mouthpiece for the Spanish avant garde and was heavily influenced by surrealism. During the 1950s and early 1960s art informel (abstract art) became the prevalent artistic mode. El Paso, which was founded in Madrid in 1957, emerged as one of the strongest advocates of abstraction. Rafael Canogar, Luis Feito, Manuel Millares and Antonio Saura, all the group’s founding members, were soon joined by Manuel Rivera, Manuel Viola and sculptor Martin Chirino. As happened with most artists working in the art informel style (including Modest Cuixart, Jose Guerrero and Joan Ponc) most of the El Paso members maintained strong links with Paris, thus perpetuating the long-held artistic ties between Spain with the French capital. Most Spanish avant-garde art owes much to its international exposure. Outside art informel, there were other currents parallel to the Spanish avant garde. Geometric abstraction and figurative art were both aspects of an artistic rejuvenation. The so-called realists of Madrid, which counted Fransisco Lopez Hernandez, Antonio Lopez and Julio Lopez Hernandez among them, was one such progressive movement. As abstraction came under crisis in the mid-1960s, other figurative artistic movements emerged, among them the Cronica group which espoused social criticism through pop-art elements. Taken together, the artistic movements that permeate Spanish art from the 1950s on indicate the kind of diversity prevailing in Spanish art. This diversity continued throughout the ’70s and to our days, the chronological period which marks the exhibition’s last section. Perhaps one of the most important things to remember about this period is Spain’s renewed cultural policy favoring the internationally promotion of Spanish art, a policy which began gradually from the time of democracy’s restitution in 1975 and became especially pronounced in the ’80s. ARCO, which is Spain’s international exhibition of contemporary art, was founded during this period, while the Reina Sofia opened a few years later, in 1988. One of the most internationally acclaimed artists to emerge from the ’80s is Miquel Barcelo who mostly worked in the internationally prevalent neo-expressionist style of that decade. Christina Inglesias, Susana Solano, Miquel Navarro, Santiago Serrano and Juan Munoz (who is unfortunately not included in this exhibition but is mentioned in the catalog) are also among the better-known names of contemporary Spanish art. Seen together, their work captures the diversity of expression that typifies Spanish art. It is this diversity that the exhibition attempts to capture and put across to the Greek public in what is moreover, one more expression of Spain’s cultural politics. «The Century of Picasso,» at the National Gallery (44 Vasilleos Constantiou, tel 210.723.5937), will run until the end of January.

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