Picasso and Sabartés, forever friends

Picasso and Sabartés, forever friends

In almost all the images that exist of Picasso and Jaume Sabartés together, the painter appears dressed informally, often in shorts, with a shrewd expression, while his friend and secretary is dressed elegantly and seems serious and somewhat distant.

These were two men of very different character and it might seem strange that they were friends for almost 70 years. None of their complicity was revealed before the camera where they seem quite radically different. They were different, in fact, but it is in the letters they wrote almost daily to one another during certain periods that their true friendship and loyalty can be seen. “Tu cariñoso y agradecido amigo y muy señor mío con todo el respeto y la amistosa amistad. Tu seguro servidor”, is how Picasso signed off one letter, evidently not holding back on the compliments.

Michel Sima, Pablo Picasso i Jaume Sabartés al taller de Picasso al Palau Grimaldi. Antibes, c.1947 © Estate Michel Sima © Successió Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid 2018.

They say that every genius needs a support group and in the daily life of Picasso it was Jaume Sabartés who, during certain periods, became a solid support for him in his daily life. They had been friends since the age of 18, since Picasso’s years in Barcelona; they were of the same generation, and despite the geographical distance which was at times very great between them, they were friends right up until Sabartés’ death in 1968.

It is precisely now, fifty years after his death, that the letters between Picasso and Sabartés have come to light. On his death, the letters were handed to Picasso in a box and he, in turn, immediately handed them over to the Picasso Museum on one condition: that they should not be read or made public before 50 years had passed. Don’t think that the box remained closed for those 50 years – the material was duly catalogued and subject to certain conservation measures, but not until now, 50 years later, has it been made available to display and study for the first time.

The exhibition Sabartés per Picasso per Sabartés is based on this new material, and it reveals a Sabartés who is removed from the image of servant-butler and overseer, subjected to the whims of the artist which has even been popularised in the audio-visual fiction which has general the figure of Picasso to date. As the exhibition curator, Margarida Cortadella, says “the exhibition reveals a stronger Sabartés than we have seen until now; it was a more equal relationship than we thought”.

Picasso tended to represent him as a satyr or a dirty old man chasing after young girls

A selection of these letters is included in the exhibition. Almost all of them are graphically beautiful, whether for the extravagant handwriting of Picasso, or for the use of colour and drawings that they contain. Their content is very varied. Picasso, for example slipped notes under the door of his secretary to ask him to wake up, In one letter he begs: “Tell me about the happy things in your life”.

But apart from their correspondence, it is quite interesting to discover what Sabartés was really like, apart from his links to Picasso. He was an art student when he met Picasso and, multi-talented, seemed to be more a man of letters than anything else. He was a poet, a journalist (he was a professional correspondent in Guatemala and Uruguay, where he lived for a number of years), he was a novelist and also an essayist on Picasso, especially well known for his most widely published book Picasso, retratos y recuerdos.

For his part, Picasso was constantly making portraits of Sabartés, in the initial years as a romantic poet and later as a knight of the Renaixement. But above all, Picasso, who could never leave behind the sexual jokes of his youth, tended to represent him as a satyr or a dirty old man chasing after young girls, bearing in mind that it seems Sabartés was not keen on erotic adventures. The funny and politically incorrect series of cuttings from pin-up and fashion magazines where Picasso drew Sabartés looking at them, touching them or kissing them are some examples.

Alexander Liberman, Jaume Sabartés amb el marc del retrat Jaume Sabartés amb pinçanàs (1901). París, c. 1951. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Alexander © Alexander Liberman – J. Paul Getty Trust © Successió Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid 2018.

The exhibition, which is excellently organised, also tells the story of how Sabartés again provided the particularly difficult period. Sabartés provided the link between the artist and the city.

Similarly, the exhibition, Pablo Picasso i els editors Gustavo Gili, installed beside the Sabartés exhibition and curated by Claustre Rafart, uses documentary sources from the museum itself to tell the story of the relationship between the artist and two generations editors from the Barcelona publishing house Gustavo Gili. The museum has also put on display a collection of documents which it acquired in 2014 as well as the collection donated by the publishers the same year. Thanks to these collaborations, intensified by a deep personal friendship between Picasso and his wife Jacqueline, and Gustau Gili Esteve and his wife Anna Maria Torra in the 1950s and 60s, Picasso produced some of his most important bibliographical works such as La tauromaquia and El entierro del conde de Orgaz. Once again, the Gili family was central to the foundation of the Picasso Museum.

Behind these exhibitions there is one work that will remain forever: two publications, the first volumes of a new collection of publications by the museum dedicated to the work of the centre’s archives – a task that always remains in the shadow of the bright lights of the big exhibitions, but which is surely as, or more, necessary.

The exhibition Sabartés by Picasso by Sabartés can be seen at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona until 24 February 2019.

Berga i Boada: sex and violence

Berga i Boada: sex and violence

There are very few occasions on which an astute researcher recovers an unknown masterpiece, and even more rare is it to rescue an artist from oblivion, make them known and much better understood as if they were a completely new, unexpected and fascinating artist, and one who nobody up until now had really known or understood.

This is precisely what Javi Palomo, the curator of the exhibition Josep Berga i Boada. The awakening of things and the sleeping, has done with this artist who until now has been considered minor and negligible but who, in fact, has shown himself to be one of the most interesting and significant Catalan creators of the turn of the nineteenth century – a period which the specialists tend to call, as a matter of course, Catalan modernism.

Josep Berga i Boada, Bosc. Col·lecció particular.

An extraordinary illustrator, a great draughtsman and sculptor, and a mediocre painter, Josep Berga i Boada (1872-1923) was the son and disciple of the well-known landscape painter Josep Berga i Boix, “Grandad Berga”, the founder of what has been abusively referred to as the School of Olot. The young Berga had nothing to do with this school, if it ever existed, that is, beyond the bourgeois decorativism and industrial aesthetic of the workshop for religious imagery, Christian Art.

Josep Berga i Boada, La Mare de Déu. Col·lecció particular.

Berga i Boada is a creator who is completely separated from the pictorial tradition of La Garrotxa, and specifically, from the passion for the landscape, convinced like many of his contemporaries that true nature worthy of any interest in human nature much more than plants and minerals. He was closer to the anatomical interest of his friend, the sculptor Miquel Blay, and the impressionist, portraiture and expressivity of the human figure by Ramon Casas.

Vista de l’exposició.

Josep Berga Junior constructs a solid work while elaborating a public personality which was very frequent at that time – that of the idealist and subjective artist, bohemian, unadapted and individualist, experiencer of all the pleasures of the body and a fan of the most radical and destructive subversions. In particular, art for art’s sake.

Berga i Boada transmits the splendour of the tensed body, the face of the prostitutes which he tirelessly reproduces at a certain instant of absolute grace

In a way which was perfectly coherent with what was happening in France, if Berga i Boix subscribed to the tradition of popular landscapism of the Barbizon school, Berga i Boada, were seduced by much more contemporary models that were more coherent with their personal and artistic objectives, and especially by the impressionism of Claude Monet and what we could call the impressionist-influenced realism, in the model of transgression produced by Gustave Courbet. In the drawing and canvases of Berga i Boada, we find an exercise in genuine discrepancy and dissidence with respect to the tradition model represented in his father’s painting.

Josep Berga i Boada, La sega, 1907. Col·lecció particular.

Where previously there had been the landscape as the absolute protagonist, now we find an insistent centrality of the human figure in its daily surroundings. Where previously there was a hypothetical calm and indeterminate time, imprecise and dormant, geographical and natural, and only conditioned by the light of the sun and filter of the clouds, now we had a fleeting, unrepeatable, subjective moment, like a photograph, an impression, an impacting vision, wide awake, which only the artist was able to see and only the artist could reproduce.

Josep Berga i Boada, Autoretrat. Col·lecció particular.

If Courbet made a meticulous portrait of a splendid vulva L’origine du monde, almost like a mountain valley covered in vegetation and documentary truth, Berga i Boada transmits the splendour of the tensed body, the face of the prostitutes which he tirelessly reproduces at a certain instant of absolute grace, of genuine human and psychological revelation, and a true celebration of the mystery of existence. What the artist wants to do is to give ultimate importance to the moment, the movement, the pulse of life through unrepeatable scenes or situation which are stimulating for their very undeniable veracity.

The brushstrokes or sketch lines are energetic, and the colour is always vivid or full of a multitude of shades in the monochrome drawings. It is hard to look without enthusiasm and a sense of gratitude at the ink drawing La mosca, from 1910, which was a preparatory work for La mosca of 1918, the final drawing made with a broad pencil, which reproduces the exact moment a horsefly bites an ox in his most nether region, and how in turn he causes an impressive stampede of the herd.

Josep Berga i Boada, La mosca, 1918. Col·lecció particular.

There is a whole complex series of solid anatomical knowledge and great drawing technique at play in this faux costumbrist or insignificant work. At first glance it may seem to be a simple rural scene, when in fact it is a burst of rebellion, an instinctive kick against the universe in the face of misfortune, the exact news of the interior life of the modern individual, trapped between libido and violence, just as the great rebel of his time Sigmund Freud pointed out. Berga i Boada’s La mosca appears to illustrate the famous anecdote by Pierre-Auguste Renoir who, when asked whether he painted with his head or with his heart, solemnly replied “Non, mes couilles”.

Josep Berga i Boada, Retrat de noia. Col·lecció particular.

In Berga i Boada there is a non-conformist, malcontentedly untamed and radical view. The same view that led him to make an excellent life size painting representing the components of his own family – including his father and mother – as a malicious homage to an institution which in fact rejected and horrified him. Berga i Boada, who lived for most of his life either alone or in brothels, has an especially malicious way of painting the faces of his central figures. They are true to life and technically brilliant, but nevertheless reproduced with an undeniable desire for revenge, for ironic criticism.

You only have to compare them with the extraordinary collection of illustrations published during the Great War, with the anatomical beauty and crude annihilation of Eros and Thanatos, where the principle of life and death complement each other in such a painfully strange but at the same time completely compatible manner. This is where hatred lives alongside love and vice versa, where violence and barbarity reign.

Josep Berga i Boada, El Progrés, 1918. Sèrie d’il·lustracions sobre la Primera Guerra Mundial. Col·lecció particular.

That same impression, the same harshness, is confirmed in the sculptures that appear in the excellent exhibition that Palomo has organised and mapped for us in the Museum of La Garrotxa. In particular, the sculptures of Christ as Ecce Homo, with a great formal beauty, anatomically impeccable and realistic, endearing, with an impressive sense of majestic divinity, totally flagellated, destroyed by the pain of passion, by man’s thirst for evil that has been inflicted on him, with no qualms.

Josep Berga i Boada, Detonació, 1918. Sèrie d’il·lustracions sobre la Primera Guerra Mundial. Col·lecció particular.

A closer look at the work of Berga i Boada shows a lot of masochism and sadism, a lot of sex and violence. It is so categoric, so authentic, so little idealistic and with its feet so firmly on the ground that it reminds one especially of the great literary work of the Olot valleys. Only in La punyalada (The stabbing) by Marian Vayreda can we find such a faithful and uncompromised portrait of what the world is really made of. This is an exact portrait which conceals the opulent natural, paradisiacal beauty of La Garrotxa. It is the tree of good and evil or, what amounts to the same, the knowledge and disgrace for those who eat of its fruit.

The exhibition Josep Berga i Boada. The awakening of things and the sleeping can be seen at the Museum of La Garrotxa in Olot until 10 February 2019.

Picasso and Picabia: forced parallels

Picasso and Picabia: forced parallels

Picasso – Picabia. Painting in question is one of the best artistic exhibits this year. A must-see exhibition with 150 first class works by Pablo Ruiz Picasso (1881-1973) and François Marie Martínez Picabia (1879-1953).

Having said that, in fact they are really two parallel exhibitions which share the same space in the Casa Garriga Nogués, the Barcelona headquarters of the Mapfre Foundation. One of works by Picasso and the other by Picabia. The idea of the curator, Aurélie Verdier, was to look at the intersecting stories of these two artists working at the same time. But there are not many similarities in the lives, personalities or work of the two.

One of their points in common is, for example, the Spanish tradition, or espagnolade. And the bulls and the manola also form part of the iconography of both Picasso and Picabia at certain times. If Almodóvar is still successful in France it is because our northern neighbours have never ceased to applaud a certain exoticism bathed in olive oil. The artistic espagnolade was just a concession or a bit of fun.

Picasso and Picabia were colleagues of the journey of life, and as artists they shared with their contemporaries two revolutionary phenomena: the death of style and the abolition of artistic progress as a unidirectional path/one-way street.

Both Picasso and Picabia were the providers of the styles and not the users of them. And they changed their “way” whenever they felt like it.

Francis Picabia, Portrait d’Apollinaire (irritable poète), 1918-1919. Collection Natalie et Léon Seroussi. © Francis Picabia, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018.

At the same time, both of them destroyed the path carved out by the classical Greeks and Romans, the humanists of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Rationalism and scientific thinking. Picasso was inspired by African art, Iberian sculpture and the most primitive Romanesque. Picabia drew inspiration from kitsch postcards, film iconography, machine catalogues and even the Catalan Romanesque.  The title of his painting from 1928: Smoking Woman (the Virgin of Montserrat).

“Barcelona is full of crabs and intellectuals, who here are cold-blooded and prefer onanism to rape”

Instead of taking humanity to a higher level of wellbeing and fraternity, rational thinking and science led to the First World War. For the first time, industry was used for mass killing. It is in the context of this catastrophe that the Dadaist movement, of which Picabia was a central figure, emerged.

Picabia came to Barcelona on several occasions. The first time, in 1907, was for the 5th International Art Exhibition. In 1916 he returned here from New York and met up again with all his friends from Paris, refugees of the war. It was then that he published the magazine 391, thanks to the gallery owner Josep Dalmau.

Francis Picabia, Espagnole, 1922. Col·leccions Fundación MAPFRE. © Francis Picabia, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018.

He also painted a portrait of the artist Marie Laurencin, carrying the famous phrase: “Il n’est pas donné à tout le monde d’aller à Barcelone” (not everyone can manage to go to Barcelona). On returning to New York, he wrote an article entitled Barcelona, which included gems such as this: “Like all low-life cities, Barcelona is full of crabs and intellectuals, who here are cold-blooded and prefer onanism to rape, scum in the bath, the subtle game of contradictory insinuations to dangerous affirmation”.

In 1922 Picabia came to Barcelona again for the exhibition of his painting in the Galeries Dalmau. He was accompanied by André Breton. On the day of the opening, in from of the works, a lady from the higher ranks of the bourgeoisie confessed that she understood nothing. The artist asked her “Do you like cured sausage?” “Of course, she replied, a little surprised. “And do you understand cured sausage?” Picabia retorted.

Francis Picabia, Le Matador dans l’arène, 1941. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Genève. © Francis Picabia, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018.

Picabia came from a good family and had his own resources. He had no economic need to sell his work, despite the envy he felt for Picasso. His star started to fade slowly and in 1951 he received a visit from a young artist who was rebuilding bridges with the historical avant-garde of Barcelona. It was Joan-Josep Tharrats, who dedicated a special edition of the magazine Dau al Set to him. Tharrats remembered him completely silent. His wide explained that a few months earlier thieves had broken into his apartment and stolen everything. The artists hadn’t uttered a word since then. He died on 30 November 1953. On finding out, his friend Marcel Duchamp sent a final telegram. It said, “Dear Francis, see you soon”.

The exhibition Picasso – Picabia. Painting in question can be seen at the Casa Garriga Nogués, in Barcelona, until 13 January 2019.

The voice of the weakest

The voice of the weakest

Beyond violence, war and politics, there are people who suffer, lives destroyed and incurable traumas. Turkish artist Erkan Özgen give a voice to these silenced stories in an exhibition at the Tàpies Foundation, produced in collaboration with the Han Nefkens Foundation.

In a situation like the present, where public institutions demonstrate their incapacity and limitations in fulfilling the expectations and demands of artists, especially as far as the production and diffusion of their work is concerned, the role of the patron has become particularly important.

Erkan Özgen at the opening of the exhibition.

Since Han Nefkens decided to establish his foundation in Barcelona in 2009, his efforts in supporting creative work has been constant and has resulted in collaborations with some of the main local institutions. Now, together with the Tàpies Foundation, it has produced, Giving Voices: Erkan Özgen, the first solo exhibition in Spain of this Turkish artist, who has become known for his empathetic and respectful approach to the lives of the common people, which often occupy no more than a footnote in hegemonic histories.


The fact is that Özgen knows what he is talking about. He does not live in Paris or New York, but in Diyarbakır on the banks of the River Tigris and the capital of the Kurds in Turkey. Despite being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site it has not escaped Turkish attacks which reduced to ruins a large part of the walled city, or the violence of ISIS and the ravages of the Syrian exodus.

This pain is concentrated in Purple Muslin https://youtu.be/d0wL2Jk-G8, one of two works produced by Nefkens which were first shown in Manifesta 12, giving voice to the weakest of the weak – the Yazidi women living in the Ashty refugee camps in northern Iraq. This pre-Islamic ethnic group, which professes one of the most ancient religions in the world, has for centuries been suffering the persecutions which reached a peak with the genocide perpetrated by ISIS.

Erkan Özgen, Purple Muslin.

The video is an example of how Özgen re-routes the political and religious conflicts of the global scenarios to a more intimate, private and, above all, human dimension. “Özgen rescues the stories that are silenced, either by chance or intentionally, by the flow of information and uses their testimony as a system for rebooting memory”, explains Hilde Teerlinck, director of the Nefkens Foundation and curator of this exhibition.


This Dutch patron and collector, who is always seeking new talents that need a push in order to be discovered, came across the work of Özgen at the last Istanbul Biennale where he presented Wonderland  — an exploration of the trauma of war as told by Muhammed, a deaf-mute boy. Seeing how he describes his experience using his whole body and an expressivity that leaves no space for sterile compassion, can leave nobody cold.


This is probably the most shocking of the four works that are shown in the Tàpies Foundation and a terribly perfect counterpoint to the Aesthetic of Weapons, in which an active police officer reveals the love he has for his weapon. This is completely chilling! Without showing a single image of violence, Özgen manages to ensure that everyone leaves the exhibition moved or angered but hating violence a bit more.

The exhibition Erkan Özgen. Giving voices can be visited at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, in Barcelona, until February 24, 2019.

Liberxina, the fuel of creative freedom

Liberxina, the fuel of creative freedom

“We acted on our intuition. We didn’t really know what we were doing, just that we were full of artistic desires”. That is what Antoni Llena’s answer has always been when asked about his time at the house in Maduixer, in which he shared living space and artistic experiences with Jordi Galí, Sílvia Gubern, Àngel Jové and Albert Porta (Zush).

It was the second half of the 1960s and while in Europe and America iconic revolutions were breaking out, in Catalonia, at the height of Francoism, one group of artists was in a hurry to turn the rules upside down and work across disciplines, without a care for ridicule and sheltered by the courage of their youth. They were never bothered about, nor did they imagine, whether one day their works would appear in a museum. There were only a few of them but they comprised a bit of everything:  Catalan-style beatniks, designers, draughtsmen and painters impregnated with the pop aesthetic, pioneering performers, avant-garde filmmakers, and so on.

Mari Chordà, Autoretrat embarassada, 1966-1967. Col·lecció Mari Chordà.

This breath of fresh air, so far removed from the more conventional attitudes of canonical informalism of the time, is what the exhibition Liberxina. Pop and New Artistic Behaviours 1966-1971, on show at the National Museum of Art of Catalonia (MNAC), emits. So, the time has come to put in order a period of Catalan art in which, until now, not a lot seemed to be happening, between two other moments that have been the subjects of considerable attention – abstract painting and conceptual art. The proof that the labels used in art today whiff of obsolescence is precisely what this exhibition is, showing the importance of microstories in creative processes, as Imma Prieto, the curator of the show, along with Àlex Mitrani, explains. It is an exhibition which, being medium format, has a seminal function which may provide a root for later exhibitions and trials and which establishes the bases by which the MNAC has to deal with this period as part of the heritage.

Jordi Batiste (design), Coberta del disc de Sisa L’home dibuixat, 1968.

Border moments are always interesting, even though they may appear to be confusing. That is the impression this exhibition may give at first, since the title contains a full declaration of intentions. Liberxina 90 (what a great title!) is the name of a film by Carlos Duran and one of the rediscoveries of the show, in which gas distributed by the pipes around the city causes a revolution. A fantastic photograph by Colita from 1970 shows the young director making the V-sign with all the attributes of a reigning film-maker: lengths of film reel around his neck like a choker and a bobbin for a crown. Other very little-known artists in the exhibition leave you with a taste for more, such as Guillem Ramos-Poquí, Josep Iglesias del Marquet, Norman Narotzky and Mari Chordà.

Norman Narotzky, I am a Man, 1968-1969.

This exhibition also demonstrates how good the early work was of artists that are now a reference for the best art in Catalonia. Some examples are the paper pieces by Llena, Miralda’s photographs of toy soldiers crossing a female body, the torture chair by the artist Amèlia Riera (who has still never received the recognition she deserves), body actions by Muntadas and the incredible fluorescent psychedelic painted works of Albert Porta/ Zush/Evru. The latter were seen for the first time in a black room in Maduixer where the artist had his studio, and in the house from which the work considered to be pioneer in video art in Spain emerged: Primera mort.

Guillem Ramos-Poquí, Collage de la quadrícula, amb números, cotxes i els Beatles, 1965. Col·lecció Guillem Ramos-Poquí.

This is a dense show which could possibly have done with two or three more rooms to provide greater digestion of the works. A visit to Liberxina makes you reflect on how creativity, in the most repressive and resourceless situations, is the way out of mediocrity and moral misery. It is a good lesson for our current times.

LIBERXINA, Pop and New Artistic Behaviour, 1966-1971 can be visited at the MNAC, in Barcelona, until April 22, 2019.

Vindications of Ismael Smith

Vindications of Ismael Smith

In 1951 Isaac, Ana Maria, Ismael and Paco Smith Marí packed up the contents of their luxury mansion in Irvington, on the banks of the Hudson, and a favourite place of residence for the most accomplished New Yorkers.

The destination of the bulk of the objects, furniture, carpets, sculptures and paintings was Sitges because they were buying the Palau de Maricel from the heirs of American multimillionaire Charles Deering. Thirty years later, the Smiths, who had made their fortune in the United States, were again planning their move to Catalonia and, and the same time, establishing a museum dedicated to Ismael, the family artist.

Ismael Smith, Satirical illustration. Barcelona, ca. 1905.

Ana Maria was enthusiastic and wrote to her cousins in Sabadell with the new name for the palace: Marí Cel. But the desired heaven of the Marí remained a project because Isaac, who was the family’s accountant at that time, died that same year, and precisely in Barcelona where he had come to sign the purchase contract and, in passing, undergo an operation for a cancer that would be so fulminant that he didn’t have time to sign the agreement. Without Isaac, the Smith Marí plan fell apart. Ana Maria died thirty years later, and only Ismael and Paco were left. The brothers did not get along at all well and their shared residence would soon become hell. Finally, Ismael, who lived in a semi-wild state in the mansion, and would wander naked around the park, was admitted to White Plains psychiatric hospital, following reports of public scandal, where he lived as a recluse until his death in 1972.

Ismael Smith, Potiphar’s Wife. New York, 1924.

In 1955 all the crates destined for Maricel which contained Ismael’s sculptures, engravings, drawings and paintings had not been unpacked and it was then, when things were going particularly badly with Paco, that Ismael decided to send them to Catalonia, just as was initially planned, and perhaps foreseeing that the situation at Irvington was not going to have a happy ending. He donated them to the Junta de Museus which had finally bought the building in Sitges next to Cau Ferrat. With that donation, made up of almost one thousand works, Smith vindicated himself, but at the time nobody paid much attention.  In a letter to Joan Ainaud de Lasarte, who was then the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona, Ismael said that he should do what he thought best with the things that were sent, sending them to different towns, for example. But in fact, once the crates had been unpacked, the work remained stored and forgotten in the warehouse of the museum in the Ciutadella Park, and after that, in the Palau Nacional in Montjuic, for over half a century. Nobody took any notice of it unless it was to put it down to the creation of a madman.

Ismael Smith, La miseria. Barcelona, ca. 1905-1906.

Apart from the later vindication of friends of the artist such as Miquel Utrillo, or art historians and critics like Rafael Santos Torroella and Josep M. Cadena, the recovery of Smith’s work was really down to the gallery owners and antiquarians who, albeit posthumously, credited his talent. First was the Sala Rovira, in the Rambla de Catalunya which offered a splendid show of his drawings from 1907 to 1911, resulting in his works beginning to form part of private collections. After that was the Sala Parès, which organised another exhibition of his work in 1985. Four years later it was Arthur Ramon who, in addition to drawings, showed a series of sculptures, posthumously cast in bronze from the clays which had recently been identified and recovered from the demolition of a house owned by Manuel Rius i Rius, in the Bonanova neighbourhood of Barcelona. In parallel some institutions have received major donations from his heirs: Elizabeth Knapp and Enrique García-Herraiz, the Hispanic Society of America, in New York, and the Library of Catalonia and the Calcografía Nacional (national collection of copper-plate engravings), which both organised thematic exhibitions of the artist. But the other institutions and museums which received donations did nothing. Not the Spanish National Library, nor the Reina Sofía, or the Lázaro Galdiano. Neither did the Museum of Modern Art which, over time would become the National Art Museum of Catalonia.

Ismael Smith, Satirical illustration for Foyer magazine. Barcelona, 1909.

The only organisations to put on exhibitions of Smith’s work were the MAPFRE Foundation, alongside Pablo Jiménez Burillo in 2001, the Palau Foundation, with Josep Palau i Fabre in 2005, which had not received any donations but had acquired the works out of the interest they had in the accursed sculptor. In 2009, the Museum of Art of Cerdanyola opened and it was the first to dedicate a whole room to the artist, thanks to a new and substantial donation by García-Herraiz. Finally, in 2017, the MNAC presented the retrospective that they had owed the artist for so many years.

Ismael Smith, Salomé. New York, ca. 1922.

This year, it is the Palau Antiguitats together with Clavell Morgades, who are taking the lead in vindicating Smith with a small but well-nourished retrospective which embraces all his facets and times, with some works that are as well-known as they are memorable and others which we are seeing for the first time and which allow us to get to know a bit better the profile of a sculptor, draughtsman and engraver, who was as fascinating as he was contradictory.

The exhibition Ismael Smith (1886-1972). Barcelona, París, Nova York, can be visited at Palau Antiguitats, in Barcelona, until January 31, 2019.

Lee Miller: “I would rather take a photo than be one”

Lee Miller: “I would rather take a photo than be one”

She was no “femme fatale”, she was a “femme différente”, assures David E. Scherman, a great friend of Lee Miller, in the documentary made by French director Sylvain Roumette in 1995 and shown at the Filmoteca de Catalunya as part of the exhibition at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona.

Lee Miller left almost 60,000 images. They were found in a number of shoe boxes in the attic of her Sussex home, Farley Farm House. We are told this by her son Tony Penrose, who presented the documentary and who for some years did not realise that his mother had had a life before becoming a fashion photographer, photojournalist and surrealist. “She was almost a great war photographer. The decisive moment was not hers, like it was for Capa and Cartier-Bresson. But she knew how to capture the extraordinary like nobody else. She could detect incongruence, which is the basis for humour. That’s why she was a great surrealist”, explains Scherman.

Scherman was the American photographer who encouraged Lee Miller to gain accreditation as a was photojournalist for the US Army when, in 1942, living in London with the surrealist painter Roland Penrose, she refused to continue photographing fashion while Europe was collapsing. Miller was born in 1907 close to New York and had started to work as an advertising model when she realised that her place was on the other side of the mirror. In 1929 she moved to Paris to learn photography with Man Ray, to whom she became both muse and lover, but above all laboratory assistant.

As a war reporter in 1944 and 1945 – these are the only years when Lee Miller’s photographs do not show profound sadness – she went round hospitals in the Normandy campaign, she was at the liberation of the Dachau and Buchenwald extermination camps (UK Vogue decided not to publish the photographs she sent back, but the US version did) and in Munich, where one of the most iconic images of her was taken: Lee Miller in the bath in Hitler’s apartment. It was taken by her friend Scherman, who covered the war for Life magazine.  “While we were taking that photo, Hitler and Eva Braun were committing suicide in their bunker in Berlin”, Scherman remembers. There is another photograph that has not been as widely published. This was taken by Miller and is a second portrait of somebody in Hitler’s bath: Scherman, who was of Jewish.

Lee Miller and Surrealism in Great Britain is on show at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona and includes a good part of Miller’s photographic production. With great fidelity to the title of the exhibition it swings constantly between Miller’s photography and the constellation that made up British Surrealism when it was displaced by the war from Paris to London. Roland Penrose was a decisive figure in that displacement. In 1937 he had met Lee Miller in Paris and the same year he organised a Surrealism meeting at the home of his cousin in Cornwall. Miller was there, alongside Paul and Nush Éluard, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin, among others. Miller’s photographs show very clearly the tendency of the surrealist core members to mix art and life, humour and the absurd, desire and friendship. It was in Cornwall that the Surrealism was consolidated in the Britain, and Roland Penrose and Lee Miller played a central part.

One of the virtues of the exhibition are the things that are shown without being said. With the availability of some exemplary works, it shows how Surrealism operated, like a network of connections and nods of the head; an I’ll-leave-this-here-and-you’ll-take-it-up-later; or, in the words of the surrealists themselves, like a huge cadavre exquis. However, the danger of such a multi-faceted view is that the details are sometimes lost. Who was it that would rather take a photo than be one? What does it tell us about the incongruencies and humour of somebody who rejected being an object to position herself as the subject? Of course, maybe that is a different exhibition. It probably is. But the question remains: who was Lee Miller?

The exhibition Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain can be seen at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona until 20 January 2019.

The Hunter Hunted

The Hunter Hunted

That a hunter – whether it be an antiquarian or a cronopio – would wish to hunt another (the kind of fame that accompanies those worlds of rifle-bearing animal hunters) is an impossible mission.

I go to a house on a large estate in Marbella, one with those huge windows that give onto Puerto Banús. This is the home of a builder-hunter, a white-haired individual with a false smile, surrounded in his mansion by hunting trophies.

Johannes Stradanus, Hunting scene.

I am surprised by the elephant tusks that are little short of the height of Pau Gasol. He introduces me to his wife who seems like another of his trophies. While he is showing me a beautiful drawing by Miró from the twenties –a star woman, half poetry and half sex– a polar bear looks down on me with suspicion out of its glass eye. I am also surprised that the ashtrays in the house (which still smells of cigars) are made of elephants’ feet.

I think it must all be a lie, that the trophies are not the result of intrepid hunting adventures but purchases from some real hunter just like the lies of the dissected animal: if I opened up their coats with a Stanley knife, I wouldn’t find fine-boned skeletons but polystyrene models.

The individual is a seducer and I know it. He wants me to take the Miró to a big fair and sell it, with no gain for me. I tell him that my work is paid work. We come to a minimal agreement: I will have it exclusively for six months.

After two weeks he calls me, worried, to ask if I have sold it. I tell him that I have not. It is a bad start.

Honoré Daumier, Hunting sketch.

One month later he reclaims it, saying that he has to use it as a guarantee for some bank credit that he needs for a promotion. I don’t understand anything, but I believe him, and I return it.

Six months later I find the Miró again in a stand at the fair where we had agreed I would sell it: it is exhibited by a French antiquarian who had bought it through an agent in Barcelona.

The hunter hunted? Doubly. In his lies as a man without morals and in my naivety in thinking that the world is as perfect as an old poem or a drawing of a woman by Miró.


Miralda: “When you are an artist, you have to give things away”

Miralda: “When you are an artist, you have to give things away”

After 16 years without exhibiting in the Senda Gallery, Antoni Miralda (Terrassa, 1942), who recently won the Velázquez Art Prize, is showing the work related to three of his ceremonial projects in New York, Miami and Barcelona.

Miralda is the artistic MC par excellence. He is an artist who has sophisticated and, at the same time, made playful and popular large-scale performances. Collaborative art, participative art, art which parades in the street and which occupies the walls of the museums, art centres and galleries to end up involving many sectors of society. Miralda worked decades ago “in networks”, as he liked to call it – long before it was on the lips of almost every artist.

If the results of Miralda’s projects tend to be spectacular, his working process is no less impressive. You can see for yourself in the exhibition at the Senda Gallery which focuses on three specific projects, with preparatory sketches, objects and relics used in actions, photographs and videos. A back-lit sign over the street door of the gallery, announces some of the “products” that appear at one time or another in the exhibition. “Perhaps from the outside people are thinking we sell sweet potatoes or pine nuts, but that’s fine with me”, jokes Miralda, always accompanied by his inseparable partner and collaborator Montse Guillén, and an enviable level of energy for his 76 years.

We begin with the most recent project, Santa Eulalia. 175, never before seen as it was a private commission by the historic fashion shop in Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia on the occasion of its 175th anniversary. Last April Miralda organised a long procession which went from the Pla de la Boqueria, where the shop was located in the past to its current location in Passeig de Gràcia. Over 150 students of drama, dance and design, standard-bearers, 80 musicians and over a hundred guests made their way through the centre of the city in an unusual pilgrimage. “I was allowed to rummage through the company archives and choose the images that I wanted to make the standards. I used the sewing patterns, the architecture of the clothes for the rear side of the standards. At the end of the procession, the image of Santa Eulàlia was projected onto the façade of the shop. Santa Eulàlia was the crucified martyr whose death, according to the legend, caused a great snowfall. I represented this is the action with strips of paper containing Catalan expressions and words related to the textile industry that fell onto the audience. This brings me very close to my Terrassa origins, where it was the textile industry that made the city grow”.

The Miami project, The Last Ingredients, on the other hand, is based on the fundamental pillars of Miralda’s work: food. In this case, the procession in 2016 went along one of the main avenues of Miami Beach, with a public banquet offered by food trucks using the seven basic ingredients of the indigenous peoples of southern Florida, from wheat to crocodile meat, pineapple, palm hearts and turkey. “They are ingredients that have lost their potential over time. In a sense it was a work of historical memory. Also, food trucks are completely prohibited in this area of Miami which is very touristy and has a large concentration of restaurants. We asked the chef of one of the top-class restaurants of the area to work with us in preparing the street food. I think this is in interesting element for reflection”.

Antoni Miralda in the Senda Gallery.

And now that they have removed the Columbus statues from Los Angeles, it is appropriate that we should look at the oldest project in the exhibition, Apocalypsis Lamb, a parade which took place in New York’s 5th Avenue in 1989 and in Barcelona in 1995, with the 18x15m nuptial bedspread from Honeymoon, the marriage between Columbus and the Statue of Liberty, and one of Miralda’s best-known works. The huge bedspread with the large figure of the lamb of Apocalypse which appears in the Romanesque church of Sant Climent de Taüll, is currently stored in the MNAC but will return to the Oval Room of the museum from 3 to 7 April, just as it was hung in 1995 for the Agnus Dei exhibition about the influence of the Romanesque on contemporary art, curated by Pilar Parcerisas. “It was about time we brought the lamb out again”, says the artist.

Miralda finds it very stimulating that part of the marriage project of Columbus and Miss Liberty is being reactivated. He remembers how during the marriage service in Las Vegas “there were already anti-colonial groups around it and that is fantastic because art has to serve that kind of reflection”.  From the toy soldiers at the beginning of his career to the Food Cultura project, Miralda’s work has always had a very strong political component, but always using metaphors and often a sense of humour. “A work cannot not be political, but I am interested in explaining things from a point of deformation”.

For Miralda, the involvement of so many people in his projects is also a crucial part of his way of working and also that his works arrive directly to his audiences. “I like to know that someone comes across one of my processions by accident, doesn’t know what it is, asks and ends up interested in my work. In that sense my work has a lot of different levels, involving people from an intellectual and artistic background, but also people who do not know anything about it. I will never abandon the playful and festive element of my work because when you are an artist you really need to give things away. Art is not only a question of doing business and selling works in a gallery”, he says by way of conclusion.

The exhibition Miralda. Tres projectes (NYC-MIA-BCN) can be seen at the Senda Gallery in Barcelona until 5 January 2019.

The movements of art in movement

The movements of art in movement

Following its 15th anniversary last year and the beginning of a period of reflection, LOOP – the only fair dedicated exclusively to European video art – returns from the 20 to 22 of this month with a renewed energy.

Meanwhile the festival that it forms part of has already started in various places in the city.

As well as moving from the month of June so as not to disappear among the numerous festivals that are increasingly taking place around those dates, the fair is also changing its base. It will no longer be in the Catalonia Ramblas Hotel, which has gone restricting its possibilities over the years, but at the innovative and fascinating Almanac (Gran Vía, 619) which for two days will make all its facilities available exclusively to video lovers.

While waiting for the final blow-out of LOOP which will be offered by the 42 participating galleries, the fair is already contaminating the city with other proposals.

These are some of the most unmissable:

Núria Font, Cosmogonia del moviment.

Núria Font. Cosmogony of Movement – Arts Santa Mònica – Until 20 January

Homage to the face of Spanish videodance in the world – a multitalented and astute woman who died before her time a year ago. A choreographer, artist, teacher and theoretician, played a decisive role in the fusion between dance, video and new technology. She conceived ground-breaking events which put into practice the interdisciplinarity long before it became an obligatory part of contemporary art and she was a pioneer in developing technologies for direct performances. All of this and more is told through her achievements by the curator Imma Prieto.

Eva & Franco Mattes, Happens or it didn’t pic.

Happens or it didn’t picBlueproject Foundation – Until 13 January

In their first solo exhibition in Spain, Eva and Franco Mattes, better known as 0100101110101101.ORG, reflect on truth and lies of a reality filtered through the sieve of social media networks. In an installation that looks like an office after a storm, several videos show the hidden strategies of the information society, their obsessions and manipulations in the construction of what has been called the post-truth.

Isabel Rocamora, Horizon of Exile.

Horizon of Exile. Isabel Rocamora –Vila Casas Foundation – Until 25 November

The idea of beauty has become increasingly distanced from art, being considered inadequate for expressing the complexity and contradictions of modernity. Isabel Rocamora reclaims it through works which oscillate between defiance and nostalgia present a battle between body, space and identity, with no concessions to aestheticisation. This is the case of Horizon of Exile, an intimate meditation on earth and identity based on the stories of Iraqi refugees superimposed on an interminable desert crossing.

William Kentridge, Sonnets.

Sonnets. William Kentridge – Cercle del Liceu – Until 25 November

Having enamoured half the world with black and white cartoon videos, which give a poetic form to the contradictions and suffering in his native Africa, in Sonnets Kentridge proposes an exploration of colour in movement. Edited using the rhythms and sounds of Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 18, it is a flip book filmed in video, created using thin layers of colour painted on the pages of the book. The projection marks the first collaboration between loop and the Venezuelan collector Tanya Capriles.

Giovanni Giaretta, La casa ostinato crescendo, 2017. Fundació Suñol.

City Screen – Galleries, independent spaces and art centres in Barcelona

The open section of the festival offers an x-ray of the contemporary art scene in Barcelona. Added to the galleries of the Art Barcelona association are another thirty-odd spaces with highly recommended videos, from the work created by Jake Elwes using Artificial Intelligence (Espai Angram) to projects by Miralda (Senda) and the unreal atmospheres of Alberto Merino (Espai Souvenir).

The Knight’s Home

The Knight’s Home

Just as the knight raises his sword in the air, so the lord raises his castle on the plain, on the sand at the sea’s edge, on the rocks, always above the fascinated gaze of the people. This is the most visible gesture of power, of individual sovereignty, of victory over a hostile environment.

Perhaps it is for that reason that St. Martin’s sword is preserved today in the Military Museum in Paris, the sword of virtue of our monarchs, evoking the splendour of the high crown – with a relief of St. Martin slashing his cloak with the royal sign of the four stripes in two – in the same way that the scattering of castles across the Catalan territory also evokes in us a society of eminent medieval warriors, in line on their mounts, dominating, watchful, and instilling fear from their position of height.

Saint Martin’s sword.

The castle, the lord of the castle, the knights that serve and protect him; in Catalonia the territory is ever changing, transforming, expanding, but there is always the same phenomenon – the lightning conductors which attract every gaze are the only possible centre of attraction. Such are they that today, now that the feudal societies have disappeared forever, the castle continues to dominate the landscape, even though it may be in ruins; the lofty castle continues to attract all eyes and never ceases to be admired because it defies vertigo, as is the case with the Castle of Eramprunyà, for example. There is no doubt about its protagonism. Nor can its name merge into the map or into among the other road signs since all castles have their own name, which is specific and remains within memory, resonating with the clink of sterling coins, with the solid rotundity of the Old Catalonia, a true testimony to the never-ending conquests against the Moors, perpetual internal conflicts between warring factions, the insurrections against the king but, especially, the arrogant individuality of the warlords, dissidents at will, always untameable, self-financing, difficult people.

Montsoriu Castle.

Saying the names out loud is satisfying. The Castle of Montosoriu in the La Selva, Bellver in Mallorca, Peníscola in Baix Maestrat, the Castles of Montgrí and Requesens in the Empordà, Suda in Tortosa, Miravet in the Ebre Delta, Claramunt Castle in the Penedès, Boixadors in Anoia, Llordà and Mur castles in Pallars, Cardona Castle, solemn and powerful like a mountain. The castles dominate the boundaries of a small, local or great land lord and also the temporary camps of the moving troops and protection for the residents of the counties who flood there at times of uncertainty. The castle was built when, suddenly, the power of the monarchs after the Roman Empire was definitively broken and had to survive through the new political links with the incipient nobility, if it wanted to survive at all, that is. This set of mutual obligations meant that the territory became a new reality which received the name of the fief, with one or more castles which the lord would transfer to one of his subjects in an agreement sealed with a kiss.

Llordà Castle.

I’ll say that again. The castle or set of castles were obtained in exchange for a kiss and nothing else. The vassalage ceremony may seem strange in our society but there is nothing special about it to attract attention. Through this transfer to a new subject – historically at first temporarily and then hereditary in nature – he became the new vassal. This is a curious Celtic word which simply means ‘young man’ in the sense of servant – a person with an honourable and submissive relationship with another higher up the hierarchy.

Saint Martin’s sword, detail.

It is, of course, an unequal relationship (how many relationships aren’t?) but it is established between free men, between two people who can decide on their destiny and one which appears very much like an adoption, but an adoption between adults.  The vassal is protected by the lord in situations of conflict or bad luck, and they are even maintained if necessary, for both their major and minor needs.  And in exchange, the vassal swears loyalty and indefinite service to his superior, whatever their rank, whether from an established clan, a major lineage or the king himself.

Mur Castle and Collegiate Church of Santa Maria.

In Catalonia and in the lands of Oc this age-old feudal agreement is documented and purposefully denominated convenientia, or a set of promises that freely establish two people; a political relationship that is very like a commercial one. This is set out in a text so that it cannot be the subject of future misunderstandings. The link which is sealed with the kiss or osculum. The lord and the vassal kiss each other on the lips because they have decided to establish a family relationship even though they do not share the same blood and, like in a marriage of two different bloods, they wish to publicly demonstrate their new relation through this great affective ritual. A relationship of love, of domestic proximity.

Miravet Castle.

From that point, independently of the age of the figures in question in the agreement, the lord – a word which in fact means the ‘greater’ of the two, the ‘senior’, who is older and therefore naturally deserves a greater level of leadership – now has a new member of the family, understood in a broad sense because this also includes his servants and those closest to him. This new member is the ‘young man’ – the vassal – and as the ‘younger’ has to be protected and provided for by the leader of the group in one way or another, sometimes by giving him property, a legacy which will enable him to live a better and more independent life,  but also one which depends on the leader: that legacy is the castle – a residence which is more or less fortified and sometimes a great fortress.. The bigger the castle, the greater the ostentation of the gift from the lord, the greater is its power, its fame and its prestige among the princes and nobles.

Game box.

This testimony to an age which began to enter into decline with the French Revolution, but which would not end until the end of the twentieth century, the castle is the physical witness to a very specific society in our artistic and emotional imaginery, specifically in the societies with European national roots; that of our remote ancestors with whom we share the permanence of the Catalan language in a single territory. The exhibition The Splendour of Catalan Castles, with all of the everyday objects that it contains, from the domesticware to the table games, from the arms to the gold and silverwork, does nothing more than to confirm the extraordinary interest that this heritage continues to leave in our understanding of history. The castle, whether in its original state or in an abusively kitsch restoration (by supposed specialists in medieval society that have today been outed as spurious experts) attracts us to a proximity, a familiarity and emotions that are not offered even by the Greek and Roman remains, military installations or the vestiges of other civilizations.

View of the exhibition.

We know that we come from a land of castles in the same way that the Central Americans know that they come from the land of pyramids. The castle is a whole set of things for us but maybe the most important is that it reminds us of the local distribution of power, the fearful existence of fortified buildings where the knights who were able managed to establish themselves behind the threshold of them. In their way they were able to establish a kind of individual freedom, rudimentary it has to be said, and often slight, but nevertheless a certain experience of autonomous living, a certain manifestation of independence of criteria, always within the precarious legal balance of their relationship with the powerful lord. The castle in the landscape is probably the most ancient example of primitive individual consciousness. It is the most profound evidence of man’s personal affirmation.

The Splendour of Catalan Castles can be seen in the Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia in Barcelona until 3 February 2019.

Bibliophilia and Process

Bibliophilia and Process

Last Thursday in Barcelona there was an extraordinary auction of antiquarian books and manuscripts. The organisers Soler y Llach, are a reference in this kind of sale.

Most of the lots were sold. You can see the results here, and they throw up two very interesting facts.  On the one hand it is clear that the bibliophile market has become firmly consolidated following years of slow recovery. There are books and documents on the market that are so much a part of our history that they cannot be ignored. Our cultural heritage is not just in the hands of the governmental agencies, which did not attend this auction.

Practica, forma, y estil, de celebrar Corts Generals en Cathalunya, 1701.

On the other hand, and in line with a series of cultural tendencies related to national identity, there was an enormous interest for everything to do with the most specific episodes and aspects of the history of Catalonia: documents and books about the War of the Spanish Succession, medieval Catalonia and the laws related to Catalonia and the Kingdom of Aragon.

By way of example, there was a section dedicated to the War of the Spanish Succession, with 43 lots of books, bans, leaflets and manuscripts. Not only were almost all of the lots sold, but many either doubled or tripled the starting price.

Perhaps the prices started too low, but the fact is that, for example, a set of 35 strophes and poetic leaflets dedicated to King Charles III, some of which were in Catalan, reached almost twenty times the original asking price: from 120 Euros they were sold for 2,200.

A mysterious anonymous manuscript, written around 1830, about the history of Barcelona from Chief Councillor to Philip II, Joan Fiveller, which was up for 100 Euros, sold for 4,000.

Other beautiful items from Barcelona bibliophilia were Rafael Tasis: Tot l’any. Dotze estampes barcelonines i un pròleg, 1943 – a print run of 55 copies on filter paper; lithographs by Antoni Clavé; and an extraordinary leather-bound item by the mythical Emili Brugalla, finally sold for 3,200 Euros from a starting price of just 350.

Usatges de Barcelona e Constitucions de Cathalunya, 1495. The first printed constitution of Catalonia.

But the high point of the auction was the section of Gothic and incunabular books from the Ausiàs March Library – a false name for an owner who wished to remain anonymous.

The lots relating to medieval legislation in Catalonia and the Spanish state sold for unprecedented amounts: some of the Usatges de Barcelona e Constitucions de Cathalunya printed in 1495, and probably some of the first to see the light of the printing press, reached a total of 10,000 Euros (divided into lots of 4,500). Successful bids for the Suma de los Fueros de Aragón y observancias del noble e ínclito Reyno de Aragón (1525) by Jacobo Soler, rose from 700 to 8,000 Euros. A Consolat de Mar published in 1518 went from  1,800 to 5,500 Euros, and the classic from Catalan literature, the Crònica dels fets… del Inclyt Rey Don Jaume Primer Rey d’Aragó, de Mallorques e de Valencia: Compte de Barcelona e de Muntpesller (1562) was sold for 3,000 Euros from a starting price of just 1,200.

Ramon Llull, Blanquerna, 1521.

The highest sales were for the classic Libro primero de Morgante y Roldán y Reynaldos donde se cuentan sus maravillosos hechos en armes (1550). This story, which was quoted by Cervantes in the first chapter of Quixote, was on sale from 4,000 Euros but the hammer finally went down at 12,000! And the adaptation of Ramon Llull’s Blanquerna by Ramon Joan Bonllabi – a rare classic with Gothic typography and wood print, was originally set at 6,000 Euros but finally sold for 19,000.

Conclusion: there is certainly a market here, opportunities and many future possibilities for the sale of good quality bibliographic material, and that market is a good indicator of the current interest in our own history.

The Genius and Figure of Manuel Duque

The Genius and Figure of Manuel Duque

From time to time the Vila Casas Foundation has little great successes despite the fact that they often become fogged by an excess of eclecticism and exhibitional hyperactivity governed by rather indulgent criteria.

But sometimes, being free and easy has its benefits, and the current exhibition of work by painter Manuel Duque (Nerva, Huelva, 1919 – Sabadell, 1998), set out simply and exquisitely under the excellent curation of Imma Prieto, is a good example, and a memorable one. It is also worth mentioning that the Espai Volart has improved dramatically since the extension of the east wing on the ground floor, which is where this magnificent retrospective is taking place.

View of the exhibition.

Manuel Duque, from Light to the World is a good review of an accursed, unknown and forgotten artist for many people, marginalised in the history of art – Catalan, Spanish and International.  This is captured very well in the first room. The space is very large, empty, scarcely lit and, apart from the presentation text, there is just a flat vitrine at the back of which is a small photograph of Manuel Duque like an ordinary visitor to the MACBA. The vitrine, which is internally lit, shows a glorious and fleeting moment in the life of the artist, when he was in Paris in the 1960s and was working with a couple of galleries – first that of Mme. Breteau and then that of Romy Audouin – where he developed his messianic theories with a touch of megalomania which, over time, would become more aggravated.

Of course, there is no evidence of this in the exhibition itself, because very little survived except for the individual and group diptychs of where he exhibited, beside the biggest names in abstraction in the world (as well as some other, also today forgotten), and of his own mythology, which remains as an oral tradition among a few friends and faithful admirers.

Manuel Duque, Untitled, 1956.

The second room is monochrome, and the works are grouped together in series. There are few of them and they are very well selected, just like the rest of the show. This is the part dedicated to the beginning of Duque’s abstract period which took place in Paris in the mid-1950s, where he had moved to thanks to fellow Sabadell painter Joan Vilacasas, who was his friend during his formative years in the French capital. This was the period known as nuagisme which owed as much to Jean Fautrier as to J. M. William Turner. This double view towards the present and the past would be one of the constant factors in his work from that time on. From the clouds he would move on to graphism, approaching the likes of Cy Twombly and Henri Michaux, but also oriental calligraphy, with some clear and concise works.

Manuel Duque, Untitled, 1959.

The third room is an explosion of colour and corresponds to the euphoric time of the Gallot Group, at the turn of the decade from the fifties to the sixties. Here there is a self-assured and successful flourishing of the energetic stroke and unconstrained chromatism of Willem De Kooning. This period can be related to the contemporary works of other members of the Gallot group from Sabadell, especially Antoni Angle, an artist who was even more accursed because, unlike Duque (who was always faithful to his principles despite not rising to fame) Angle sold out, embracing commercial, anodyne painting of landscapes, still lifes and portraits to keep the wolf from the door, from the beginning of the 1960s.  But here, we are concerned with the vindication of just one of the artists of the group.

Manuel Duque, Untitled, 1960.

The fourth and final room contains the last years of the painter, when he enjoyed a certain beatitude and demand, albeit in his local area. There is a great temporal ellipsis which corresponds to the vitrine mentioned at the beginning of this article. In the final room colour is reunified although limited almost always to green, yellow and black, with innumerable shades like a return to nuagisme, but this time rooted in the earth and nature. The violent, wild, spontaneous gestures of the Gallot has become tamed by lyricism and a patient admiration for the English and French painting of the eighteenth century. The backgrounds of the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough are ever-present in the oils of the 1970s and 1980s, paving the way for the even more delicious Rococo scenes of Jean Honoré Fragonard which correspond to the last stage of Duque’s production, marked by a motto of his own choice which he never tired of repeating: “rehabilitate painting”, facing up to new artistic tendencies, often in a belligerent manner, but one which was not devoid of irony.

Manuel Duque. From Light to the World can be seen in the Espais Volart of the Vilacasas Foundation until 30 December 2018.

The Timelessness of Frederic Amat

The Timelessness of Frederic Amat

It is very difficult to resist the charm of the cabinets of curiosities. They first appeared during a time when knowledge was accumulated through material objects, whether art or books, and not through online clouds.

The cabinets contained objects which were either curiosities, difficult to find, or which had a historical and/or scientific value, or which were simply beautiful, combining artistic pieces with junk, fossils and different archaeological finds to bring together science and art. In short, small private museums avant-la-lettre.

General view of the exhibition.

Within contemporary artistic practice, the idea of accumulation has also been a common one, although often for purely documentary aims; but the strength of the cabinet of curiosities has not waned, as seen in the large number of installations of this type at the Venice Biennale in 2013. In that same spirit, Frederic Amat (Barcelona, 1952) and the Artur Ramon Art Gallery have recreated a cabinet of curiosities, in which works by the artists are in dialogue with the collection of the gallery.

In a large installation occupying a large part of one wall, Amat celebrating his status as an artist who moves between different disciplines, from theatre sets to film, has recycled some of the wooden shelves used to the theatrical monologue The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, which opened in 2014. It is a recycling of a recycling since the shelves originally came from the historical fabric store Ribes & Casals in Barcelona.

On these distressed shelves Amat has placed over a hundred objects, which are of all different kinds, but where their physical proximity in a small space makes them part of the same family, despite their historical and stylistic differences. Small format paintings, ceramics and sculptures by Amat himself nestle shoulder to shoulder with antiquities such as a seventeenth century Flamenco sculpture, a drawing by José de Madrazo, a Spanish Romanesque figure of the virgin, etchings by Piranesi, small chests, apothecary jars and glass objects. Beside the old works, Amat’s paintings and ceramics seem to recede into the past. Or is it that the antiquities have become modern objects?

Amat’s iconographic obsessions, such as eyes, seem to be reflected in a mirror of details like the seventeenth century plate of porcelain olives from Lleida. It is a continual play of semantic and aesthetic comparisons, which surely hide the secrets that Amat, who is also an unabashed collector, has decided not to reveal, but which invite the viewer to observe the installation closely.

To complement this work, Amat exhibits two others as well as a series of nine recent pieces from the Cartografies series, in which he creates random maps on paper. In the end, geography often also forms a part of the cabinets of curiosities at a time when people began to calculate their precise physical situation in the world. Beyond space, in this simple but very suggestive exhibition of Frederic Amat, time, ages and centuries intermingle. Or rather, they do not exist.

Wunderkammer-Frederic Amat can be visited at Artur Ramon Art until January 18, 2019.

The Movies According to Stanley Kubrick

The Movies According to Stanley Kubrick

The first characteristic to define Stanley Kubrick and his movies is his extremely high and exceptional ambition. Well-known and often cited is his declaration of intention which to many may seem arrogant: “I expect to make the best movie ever made”. There will some who, after the failure of his most ambitious and unrealised project, defined his non-movie about Napoleon Bonaparte as his “best movie never made”. But it was said as much in admiration as irony.

I think Kubrick (New York, 1928 – Saint Albans, England, 1999) belong to that species of movie directors which could include Abel Gance, Orson Welles and Terrence Malick, and also Francis Ford Coppola of Apocalypse Now fame. These are directors who, for their personality and artistic ambition sometimes have a tendency for grandiosity or excess in a superproduction. It is true that the pretension of achieving a brilliant style at any cost can led to an emphasis on the excessive, or “overplaying” the elements of style and authorship.

2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1965-68; GB/United States). Film still. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

However, the problem does not exist as long as the depth of vision is at the same level as the artistic pretensions. It is also true that some directors have managed to make both their cinematographic language and the human condition more profound without the need for that grandiloquent tone. That was the case, for example, in such film masterpieces as Ukigusa by Yasujiro Ozu, Apur sansar by Satyajit Ray, Shichinin no samurai by Akira Kurosawa and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford.

Fortunately, Kubrick knew how to temper his tendency towards grandiloquence with self-critical level-headedness and lucidity. And that is how he was able to reach such exceptional greatness in works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980). It is a difficult and infrequent achievement with a musical equivalent in some of the early work of King Crimson (1969-1974).

Barry Lyndon, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1973-75; GB/United States). Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) and the Chevalier de Balibari (James Magee) at the roulette table. Film Still. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The Cinema Auteur

Kubrick’s work, like that of Hitchcock and Kurosawa, can be used as definition of what auteur cinema is. In other words, to define exactly what the element of authorship is for a movie director who films and composes a work from a previously conceived story by somebody else: a novelist who is obviously co-author of the movie – albeit involuntarily or even posthumously – as much as the director and the screenwriter or screenwriters. This is something rarely recognised by the critics and historians who are still believers in and confused by the self-promoting myths and dogmas of the old “Cahiers du Cinéma”, which only set up the pedestals for the figure of the director.

Kubrick is a good example of an author as an individual and also as a collaborator, especially compared with others who in addition to directing and co-writing, came up with all the ideas for the best plots and scripts themselves, such as Ingmar Bergman. Anyone who knows the history of cinema could get in less than half a minute, without any outside help, the authorship of films like Persona by Bergman, Amarcord by Fellini or Lancelot du Lac by Robert Bresson. Faced with a movie by Kubrick that our hypothetical movie-goer did not know, he might take a few minutes to guess the authorship. The reason, above all, is because Kubrick changed according to the subject and genre he was dealing with in every film. However, there are some recognisable stylistic and thematic features in his work.

2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1965-68; GB/United States). Stanley Kubrick and his team on set during the filming. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The first of those is an exceptional capacity for expressing himself through images, which manage to summarise an essential part of the much wider content of a work. For example, the famous cut between the prehistoric flying bone and the spaceship in 2001. This is perhaps the clearest example in cinema of union over the abyss, a practice with its origins in Surrealism which continues to be valid in art and poetry. But there are other examples of images which provide summaries or essential elements. One of the best is provided by the tracking shots in the mazes of The Shining – inside the hotel and on the snow-covered lawn. Everything in that film tends to duplicate itself, like Jekyll and Hyde: the presentable young man, the hidden killer. Or the uncanny discovered in the familiar, according to Freud. These mazes, which allude to the hidden monster of Greek mythology, the Minotaur, were not present in Stephen King’s story.

The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1980; GB/United States). The daughters of former caretaker Grady (Lisa and Louise Burns). Film Still. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Kubrick is an extraordinary director both in the narrative concision through which his movies become poetic images, and in his expansiveness where necessary. Among some of his best decisions as a director is his collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke for 2001, to produce a narration which is also an essay and which, like the best poetry, has many complementary and uncontradictory layers of meaning which can only been revealed after several readings or viewings.  But I would also like to point out some of the less obvious choices. First, the decision to distance himself from the ‘arriviste’ character of Barry Lyndon, turning the first-person narrative of William Thackeray’s original into a third person which does not make identification with the main character easy.  This was a lesson learned following the ultraviolence of the main character in A Clockwork Orange (1971), which was unfortunately imitated by some of the viewers.

A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1970-71; GB/United States). Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his droogs assault the home of Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee) and rape his wife (Adrienne Corri). Film Still. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Another great decision, and one that was suggested by the co-writer of The Shining, Diane Johnson, was to present the spirits in the hotel as bodies capable of physical action: serving drinks, for example, before the family massacre. In that film, Kubrick raised the bar for the horror genre and composed an essay on evil. One of the keys is the saying repeated by father and killer writer on many pages of his manuscript: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Excessively holed up with his family combined with an unfulfilled creative vocation produces that frustrated energy which turns into destruction…beginning with his own family. That is how evil, its darkness generally hidden, appears in The Shining in the form of brilliant clarity, in elegant and well-lit places, in a hotel built on a sacred ground, an ancient Indian cemetery that evokes the American genocide: British migrants armed with guns slaughtering the indigenous populations.

Barry Lyndon, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1973-75; GB/United States). Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) plays the piano with her son, Bryan Patrick Lyndon (David Morley), with tutor Reverend Samuel Runt (Murray Melvin), in the background. Film Still. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Significant Music

Another of the main stylistic features of Kubrick is his use of music. While most directors use music as an easy speaker to strengthen or even awaken emotions and feelings, and while directors such as Bresson and Buñuel clearly reject this resource as being too easy, preferring, like Jacques Tati to use sounds, Kubrick opted for a no less radical path: he used music as a fundamental and meaningful part of his movies. The music is extremely significant in 2001, and in fact you cannot understand it if you do not know about Nietzsche’s concept of Übermensch, or superman, conveyed through the music of Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Paths of Glory (1957; United States). Stanley Kubrick on the set of Paths of Glory. © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

The music of composers like Ligeti, Penderecki, Händel and Schubert, among others, is essential in three of the four movies by Kubrick which are for me his main masterpieces: 2001, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. The fourth, for me is Paths of Glory (1957), the best ever anti-war movie, against the commanders that promote and benefit from it. It was the movie most feared by the political powers, even the “democratic” ones, and experienced the longest censorship in history in countries such as France and Spain.

Music had already acquired a special value in Dr. Strangelove (1964). It was in that movie, made at the height of the Cold War, that a few naive and trivial songs representing an ideological and political lack of awareness accompany the real danger of nuclear war. The series of atomic explosions in the apocalyptic final is met by an unexpected and implausible song: “We’ll meet again / Don’t know where, don’t know where…” We will meet again at the end of the world.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1963-64; GB/United States). Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in the War Room. Film Still. © Sony/Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

The Sense of the Work

It is not true, as some believe, that all works of art or literature are reflections on the human condition. This is only achieved by the best. Kubrick’s movies offer some intense audio-visual experiences but are also specifically cinematographic reflections on several fundamental aspects of the human condition. For example, vanity as the cause and driving force for catastrophic lives, interpersonal violence and institutional and legal violence against individuals and the difficulty in fighting it. Or what is evil, sinister and unrecognised, which is perpetrated precisely because it is not recognised. Or destruction as the deflection of unexpressed creative energy (The Shining).  Or the double life of sexual desire in its repressed existence and in its phantasmagorical dream state (the marriage and adultery in Eyes Wide Shut, 1999). Or the historical and evolutionary adventure of the human species itself, from animal innocence towards spiritual knowledge by way of a phase – the current one – of technocracy which is not yet wise.

And all these themes are interconnected. Rebellion against the destructive HAL computer in 2001, prior to the spiritual and liberating phase of the superhuman being (not quite “too human” now) imagined by Nietzsche, is not so far from the anti-slave and anti-imperialist rebellion of Spartacus.

The exhibition Stanley Kubrick can be visited at the CCCB in Barcelona until March 31, 2019.

Eppur si muove!

Eppur si muove!

It is not easy to gain access to kinetic art from the world of screens and digital media. Accustomed to the paradigm of constant and liquid movement, kinetic art pieces and their commitment to the study of movement have something of an old-fashioned method, a mechanical process and a touch of magic. It is almost as if we are talking of another age.

At La Pedrera they have proved it. The exhibition Open Works. Art in Movement, 1955-1975 has offered Barcelona a broad sample of plastic and sculptoric kinetic art from the twentieth century. Curated by Jordi Ballart and Marianna Gelussi, the exhibition centres on the 1950s and 1960s, and crosses over into minimalism and the aesthetic of pop art. The list is a long one with classics from those years such as Jean Tinguely, Victor Vasarely, Lygia Clark and Carlos Cruz-Diez, who presents a chromatically traversable installation. But there are also contemporary artists such as Mona Hatoum and Ann Veronica Janssens. The international representation is broad, but also present, despite the fact that kinetic art in Catalonia was not such a great trend, are Leandre Cristòfol and Jordi Pericot, and from Spain Eusebio Sempere.

A person passes in front of the work of Julio Le Parc Cloison lames réfléchissantes, 1966.

Of the first group –those who had already wanted to move away from visual quietism in the 1920s and 1930s– there are fewer works, and it would have been good to see more both for the injection of avant-garde innovation that they represented which by the fifties and sixties had disappeared. Let’s take three points to illustrate what we are talking about.

First. Naum Gabo, a scientist by training, write the Realistic Manifesto together with Antoine Pevsner in 1920. It was the first invocation of kinetic art with arguments such as the need to end the visually immobile artistic tradition and its condition as elite art, along with others which are reflected in science: “Look at a ray of sunlight…the most silent of all silent forces, yet it travels at three hundred kilometres a second”.

Second. There was no holding Marcel Duchamp back, and in 1929 he took a series of optical discs and made them spin with the use of a film camera. He alternated them with others on which there were words written in French such as anagrams, alliteration and puns. With his Anaemic Cinema –the projection which opens the exhibition at La Pedrera– a kinetic Dada was born. The idea of the optical disks pursued him and by 1935 it was the viewers themselves who operated them by means of a small motor. These were his first Rotoreliefs, very simple mechanisms in which the eye perceives a depth that the brain knows is not there.

And third. In 1930 Alexander Calder managed to make his pieces move on their own. Beforehand he had reduced the material to its minimum expression: a wire. It was Duchamp who gave the pieces their name: mobiles. And later it was Jean Arp who designated the works by Calder resting on the ground as stabiles.

It is worth returning to their origins to understand these things, If Naum Gabo had the idea, Duchamp’s optical disks and Calder’s mobiles mark the two main lines of the works exhibited in la Pedrera: the works which generate a sense of movement and those which do actually move.  The former gave rise to Op Art which displaced much of the kinetic art. An art which puts the human eye in a position to discern whether a body has moved in space or whether it is all an optical illusion to make the brain understand that in questions of movement and perceptions of movement it does not have the last word.

A person photographs the work of Alberto Biasi Dinamica ottica, 1962-1967.

In front of some of the works exhibited in La Pedrera you get the feeling that you are looking at a zoetrope, a magic lantern or one of the first motion picture cameras. Seldom have I seen that slight movement of the onlooking subject: who or what is moving? Enchanted visitors stand in front of the works swaying slightly to the right or the left, or forwards and backwards in a minimal, very minimal movement. Umberto Eco reflected on the idea of opera aperta his 1962 essay, and from there comes the name of an exhibition that asks the viewer to take part in closing the work, resolving the question. Does it move, or does it not move?

Eppur si muove! is the story of Galileo Galilei when he said, under his breath, after he denied before the inquisition that the earth moves, But it moves! This is the sensation of the experiment that we see today and that was named, first in the 1920s and then in the fifties and sixties, kinetic art. Leaving La Pedrera we go back to our mobile, which means “that which is not still”. The exhibition had the magic of past times.

Open Works. Art in Movement, 1955-1975 can be visited in La Pedrera until next January 27, 2019.

Lee Miller, a Genius in the Net of British Surrealism

Lee Miller, a Genius in the Net of British Surrealism

If there was ever an exhibition that we could say “has many different readings”, without falling into either clichés or exaggeration, it has to be Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, which is currently on at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona.

To start off, the name Lee Miller, which has acquired mythical status in twentieth century photography apart from having a delicious biography and being one of the most courageous and hypercreative women in a men’s world, seems to be the perfect hook for explaining to the public the Surrealist movement in Britain, which can be situated on the periphery of the French movement. It is the central theme of this exhibition, produced by The Hepworth Wakefield, in West Yorkshire (another periphery compared with London).

In this “net”, as the exhibition curator Eleanor Clayton calls it, Lee Miller, along with her last partner, the artist and critic Roland Penrose, became the ambassador for international Surrealism in Britain, having been a photographer in Paris since 1929. It is at that time, when she was working in the French capital, and accompanied in both a professional and sentimental sense by the “official” photographer of the Surrealism movement, Man Ray, that the exhibition starts. If it is true that a little mouse running between Miller’s feet while she was in the darkroom was the chance cause of the solarisation process, in this exhibition that is a minor detail.

One of the readings of the exhibition is that it shows the creative genius of Lee Miller, who learned photography when she was working as a model in the USA. Chance, self-representation and self-construction of her character, a sense of humour, contradiction, mystery and even denouncement are present throughout Miller’s work, whether it be artistic photography, fashion or photojournalism. When, while taking photos of surgical operations to earn a living in Paris, Miller “stole” a breast that had been removed in mastectomy and placed it on a plate as if it were a delicious meal, she is making Surrealism. When she makes her swimsuit model for Vogue pose with an inflatable fish, she is making Surrealism. When, to document the health workers in the Second World War, she shows a nurse wrapped in sterilised gloves like menacing hands, she is making Surrealism. And Miller makes Surrealism when she climbs into Hitler’s bath in Munich and constructs one of the most iconic photojournalistic images of the Second World War.

This is also an exhibition of exhibitions, which reflects the crucial role of the exhibition in the discourse of modern art history. It revisits and, in part, reconstructs, the key shows of British Surrealism, in particular the large and well-known International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London in June 1936. Present in that exhibition were Lee Miller’s lips floating over a well-known landscape by Man Ray, but also Salvador Dalí who was on the point of suffocating inside a diving suit he had worn for one of the exhibition’s conferences.

This is also an opportunity to discover much less well known artists in Spain, such as the painter and sculptor Eileen Agar, whose shadow reflected in a column appears in one of Lee Miller’s best known photos; painter Tristram Paul Hillier, influenced by Tanguy, De Chirico and Dalí; painter John Banting; and obviously Roland Penrose, well beneath the talent of his wife but nevertheless with a great capacity for leadership and analysis within the group.

Another reading of the exhibition describes the connections on either side of the English Channel, the friendships and elective affinities among the surrealists. As a result of these comings and goings, and also for love, Lee Miller ended up living in England. When Penrose met her in 1937 he invited her to “a sudden surrealist invasion” in Cornwall, and there Miller photographed Paul Eluard and Nusch, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington in an atmosphere of complete freedom. Joan Miró was also a great friend of the couple. In fact, Roland Penrose commissioned the large retrospective of Miró at the Tate Gallery in 1964.

And finally, this is an exhibition for simply strolling through a host of artist jewels such as the mysterious forest paintings by Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington Henry Moore’s organic sculpture shapes; the diminutive Earth and Excrement by Maruja Mallo; and obviously all the works by Miller.  By the way, has it occurred to you that when we talk about ‘genius’ we are rarely thinking of women?

Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain can be visited in the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona until January 20, 2019.