Did you know that Frederic Marès (1883-1991) is the sculptor with the greatest presence in the public space in Barcelona? Plaça Catalunya, Diagonal and even inside Santa Maria del Mar and the Palace of the Catalan Government, for example.
There is also much of his work spread out around the cemeteries of the whole of Catalonia and he was responsible for the reconstruction of the royal tombs at Poblet. Despite such a prolific presence, Marès’ sculptural works, with their strong links to Noucentisme plus the fact that he was the artist commissioned to produce many institutional works during the Franco period, are not as widely known or recognised as his collecting activities, which made it possible to open the magnificent museum in the 1970s next to the cathedral.
Frederic Marès Head of Young Man (1915) and Head of Bernat Metge (c. 1925).
Nowadays that museum is one of the most original in Barcelona. It tells the story of Hispanic sculpture form the medieval era to the end of the nineteenth century through a collection made by the sculptor. But apart from the sculpture collection there are also curious collections of thousands of everyday objects, from fans to watches to tin soldiers, toys, ceramic and glass pieces and daguerreotypes. It is a real collector’s cabinet and the result of Marès’ obsession, making it a really special place. Despite its central location and the wealth of its collections the museum continues to be unknown to many of the people who live here and around 60 per cent of the visitors come from outside.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary on 25 November last year, the museum took advantage to promote knowledge about the artistic side of its founder. Throughout the year several event have taken place to promote and spread knowledge about the work of Marès.
So the first of the anniversary celebrations was the sculptor’s spectacular study-library – a space on the second floor of the building which was designed in 1964 but not opened to the public until 1996, five years after his death. This is where Marès accumulated books, where he had his desk and where he received his visitors and which today is the room of the museum which is especially dedicated to his work, in the typical atmosphere of the house.museum. But up until now the motley and dense collection of works did not permit any kind of organised museographic discourse which would allow visitors a greater understand of them.
That is why the museum has now modernised the presentation of this space with a structured discourse and fewer works in order to facilitate a greater view of the pieces and a renewal of the display cases and lighting. Through six thematic areas visitors can get an idea of the artist’s working process with models and versions of many of the works that are now in the public space. For example, there are deer from the monument situated at the crossroads between Diagonal, Gran Via Carles III and Sabino Arana; the monument of Francesc Soler i Rovirosa on Gran Via, which is not a homage but an allegory; the Sant Jordi in the Palace of the Generalitat; the bust of Goya in Saragossa and the Drummer of Bruc. Some of his initial works are also exhibited, some more Modernist in style and clearly influenced by Rodin and Eusebi Arnau, who was Marès’ teacher, and a wooden relief which Marès made for Barcelona City Hall to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the visit of Carles V to the city, and which was never hung in the place that it was destined for. Other exhibits include the large production of medals and funeral art by Marès.
Christ of a 12th-century descent (Asturias).
To enter the space you have to walk through the interior courtyard, displaying a reproduction of the sculpture Nude (Plenitude-Springtime), from 1936. The original of this perfect example of Noucentisme can be found in the Barcelona City Hall. Also, until mid-November the permanent collection of the museum is accompanied by photographs from the museum’s Centre for Documentation and Research, showing Marès himself beside some of the pieces.
Another activity organised for the anniversary is the Barcelona of Frederic Marès route which begins in the museum library and offers a two-and-a-half hour tour of some of the key points of the museum where there are sculptures either by Marès or related to him.
As humans we love to compartmentalise things and so sometimes the grey areas and the middle paths are less noticeable than the extremes.
In the history of Catalan art at the beginning of the twentieth century is was normal to contrast ‘Noucentisme’ with the Avant-garde. But in fact, the situation is much more complex, and while admitting that styles and movements exist, with their ideological bases and diverging forms of expression, the history of art is increasingly perceived as a flux of bedfellows, which is even more enriching and fascinating than the kind of obsolete story told through fixed labels.
Feliu Elias, La galeria, 1928. MNAC, Barcelona.
To show that complexity through around fifty works is that the exhibition Realism(s) in Catalonia 1917-1936 does. It is an initiative of the Network of Art Museums of Catalonia and the first stop of the travelling exhibition is the Maricel Museum in Sitges. Later it will head on to the Valls Museum and then the Garrotxa Museum in Olot. The curator, Mariona Seguranyes, has diligently explored how some artists opted to renovate their artistic language, but without renouncing figuration, so that it connected directly with what was happening in Europe with movements such as the German New Objectivity and the Italian Novecento.
Pablo Picasso, Arlequí, 1917. Museu Picasso, Barcelona.
Picasso, who was in fact the first to see clearly that the succession of styles in his own work did not mean an “evolution”, is the main Catalan artist included in the exhibition. It is therefore very coherent that the exhibition should include his Harlequin, which he painted during a period in Barcelona in 1917 and which in a way symbolises his so-called “return to order” after the explosion of Cubism. It is such a luxury to have this famous work travel to Sitges from the Picasso Museum in Barcelona since it is one of his greatest works and just recently celebrated the centenary of its donation by the artist to Barcelona.
Salvador Dalí, Estudi per a “Figures ajagudes a la sorra”, 1926. Museu de Montserrat, Abadia de Montserrat.
The shadow of Picasso extends throughout the exhibition since he was the inspiration for many of the other artists present. One case is that of Dalí who, in the study of Figures lying on the sand, draws the women in a style which is very much akin to Picasso’s. Or another artist, Pere Pruna, who would evolve in a very different way, with a portrait of his wife which is reminiscent of those Picasso made of his own wife, Olga.
Francesc Vayreda, Palco d’envelat, 1921. Col·lecció particular. En dipòsit al Museu de la Garrotxa, Olot.
But beyond the impact of Picasso, the exhibition also unveils come of the gems of the Network of Catalan Museum and also private collections which in a different context may go unnoticed. In 1928 a young Painter Ángeles Santos made a portrait of her cousin. It was dark and melancholic: a mature work which had never been shown before. It is also a true pleasure to discover the compositional and chromatic richness of paintings like Palco d’envelat (Curtained box) (1921), by Francesc Vayreda or The players (1920) by Francesc Domingo.
Josep de Togores, Les joueurs de billard, 1920. Col·lecció Casacuberta Marsans.
Other players, in this case billiards, feature in one of the masterpieces by Josep de Togores, also from 1920, which display the influence of the New Objectivity. The apparently inoffensive and classical figuration in the portrait of his little brother by Feliu Elias, camouflages some disturbing figures around the model. Nothing is as it seems. It is by no means an innocent figuration like in The gallery – also by Elias – which is virtuous and slightly “vermeerian”, suggesting a topic which is of special interest to Mariona Seguranyes: the melancholy of this inter-war moment. Yes, it was a melancholy period, but it was also a splendorous one, which was unfortunately truncated by two more wars and the most destructive defeat for Catalan art.
Painting, a permanent challenge rethinks the idea of painting and some of the strategies to re-invent it which have followed the pictorial act during the twentieth century and to date. Abstraction, geometry and expanded painting are some of them, as you can see in the exhibition.
If the twentieth century meant the loss of innocence it would also seem inevitable that it would also have its pictorial corollary: the renouncement of the illusion of representation. Because painting was for centuries associated with perplexity and a certain innocence, to the illusion of the story, whether symbolic or literal, to the capacity of believing in the world as if it were a story and in the possibility of naming it and painting it. That is what has been lost, in philosophy, history and also in painting.
Peter Gallo, The Sky, 2016. Col·lecció “la Caixa” d’Art Contemporani.
This is the only way to understand what, during the twentieth century, the struggle to find other paths for painting has meant. Once the faith in this capacity to represent the world has been lost, what is left for painting? Every time the death of painting (like the death of God or the end of history) has been postulated, it has nevertheless reinvented itself again and again. And the paths have been numerous, as seen in this this exhibition by ”la Caixa” – a business which continues to acquire paintings (should we call them “pictorial exercises”?) in the twenty-first century because painting refuses to die.
Painting, a permanent challenge, aims to reinforce the value of painting in the Contemporary Art Collection of ”la Caixa”. And it does. Without trying to be an exhaustive show, it follows the path of some of the changes that have occurred in painting in reinventing itself. The journey towards abstraction, geometries, non-figurative expressionism and volume painting: one by one, all of these are present in the spaces of the CaixaForum.
Juan Uslé, Asa-Nisi-Masa, 1994-1995. Col·lecció “la Caixa” d’Art Contemporani.
The new twentieth century genre of Abstract art (who knows if it is the fourth genre after the established classics of landscape, still life and historical painting) is evident in all its variants. From the optical essays of Joan Hernández Pijoan, Gerard Richter and Wolfgang Tillmans to the chromatic experiments of Ignasi Aballí and the monochromatic silence of Michel Parmentier and Ettore Spalletti, whose angled double canvasses emit a reddish-purple light which seems to feed from the work of Mark Rothko himself.
Julian Schnabel, Don Quijote meets Don Corleone, 1983. Col·lecció “la Caixa” d’Art Contemporani.
Pictoric geometry is represented by the large format canvasses of Sean Scully, the chromatic works of Günther Förg and the obsessive repetitions of Juan Uslé, which break with the idea of cold mathematics. In an attempt to depart from any kind of emotion, the geometric brushstrokes acquire an almost expressionist dimension. Reminiscent of works by Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and Julian Schnabel, while situating themselves in a register of abstraction they do not renounce the power of the image.
“Painting marks no enigma other than visibility.”
But where the collection of ”la Caixa” moves more into the present is in its incorporation of works which take painting into the realm of volume. It is the painting-object or expanded painting that is most significant here. Broken frames by Ángela de la Cruz, customised canvasses by Bernat Daviu, the occupation of space in the installation by Jessica Stockholder, the pictoric objects of Jaume Pitarch and the canvasses that happily sit outside their frames by Carlos Bunga are cases in point. All of them try the limits, even though the limits are not imposed by figuration but by the canvas itself in its most physical aspect.
Walter Benjamin said, although nobody heeded him at the time, that we tend to associate the pictoric experience with the idea of an aura, which is the case in this exhibition. But the aura is not that of the painting in themselves but the work of art. What seems to be inherent in the painting – whether it be expanded, geometricized, abstracted or any other adjectival qualities – is that it needs to be looked at to give it a visibility or an optical sense. The philosopher Merlau-Ponty, also cited by the philosopher Xavier Antich in the text of the catalogue, put it better than anyone else: “From Lascaux to the current day, pure or impure, figurative or non-figurative, painting marks no enigma other than visibility”. Even if the illusion of representation is renounced, which has been the case for many years, what cannot be renounced is optical illusion. And that, today, remains intact.
Prince once said that with all the unreleased material in his mythical musical and visual ‘vault’ he could make an album a year for a century. If it weren’t that maybe not all of the material he left was not release quality, he was probably not exaggerating.
As one of the most prolific musicians in recent decades and despite the fact that his production was truncated by his unexpected death, Prince’s estate has more than enough material to put out previously unreleased work for as long as they want.
Since his death in 2016 some albums which can no longer be found have been re-released, but in terms of new material only part of the triple disc Purple Rain De Luxe (2017), and the much more intimate Piano & a Microphone 1984 (2018) have been put out. And now is the turn of Originals, a collection of songs that Prince “gifted” to other artists but which here are in their very first versions, some of them true demos, sung by the man himself. Some of these songs enjoyed great success later on, like Nothing Compares To You, for The Family, but which gained massive popularity in 1990 in the splendid version by Sinead O’Connor; Manic Monday for The Bangles; and The Glamorous Life for Sheila E, but others much less well-known, especially to audiences from outside America. They all belong to the period of Prince’s greatest torrent of creativity in the 1908s, with the exception of Love… Thy will be done, the majestic spiritual which Prince composed with Martika at the beginning of the 1990s, and which is made even more impressive in this version by Prince’s emotional voice.
Until recently nobody had seriously started to put the Paisley Park vault in order. Now, for the first time, it has a head archiver, Michael Howe, who was actually the negotiator between Prince and Warner records during the last few years of his life. With the agreement of the heirs, Howe made the selection of the 15 songs that make up Originals – a choice which could easily have been completely different given the number of songs that Prince wrote for other artists.
Discovering that the Manic Monday sung by its writer is almost exactly the same as The Bangles’ version is one of the delights of the album but it is also interesting to hear the first version of Nothing Compares To You, which is the only track to have been previously released as a single last year.
But apart from the greatest hits, Originals also offers moments of absolute musical splendour, such as the six-minute long Holly Rock, written for Sheila E. And even the film soundtrack for Krush Groove, which was largely ignored at the time but now, strategically placed half way through the album, stands up as one of the best discoveries of the selection. It is the essence of Prince at his most funky, with a sensual rap delivery, a changing beat and a powerful band in the middle of what sounds like an explosive jam session under the order of a conductor who, once the last note has sounded, will hurl us an ironic “Try dancing to that!”.
Another of the gems from Originals is Make Up, written for the girl group Vanity 6, with its trashy lyrics and yet a minimalist music in the purest and most grassroots electroclash style that clearly shows the experimentalist side of Prince.
Prince effortlessly travels across very different genres and he does so using his voice with its broad and chameleonic range which adapts easily to become the crooner in the short ballad You Are My Love, performed by the king of country at the time, Kenny Rogers. More typical of the lovely soul ballads that Prince composed during his life is Baby, You Are a Trip, for Jill Jones.
Another musically risky track is Dear Michelangelo, for Sheila E., which includes nod to the famous Lara’s Theme from the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago by Maurice Jarre. But here, what is really incredible are the lyrics which show Prince at his most narrative: set in Renaissance Florence it is the story of a country girl who is madly in love with Michelangelo, and aware of the fact that he is gay, prefers to live out a platonic love which is only real in her dreams rather than accept proposals from other men.
In short, Originals is a demonstration of the musical and performing versatility of Prince and of his perfection even when he is just turning out tunes to be performed by others. It is also a heterogeneous album in terms of genres and beats as is always the case with Prince’s music – for me he is the most representative artist of musical postmodernity – and it moves between being a documentary curiosity but also a collection of songs which could perfectly well end up drawing in new listeners.