Morera Museum: future inventory

Morera Museum: future inventory

In this times of cultural precariousness and spending cuts, I have received a magnificent piece of news: the Jaume Morera Art Museum in Lleida is planning to occupy the Palace of Justice. One hundred and two years after its opening, and having been accommodated in four different buildings, one of the best collections of contemporary Catalan art will have a proper home at last.

I visit the museum in the Casino Principal Building. The exhibition General Inventory is on show on two different floors. It is as if they have raided the storerooms. A series of metallic structures hold the collection – which has changed over the years –and as your eyes get accustomed, you start to discover relationships and close dialogue between the works. It is both a very old and a very modern idea.

View of the exhibition Inventari General. Photo: Jordi V. Pou.

I end up in the office of Jesús Navarro, who has been the museum’s director since 1994. We talk about the future of the Morera.

I’ve just visited the General Inventory exhibition. It’s impressive. The leaflet says it’s been open since 5 April 2018, but it doesn’t say when it will end.

At the moment we are not producing any exhibition or educational programmes. We continue to be permeable, but we are putting most of our effort into the new museum project.

The Jaume Morera Art Museum first opened in 1917, so that 102 years ago. We now have a unique opportunity to rethink the museum. We are currently in a period of transition, of opening up to a new museum, so it doesn’t make much sense to talk about the planning of the collection now.

View of the exhibition Inventari General. Photo: Jordi V. Pou.

So, General Inventory has got some time to go.

The exhibition won’t close for another two or three years. These are collections of modern and contemporary art, from between the end of the nineteenth and the twentieth century. Ours has always been a provisional and a precarious existence. If we count the current one, it has been housed in four different buildings. Now we are faced with the challenge, for the first time, of having a permanent home: the Old Palace of Justice of Lleida, and of working in the area of recent artistic memory.

We want to open a new museum: regenerate discourse, create our own story based on the wealth of our collections: Jaume Morera i Galícia, Miquel Viladrich, Baldomer Gili i Roig, Xavier Gosé, Leandre Cristòfol, Antoni G. Lamolla and so on. Our first point of contact will be with the avant-garde trends of the 1930s. And the post-war period, the concerns expressed in the debate between figuration and abstraction, informalist trends, photography and experimental cinema.

We need to build a vision based on the relationships between the centre and the periphery.

And so how will the Morera Museum be different from other Catalan museums of modern and contemporary art?

We need to build a vision based on the relationships between the centre and the periphery We are very close to Barcelona, and this can lead to complicity and tension. And the same is true for Madrid.

We need to incorporate the most recent advances in theory and museum management. We need to give a voice to the silenced minorities: feminist readings, ethnic and social minorities. Work with the transversality of thought: cultivate other creative areas such as image and dramatic arts. We also need to carry out research into which of these museum advances we can actually incorporate. We cannot exhibit in the same way as we did thirty or forty years ago. We need to look into new activities and channels of diffusion.

View of the exhibition Inventari General. Photo: Jordi V. Pou.

How do you generate a discourse from a situation of tension?

We can use the centre-periphery tension, for example, to talk about the reception of the artistic movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the contribution of the creators from Lleida to the history of art in our country. We can talk about recent art and culture in Lleida and the surrounding area. Yes, this is a specific territory, but it still exists within the world; we have to be a window which can show the relations between the local and the global. We need to rethink the discourse and the functions of the museum, especially when they are connected with mediation and knowledge.

The new building is enormous, and i imagine that it will require major financing. As Josep Pla said, who is going to pay for it?

We have the opportunity to rethink the museum for the twenty-first century. It is a unique opportunity. We will have to make a qualitative leap – a change of scale. Now our project is exclusively financed by the local council, but with the new building project all different levels of government are involved: Ajuntament, Diputació, Generalitat, Ministry for Culture, European funding, etc.

And we would like to think that there will be involvement by all, or most of those bodies to support our everyday activities once the initial investment has been made.

View of the exhibition Inventari General. Photo: Jordi V. Pou.

Have you set any kind of time limit so that you don’t tread on the toes of la Panera?

There is no point competing with la Panera, we need to share our visions. It is a contemporary arts centre and it needs to take advantage of its role as a centre for production and be aware of emerging artistic trends. In terms of resources, each thing has its place.

View of the exhibition Inventari General. Photo: Jordi V. Pou.

And what will the new museum be like?

It will almost certainly be the biggest collection of modern and contemporary art – outside Barcelona – in Catalonia. The new building is in the Rambla de Ferran, next to the offices of the Diputació, and just a hundred metres from the main railway station and the future bus station. The building is about 3,400 square metres. On the ground floor will be the foyer, storerooms and possibly the shop. On the first floor we will have the temporary exhibitions hall. On the second and third floors, the permanent collection. The fourth floor will contain the offices and storage space. And on the fifth floor there will be spaces for educational purposes and the auditorium.

And once the new building is open how do you see the future collections?

We have to focus not so much on artistic movements as on works and establish stories which may be conclusive or interrogative. This means breaking with the historiographical character of the story (artists and movements) but not the historical side. We believe that the element of time should be fundamental in museums.

Llorenç Balsach: when Sabadell was at the centre of culture

Llorenç Balsach: when Sabadell was at the centre of culture

Neither Barcelona nor Olot. Sabadell is the place in Catalonia which has more painters per square kilometre. And when I say painters, I mean creators, because those damn labels always give us a biased view of our cultural heritage.

Take the case of Llorenç Balsach Grau. We could give him any number of labels: well-known industrialist, painter, coin collector, patron and collector, and Sabadellenc through and through…and even then we wouldn’t cover everything about him. Not for a lack of labels but because all of these activities or facets are interlinked and one cannot be explained without the others.

Unknown author, Llorenç Balsach, c. 1950. Passport photo. Arxiu Família Balsach.

You can see this in the Art Museum of Sabadell in the curious exhibition Llorenç Balsach Grau (1922-1993). Industrialist, painter, collector, curated by his daughter, the art historian – specialist in Miró – and poet Maria Josep Balsach, also sister of the composer Llorenç Balsach.

And here, neither should we forget Llorenç Balsach’s wife, Maria Dolors Peig i Plans (1922-2013), who introduced textile art into Catalonia. They married in 1945 and from that year on Balsach began to collect paintings. They were almost always artists from or linked to Sabadell:  Joan Vila Cinca, Joan Vila Puig, Durancamps, Feliu Elias, Camil Fàbregas, Francesc Gimeno, etc.

Antoni Angle, Untitled, 1961. Col·lecció Família Balsach.

In 1956 Antoni Vila Arrufat was commissioned to paint Maria Dolors Peig and from that moment on they bought works by their contemporaries: Josep Llorens, Antoni Angle, Alfons Borrell, Manuel Duque, Joan Vilacasas, Joan Bermúdez and Joaquim Montserrat.

Gabriel Morvay, Untitled, 1959. Col·lecció Família Balsach.

During a visit to Paris in 1959, Llorenç Blasach met the Polish painter Gabriel Stanislas Morvay – a talented artist but a bit of a disaster when it came to the practicalities of everyday life. He would live for most of his life in Sabadell under the patronage of Balsach. On returning to Paris in 1960 Balsach would also finance the activities of the Gallot Group.

He would later collect the work of young artists from Sabadell and work by friends of his children such as Antoni Taulé, Perejaume, Benet Rossell, Ramiro Fernández and Oriol Vilapuig.

Llorenç Balsach Grau, Untitled, 1958. Col·lecció Família Balsach.

Llorenç Balsach started out along his own path in painting around 1956. The Spanish Civil War had broken all contact with the avant-garde and the renewed interest in religious art towards the mid-1950s led to a certain interest in Expressionism.

Balsach was influenced by the Sabadell painter Fidel Trias, who had painted murals for a number of different churches, Amedeo Modigliani, Josep Maria de Sucre, Rouault, and German Expressionists such as Schmidt-Rottluf and Max Pechstein. His sketches of the face of Christ and his female portraits in oil are evidence of this.

Llorenç Balsach Grau, Untitled, c. 1958. Col·lecció Família Balsach.

In 1958 his work took a radical turn, first towards geometric abstraction, followed by a darkening of his works until they were almost completely black with a strong component of Matterism. The following year he went to Paris to visit two painter friends:  Antoni Angle and Manuel Duque. There he met up regularly with Mikhaïl Larionov and his wife, Natalia Goncharova.

When he returned he embraced gestural painting and jointed the Gallot Group, made up of Angle, Bermúdez, Borrell, Duque, Llorens, Joaquim Montserrat and Lluís Vila-Plana. Together in the autumn of 1960 they carried out a series of public painting performances, at the Mirador Gallery and in Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona where, in eight minutes they painting a seventy-five metre roll of paper. The event is recorded in a No-Do news film from the Franco era.

Llorenç Balsach Grau, Untitled, 1-10-1959. Col·lecció Desveus Duran.

The activities of the Gallot groups left its members exhausted and it took them a long while to recover, creatively-speaking. Balsach would paint for three more years until 1963, producing a series of works showing an immense patchwork along the lines of the trend for “colour field painting”.

From 1964, Balsach concentrated almost exclusively on his family textile business and coin collection. He painted the odd work but very sporadically.

Llorenç Balsach Grau, Untitled, 1960. Col·lecció Família Balsach.

Characters such as Llorenç Balsach Grau were quite usual in Sabadell: people who combined professional jobs with highly creative work and patronage. One example of this combination is the Balcas, S.A. building (Pere Arderiu, 1950) which Balsach, not content just to have a building in the Bauhaus style, filled it with furniture by Mis van der Rohe; or his pioneering activity in the design of showcases.

It goes without saying that this kind of person from Sabadell no longer exists. Just one trip through the old “Manchester of Catalonia” is testament to this. This exhibition, then, is an elegy to an unrepeatable past. Requiescat in pace.

The exhibition Llorenç Balsach Grau (1922-1993). Industrialist, painter, collector can be seen at the Art Museum of Sabadell until 23 February 2020.

Mirador Gallery: Catalonia as a mirage

Mirador Gallery: Catalonia as a mirage

The weekly Mirador (1929-1938) is undoubtedly the best periodical for culture in Catalonia. Founded by Amadeu Hurtado and directed by Manuel Brunet and Just Cabot, it was requisitioned by the Socialist Party of Catalonia at the beginning of the Civil War and replaced in 1938 with the weekly Meridià.

Mirador spoke through the voices of the best writers and thinkers in the country about literature, theatre, radio, film, music – including the record news – national and international politics, all kind and styles of art…and it even organised two exhibitions: the first was the First Mirador Salon (1933) at the Galeries Laietanes, showing the portraits of the female figure in Catalan painting from 1830 to 1930, and the Second Mirador Salon (1936) on Catalan Gothic art.

View of the Galerie Mirador, at Place Vendôme in Paris. Arxiu Montserrat Tarradellas i Macià. Photo: Anonymous.

War breaks out and many of the people responsible for Mirador settle in France in exile. While in Paris, Víctor Hurtado, the son of the founder and administrator of the weekly and the journalist Lluís Montanyà set up and import and export company. Rosa Castelucho, the granddaughter of established Paris gallery owner Antoni Castelucho, joined them along with Just Cabot who had brought with him his extensive library.

In December 1948 the Mirador gallery and library opened its doors at 17 Place Vendôme in Paris. The sign for the establishment retained the logo of the weekly magazine. This was one of the most sophisticated addresses in the French capital but if you go there now you’ll see that it has become the mecca for jewellers and designer clothing.

The Mirador Gallery in Paris lasted seven years, from December 1948 to December 1955, in two periods. However, nobody has considered its importance or bothered to decipher its history until now when, under the curatorship of Josep Miquel Garcia,

the Apel·les Fenosa Foundation, in El Vendrell, has put on this exhibition and produced the corresponding catalogue.

Just Cabot in front of the Mirador gallery, with the poster (on the left) of the Audibert exhibition. Arxiu Montserrat Tarradellas i Macià.

Josep Miquel Garcia has had the support of the Montserrat Tarradellas i Macià Archive, in the Monastery of Poblet, and has reconstructed the history of the exhibitions that took place at the Mirador Gallery in a new discovery of the cultural dynamism of the Catalan exiles.

The first phase of the Mirador Gallery closed in 1951 when Just Cabot and Rosa Castelucho left. Castelucho took the entire art collection and Cabot took the books, which he used to set up the Librairie Artistique Espagnole et Latino-Américaine at 125 Boulevard de Montparnasse. In 1952, Cabot and Castelucho got married.

During that first period the Mirador gallery exhibited the work of Catalan painter and printmaker resident in Buenos Aires Pompeu Audivert, the Groupe des XV photography group (with Emmanuel Sougez), Maria Sanmartí – in the first artistic endeavour of the mother of painter Antoni Clavé, the Swiss sculptor Roland Duss, painter Hervé Masson –brother of the surrealist painter André Masson, Ismael Font, and the naïf, anarchist painter Miguel García Vivancos.

The second and final phase of the Mirador Gallery ended in December 1955, more or less when Víctor Hurtado’s partner Lluís Montanyà moved to Geneva to be a translator for the United Nations.

Poster of Maria Sanmartí’s exhibition at the Mirador gallery, 1949.

Exhibitions included the works of Claudine Hurwitz, Antonio Suárez, the French-Brazilian artist Marianne Peretti (who was only twenty-five years old and counted Dalí among the guests at her opening, later moving to Brazil), German-born French painter Rolf Hirschland, Scicilian cubist Nino Giuffrida, Japanese painter Key Sato(who was a friend of the sculptor Apel·les Fenosa), Russian-Polish Jewish painter Zygmunt Landau, figurative painter Pierre-Henry, ceramics by Jean Camberoque, drawing by the Dadaist poet Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and a collection of works with a surrealist aesthetic by Léon Tutundjian, Pierre Ino and Mima Indelli.

The programming for the Mirador gallery during those seven years was extremely eclectic.

According to the catalogue, the writer Mercè Rodoreda (1953), and sculptor Josep Granyer (1955) had been due to exhibit at the Mirador but, for different reasons, they never did. According to the news archive of La Vanguardia, the painter Juan de España never got to exhibit at the Mirador Gallery either because of “customs problems”. And Santi Surós had an exhibition there in March 1954.

The programming for the Mirador gallery during those seven years was extremely eclectic. Promising new artists, more or less established artists, Catalans, French, Japanese, Italians, painting, photography, ceramics, and so on. What is most likely is that the book sales propped up economically an establishment that had taken its name from the Catalan heritage of a Catalonia which would never be the same country that its founders had known.

Curiously, Mirador was the name of the gallery in Carrer Casp, Barcelona, that showed the informalist happenings of the Gallot group from Sabadell in 1960. Coincidence? I don’t think so. The Mirador – and the name of our own e-magazine confirms this – continues to be a mirage and a model of cultural excellence.

The exhibition Galerie Mirador, Paris 1948-1955 can be seen at the Apel·les Fenosa Foundation in El Vendrell until February 2020.

Abyss or Refuge?

Abyss or Refuge?

Now that Àngels Ribé has been deservedly recognised with the National Art Prize, the large installation that articulates En caiguda lliure (Freefall) would seem premonitory. It is the first in three exhibitions resulting from the Support for Artistic Creation Programme of “la Caixa” for exhibition projects based on collections at both ”la Caixa” and Barcelona Contemporary Art Museum.

Open in the CaixaForum until 9 February 2020, the show uses the languages of falling as a metaphor for profound change in society and the situation of uncertainty, concern and sometimes even panic which many people are suffering during these times of structural crisis.

Àngels Ribé, Laberint, 1969.

This has guided the choice by curator João Laia (Lisbon, 1981), to include the large yellow maze made by Àngels Ribé, which has only been exhibited twice to date: the first time in Verderonne Castle, in 1969, and then in the Macba in 2011, in the anthology to which it gave its name. Labyrinth, which measures 10 metres in diameter dominates Room 2 to the point of almost swallowing it up. It embraces the visitors and invites them to penetrate its guts, preventing them from walking in a straight line through the space, and thereby presenting the idea of the territory as a source of conflicts, unfortunately as true today as it was in 1969.

As with every participative work the sensations one gets when walking through it are various and, in my case, contradictory. One the one hand  the difficulty in advancing and the impulsive need to look for a way out generate a certain feeling of unease, augmented by the undistinguishable shadows which appear and disappear as you go round, as well as the transparent walls made of plastic – a material which over the 40 years since the creation of the piece, has become charged with a symbolic meaning and an objective danger which produces in me an instinctive sense of rejection. On the other hand, in my mind, the maze evokes a maternal womb, a snail shell, a playful and protected space, a space where you can disappear without hiding.

Andreas Gursky, Theben, West, 1993. Colección ”la Caixa” de Arte Contemporáneo.

 

For the curator, who arrived at Labyrinth via an interesting route which included references to the Endless Fall by Portuguese thinker José A. Bragança, and A Descent into the Maelstrom – a short story by Edgar Allan Poe – the maze is the metaphor of the spiral, the loop, the increasingly accelerated change in which we are living, which makes us feel constantly inadequate and left behind in the face of the technological advances which are sprung on us from all directions. It is no coincidence that Laia takes as the starting point for this general sense of instability and disorientation the abandonment of the Bretton Woods agreement which had regulated the economy since the Second World War. “That abandonment marked the evolution of an economy and finances with the consequent loss of the physical character of monetary transactions”, he explains.

The maze is a conceptual and formal articulation of the presence of the other twelve selected works, very interesting pieces in themselves, and all together they make up a layered story. Laia defines it as “a polyphonic map which describes the present in its macro- and micro-aspects, approaching them from all areas, whether scientific, geographical or political, as well as emotional and personal”.

Georg Baselitz, Schwarze Mutter mit schwarzem Kind, [Black mother with black kid], 1985. Colección ”la Caixa” de Arte Contemporáneo. © Georg Baselitz, 2019.

There are two particularly outstanding pieces: Local TV News Analysis (1980) by Dara Birbaum and Dan Graham which analyses the rhetoric of TV news broadcasts in a context characterised by fake news and media manipulation; and Assault, a film by Runa Islam which evokes the collapse of gender paradigms as an expanded selfie. “They are other kinds of fall”, says Laia, who less than a year ago curated an exhibition for La Casa Encendida in Madrid, called Drowning in a Sea of Data, which is also a reflection on our times, but through more recent works.

Pedro Barateiro, The Audience, 2010. Colección ”la Caixa” de Arte Contemporáneo. © Pedro Barateiro.

 

Added to this polyhedral exhibition – which includes works by Andreas Gursky, Rosemarie Trockel and the Otolith Group, among others – is another layer by the poet and multimedia artist Eduard Escoffet, who has created an atypical audio guide entitled Gravitational Waves, composed of eight sound pieces that can be heard by the visitors – or not – in front of certain pieces in another exercise in participation. As in the case of Labyrinth this work which expands the idea of specific poetry, also generates mixed emotions and reflections. “Here I am with my articulated discourse and coherent narrative and suddenly Escoffet appears and send it all skywards”, concludes Laia.

The exhibition En caiguda lliure (Freefall) can be seen at CaixaForum Barcelona until 9 February 2020.

Joaquim Capdevila: precious metals as artistic expression

Joaquim Capdevila: precious metals as artistic expression

Barcelona, according to journalist and writer Gaziel, is one of the most bejewelled cities.

The importance of jewels and precious metals can be seen by the fact that since the medieval period in Barcelona there was the Sant Eloi Guild of metalworkers and silversmiths. This tradition in the art of jewellery making would remain alive in the creative spirit of different dynasties of Barcelona jewellers. One of the most visible and international was the Capdevila family going back four generations and which you can see today in the creation of Joaquim Capdevila i Gaia at the Design Museum.

Brooch, 1977. Museu del Disseny de Barcelona.

The master jeweller celebrates the 60th anniversary of his productive career with a retrospective to coincide with the Enjoia’t event, organised by the A-FAD, which presents a selection of his creations from 1959 to the current day.

You can see how his first pieces combined silver with other less-used metals and also signs of the work of his father, the first master jeweller in the trade, Manuel Capdevila. Manuel had used river stones, wood and copper in civil and religious gold objects – one significant example is the Kolbe Crown and he used urushi in a series of brooches made as part of an aesthetic that did not toe the line at that time.

Brooch, 1987-1988. Collection “Suite Praga”. Museu del Disseny de Barcelona.

However, Joaquim Capdevila soon took his own creative flight and this can been seen in the collection of around 130 works exhibited from the Design Museum’s collection and other private collections which have loaned the pieces for this occasion.

Seen from a birds-eye view it is clear that this is pioneering work: he works with sculpture (creating forms with volumes), painting (colours, shapes, textured surfaces), the traditions of the trade and design. You can find all kinds of pieces such as bracelets, necklaces, brooches, pendants and examples of gold jewellery, from the FAD cup, used for the annual toast by the its members, to the Sant Jordi Cross, awarded by the Generalitat de Catalunya. You will also see that the although he makes series,   Joaquim Capdevila is also loyal to the creation of one-offs. He has never been tempted by the production of multiples like other artists and jewellers of his generation.

Brooch, 1987-1988. Collection “Suite Praga”. Museu del Disseny de Barcelona.

We especially recommend this kind of exhibition in the face of the current monopoly of screens. You have to focus on the small objects. You will discover how he plays with earthy textures, rust, uneven surfaces, shadows, bursts of colour, calligraphy and heterogeneous materials such as plastic, leather, zinc, fabrics, stones, wood, rubber, silk, glass, iron, ceramics, eggshell, acrylic paint and, of course, silver, gold and occasionally the dazzling twinkle of diamonds.

Capdevila’s jewellery goes well beyond corporal embellishment and can never satisfy the vainglorious upper crust.

It is evident that Capdevila’s pieces are the result of a creative act; they go well beyond corporal embellishment and are incapable of satisfying the vainglorious upper crust. There is even a necklace which must be hell to wear.

But in the pieces exhibited there are also aesthetic reflection of a period of change over the years and a series of analogies can be established. There are echoes of informalism, constructivism, the world of science fiction, gadgets – although Capdevila recycles valuable materials to distance himself from banal consumer objects – and the postmodern aesthetic of the 1980s and 1990s.  There is an extraordinary series of colourful brooches in the same vein as the furniture by Ettore Sottsass or Mariscal.

Brooch, 1997. Collection “Els arbres de la memòria”.

The exhibition closes with the latest collections made in the new millennium such as the Memory Trees, Angelic Condition and the powerful Black Light on Silver. These series transport the life experiences and intimate and spiritual reflections of Capdevila.

Brooch, 2011. Collection “Condició angèlica”.

This exhibition has been curated under the expert guidance of Pilar Vélez, the director of the Design Museum and author of the book Joaquim Capdevila. The “New Jewel” in Barcelona, in which she explores Capdevila as a pioneer and promoter of the New Jewellery in Europe. It is a rigorous, luxury edition, published by Arnoldsche Art Publisher in Stuttgart, and covers Capdevila’s international dimension and his connection with the German avant-garde jewellery circles. Don’t forget that Capdevila’s pieces are also present in other institutions, such as the Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, and MAK –Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, in Vienna.

The exhibition Joaquim Capdevila. Jewellery 1959-2019 can be seem at the Design Museum of Barcelona until 17 November.

The Magic Tricks of Bill Viola

The Magic Tricks of Bill Viola

The art of Bill Viola (Nova York, 1951) has got a hypnotic quality so intense that it fascinates and annoys in equal measure: the same is true for the mystical and spiritual (but not religious) substrata of his work.

It either fills you with enthusiasm, or it wring-foots you or it simply provokes rejection as the result of a lack of place to run to. The dead come back or are resuscitated in Viola’s videos. The  daily life of a modern young woman is shown as that of a saint in a medieval predella. Viewers are called upon to seek the soul. It does not lack beauty. It goes against the tide. That is Viola’s virtue: doing whatever the hell he wants and talking about the human condition through image and sound.

View of the exhibition Bill Viola. Mirrors of the Unseen, in La Pedrera.

In a world full of noise where looking within makes you panic, Viola appeals to silence and introspection, whether it be religious, spiritual, atheist, a belief in the otherworld or whether or not you have read John of the Cross or Rumi, two of the mystical poets which have most marked the artist. Viola simply makes art about transcendence, with an eye to the past but always using the latest technology.

Bill Viola’s first solo exhibition in Barcelona, at La Pedrera, has been a long time coming, given that we are talking about a pioneering artists in video art and the use of audiovisual technology. He has been in the front line for all the different changes in the medium and has used it for the purpose of his own message. When HD was still a pipe dream, Viola was already making videos in the form of paintings, playing with the confusion between the moving image and the photograph. So yes, the exhibition has arrived late, but it has arrived precisely when most of our lives take place through the screen and when, unfortunately, the circle of his work has been closed by a cruel ailment of the memory.

Bill Viola, Incrementation, 1996.

Curated by his lifelong collaborator and his wife Kira Perov, along with Llucià Homs, the exhibition begins with Increment (1996), which is a full declaration of his principles. In a small television monitor, Viola looks at the camera with a neutral expression on his face. He is simply breathing. Connected to the monitor is a screen which counts the number of breaths. That is life. The higher the number, the closer to death. Viola’s fetish poet, the Sufi mystic  Rumi says. “As we breathe, our souls slip gradually out of the prison of this world”.

Viola’s art often alludes to those moments in life when we are experiencing or suffering a transcendental change: the moment of birth and of death; rites of passage; the state between sleep and wakefulness or even pain. These experiences are so profound that they mean a before and an after for any human being. The elements that acts as a means of transport are water, both in falls and pools, which allows rebirth and redemption; and fire, simultaneously destructive ad purifying. The circle of life and death is a continuum.

Bill Viola, The Sleepers, 1992.

In the scenes by Bill Viola, journeys take place in neutral, intelligently illuminated spaces (Oh! Viola’s blue light!) or in places where time seems to stand still such as deserts or in water. The tempo of the videos, with the use of slow motion, has become a sort of trademark; highly studied synchronisation on the multiscreen; unsettling sound and complete silence; and an atmosphere created by the naked set and the everyday clothes of the actors helps the viewer to identify easily with  what they are seeing and awakens in them a kind of profound and internal memory  of forgotten and ancestral journeys.

It is then that we realise we have fallen straight into Viola’s trap. The same trap that sent a couple of viewers felling terrified from the room during the projection of Arrival of a Train at Ciotat by the Lumière brothers at the very start of cinema. Magic tricks, in fact, which use the technology of the moving image. Bill Viola is the magician who makes us believe that the work  Soul (2000) is made up of still photographs, even though you keep staring at it. You go to look at another work, turn around, and the three figures have moved, expressing joy, shame, anger and fear. The super slow motion has tricked our perception.

In the expression of human emotions, which was reflected so well in the series The Passions, Viola touches on a universal topic which connects everything to art history. Another facet of Viola’s work is his unabashed interest in medieval painting and the Italian Renaissance, but also in the history of photography and film-makers such as C.DT. Dreyer. In the show, one of the cases of this direct relation with art from the past is the five-screen work Catherine’s Room (2001), which shows the activity of a woman at home throughout the day, and inspired by the predella of Saint Catherine of Sienna by Andrea di Bartolo.

It is true that this exhibition at la Pedrera leave you with a certain feeling that it is only half there, because the low ceiling of the exhibition hall has meant it was impossible to include large format works, with giant screens, which offer the quality of the great show provided by some of Viola’s works. It is clear that maybe another institution should have put on this truly anthological display of work by Viola in Barcelona, and even more so when the artist has received awards here such as the International prize from the Generalitat de Catalunya.

The Fundació Catalunya La Pedrera has sought to work with other institutions to extend the show: Bòlit in Girona; the Museum of Montserrat; the Episcopal Museum of Vic and Planta. Fundació Sorigué in Lleida. As well as projections planned at the Palau de la Música, on 4 December there will be a White Night with large format projections at the Palau and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. But the exhibition at la Pedrera offers a delicate, precise and more intimate taste of Bill Viola’s art.

The exhibition Bill Viola. Mirrors of the Unseen can be seen at La Pedrera, in Barcelona, until 5 January.

The Opera Makes History

The Opera Makes History

Opera. Passion, power and politics opens two different seasons: the artistic season of CaixaForum, and the opera season of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, on the twentieth anniversary of its reopening following the fire in 1994.

And the opening works are eight operas from eight cities: L’incoronazione di Poppea, by Claudio Monteverdi, in the ailing city of Venice in 1642. Rinaldo, by Händel, in the renascent London of 1711. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, in the tolerant Venice of 1786.  Nabucco, by Verdi, in the strong, but subdued city of Milan in 1842. Tannhäuser, by Wagner, in Paris during the Second Empire in 1861. Salomé, by Richard Strauss, in the Dresden of 1905. And Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, by Shostakovich in the revolutionary Leningrad (Sant Petersburg) of 1934.

Pau Febrés Yll, Bombs in the Liceu. Charcoal and ink on paper, 1894 © Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona.

Eight “costumed” stories with objects of the time, maps and works by artists such as Dalí, Degas, Manet, Kirchner, Casas and even Versace, early music instruments, including a piano used by Mozart, spectacular but non-invasive sets, projections and high fidelity headphones by  Sennheiser which will provide a musical guide around all the different areas, with an introduction and points of information from the musical director of the Liceu, Josep Pons.

The exhibition was conceived by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, but in Madrid and Barcelona an ninth opera has been added: Pepita Jiménez, by Isaac Albéniz.

Salvador Dalí, Costume design for the Executioner, 1949 Royal Opera House Collections, London © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2019.

First performed on 5 January 1896 in Italian in a single act, Pepita Jiménez is a rich, young widow who falls in love with a student from the seminary…but the important thing here is Barcelona – a dynamic city, strong and buzzing, having just pulled down the walls of the old city and in full expansion than to the Eixample Plan; it had just held the 1888 Universal Exhibition; Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch were in keen competition with each other; chimneys were springing up and the workers were beginning to organise themselves to protect their rights. In 1893, anarchist Santiago Salvador i Franch used two “Orsini” type bombs in an attack on the Liceu: only one went off but it killed twenty people. At that time operas were not listened to in venerable silence as they are today: people came and went, chatted, and meanwhile in the Mirrored Salon there businessmen were making deals, with all the brouhaha that involved. The Liceu, obviously, was a private concern – a going concern with development partners. It remained that way until 1980.

Joan Planella Rodríguez, The Child Labourer. Oil on canvas, 1889 © Generalitat de Catalunya. Museu d’Historia de Catalunya. Photograph: Pep Parer.

As was the case almost everywhere, the operas were in Italian. It took ages for Wagner to be sung here in German. But Wagner (and this is another story) would be adopted by the Catalans almost as if he had been born in Reus.

Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser was the work that represented the section dedicated to the Paris of Napoleon III. A whole new work of art was born: Wagner also write all the librettos and directed the scenography and visual effects. His innovations were as unpopular in Paris as the Impressionist painters, who being excluded from the official competitions had to exhibit in the Salon des Refusés (Rejects’ Exhibition).

Venice was the Vegas of the Baroque.

But let’s start at the beginning. The first public opera, by which I mean that you had to pay to get in, opened during the decline of Venice in 1642. As a result of the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottomans, in 1453 Venice ceased trading with the east, which had been its source of wealth. The future was America and La Serenissima fell apart.

Camisole, theatre costume. Gold thread brocade in cream and silver tones, Italy, c. 1750 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In 1630 plague had wiped out a third of the population. This fate was celebrated during the carnival and this attracted many foreigners. Basically the city had to take advantage of it to relieve the visitors of their cash: Venice became famous for its courtesans, games of chance, the carnival, the opera shows…in other words, it was the Las Vegas of the Baroque.

And while Venice was sinking, London was rising again. Great Britain had suffered civil war conflicts between Catholics and the Great Fire of 1666, but trade with Africa and the West Indies had made the capital one of the wealthiest in Europe.

William Hogarth. Masquerades and operas (The Bad Taste of the Town) Engraving, c. 1790 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Promoters built theatres and managed them with great commercial success. The young composer from Saxony Georg Friedrich Händel moved to London in search of fame and fortune. And he achieved it at the first attempt. His Rinaldo was the first opera to be performed in Italian in the city. The star was a castrato, and the audience was wowed with fire, water and live fowl. It was such a huge success that some newspapers complained, fearful of the threat to traditional theatre in English. Händel was never short of work: he literally composed, ate, slept over the keyboard. Meanwhile another castrato Farinelli was offering pleasure without risk to the rich ladies of the capital.

Gustav Klutsis. Politburó TsKVKP (CentralCommittee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union),  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This exhibition covers three centuries of initiatives, from the declining Venice to Bolshevik Leningrad. A Communist opera, I hear you ask? Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, by the young Dimitri Shostakovich was not liked by Stalin. A middle-class housewife, and murderer? This did not fit in with his idea of “Socialist realism”. In 1936 the Great Terror began. Shostakovich saved himself by the skin of his teeth, but it took him a few years to recover. Opera in the Soviet Union was as dangerous as being Mao Zedong’s dentist.

Having seen and enjoyed the exhibition the conclusion is that opera is European art par excellence. It is an artform that tells us about the social and cultural construction of modern Europe each milestone at a time.

Opera. Passion, power and politics can be seen – and heard – at CaixaForum Barcelona until 26 January 2020.