Modest Urgell, finally over the horizon

Modest Urgell, finally over the horizon

As part of the events for the centenary year of his death, the Museum of Art of Girona presents Modest Urgell (Barcelona, 1839-1919), with all his complexity and contradictions.

Urgell was criticised for showing once and again his landscapes with infinite horizons, lost bell towers, in this “small, ramshackle [Catalonia] (…) this Catalonia that is quiet, sad and alone” with silent, half-forgotten cemeteries.

Francesc Serra, Modest Urgell, in his studio, 1903. Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona.

But who was Modest Urgell? What other sides did he have apart from being a painter? Which travels and sojourns marked him? Who accompanied him throughout his professional and personal life? What mark did he make on the younger generation of painters? These are some of the questions posed by the exhibit, curated by Carme Clusellas, director of the Museum of Art of Girona and responsible for the events of Modest Urgell Year, alongside art historian Miquel-Àngel Codes Luna.

Modest Urgell, Marina (Berck), abans de 1873. Museu d’Art de Girona. Fons d’Art Diputació de Girona.

There is no doubt that this exhibition opens windows and doors, allowing us to continue discovering and reflecting on key moments from Urgell, such as his stay in Girona between 1860 and 1870, when he produced his cartoon works under the pseudonym of Katúfol. Or his trips to Paris from where he would visit the Berck spa, near Calais as late as 1872, a place that would mark his way of envisaging landscape: that low skyline close to the ground.

Modest Urgell, Barques a la platja (Berck), c. 1868-1872. Col·lecció Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Intellectual discussions in Paris with Camille Corot, writer Alexandre Dumas junior, and the singer Sarah Bernhardt, accompanied by Francisco Miralles, demonstrate his internal maturing and the interpretation which was so personal to him of Catalan landscapes from Barcelona, the Empordà and Ripollès. This vital experience linked him with the sublimity of the Romantics and with visionary symbolists “on the cusp of Modernity” as Clusellas would put it; on the border of what would happen just afterwards with Miró or Salvador Dalí.

Modest Urgell, Muralles de Girona, c. 1871. Museu d’Art de Girona. Fons d’Art Diputació de Girona.

The exhibition includes some of Urgell’s major works such as Coasts of Catalonia (1864) loaned by the Prado Museum to the Museum of Art of Girona, and Boats on the beach (Berck) (c. 1868-1872) from the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collection. The impressive Girona (1880) – from the old Alfons XII collection and currently part of the Royal Collections – constitutes an allegory of resistance by the city of Girona during the 1808 and 1809 sieges which occurred during the French War. The struggle is represented by bare walls and an eagle fleeing from the scene. It is exhibited beside Girona City Walls (c. 1871), painted almost a decade later and in a much smaller format.

Modest Urgell, El toc d’oració, c. 1876. Dipòsit del Museo Nacional del Prado, 1932. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.

Also present is the Call to prayer (c. 1876) – from the MNAC, which would bring him considerable fame and merit the second-class medal from the 1876 Fine Art Exhibition in Madrid, representing his establishment as a painter. From then on, the commissions were showered on him. Another composition that catches the eye and shows us his more theatrical side is Act of faith (c. 1898); in this work there are people dressed in tunics, burning books and a sinister yet enigmatic atmosphere. The vitrines contain the cartoon works, theatre texts and his memoirs, The little gypsy girl or memoirs of a Katufol (c. 1915), The bat. Memoirs of a sacred cow (1913), Catalonia (1905), and the Album “The augury of  a gypsy woman or the story of a Katùful illustrated by the Katùful himself on rainy, stormy nights in the year MDCCCXL” (c. 1918) which are all vital to understanding how he was thinking.

Without his complete immersion in nature, this silent flâneurisme would not have emerged in his abandoned cemeteries and lost churches.

His canvasses and works on paper transmit an interpretation of what he wanted to paint “on first impressions”, in his own words, as we can see with the immense Rocky terrain (c. 1895), from the private collection of the painter’s family or Landscape  (1885-1895) held at the MNAC. With them a reliable identification of landscapes is a gesture that is completely condemned to failure. Even so, Urgell’s wanderings through small towns of Catalonia such as Albons, Ultramort, Campdevànol, Cinc Claus, Espinelves and Vilabertran, to name just a few, were very transcendent;  without that complete immersion in nature, this silent flâneurisme would not have emerged in his abandoned cemeteries and lost churches, with their dense symbolism and steeped in melancholy.

Modest Urgell, El Pedregal, c. 1895. Col·lecció Ricardo Urgell Martí.

The approach of the exhibition in the Museum of Art of Girona has achieved that “the same old” is precisely not “the same old” Urgell but places his work in a new light, showing enigmas that have yet to be understood. For example, we have yet to find one of the canvases of his wife, the painter Eleonor Carreras Torrescasana. And the exhibition also highlights some of his contradictions: despite his rebellious nature, at the end of his career she was one of the highest earning artists, with a great commercial spirit and focusing on his key moments such as his stays in Paris and Berck. And finally, his legacy continued with disciples and painters of the twentieth century who occupy the last and one of the most interesting spaces in the exhibition.

Modest Urgell, Paisatge, 1885-1895. Llegat de Dolors Rodés Cucurny, 1971. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.

Here you can see the relationship between his work and that of his son Ricard Urgell and one of his followers, Hermen Anglada Camarasa, with Landscape and bridge, from te Library of the Víctor Balaguer Museum in Vilanova i la Geltrú. Of the twentieth century painters the influence on and admiration of Joan Miró is suggested (Miró was his student from 1907 to 1910) in drawings from the Pilar and Joan Miró Foundation in Mallorca. They include a series of direct homages as well as large format acrylic works from the 1970s from the same source. Links between Salvador Dalí and Urgell are evident in The birth of liquid fears (1932). By Joan Ponç Cemetery (1975) is on display. This section also includes the debt of Joan Hernández Pijuan to Urgell with the work Garden with cypress tree (1986).

Modest Urgell working in his studio, 1903-1913. Productor Editorial López. Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona.

This is an exhibition which requires time and offers a new interpretation of Modest Urgell, with strands to follow and enigmas to resolve. But more especially it shows a painter who opened up new paths of experimentation to the painters who would mark Modernity in Catalonia. One of them was Salvador Dalí, in whom Urgell’s works awakened a “spatial nostalgia” and made him think of “Böcklin and de Chirico”; or Joan Miró, who admitted in an interview that the mark of Urgell was present through the three shapes that obsessed him: “a red circle, the moon and a star”. Modest Urgell, then, has finally risen above the horizon.

The exhibition Modest Urgell. Més enllà de l’horitzó can be seen at the Museum of Art of Girona until 20 May 2020.

Lotte Reiniger: artist of the shadows

Lotte Reiniger: artist of the shadows

On 28 December 2019 as part of the activities organised by CaixaForum for its youngest audiences there will be a projection of short films from the director Charlotte Reiniger, all set to music and with live performances by pianist and composer Josep Maria Baldomà, who is an expert in silent cinema.

Given the long list of animated films made by this German director, for this occasion a careful selection has been made: Cinderella, The magic horse, Jack and the beanstalk, Thumbelina and Aladdin and the magic lamp.

Cinderella, 1922.

Charlotte Reiniger (Berlin-Charlottenburg, 1899 – Dettenhausen, 1981), popularly known as Lotte, was a pioneering director of animated films. From the time she was young she showed her enthusiasm for Chinese shadow and puppet shows, which became the centre of her playspace. As a result, in time she decided to study theatre, something which would also allow her to have contact with the intellectuals of post-war Germany. The bubbling cultural and creative atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, especially during the 1920s, was essential for the appearance of a generation of artists and thinkers who broke into the cultural substrata of the German avant-garde. Despite the difficulties of the time, Lotte Reiniger managed to make a place for herself.

Lotte Reiniger in 1939.

From the start she felt an attraction for the work of Georges Méliès – especially for the special effects which at that time were a complete novelty – and for his cinematographic techniques. However, if would not be until later, when she attended a talk by the actor and film director Paul Wegener,  than Lotte realised the huge range of possibilities that animated film could offer.

So, following her instincts Lotte threw herself into the production of films where silhouettes and two-dimensional figures were the central characters. She created the shapes herself using paper cut-outs which she then gave movement to with a series of optical effects. She used the stop-motion effect, placing the cut-outs on a backlit screen and filming them frame by frame until the flat shapes acquired a life of their own as if by magic.

Jack and the beanstalk, 1955.

The essential tools which defined her style and her work were paper, scissors and tricks of the light. Although the materials used in the process were rather rudimentary the results were extremely effective as a result of her meticulous and detailed work, making Lotte a true craftswoman in animation. It was only with that supreme effort that she was able to create poetical and fantastic worlds in which the silhouettes suggested and gave life to the imagination – maintaining the difficult balance between art and life.

When Hitler rose to power Lotte and her husband were forced into a long period of exile.

Lotte always worked accompanied by her husband Carl Koch, a writer and director and collaborator of Bertolt Brecht and Jean Renoir, who he met in a Berlin studio for experimental animation. They formed a professional tandem where he was responsible for production and photography. In 1926, thanks to the financial support of Jewish banker Louis Hagen, they were able to show their first full-length film The adventures of Prince Ahmed. The work was inspired by the stories of the Thousand and one nights , and was accompanied by a soundtrack by the composer Wolfgang Zeller. It was a critical success.

Aladdin and the magic lamp, 1954.

But as Germany fell into crisis the poison of political demagogy gave way to the monster of national socialism. There was not hope. Lotte and Koch, who were strong anti-fascists, defended their Jewish friends. The people who were now persecuted by the Nazi ill were the ones that had given them work and support during the years of the Republic. When Hitler rose to power they knew that they had no choice but the long path of exile. With the motto of freedom in their suitcases they travelled through different countries until finally settling in London. There, in 1953, they founded the production company Primrose Productions.

From structural simplicity, a certain compositional primitivism and within the frame of a proto-cinema that was anything but simple, Lotte Reiniger explored the multiple possibilities of animated films and developed her own stamp which would make her, both as a woman and as a pioneer a true artist of shadows.

The session of short films Animated films by Lotte Reiniger will take place on Saturday 28 December at 11.30am at CaixaForum Barcelona. The entrance price is €5, with 50% discount for clients of CaixaBank.

Life in modern cities

Life in modern cities

The exhibition Camera and City. Urban Life in Photography and Film at the CaixaForum Barcelona brings together 244 pieces by 80 artists, mainly photographs but also films, made between 1910 and 2010.

They were selected by Florian Ebner, Head of the Department of Photography at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, from this museum’s splendid collection, and the exhibition has been complemented by numerous pieces by Catalan creators, selected by Marta Dahó. Together they form a kind of visual essay or reflection through still and moving images, photographic and cinematographic or videographic.

André Kertész, Paris, l’été un soir d’orage 1925, 1925. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne – Centre de creation industrielle © RMN-GP © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-GP.

In this major exhibition, the city is seen as a changing stage with actors, citizens who made or make history, or who endured or endure it. This is a reflection of historical, sociological, anthropological-cultural, urbanistic and also artistic and aesthetic scope. It covers one hundred years of urban life, marked by the diverse and even opposed utopias of capitalist and communist modernity, and by their historical results, often disappointing, sometimes dystopian, the consequence of reactions, deviations, degenerations and betrayals. That period – characterised by rapid construction, destruction and transformation – is observed and portrayed through photography and film, two mediums of documentary and visual expression that can be considered the most significant and intimate of the twentieth century and our time.

Pérez de Rozas, Recollida de matalassos per als refugiats, 20 d’octubre del 1936. Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona, Ajuntament de Barcelona.

Only a collection like the Pompidou’s could be used to mount such an ambitious project. As for the result, visitors to this exhibition can choose to see the glass half full or half empty. I see it full of splendid photographs, significant, suggestive, well-connected and more than interesting images necessary for understanding the present and past. Those very familiar with the Centre Pompidou’s photography collection could rightly criticise the absence of many notable works, but this possible criticism makes no sense if we bear in mind that Camera and City is only the first of two photographic exhibitions planned by the Centre Pompidou and CaixaForum. Its marked focus on the socio-political is because this initiative will soon be complemented by another major exhibition focused on the adventure of experimentation with photographic and cinematographic languages. Ethics and aesthetics are complementary, and it would be wonderful for that second exhibition to explore the specificities, analogies and differences of these two mediums in depth. The still image and the moving image can become a complementary whole.

Camera and City is divided into ten sections that are both conceptual and chronological, preceded by an introductory section comprising three works that set the general tone: a film by Paul Strand and Charles Sheele about the booming New York of 1921 contrasts with a poor blind woman in that same and unequal era portrayed by Strand and with a much later dilapidated and spectral urban landscape, photographed by Martí Llorens in pre-Olympic Barcelona (1987).

Aleksandr Ródtxenko, Лестница, 1930. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne – Centre de creation industrielle © Aleksandr Ródtxenko, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2019 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Service de la documentation photographique du MNAM/Dist. RMN-GP.

“The Vertical City” is the first section, characterised by images that show the pride in construction and technology and faith in modernity, electricity and engineering. The Eiffel Tower is the European emblem, a kind of monument to modern ambition, in photos by André Kertész (1925) or Germaine Krull (c. 1930). The section “The City’s New Actors: From the Curious to the Proletarian” includes Soviet versions of modern utopia: near the Odessa steps revisited by Alexandr Rodchenko in 1930 – which almost resembles a still from the dreamlike The Angel (1982), by Patrick Bokanowski –, a propaganda film made by Mikhail Kaufman (Dziga Vertov’s brother) is screened, where the revolution appears like spring after a past presented as a long cold winter. In 1929 there were already clear indications – those military parades! – of the future mass extermination of dissidents, but the film is as virtuous, and superficial, as those by the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.

Pérez de Rozas, Col·lecta per a les víctimes del feixisme, 23 d’agost del 1936. Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona, Ajuntament de Barcelona.

“The Militant City: Spain in the 1930s” is the most Spanish and most Catalan section. It notably includes photos by Pérez de Rozas, above all Collecting for the Victims of Fascism (1936), featuring some hopeful women and with shining attitudes that remind me of a beautiful text by María Zambrano about the proclamation of the Republic in Spain. Or also the backlit Collecting Mattresses for the Refugees, as well as photos of the struggle in the street, by Agustí Centelles.

Brassaï, Clocharde, Quai des Tuileries, c. 1930–1932. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne – Centre de creation industrielle © Estate Brassai – RMN-GP © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Adam Rzepka/Dist. RMN-GP.

In “The Humanist and Existential City” there are pictures of reconciliation with life after the war. For example, the party in the city outskirts photographed by Doisneau in Twenty Years of Josette (1945), Edouard Boubat’s landscape First Snow. Jardin du Luxembourg (1955), Izis’ fire-eater (1957) or the cinematographic wonder in colour Broadway by Light (1948), by William Klein. There are counterpoints like the sequence of photos from an album by Joan Colom, featuring a much in demand prostitute with rampant breasts, or the film by the same artist, shot in the Raval neighbourhood, then known as “barrio chino”.

Diane Arbus, Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C., 1963. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne – Centre de creation industrielle © The Estate of Diane Arbus.

A photo by Diane Arbus, Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962, is one of the most powerful and representative in the section “The Critical City”. This is followed by “The Rebellious City”, with photographs from the 1960s and 1970s, many of them by photojournalists from the Magnum agency founded in 1947. Notable are Gilles Caron’s photos of the street fights in May 68 in Paris and those by Manel Armengol in Barcelona, where we can see that the anti-democratic and anti-Catalan nationalist truncheons of 1976 closely resemble the supposedly democratic Spanish truncheons of 2017-2019.

In the last four sections the level of this splendid exhibition descends, probably because here the adventure of modernity is often replaced by the shams of postmodernity and by the aesthetic of the indiscriminate archive. Looking at the selection in the section “Staging the City” one might think that photography is a medium that adapts to fiction far less effectively than cinema. But perhaps this would not be so evident if this exhibition had included certain photographs by Sophie Calle or Andreas Gursky, for example.

Martí Llorens, Enderroc final d’un edifici ferroviari a l’Avinguda d’Icaria, 6–8 (tríptic), 1989. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.

“The Horizontal City” shows the reverse of the construction boom: the city outskirts, the open ground, the demolition. It includes Martí Llorens’ outstanding triptych Final Demolition of a Railway Building on Avinguda d’Icària, 6-8, 1989. This piece is part of the growing and little-known National Photography Collection, and personally I’m very happy to find it here, as I suggested its acquisition when I was consultant on this collection, between 2015 and 2017.

In the section “The Reflective City” I notice an absence: the film In the City (1976-1977), a collective reflection in the form of a suite of shorts, comprising many of the main Catalan and Spanish conceptual artists and experimental filmmakers of those years (Eugeni Bonet, Eugènia Balcells, Eulàlia Grau, Miralda, Francesc Torres and Iván Zulueta, among others). In “The Global and Virtual City” I also hanker after more powerful pieces, such as something by Harun Farocki. And the second half of the exhibition would have been better if it had included other more creative tones, for example a section on the lived city or the subjective cities, where there would have been room for photographers like Saul Leiter, Manel Esclusa or Humberto Rivas, among others. In contrast, there are other notable absences in this exhibition that are fully justified. The two major film benchmarks about the city that are Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927), by Walther Ruttmann, and Man with a Movie Camera (1929), by Dziga Vertov, are not there because they were considered already familiar works. And it is also true that cinema was not conceived to been seen standing in a big exhibition, and less so a feature film.

In any case, Camera and City is a recommendable and bold exhibition in its conception, distinguished by its will to go beyond the usual approaches of the “street photography” genre. However, a good imaginative and specifically international photographic selection of this genre could also be very rewarding.

The exhibition Camera and City. Urban Life in Photography and Film will be on show at the CaixaForum Barcelona until 8 March 2020.

Museum of the Empordà: Disquieting de Juana

Museum of the Empordà: Disquieting de Juana

Walking around the Eudald de Juana exhibition at the Museum of Empordà (Figueres) is like walking through a dream. It gives you the feeling that the sculptures are watching you  and that they might suddenly vanish.

In terms of artistic expectations, Eudald de Juana (Navata, Girona, 1988) is a post-emerging artist. You already know that what we previously called “promising young talent” we now call emerging artists. And once you have passed through this deceptive phase where the fizzy bubbles don’t let you see anything in perspective, the consolidation phase arrives – the first phase of maturity. Well it does if you reach it…which is not easy.

Exhibition view. Photo: Borja Balsera.

Under the direction of Eduard Bech, the Museum of the Empordà  has opted for an annual retrospective to cover that profile: local artists, young but mature, with their own consolidated language. And De Juana, who’s just turned thirty, has finished his Fine Art degree, studied at the Florence Art Academy, given classes and even set up the Geode art space with the painter Pau Marinel·lo – an ambitious project in Navata with studios, workshops and a gallery.

Eudald de Juana, Stuck in Time, 2012.

The exhibition Eudald de Juana and the transgression of shape brings together these sculptures, in dialogue with other non-sculptural works by artists from his generation. There are two exceptions: one is a sculpture by Mar Gorriz, his mother: the other is in the section “Rotundity and weightlessness” where there are life drawing by artists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Miquel Blay, who is a reference for Juana, Ismael Smith and Josep de Togores. Another of his sculptural references, absent for obvious reasons, is Rodin. De Juana and Rodin are both great modellers, giving their work form by addition rather than hammer blows.

Pau Marinel·lo, Human 2, 2019.

The exhibition, which is curated by Laura Cornejo and Pere Parramon, is distributed between the ground floor and the first floor of the museum. Divided into seven sections plus an introduction, it shows different aspects of the artist, shrouded in other reflections on the body in the form of a dialogue between artists. Canvases support the theoretical apparatus that justifies each stop on this journey through the limits of the corporal.

Eudald de Juana, My Little Giant, 2917.

Most of De Juana’s bronze and resin sculptures are from between 2016 and 2018. Their Mannerist style is surprising and makes me think of the kind of solidified dreams of Catalan Modernism that appear on the façades of buildings and delightfully decorative objects.

The bodies are in constant transformation and they sometimes merge with the inorganic. Others are populated or questioned by small figures lounging on them or perched on the head to read a book. Who is reading who?

The textures are interesting, made of parts sewn together, injured skins, forced, spread by the modelling tools.

Eudald de Juana, Meteor, 2019.

There is one sculpture, Meteor, commissioned by the museum that will not leave you indifferent: you find, more than you see, the body of a young, muscular man with two other bodies on top of him. You don’t see the head anywhere. The accompanying cloth windbreak suggests that it is a “confluence of differences, of individualities that, when they meet, mutually enrich one another and become that diverse tree that we call society”. Well, maybe. Maybe that is what the curators think and also the artist. But you could also say that it represents the current situation in our society pretty well; a society that has not properly dealt with multiculturalism or the acceleration of historical time. We are not just disorientated we are also attacked and transformed.


Faced or in dialogue with Meteor, I am still not sure which, is Beauty (2016), a video directed by Rino Stefano Tagliafierro, which uses completely the opposite process to De Juana: beautiful images of old paintings, very pompier, like Bouguereau – animated using digital technology. However, both pieces feed the disquiet of the viewer.

Eudald de Juana, Aire, 2019.

Many of De Juana’s figures are monsters (not my interpretation, there is a section dedicated to them in the exhibition) living in our subconscious. Monsters as ancient as the myths that they tell us, dressed as the nightmares of a modernity which uses technology to burst outside the limits of what is human.

The exhibition Eudald de Juana and the transgression of shape  can be seen at the Museum of the Empordà in Figueres until 12 January.