The Art of Symbiosis

The Art of Symbiosis

In 1974 conceptual artist Jaume Xifra made a chair out of wire. Sarcastically, he named the piece, which is almost an instrument of torture, Art gallery chair.

The chair is currently in the central apse of Sant Climent Church, Taüll, at the MNAC and its shadow, menacingly adopting the role of the viewer, falls on the lower left part of the wall of the most emblematic piece of Catalan Romanesque art.

Left: Evru/Zush. Zeyemax, 1974. Suñol Soler Collection © Evru/Zush, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2020. Right: Cercle del Mestre de Pedret. Apse of Saint Mary of Àneu. Detail, 11th-12th century. National Art Museum of Catalonia. Promotional setup.

Next to it, the front panel of Durro’s altar, which is filled with scenes of torture that look like they have come straight from a comic book, provides the counterpoint to Xifra’s chair, under the relentless gaze of the Majesty of Christ by the Master of Taüll. Xifra’s chair has broken through the barrier and moved into the territory of the Romanesque apse—a taboo for any visitor to the MNAC. I am sure that this intromission of the ‘pain chair’ in the Taüll apse would have delighted Jaume Xifra. Because modern and contemporary artists adore the Romanesque.

Exhibition view. Xifra at Taüll. Photo Marta Mérida.

But will the museum visitors understand? Will it be a shock, or a risk to see the armchair made by Tàpies in 1987 challenging the throne of Lluís Dalmau’s magnificent Gothic panel Virgin of the Consellers? It may be for some, but from the start of this century, twenty years after the opening of the Tate Modern in London, with its permanent collection organised thematically, the mix of art works from different periods in the permanent collections of museums and galleries around the world has become the norm. The linear vein of artistic time has been staunched forever. In the end, in art, everything sits together in time.

Antoni Tàpies. Armchair, 1987. Suñol Soler Collection © Tàpies Commission, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2020.

This is the philosophy that has moved the bosses of the MNAC—a public institution—and those of the Suñol Foundation—a private one—to work together on a project that intervenes with a vengeance in 17 points of the permanent collection of the museum. Nineteen contemporary works from the Suñol Foundation, which is just now commemorating the anniversary of the death of its founder, the businessman and collector Josep Suñol, make their appearance in different points of the museum.

Lluís Dalmau. Virgin of the Consellers. Detail, 1443-1445. National Art Museum of Catalonia.

If you look for the definition of “Symbiosis” in the dictionary you will find that this kind of association with nature always has as its main objective “reciprocal benefit” for the two different species. And, in a way, these Intrusive Dialogues as they have been called for the title of this long term project, act symbiotically for both institutions and make them more visible together. The project has been curated jointly by Àlex Mitrani, the curator of contemporary art at the MNAC, and Sergi Aguilar, director of the Suñol Foundation. The “intromission” spoken of in the title of the works of the Suñol Foundation in the museum seeks diverse analogies, contrasts, juxtapositions and associations.

It is an exercise in balance that sometimes flows freely and at others forces tension in the correlation

The riskiest part of this endeavour has been to superimpose a line of argument on the usual itinerary of the MNAC. It is an exercise in balance that sometimes flows freely and at others forces tension in the correlation, but one which also directly involves the participation of the viewer. To what extent does the forceful and precise intervention of Xifra’s chairin the Taüll apse distract the viewer from the Romanesque work, for example? This presentation also offers a concept for each intervention: pain, affection, mystery, knowledge, suffering, atonement, humility, and so on.

Exhibition view. Chillida, Zurbarán, Ribera. Photo Marta Mérida.

There are star moments along the way such as the Taüll example. In the case of Tàpies’ armchair in front of the Virgin of the Consellers, the scenographic option of placing the object on a luxurious red fabric (very similar to the carmine of the incredible cloths on the other Gothic panels in the room), seems to be an unconscious attempt to elevate the category of the piece in front of Lluís Dalmau’s masterpiece.  Scenographically it works, and here the scenography takes on a particular protagonism; it is as legitimate an option as any other, but there is also the chance it could “annoy” those who prefer a more sober museum experience.

Exhibition view. Carmen Calvo and Modernista furniture pieces. National Art Museum of Catalonia. Photo Marta Mérida.

The 1990 shelf unit by the great Valencian artist Carmen Calvo, filled with apparently useless objects, fits like a glove in a room of Modernista furniture pieces. The contemplative eyes of the work Zeyemax (1974), by Evru/Zush, are not so far from the marvellous eyes covering the wings of the seraphims in the apse of Saint Mary of Àneu, or another work by the same artist, Sabina eyeya (1974), which is directly related to the Baroque crucifixions.

Darío Villalba. Bound feet, 1974. ¡ Suñol Soler Collection © Dario Villalba, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2020.

Again, scenography plays in an important role in the correlation between the bound feet in the work of Darío Villalba and the other works in the room dedicated to mystical and revolutionary paintings: the upward-facing light pointing towards the sky. The scenography also raises the profile of Chillida’s sculpture, Rumour of limits IX (1971), immersed in the tenebrism of the Baroque paintings. In the modern landscapes room, three hyperminimalist landscapes by Hernández Pijuan, facing a canvas by Joaquim Mir, give the spontaneous effect of making the paintings by Nicolau Raurich particularly forceful.

Exhibition view. Richard Avedon and artists’ portraits. Photo Marta Mérida.

More discreetly, the face of the musician Igor Stravinski, photographed by Richard Avedon, in the portrait room of the Modernista artists blends in perfectly. In this room all the works have been lowered to eye level to give the public a direct view of the portrait—an arrangement that could just as well stay like that forever. Perhaps one of the moments in which the dialogue becomes most tense is the placing of the Brossa poem Capitomba (1986), showing an upside-down bank teller window with all the coins fallen on the ground next to a Modernista lamp by Jujol.

Exhibition view. Brossa and Jujol. Photo Marta Mérida.

Risk and daring are the factors that both benefit and damage these Intrusive Dialogues. What is clear that they will make part of the Suñol Collection visible for a long period of time and bring new narratives and added attraction to a museum that deserves infinite viewings and infinite visits. Don’t miss it and have your say. The debate is on the table.

The exhibition Intrusive Dialogues can be visited at the National Art Museum of Catalonia until 7 November 2021.

The dregs of Modernisme

The dregs of Modernisme

Six years after it first opened its doors, the Design Museum of Barcelona has incorporated Modernisme in it journey of exhibitions. But how do you approach one of the biggest movements in Catalan art from the viewpoint of design, mark a distance with previous readings and compete with other permanent exhibitions about Modernisme such as those at the National Art Museum of Catalonia, the MNAC?

Pilar Vélez, the museum’s director, and Mireia Freixa are the curators of an exhibition on the thesis of “provocative will”, which sketches the borders between Modernisme and its early twentieth century successor Noucentisme and links with the Avant Garde. The focus is on the notion of design which began to appear at the end of the nineteenth century and the role that the artistic industries played in it.

Lambert Escaler, Woman’s Head and Mirror, Barcelona, 1901-1903. BD Ediciones de Diseño, S.A., 1974-2007. Private collection.

Modernisme: towards the design culture kicks off with an initial chronological section on the three periods of Modernisme and their regenerationist intention: historicist-style Modernisme which arrived in Barcelona with the Universal Exhibition of 1888; a second type of Modernisme marked by the evocation of nature in the Art Nouveau movement; and a third period of reconnection with popular art and the interest in artistic trades.

Antoni Gaudí, Cloak stand, Barcelona, 1899-1901. Produced by Taller Casas i Bardés. From the Casa Calvet. Càtedra Gaudí Loan CGEX0022.

The opening piece in the show is the entrance hall bench from the workshop of José Ribas & Sons, a “talking” piece of furniture on which we can read the motto “Art and industry were the Essence and the north of the sons of our Earth”. Close by is the original cloak stand of the Gaudí’s Casa Calvet, which we will find further on in a contemporary re-creation.

José Ribas & Sons, Sant Jordi Bench, Barcelona, c. 1895. Design Museum of Barcelona.

The second area gives protagonism to industries and workshops, production processes and the materials used in the decorative and applied arts. The section allows the museum to show works from its own collection (90% of the works). There are pieces of furniture, ceramics, glass, ironwork, utilitarian objects, publications and posters, prints and textiles – unfortunately the presentation does not allow all the pieces to shine and some are unnoticeable in drawers.

Rigalt, Granell y Cia., Stained glass project, Barcelona, 1903-1923. Design Museum of Barcelona. Rigalt i Granell Collection.

All the popular and most usual names are present: Gaspar Homar, Puig i Cadafalch, Antoni Rigalt, Alexandre de Riquer, Josep Llimona, as well as other less known ones: Joan Busquets, Mateu Cullell, Ramon Sunyer, Cristina Ribera. Some of the recent donations particularly stand out, such as the collection of the Escofet and Company hydraulic mosaic tiles (the commercial catalogue is exhibited), the preparatory sketches for the marquetry work for the furniture of the  Casa Lleó Morera, by the draughtsman Josep Pey, whose collection has also been deposited in the museum, pieces on loan from the Gaudi Chair, and the splendid dining room of the master of works  Jeroni Granell.

Although in the histography there is a break between Modernisme and Noucentisme, there are indications of continuity.

Modernisme becomes consolidated as a style to the point where is turns into a trend that is also taken on by anonymous workshops. And the movement, although short-lived, gradually becomes watered down. The curators insist that although in the histography there is a break between Modernisme and Noucentisme, there are indications of continuity such as the value place on the craft workers and the search for a popular art which will end up becoming consolidated institutionally.  Artistically, the Higher School for Fine Trades created in 1914 in Barcelona would play a fundamental role.

GATCPAC-model armchair, Barcelona, 1936. Design Museum of Barcelona.

We move on among Noucentist pieces )the enamelled glasses by Xavier Nogués and Ricard Crespo) and more Deco-styles (Francesc Galí’s screen) and particularly striking is the drawing by Antoni Badrinas for the “Competition for the beauty of the humble home”, until we reach the GATCPAC chair which combines tradition, avant-garde and object, and which the curators consider to be the front piece of the permanent exhibition From the World to the Museum.

Josep Maria Jujol, Jujol 1920 table, Barcelona, 1920-1927. Mobles114, 2019.

The exhibitions curated by Joan Ainaud de Lasarte in 1964 and 1969 were decisive in the formation of the fist municipal collections of Modernista works. Another milestone was the show dedicated to Gaudí at the MOMA in 1957. It would not take long for the new taste for Modernisme to translate into re-editions such as those we see at the end of this exhibition: the first by BD designs in the 1970s reintroducing the Woman’s Head and Mirror by Lambert Escaler and Gaudí’s chair for the Casa Batlló. Mobles114 re-created the Jujol 1920 table. On the other hand, Masriera has never stopped producing jewellery.

The exhibition Modernisme, towards the design culture can be visited at the Design Museum of Barcelona from 12 November and is semi-permanent.

Rescuing the Vampire

Rescuing the Vampire

If you can say anything about the show Vampires. The evolving myth (CaixaForum Barcelona), it is that it pays homage to the nineteenth century version of the myth to seduce you, make your blood boil and leave you with a crick in your neck.

If the “bloodsucker” – as it was called by Scottish anthropologist in The Golden Bough (1890), or by Joseph Campbell in his studies on religion, magic and myths – is a cultural constant, or as Jung put it, an archetype present in the collective imaginary, then the truth is that every sensitive visitor should leave here asking themselves about the victim, the dominator or both.

Béla Lugosi & Helen Chandler in Tod Browning Dracula, 1931. Universal Pictures/WolfTracerArchive/Photo12/ agefotostock. Lugosi Estate (www.belalugosi.com).

But this is much more than a collection of seducers of bare necks, with a Gothic air, eternally and vainly youthful, mirror-haters, and anarchists of questionable morals with Nietzschean synergies. The exhibition offers a panelled, intuitive and snaking path, in the inevitable IKEA style, through the different documents produced for cinema from its origins to the present day: Murnau, Dreyer, Browning, Tourneur, Polanski, Herzog , Coppola, Burton, Bigelow, Weerasethakul, and so on, because for the cinema too the vampire myth has been a constant from the start. But not only cinema. As well as a large number of documents relating to films (up to 362) from costume design, sets and production, such as those by Albin Grau for Nosferatu, typewritten scripts and works that have inspired other artists that are going to be the envy of any mythomaniac of this specialism, the show does not overlook the romantic literary base present in Poe, Stoker’s sexualisation of the myth, its use as political criticism in caricatures, its incursion into pop culture as a manga character or in video games, and the origin of the myth itself in an archaic mass culture.

James Dean, Fairmount, Indiana, USA, 1955. © Dennis Stock / Magnum Photos.

There was a time, around the eighteenth century, when vampire fever became known as a phenomenon of collective hysteria. Clearly these were not yet laconic dandies but were rather lacking in personal hygiene and were somewhat fusty, but on the other hand neither were they prone to taking advantage of innocent young girls. Very few characters or events in history, whether real or fictitious, have enjoyed such social attention and have given rise to not an insignificant number of crazy flashmobs, like hordes of alienated peasants caught up in a communal obsession, bent on placing garlic everywhere, burying scythes, welding crosses, driving stakes into buried bodies and tearing the hearts out of suspicious corpses. Medieval tarantism, the Salem witch trials, Lisztmania, the Wall Street crash or Beatlemania share the same symptoms of collective madness with the Balkanic vampires. And, to be honest to the blood relatives of Count Dracula, we might say that our own living death has awakened in mortals the most contradictory feelings, whether it be hatred, outbursts of love, panic and veneration, depending on the moment.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922. Courtesy of Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung.

Nosferatu, from the Greek ‘disease-bearing’, the eastern Jiang shi, the Romanian Strigoi, the Slavic, the western vampyrus. The multiple names are an indication of the polyhydric nature of the figure and its personality, which embody the most brutal repressed instincts of atavistic bestiality and primitive superstitions relating to the soteriological and life powers of blood which would also be assumed by Christianity; the myth of predation, the trauma of the disintegration of the corpse, the possibility of communicating with the dead, and the fascination for immortality shared in other myths such as Don Juan and Faust. But, unlike these, with no morality. Premature burials were also able to feed the belief in vampires when there were reports of sounds coming from the coffin and, in time, the discovery of scratch marks on the inside of the lid.

Joseph Apoux, Le Vampire, 1890. Private Collection, Paris.

During the Middle Ages the myth clung to pagan forms that had been conserved as marginal and outlawed, outside the official religion in which medieval scholasticism, belligerent to Catharism and the different Gnostic and Manichaean heresies, rejected the idea of evil as a substantial entity opposing good, assuring that it was simply the absence of good. It therefore also rejected the power of action and the mere entitative existence of the supposed forces of evil. It was from the sixteenth century that the vampire began to be an object of study by erudite and polymath Renaissance scholars such as the Slovenian Janez Vajkard Valvasor, author of the first treatise and followed by many more. Alchemy, Kabbalistic tradition, superstition and the possibility of magic were supported with great enthusiasm and, as Silvia Federichi explains, it was then and not before that most of the witch burning and vampire hunting occurred.

Michel Landi, French poster of Dracula A.D. 1972, directed by Alan Gibson, 1973. © Michel Landi, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2020.

Another thing that we cannot ignore is that from the beginning of the modern vampire, neck-biting was not just something done by brutalising and controlling men, although the same cannot be said for the typology of the victim which was, as a rule, an innocent pubescent girl, always passive and treated as a hunting trophy. It is said that in the sixteenth century the Hungarian Elizabeth Báthory, also known as the “Blood Countess”, had the unpleasant habit of kidnapping young girls to drink their fluids in order to remain eternally beautiful. This story inspired the work of Sheridan Le Fanu, under the title Camille, which years later would form the basis for films such as Vampyr by Carl Theodor Dreyer and La novia ensangrentada by Vicente Aranda, and was the seed for an entire lesbian-vampire genre.

The vampire as the representation of the oppressor who takes advantage of its victims, taking over their life work and their goods for its own enrichment.

Many of the vampire epidemics that devastated central Europe were put to an end via the executive route when the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria strictly prohibited the sacking of graves and stealing of corpses. This was extended to other places following a report by her personal physician, Gerard van Swieten, who rejected the possibility that vampires existed. Not even the scholars of the Enlightenment had been able to overshadow the most outlandish beliefs despite the obstinate assurances of Voltaire, no less, in his Philosophical Dictionary that the biggest bloodsuckers in recent years, rather than the vampires, were the clergy and the bureaucrats living in their palaces and not in the cemeteries. The dictionary entry, which held nothing back and even took aim at the Jesuits, is the starting point for the use of the  figure of the vampire as the representation of the oppressor who takes advantage of its victims, taking over their life work and their goods for its own enrichment.

Wes Lang, Fuck the Facts, 2019. Courtesy of V1 Gallery i Wes Lang, Copenhague.

According to Marx, “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”, although the Oscar-winning Parasites showed us that if there is one thing that is classless it is the blood-suckers. A similar reversal of terms occurred in El hijo del vampiro (The vampire’s son) by Cortázar, published under the pseudonym Julio Denis in 1938, which Lacan cited in one of his seminars, affirming that it is the boy and not the mother who turns to vampiring. For Zizek, Hollywood makes the distinction in the continual battle between vampires, as the enlightened classes with moral autonomy,  and zombies as the outcasts and the hopeless that represent the alienated

.

French poster of Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht (1979), directed by Werner Herzog. Production Gaumont (France) / Werner Herzog Filmproduktion (Alemanya). David Palladini © Werner Herzog Film GmbH.

If the first literary vampire was a poet, put on paper in 1819 by John William, Byron’s personal physician, more refined would be those of Sheridan le Fanu, Maupassant, Gautier, Stoker, Poe and the little-known Wake not the Dead by Ernst Raupach, and the latest ones are just the adolescents of the Twilight saga,  thinking only about their prom, or baddies like those in Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II de Guillermo del Toro, whose ultimate concern is their position in the food chain.

Perhaps the next re-reading of the myth will come from movies such as Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) by Jim Jarmusch, with irritating young people of exquisite tastes in an underground setting, or the vampire-turned-rock-star which Ramón Paso has created for theatre in his Drácula. Biografía no autorizada (Dracula: unauthorised bio). And let’s not forget that the king of pop, Michael Jackson, opted to identify with a zombie rather than a vampire.

The exhibition Vampires. The evolving myth, organised jointly with the Cinémathèque Française, and curated by Matthieu Orléan, can be visited at CaixaForum Barcelona until the end of January 2021.

The Gods of Olympus Are Among Us

The Gods of Olympus Are Among Us

The gods of Olympus are among us. Although we no longer worship them or ask them for favours, like in Greece and Rome, the Greco-Roman gods are by no means dead.

They appear in the television melodramas from Game of Thrones to Nissaga de poder; and at the heart of the scripts of the movie megaproductions like Star Wars, Matrix and the Disney films, as well as the long sagas of the Marvel superheroes.

José de Ribera, Tityos, 1632. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

They remain intact in the scenes of Shakespeare. They have lent their names to behaviours such as narcissism thanks to Narcissus, son of a god and a nymph who fell in love with himself and paid for his folly by falling into the river in which he so admired himself and turning into a short-lived flower. And especially in the gods, demi-gods, heroes, nymphs and muses which love on in works of art.

First of all art served to represent the gods during pagan times. Afterwards the mythological stories gave Christian artists the opportunity to escape biblical and saintly themes and talk more about freedom and expression of human passions; and above all it was the perfect excuse to paint and sculpt nudes, erotic scenes and moments of violence and metamorphosis beyond the biblical texts and the martyrdom of the saints.

Jan Cossiers, Narcissus, 1636-38. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

Art that has represented mythological scenes has a high narrative content because these gods were as enslaved to human passions as the mortals themselves. They were stories about how the world worked but also how we understand ourselves. Discovering these fascinating narratives through art is the main objective of the exhibition Art and Myth. The gods of the Prado, which can be seen at CaixaForum Barcelona. This is an expanded version of the exhibition held previously in other cities in Spain, thanks to an agreement made a decade ago between the “la Caixa” Foundation and the Prado Museum.

Rubens, The Rape of Europa, 1628-1629. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

However, it is not an exhibition centred exclusively on some of the masterpieces from the Prado. Anyone looking for that might end up a wee bit disappointed. It is an exhibition about how art tells these fabulous mythological stories. The catalogue has been designed with the same intention. And the fact that the show was conceived by Fernando Pérez Suescun, head of teaching content at the Prado, is no coincidence either. The aim is to tell the story of the mythological tales that have survived for centuries, and how the 64 works from the Prado have represented them.

Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre, Diana and Callisto, 1745-1749. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

That is not to say that the exhibition does not include some star moments from an artistic point of view. You can see undeniable masterpieces such as Peter Paul Rubens’ splendid copy of the Rape of Europa (1628-1629), by Titian. This Rubens is generally exhibited in the Prado beside Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) by Velázquez, as in the background of the latter painting the Rape scene appears as one of the completed tapestries.

Francisco Collantes, The Burning of Troy, 17th Century. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

Then there are the two majestic and immense oils painted by José de Ribera in 1632 for the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid, representing two of the so-called Furies, or the revenge wielded by the gods on those who disobeyed their orders or whims. Here, Ribera had the perfect excuse to paint nude males twisted in pain. Tityos, enchained, had his liver devoured by a bird of prey for having tried to rape one of his father, Zeus’s, lovers. And the woebegotten Ixion, a mortal granted immortality by Zeus, is chained to a great wheel continually turning for breaching his trust and trying to seduce Hera.

There is blood and guts and violence in this show because the gods never forgive, but there is also loads of sex.

There is blood and guts and violence in this show because the gods never forgive, but there is also loads of sex. Desire was one of the basic drives in Olympus, but consent was often conspicuous by its absence. The “rapes” that you can see are violent and abusive acts. The seductions are often cloaked in deceit: Zeus takes the form of his daughter Artemis-Diana to have sex with Calisto, who had never shown any interest in men. In the eighteenth century the painter Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre illustrated the scene with typical rococo sensuality. In a twin canvas Pierre represents Zeus disguised as a satyr to seduce Antiope.

Neo-Attic Workshop, Dionysian Dance, 50-40 BCE. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

And obviously love, in this case without the use of force or deceit, appears in the exhibition personified in Eros-Cupid. We see him in a work by Guido Reni in an allegory of married love having decided to stop firing his arrows, and in another by Guercino, which symbolises disinterested love as he tosses golden coins to the ground.

This journey through mythology begins with a Roman bust of Homer, the best-known ancient Greek writer and the author who, in a way, began to systematise all this mishmash of narrations, especially with his Odyssey and Iliad. There are other highly remarkable ancient works in the show such as the Pensive Muse sculpture, also Roman, from 50-90 CE, and the marble relief Dionysian Dance, from the Neo-Attic workshop, from 50-40 BCE. The journey ends with one of the most monumental and tales in Greco-Roman mythology: the Trojan War, which has inspired numerous artists to make such detailed works as L’incendi de Troia (The Burning of Troy), by seventeenth century artists Francisco Collantes.

The exhibition Art and Myth. The gods of the Prado can be seen at CaixaForum Barcelona until 14 March.