Exhibition: Basque Land, Lyricism and Religion - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The guest work


2014-10-15 • 2015-01-12

Basque Land, Lyricism and Religion

First floor hall - Old building

Closing this year’s Guest Work programme in spectacular style is a huge triptych by painter Gustavo de Maeztu (Vitoria-Gasteiz, 1887-Lizarra-Estella, Navarra, 1947), usually on display at the headquarters of the Bizkaia General Assembly in Gernika. This, the 47th edition of the programme, is the fourth and final one in 2014, the year that marks a decade of Guest Work sponsorship by the Banco Santander Foundation. Designed to highlight the artistic values of a single work of art, the programme now focuses on a painting by Gustavo de Maeztu. Nine of the artist’s oil paintings and three prints are currently in the Museum collection.

An added attraction featuring in this latest edition is that the triptych’s panels have been recently restored, so art lovers will have the opportunity to see the work in its original colourful splendour; this is particularly timely, as Maeztu always favoured a strong, daring palette. Even the title (Basque Land, Lyricism and Religion) bolsters the triptych’s powerful symbolic content, which depicts a particularly dramatic historical event: the gale-force north west wind, known as the “Easter Saturday Wind”, which on 20 April 1878 claimed the lives of more than two hundred fishermen from the local fishing port of Bermeo.

Brother of writer and journalist Ramiro de Maeztu and feminist educator María de Maeztu, Gustavo was born in Vitoria but was still very young when he moved with his family to Bilbao, following the death of his father. Here he studied under the painters Antonio María de Lecuona and Manuel Losada. In 1907 he travelled to Paris, where he stayed for a year, attending classes at the famed Colarossi academy. While in Paris, he met Basque artists Durrio and Zuloaga, and the Catalonian Anglada-Camarasa, whose work had a powerful influence on the younger artist. Maeztu also became interested in the paintings of the Spanish school, which he discovered on his visits to the Louvre. Contemporary avant-garde movements, however, had little impact on his production.

In 1911, when he was working intensely on his paintings, an activity he combined with  writing, Maeztu was involved in founding the association of Basque artists, the AAV. From 1919 he travelled around Europe, visiting a number of major cities. In the 1930s he turned his attention to lithographs while continuing to receive major commissions for paintings.

In 1937 the Spanish Civil War found him in Estella, in Navarra, where he eventually settled for good. Something of an heir to the vision of the Spanish ’98 movement in writing and painting, Maeztu’s oeuvre is noted for its latter-day symbolism and a taste for decoration based on the sinuous rhythms of drawing and vivid colouring. The characters depicted in his paintings are usually placed in sculpture-like blocks, with landscape functioning as a kind of theatrical backdrop.


In 1922, after his May exhibition at the Devambez galleries in Paris had closed, Gustavo de Maeztu’s restless artistic nature led him to think seriously about an ambitious project full of symbolism that he hoped would be shownin September in Gernika (Bizkaia) to mark the third Congress of Basque Studies. A master of painterly technique, Maeztu finished this triptych-cumaltarpiece, originally entitled Basque Land, in three months. His intention was to produce an allegory of the days and works in the Basque homeland.

Staying at a place called Plaisir-Grignon in the Île de France, not far from Paris, Maeztu had the preliminary sketches ready in just twenty days. Back in his Bilbao studio, he set to work on the three canvases that feature in the final painting. In the end, the great theme had shrunk to concentrate on the sea, depicting the events of one fateful day, 20 April 1878, when a violent north-west wind took the lives of more than two hundred fishermen from the local port of Bermeo. The two subtitles that enhance the original title, Lyricism and Religion, stress the contrast in the triptych between life and death.

Religion is the title given to the two side panels. The one on the left depicts a cheerful procession moving up a path to a church set on a cliff overlooking a calm sea. Here the colours burst with light, shades of green, blue and violet seeming to enfold the ragged but relaxed procession bent on celebrating life; small groups of children and adults are scattered about the path that will eventually bring them all to the church. The festive aspect is represented by the frontón, the Basque pelota court, where the pelota players are suggested through dynamic white smudges. In the right-hand panel, a tightly-knit group of men and women walks slowly up a coastal path that runs worryingly close to a very choppy sea. The group is part of a funeral cortège heading towards a large church of which we are only shown an enormous porch. The dull, desolate ground seems to share the grief of the men and women as they accompany the final journey of death. So life and death flank the central scene, entitled Lyricism, where Maeztu depicts the seamen who have just brought their boats into harbour despite a swelling, threatening sea that extends into the right-hand panel. From the safety of land, they raise their oars to the sky in triumph. Maeztu mythologizes these men whose grim demeanour, not merely the result of fatigue, condenses a kind of fatalism in the face of nature. Such fatalism is only overcome by their ancestral faith and their stoicism, by a religious belief in which life and death cast their shadows on all they do and yet also signify salvation.

When the Gernika exhibition came to an end, the triptych, now entitled Basque Land, Lyricism and Religion, was displayed in November in the Filarmónica society’s assembly room in Bilbao. On 26 December a large group of friends asked Bilbao City Council and the Bizkaia Provincial Council to contribute to a subscription to purchase the work and display it in the “Museum or City Guildhall”. Finally, on 25 June 1923, the triptych was hung at the headquarters of the Bizkaia Provincial Council in one of the galleries on the second floor.

Text: Camino Paredes Giraldo
Director. Gustavo de Maeztu museum


Basque Land, Lyricism and Religion, 1922
Oil on canvas
300 x 130 cm (left panel)
300 x 250 cm (central panel)
300 x 130 cm (right panel)
Bizkaia General Assembly