Intermission - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

2024-06-07 • 2025-01-07


Bilbao Modern Art Museum, 1924–1945

This year we are commemorating the centennial of the Bilbao Modern Art Museum, the first institution in the Basque Country created with the mission of connecting with the art of its time in a cultural context in which only Barcelona and Madrid had modern art museums, created in 1891 and 1894, respectively.

It opened its doors on 26 October 1924 under the oversight of the painter Aurelio Arteta, and it occupied three rooms in a Provincial Council building where the 137 works in the initial collection were displayed. Around twenty had been acquired by the Provincial Council at the 1919 International Painting and Sculpture Exhibition, while others by working artists were displayed separately at the Bilbao Fine Art Museum, which had opened ten years earlier in several rooms in the Arts and Crafts School located in the former Atxuri Civil Hospital, under the direction of the painter Manuel Losada. They were later joined by new donations and acquisitions.

The Civil War halted both museums’ activities, and the bulk of the collections was stored or sent away to France by sea. Upon the works’ return at the end of the war, it became clear that a venue was needed to house them. Thus, in 1945 a new building was constructed in the city’s modern Ensanche district following the design of the architects Fernando Urrutia and Gonzalo Cárdenas. Drawing from models from the neoclassical repertoire, with an exposed brick and limestone façade, it has an L-shaped layout and two storeys coming off a central lobby that organises the space.

From the beginning, the goal was to unite both collections to embark on a common journey, and thus emerged one of the original hallmarks of the Bilbao Fine Art Museum: the breadth of its chronological coverage in a collection that aspires to be contemporary and to assimilate artistic diversity—different techniques, genres and schools—in a virtuous model that seeks to integrate the arts in the collection. 


This exhibition surveys the history and formation of the collection of the Bilbao Modern Art Museum and its historical and artistic context over its two decades of existence, from its founding in 1924 until it joined the Bilbao Fine Art Museum de facto in 1945 (they were later administratively merged in 1969).

It includes numerous artworks and a plethora of documentation and archival materials that shed light on what the launch of the new museum meant.

Organised into a series of ‘case studies’, the rooms explore key events in the museum’s history: the acquisition of iconic artworks, the first contemporary art exhibitions, the evacuation of the collections during the Spanish Civil War, the relationship with other museum projects in Bilbao and Madrid at the time and its engagement with the artists and trends of its day.

The project is curated by Miriam Alzuri, the museum’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Mikel Onandia, a professor in the Fine Art Faculty at the University of the Basque Country.

Mikel Onandia’s book, The Origins of a Collection. The Bilbao Fine Art and Modern Art Museums, 1914–1945, the outcome of a research grant from the BBK-Bilbao Fine Art Museum, is being published to dovetail with the exhibition.

Exhibition tour


Towards a modern art museum

In 1910, the artists working in Bilbao realised the important role of culture in the new scenario of unprecedented economic and urban development. They created the Association of Basque Artists (1911), which called on institutions to support contemporary art and displayed works by avant-garde artists like Celso Lagar, Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Joaquín Torres García.

They also played a prominent role in organising the International Painting and Sculpture Exhibition (1919) and creating the Bilbao Modern Art Museum. Furthermore, they strove to ensure that Basque art was represented at the Exhibition of the Society of Iberian Artists in Madrid (1925), which is considered the beginning of the modernisation of art in Spain. The Association published the magazine Arte Vasco and collaborated with Hermes

Paul Gauguin

Washerwomen in Arles



Bilbao Fine Art Museum, 1914–1936

Founded in 1908, the Bilbao Fine Art Museum opened its doors in 1914 with three rooms in the former Atxuri Civil Hospital that had been refurbished by the architect Ricardo de Bastida. The creation of a public collection was spearheaded by artists and collectors, along with the Provincial Council of Bizkaia and the Bilbao Town Hall. The painter Manuel Losada was its first director. For its first ten years, it had an old and a modern art section and received numerous donations and deposits from institutions and private individuals.

The works that joined the collection in its first two decades include The Rape of Europa by Martin de Vos, Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Women by Jusepe de Ribera, Lot and his daughters by Orazio Gentileschi and the important legacy of Laureano de Jado.

Space issues became increasingly pressing, and in 1920 a new Fine Art Palace was designed, although it was never built. After 1924, with the opening of the Modern Art Museum, the Fine Art Museum’s collection came to focus exclusively on old art.


Modern art at the Fine Art Museum, 1914–1924

Until 1924, the Fine Art Museum had a modern art collection with works by Basque artists like Adolfo Guiard, Darío de Regoyos and Aurelio Arteta that had been acquired by the Provincial Council and the Town Hall. However, artists, art buffs and critics were calling for a more modern orientation, and thus works from the exhibitions held at galleries or the Association of Basque Artists in the 1910s were added to the collection. Similarly, popular subscriptions at the time financed the purchase of paintings by Gustavo de Maeztu, Benito Barrueta, Ignacio Zuloaga, Cristóbal Ruiz and Daniel Vázquez Díaz for the museum.

The organisation of the important 1919 International Painting and Sculpture Exhibition in Bilbao made it possible for significant pieces by Mary Cassatt, Paul Gauguin, Paul Sérusier, José Gutiérrez Solana and Julio Antonio to be acquired. Three years later, the purchases made at the Third Congress of Basque Studies in Gernika also enabled works by a new generation of artists to join the collection, including José María de Ucelay, José Benito Bikandi, Asunción Asarta and Ramiro Arrue.


Creation of the Bilbao Modern Art Museum, 1922–1926 

On the initiative of the MP and collector Lorenzo Hurtado de Saracho, the Modern Art Museum was founded in 1922. It opened on 26 October 1924 in spaces located behind the Provincial Council Palace, and its initial collection was made up of works by the living artists in the Fine Art Museum collection, except for Zuloaga—the museum kept his works because it considered them important—and the large sculptures by Nemesio Mogrobejo, Moisés de Huerta and Quintín de Torre, which it kept due to the new museum’s lack of space.

The painter Aurelio Arteta was the first director of the Bilbao Modern Art Museum. Given the popularity of figuration in international art at that time, he promoted the acquisition of works that modestly assimilated the languages associated with Cézanne’s work and the ‘return to order’, as revealed by the pieces by Francisco Durrio, Juan de Aranoa, Gabriel García Maroto, Roland Oudot, Louis Robert Antral and Jean Berque.


Bilbao Modern Art Museum, 1926–1936

The Modern Art Museum held two important exhibitions in 1926: the first one paid tribute to one of the main instigators of modernity in the Basque Country, Francisco Iturrino, who had died two years earlier, and the other one was the Exhibition of Basque Artists, which was also held in 1932 and 1934. Through these shows, works by Jesús Olasagasti, Jenaro Urrutia, José Benito Bikandi, Julián de Tellaeche, Quintín de Torre and the Arrue brothers joined the museum.

In 1927, the Town Hall’s censure of Arteta as the director led him and the Board to resign. The painter, who received significant support from Spain’s intellectuals, was temporarily replaced by Manuel Losada. Arteta was once again put at the helm of the Modern Art Museum in 1931, after the Republic was proclaimed, although only intermittently. Invaluable pieces by Daniel Vázquez Díaz, Joaquim Sunyer, Darío de Regoyos and José Moreno Villa, and engravings by Paul Cézanne, joined the Modern Art Museum during those years. At the same time, the Fine Art Museum was also purchasing important works like Portrait of the Poet Moratín by Francisco de Goya. However, all this collecting was curtailed by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936.


Bilbao Museum of Reproductions

This was spearheaded by Manuel Ramírez Escudero in 1922, who proposed to the Bilbao Town Hall and the Provincial Council of Bizkaia that a collection of plaster casts of Greco-Roman and Renaissance statues be created. It was supposed to contribute to the education of students at the Arts and Crafts School and the public at large. The collector Antonio Plasencia and the architects Ricardo Bastida and Mario Camiña were members of the first committee, alongside the painters Ángel Larroque, Alberto Arrue and Antonio de Guezala and the sculptors Moisés de Huerta and Higinio Basterra. The project was approved in 1927.

The museum was installed in spaces owned by the Town Hall in the Berástegui Schools. It opened in 1931 with an important collection acquired from the casting workshops of the British Museum (London), the Art Institute of Florence, the Capitoline Museums (Rome), the San Fernando Fine Art Academy of Madrid and the Madrid-based sculptor Benito Bartolozzi. In 1955, the demolition of the Berástegui building forced the schools to move to the San Francisco neighbourhood. The lack of space meant that its largest works were exhibited in the gallery of the new Bilbao Fine Art and Modern Art Museums building for several years.


Madrid Modern Art Museum, 1931–1936

Created by a royal decree in 1894, it opened its doors in 1898 in what was then the Palace of Libraries and Museums, which also housed the National Library, the Historical Archive and the Archaeology Museum. Its collection was fed by the government’s acquisitions of pieces that won awards at the National Fine Art Exhibitions and works sent in by the artists on government pensions in Rome. Until 1931, its management commissioned works by prestigious painters and sculptors like Pedro de Madrazo, Alejandro Ferrant, Mariano Benlliure and Eduardo Chicharro. However, that year, with the advent of the Second Republic, the new Board named the Bilbao-based critic Ricardo Gutiérrez Abascal, known by his pseudonym Juan de la Encina,

Under his leadership, the museum added the works of young creators like Alberto Sánchez and Benjamín Palencia, as well as crucial modern artists, which allowed Basque art to join the museum via works by Darío de Regoyos, Juan de Echevarría, Gustavo de Maeztu, Francisco Iturrino and Ignacio Zuloaga.


Civil War and exile, 1936–1939

In September 1936, the bombardments of Bilbao by Franco’s airplanes prompted it to close its museum. A dozen works from the Modern Art Museum were moved to the temporary headquarters of the recently-created Basque Government in the Hotel Carlton. In the ensuing months, the Fine Art Museum collections were moved to the bonded warehouse in Uribitarte. Faced with Bilbao’s imminent fall, the works at the Modern Art Museum were evacuated to France in the spring of 1937.

Part of it went to the Spanish Pavilion at the Universal Expo in Paris, where Picasso’s Guernica was displayed, while others participated in European exhibitions in an effort to share Basque culture. A subsequent shipment never reached its destination and was confiscated at the French port of La Pallice-La Rochelle. Many works from private collections were also evacuated and did not return until decades later, including the three ‘Goyas of Zubieta’ painted in the 1780s.

After the Franco regime took over the institutions, the board members and museums were changed, and the latter received deposits from private collections that had been confiscated. Works began to be returned to the Modern Art Museum between 1939 and 1941.


A building of its own, 1940–1945

After 1940, in a context conditioned by the consequences of the war, works by Darío de Regoyos, Manuel Losada, Ángel Larroque, Genaro Lahuerta and Aurelio Arteta, who had died in exile in Mexico in 1940, were added to the Modern Art Museum. The Fine Art Museum, in turn, purchased important works like by Saint Francis in prayer before the crucifix by El Greco, The Holy Family by Jan Gossart and The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist by Francisco de Zurbarán.

Arrangements got underway in late 1938 to construct a new building to house Bilbao’s art museums designed by Fernando Urrutia and Gonzalo Cárdenas.

It opened in 1945 and brought together the collections of the Modern Art Museum and the Fine Art Museum, signalling their merger and the start of a new era in the history of the Bilbao Fine Art Museum.

Exhibition catalog

Los orígenes de una colección. Los museos de Bellas Artes y Arte Moderno de Bilbao

  • Author: Mikel Onandia Garate
  • ISBN: 978-84-18171-18-5
  • Language: Spanish
  • Measures: 20 W x 25 H
  • Binding: Paperback with flaps
  • N°. of pages: 304
  • N° of illustrations: 210 (color, B&W)

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