Exhibition: Novecentismo and the Early Avant-garde (1910-1936) - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2009-03-02 • 2009-05-24

Novecentismo and the Early Avant-garde (1910-1936)

in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum collection

BBK Room

After Basque Artists and From Goya to Gauguin, staged in 2008 to offer a review of certain sections of the Museum holdings, comes Novecentismo and the Avant-Garde (1910-1936) in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum Collection, featuring a wide-ranging selection of works in chronological order from the early decades of the 20th century. Once again the idea is to update our knowledge of each work and improve our understanding of this particular phase in the history of art.

In all, the exhibition includes 149 works, basically paintings, photographs and posters, many of which have not been shown to the public before. Two works, Artists' Night in Ibaigane (1927) by Antonio de Guezala and Milkmaid in the sun (1930) by Carlos Ribera, both recently acquired by the Museum, are presented here for the first time.

Joaquín Torres García, Joaquim Sunyer, Aurelio Arteta, Daniel Vázquez Díaz, Julián de Tellaeche, Antonio de Guezala, Celso Lagar, Gabriel García Maroto and José María de Ucelay, are some of the leading artists selected, their works being shown under seven theoretical headings: The Novecentismo ideal, The attraction of the new, Modern life, Novecentismo: the second wave, The metaphysical quality, Vernacular myths and their reversal, and In praise of daily life.

Exhibition curator Eugenio Carmona, chair in the History of Art at the University of Málaga, is a leading expert in the early Spanish avant-garde, and contributes some fresh and interesting ideas on some of the artists and their works, and on how we might interpret the local artistic context of the time. The exhibition catalogue is particularly valuable in this respect. Besides a major introductory essay by Carmona, the catalogue also includes an article by Pilar Mur, revised and updated biographies of the artists and a selection of texts from the time, supervised by a number of specialists.

The years from 1910 to 1936 were essential in the development of contemporary Spanish art and are particularly well represented, in terms of the number of works and the artists included, in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum collection. They were also important years for Basque art, and certain events, like the creation of the Museum of Modern Art (1924), the Association of Basque Artists (1911) and the journal Hermes (1917), and the organization of the First International Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture (1919), give a good idea of the importance Bilbao acquired as a centre of attention and innovation in Spanish art.



In recent years the history of modern art has been thoroughly revised in an ongoing process that is gradually revealing the full complexity and diversity of what we understand by modern art. At the beginning of the last century, the idea of the modern was embodied in a variety of sensibilities, from Novecentismo to the avant-garde. At the same time, the legacy of Symbolism and Impressionism was still very much alive. In Basque art, this somewhat complicated scene was made even more complex by the attempts some artists made to define the meaning of a particular identity and language.

One of the most interesting episodes in the decades under review was precisely the Novecentismo movement, which forged its own idiom that, although cutting loose from nineteenth century ideas, did not set itself up as an avant-garde in its own right. The Novecentismo spirit existed in France, in parts of Germany and England, and in Spain found expression in the Catalonian noucentisme movement promoted largely by Eugenio d'Ors and which arose as a response and an alternative to the Symbolist leanings of modernisme. But—and this is one of the exhibition's most original insights—the Novecentismo spirit also existed in the Basque Country, embodied, above all, in the work of Aurelio Arteta. This is one of the local episodes the exhibition seeks to highlight.

Generally speaking, the Novecentismo spirit was informed by the classicist urge to create a pure, serene art, remote from expressive deformation, subjectivity, the unreal or stress on the unusual or garish in the types and models the artists to depict: Novecentismo poetics aspired to a restrained idealization of what it represented. Drawing and form took precedence over colour, which was always contained and objectifying. The Novecentismo artist was a new type of creative being, opposed to the Bohemian prototype of the Romantic artist, one who aspired to be a cultured man, fully involved in social life while also embarked on a search for his roots, for an identity.

Alongside Novecentismo, a number of other movements or tendencies (this was the time the first –isms began to appear and proliferate)gelled into an avant-garde identified with Cubism, Futurism and Simultaneous art. For this reason, the leading centres of artistic activity in Spain at the time, which were the Basque Country, Catalonia and the movement in Madrid centred around what is now known as the '14 Generation, Novecentismo and avant-garde cannot be distinguished as separate phenomena. The two aesthetic strands were bound in a continuous dialectic relation so tight that the influence of both can often be appreciated at work in the paintings of the same artist.

This exhibition gives a new vision of Basque art in the early decades of the 20th century by identifying the artists who kept alive the late legacy of the Impressionist and Symbolist idioms—praised and analyzed to exhaustion by art historians—and the artists who assumed the tenets of the Novecentismo and the avant-garde drive to renew art.

Another major factor towards understanding Basque art in the first half of the last century offered by the exhibition is the connection between painting and other media such as photography and posters, which, thanks to mass reproduction techniques and what we would now call period charm, diversified and broadened the social outreach of the arts.

As the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum collection possesses major works by Aurelio Arteta, Joaquim Sunyer, Daniel Vázquez Díaz (to name the three most outstanding artists imbued with the Novecentismo spirit), as well as others by Celso Lagar and Gabriel García Maroto, it is in a position to give a better overview than any other collection of the presence and influence of Novecentismo ideals in the Spanish art scene over the first four decades of the last century. Arteta's work from this time, rich in colour, energetic drawing and the noble, upstanding presence of models in a delicately lyrical atmosphere, provides us with some fine examples of this early Novecentismo moment. These artists are found in the first exhibition area, called The Novecentismo ideal, which also includes photographs by Felipe Manterola.

Major works by Antonio de Guezala, Robert Delaunay, Julián de Tellaeche, Ramiro Arrúe, Celso Lagar and Joaquín Torres García in the Museum collection facilitated a second section devoted to The attraction of the new, which includes works more influenced by current avant-garde idioms.

A broad selection of posters and photographs provides the backbone of Modern life, the third section of the show. Next is a fourth section covering the irruption of Novecentismo: the second wave, associated above all with the early works of José María Ucelay.

The ties binding Novecentismo and the avant-garde maintained their strength into the late 1920s and 30s, with the influence of Surrealism appreciable in the representations of the transcendent in scenes of daily life grouped in the section titled The metaphysical quality and paintings with a certain ethnographical content included in Vernacular myths and their reversal.

In praise of daily life, the last exhibition area, concentrates on reflecting the stuff of life as it was then, from the fascination with childhood as an art theme, to the world of work, sport and love.


In the image:
José María de Ucelay (1903–1979)
Playing Bowls in San Bartolomé, c. 1935
Oil on canvas, 73 x 92,3
Bilbao Fine Arts Museum