Exhibition: The Museo del Prado and the contemporary artists - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2014-09-23 • 2015-01-12

The Museo del Prado and the contemporary artists

Room 33

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum is pleased to present this exhibition which, curated by Francisco Calvo Serraller, features 50 works by 24 artists from different generations who, working in a range of styles and techniques, have struck up intimate and highly rewarding dialogues with the art of centuries past housed in the Prado Museum.

Staged thanks to the indispensable cooperation of Japan Tobacco International (JTI), the exhibition is produced by the Foundation of Friends of the Prado.

Basically, the idea is that the visual experience of the works in the exhibition will enable us to “overhear” a remarkable conversation, one that is not just a dialogue between artists living and dead, but also between what is alive in art, whether produced now or in years, centuries gone by. The works arise out of the close personal relationship each artist establishes with works in the Prado. It is extraordinarily interesting to see how great artists search restlessly for the same things, and how they communicate with and understand each other, using the same language, whatever their age and place in the centuries-long history of art.

In the confrontation of traditional and contemporary art, the impression has been given that the affirmation of one automatically meant the negation of the other. Today, historical perspective shows us that the ongoing dialogue between the art of the past and the present day is possible, necessary even. It is what stimulates the production of artworks as they are renewed in each successive generation.

The exhibition’s unique character has much to do with the roll-call of artists with works on show: Andreu Alfaro, Eduardo Arroyo, Isabel Baquedano, Miquel Barceló, Carmen Calvo, Naia del Castillo, Eduardo Chillida, Cristina García Rodero, Ramón Gaya, Luis Gordillo, Cristina Iglesias, Carmen Laffón, Eva Lootz, Blanca Muñoz, Ouka Leele, Guillermo Pérez Villalta, Isabel Quintanilla, Albert Ràfols-Casamada, Manuel Rivera, Gerardo Rueda, Antonio Saura, Soledad Sevilla, Susana Solano and Gustavo Torner.

Support for The Prado and Contemporary Artists underscores Japan Tobacco International (JTI)’s serious, ongoing commitment to art in all its forms. In fact, JTI’s cooperation, first with the Foundation of  Friends of the Prado, and now with the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, is part of a programme it runs in all the countries where JTI has business interests. Among other social initiatives, the programme works to preserve local cultural heritages, to support all kinds of art and to promote Japanese culture.


The Prado and Contemporary Artists

Among all the works housed in the Prado, Andreu Alfaro (Valencia, 1929-2012) chose to establish a dialogue with The Three Graces by Rubens. This is a painting in which the artist not only expressed his particular vitality and love of life, giving the figures the features of his two exceptionally beautiful wives, but also used the female nude to represent a pagan act of thanks for the pleasure of living. In his prints Alfaro, a sculptor who shares Rubens’s sensual, material and direct concept of the joy of life, succeeds in summarising the remarkable interplay of the Three Graces’ curves through pure lines and volumes.

Eduardo Arroyo (Madrid, 1937) first began to be inspired by the Museo del Prado at a time when the Museum was for him an “island of difference” in the mediocre, repressive Madrid of his youth. Thirty years later, twenty of them spent in exile in Paris, the Prado once again inspired him to produce the prints on display in this exhibition. Through them Arroyo engages in a living dialogue with the Museum’s collections, resulting in new works that arise from the combination of the thoughts that the Prado’s paintings inspire in him and the recreation of the iconic passages in these works that he considers most significant.

Isabel Baquedano (Mendavia, Navarre, 1936) has focused on Fra Angelico, stripping down the artist’s Annunciation to its essentials and avoiding any unnecessary details. In Baquedano’s Annunciation we see two simplified forms enclosed in a reduced architectural setting with a summary suggestion of a landscape. In the case of Adam and Eve, Baquedano depicts three figures; the newly self-conscious naked couple and the angel who casts them out into the world. Nothing could be simpler or more intense: four judiciously placed lines express a known truth. 

Miquel Barceló (Felanitx, Majorca, 1957) looks neither for famous names nor for the sterile preservation of memory in the Prado’s collections. What he seeks out is paint itself, either as a viscous substance with still glittering highlights or as a dusty material that resists its transformation into pure spirit. Barceló does not enter the Museum simply to acquire wisdom but rather to nourish himself. In his prints he gives material form to the latent spirit of these masterpieces, summarises history and unifies the destiny of painting over and above periods, styles, countries or individuals. In a way he returns to the ancient, sovereign gesture of one who takes a handful of earth and smears it on a wall.

Carmen Calvo (Valencia, 1950), has chosen Goya and his tapestry cartoons. In her reflection on The Maja and the Cloaked Men she draws our attention to the interplay of gazes between the figures, superimposing glass eyes onto the negative photographic image which represent a gaze on our own process of looking. The gaze also lies hidden in her other work, in which she conceals the eyes of the figures in The Injured Mason from those who nonetheless see monsters of the kind produced by “the sleep of Reason”.

Naia del Castillo (Bilbao, 1975) condenses Robert Campin’s Saint Barbara Triptych into a mirror reflection, pairing the saint with a young woman of today. As a result the convex form of the mirror acts to expand both space and time. In Eritis Sicut Dei, “You will be like gods”, the artist has photographed a plaquette engraved with the Expulsion from Paradise in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation over a nude female bust. The bust is partly obscured by a transparent piece of black gauze, offering us a reflection on sin and redemption, sex and guilt.

Eduardo Chillida (San Sebastian, 1924-2002) appreciated good painting and painted himself in his leisure time, possibly with the aim of setting free his normally supressed passion for colour. Above all, however, he was a privileged observer of space and one who experimented with it. It is thus logical that when Chillida looked at works in the Prado it was the space inside them that most attracted the sculptor’s attention. In his prints he gave material form to pictorial space, considering that it had the power to add volume to the composition and to be an active participant in the configuration of objects.

Cristina García Rodero (Puertollano, Ciudad Real, 1949) has photographed Juan van der Hamen’s Offering to Flora in the Prado and a reflectograph of Raphael’s Holy Family Known as “The Pearl”. Interposed between the viewer and these images are the faces of two visitors to the museum, one seen frontally and the other in profile. They become part of the paintings, which act as a background to them. Through this sudden encounter between art and document the artist invites us to go not beyond what we see but further into our very selves.

 “Entering the Prado”, wrote Ramón Gaya (Murcia, 1910-Valencia, 2005) “is like going down into a deep cave where Spain has hidden a sort of booty of itself, defended from itself, where Spanish painting is real [...]” Opening up the cave and descending to the moist materiality of the real, imbibing reality, is what Gaya achieved in these prints, which arise from his profound admiration for the Museo del Prado. Gaya made Velázquez’s works his own, including them in his delicate still lifes and also depicting the visiting public in close company with the paintings inside the Museum.

Luis Gordillo (Seville, 1934) creates himself through his pictorial output, using it to dilute or reaffirm his personal identity. For Gordillo, being and living are so intensely and dramatically interlinked that it is not surprising that an artist who maintains this concept of art should see the Museum as a collection of preserved lives or moments from lives. Gordillo approaches the Prado’s works as if they were artificially preserved fragments of life. However, unlike things that have been embalmed, they give the impression of still being alive and of being able to converse calmly with the surprised visitor to the Museum.

Cristina Iglesias (San Sebastian, 1956) has chosen Velázquez as her interlocutor, specifically his views of the Villa Medici, whose light-filled space she has partly concealed in order to draw our attention to it. The artist reconstructs Velázquez’s work, placing a section of rush lattice-work over a tapestry in order to generate an intermediary void which we look into. This opens up the interior and closes the exterior while also opening up the closed nature of art and lightening the weight of the artistic past.

Carmen Laffón (Seville, 1934) here establishes a dialogue with her fellow Sevillian Murillo, chosing two isolated passages from The Dream of the Patrician. In one lithograph we see the work-basket in Murillo’s painting, seemingly rejected on the ground next to the dark corner on the right-hand side of the room, and in Laffón’s other print, the book and shawl from the other end of the room lying on the table. The result is to create two exquisite still lifes but without losing the charming counterbalance created by the now invisible composition in which even objects seem to fall down as if asleep.

For her dialogue with the Museo del Prado, Eva Lootz (Vienna, 1942) has used two digitalised photographic images representing a pair of domestic fowl. Filled with colour, these images vividly recall Baroque still lifes of dead game and foodstuffs. In addition, by subtly overprinting them with name of the Asian Bird Flu virus strain, the artist makes us reflect on what Man is currently doing to nature and the consequences that our actions may have.

Blanca Muñoz (Madrid, 1963) has focused on ruffs, so frequently to be seen in portraits in the Museo del Prado and which were used by artists to create an area of brightness among the darkness of black dress. In addition, they function to separate the spiritual head and the more “animal” part of the rest of the body. Ruff I uses feathery stripes, each ones of whose tongues forms a necklace on which a ray of parabolic metal spokes vibrates. Ruff II is a ring of curls whose reticular outline, like tiny interlinked leaves, defies the laws of perspective.

Ouka Leele (Madrid, 1957) fuses dance, theatre, music, painting and photography with the aim of breaking down not so much genres as the separation between the fiction of art and reality. Using Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Rubens’s The Judgement of Paris, the artist animates the compositions by giving life to one of the painted figures. This is achieved by a ballet dancer whose movement replicates the heavy, static quality of the model and interprets it, adorning her nude body with a fetishistic object imbued with meaning: a crinoline or a wealth of very long hair.

Guillermo Pérez Villalta (Tarifa, 1948) chose Velázquez as his interlocutor when engaging in a dialogue with the art of the past. He made this choice not only because he considers him one of the greatest painters of all times but because, in his opinion, Velázquez was among the artists who most profoundly delved into the truth of painting as deliberate deception with the power to illuminate or reveal the truth of the real. In his prints Villalta, who has defined art as “the visual projection of human thought” and who believes that its goal is either wisdom or nothing, reflects on Velázquez as the paradigmatic example of one who achieved and expressed wisdom through art.

Isabel Quintanilla (Madrid, 1938) has been inspired by Velázquez in her drypoint La menina. A young girl, whose face is that of one of Quintanilla’s grand-daughters but who is a contemporary copy of the Infanta Margarita (who appears alone and devoid of any elaborate accessories) is offered an everyday glass. Both in this work and in Still Life, which is inspired by still lifes in the Prado and reveals a close study of Zurbarán, the artist captures the simplicity and complexity of two fragments of life, two fragments of time, a “memento” of life as it passes.

Albert Ràfols-Casamada (Barcelona, 1923-2009) saw Velázquez’s views of the gardens of the Villa Medici as examples of atmosphere subjugating narrative: the anecdotal, the narrative-based is thus swept away by air and transformed into a pure pictorial happening. What Ràfols saw in Velázquez’s views and what he represented in his own paintings is an order capable of harmonising space and time, form and light. This may be the reason why, when we look at his works, we seem to perceive the fragrance of an atmosphere as well as the vibrating notes -the musicality- of a luminous flickering and a restless expansion of light.

During the early years of El Paso, Manuel Rivera (Granada, 1928-Madrid, 1995) and his fellow members of that avant-garde group turned their gaze on the Museo del Prado, looking not for famous names but for the signs of identity, the particular aesthetic and the emphasis on the essential that constitute Spanish art’s particular sensibility. Rivera clearly encountered the key to that radical Spanish palette of blacks and whites in painters such as Zurbarán and Goya; in particular the latter, to whom he pays heartfelt tribute in these prints, which are two-dimensional translations of his distinctive and remarkably subtle pieces of wire mesh.

In the Museo del Prado, Gerardo Rueda (Madrid, 1926-1996) turned his gaze on artists such as Mantegna, Fra Angelico, Bellini, Van der Weyden, Raphael and Zurbarán; all artists who did not sacrifice rule to emotion in their works. Like them, Rueda controlled emotion while retaining sentiment, striving to transform it into a work of art that avoids the obvious, the loudly stated and the superficial. Basing himself on inexplicably beautiful passages from paintings, he created his prints from curious diagonals that construct spaces and unleash lights and storms, resulting in atmospheric geometrical forms of elegant, discreet beauty and profound expressivity.

In the Museo del Prado, Antonio Saura (Huesca, 1930 -Cuenca, 1998) looked for and found his monstrous artistic forefathers, not in order to take delight in them but to confront them and juxtapose them with each other. He recreated the work and Velázquez or Goya through the automatic gesture: pure matter that expresses the desire to achieve the ultimate aim of all pictorial representation, namely the writing of the flesh. Saura’s prints are the result of the compulsive action of one who designs a net to trap flesh and safely store it away, albeit painted flesh in this case. This is what makes Saura’s art a stealthy, dangerous hunt and an unbearable vision.

Soledad Sevilla (Valencia, 1944) has chosen Guido Reni’s Hippomenes¡¡ and Atalanta, juxtaposing it with a photograph that captures a moment during the bullfighting pass known as a “Veronica” in which the matador’s pose corresponds to that of Hippomenes in the painting. The parallel is not just a formal one, however, as there is a conceptual similarity between Hippomenes, who uses deception and the golden apples to beat the swift Atalanta in the race in which his life is at stake, and the matador, who uses the cape and his skills to defeat the force of the bull and cheat death.

Susana Solano (Barcelona, 1946) deconstructs works in the Museo del Prado, leaving their essential elements: form, colour and composition, creating clean surfaces with precise outlines and concise colour notes. This vibrant harmony of forms and colours unfolds in space like floating aquatic plants, and recalls the wisdom acquired by the Old Masters over the centuries in their handling of space. Like Susana Solano, they devoted all their energies to delving into depth and flattening out what is deep.

The work of Gustavo Torner (Cuenca, 1925) does not involve a system that pre-establishes the what, how and why of what is about to happen. On the contrary, it is characterised by a permanent openness to possible revelations. This is the spirit that Torner has adopted when visiting the Museo del Prado: disposed to look, expectant as to what may happen there and in search of revelation. On this occasion the revelation has taken material shape in these prints, inspired both by works in the Museum and by the poem by Saint John of the Cross entitled On a Dark Night, of which the first and last verses provide the titles of Torner’s works.

In the image:
Eduardo Arroyo
Vanitas, 1991
© VEGAP, Madrid, 2012

Content of exhibition: The Museo del Prado and the contemporary artists