The art in Spain falls mainly on the brain

During the summer, I took a fortnight trip to Andalucia – my first time in mainland Spain. Andalucia is well-known for its gorgeous mountains and lakes, but it has its fair share of splendid galleries too. Here are my thoughts on the ones I managed to visit.


Carmen Thyssen Gallery

Romantic, impassioned, emotive. Carmen Thyssen are sensitively aware of the reputation which Spanish culture has in the mind of the Anglophone world, and they explain succinctly why it is the case in some helpful accompanying literature – discussing the role of the Grand Tour in helping shape popular imagination, distilled through an itinerant aristocracy. Carmen Thyssen’s prerogative is to get the spectator to consider Spanish art, particularly of the 19th century, as on a par with its more academized cousins in Spain and France; looking at large nuanced portrayals of social interactions, rather than just stereotypically Romantic paintings.

Rarely have I seen a picture jump off the canvas from its immediate surroundings as much as I have with A Confraternity In Procession, and its authorship provides a big hint to why: it is painted by a Frenchman, Alfred Dehodencq, who specialised in Orientalist scenes. Here Carmen Thyssen provide an image of Andalusia understood by an outsider, which is what their collection aims to question. The confraternity light up candles, but the painter’s gaze is clearly fixated by their black clothing which dominates palette and perspective. The sombre tone and the ambiguous origin of the procession, coming as much from the mouth of Hell as any discernible route through Seville, attests to the Orientalist temptation of exotic sin far more than more sycophantic religious works do.


Alfred Dehodencq – A Confraternity In Procession Along Calle Génova, Seville, 1851, oil on canvas, 11.5 x 161.5cm

For evidence of how Spanish artists could be masters of realism and subtle emotive detail in contrast to the popular perception, one needs look no further than Ricardo Lopez Cabrera’s Newlyweds. An example of the Sevillian genre scene he made his name for, each figure in the painting speaks of a thousand emotions underneath. Immediately catching the eye is the matriarchal figure in the middle, toppling as she prepares a toast to the happy couple, while the relaxed priest makes a knowing glance to the new husband and wife. The parents of the bride react with differing degrees of embarrassment in the background. I found it hard to believe on first looking how accurately Cabrera managed to catch the ‘types’ that exist in any kind of al fresco social gathering – look at the two young women immediately in front of you, who regard the scene with varying amounts of curiosity, or the tell-tale eyes of the soldier who tries to avoid the attentions of the woman by his side, looking at another, closer to the foreground. The bride sits, head bowed, between domesticity behind her and flighty independence in front.

Ricardo López Cabrera - Newlyweds, 1905, oil on canvas, 58.4 x 78.7cm.

Ricardo López Cabrera – Newlyweds, 1905, oil on canvas, 58.4 x 78.7cm.

An oft-repeated adjective to describe a canvas is ‘dizzying’, but Dance At A Country Inn is up there with the works of Bridget Riley as one deserving of such a descriptor, with a wonky perspective and a central figure turning her head around with the uncanniness of a monster from Bronzino’s Allegory With Venus And Cupid. The slope in perspective to the left of the canvas gives the impression that the painting is a snapshot of a scene rapidly rotating;, that without the viewer’s intervention it would carry on, sweeping all along with it. Geographically distant but chronologically close to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, there is a similarity in both works’ ability to imbue a static scene with a sense of restlessness:

Rafael Benjuma - Dance At A Country Inn, 1850, oil on canvas, 46 x 65cm.

Rafael Benjuma – Dance At A Country Inn, 1850, oil on canvas, 46 x 65cm.

“One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof.  The latter had never been under-drawn: its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham, concealed it.  Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols: and, by way of ornament, three gaudily-painted canisters disposed along its ledge.”

Spanish painters can match their European counterparts for pictographic detail and subtly suggestive brushstrokes, but with an undercurrent of energy and violence. The central dancer is caught mid-step, but the falling away of the man on the viewer’s left gives the impression of the aftermath of a punch. Shady characters haunt the edges of the work, which the tambourine player and her male accomplice appear to be magnetically attracted to. The cross-beam encompassing the scene ensures that religion is impressed upon your mind and forces you to consider the scene in the context of it. Coupled with the resemblance to Bronzino, you can detect the transposition of allegorical materials into an ostensibly naturalistic scene.

For all of Carmen Thyssen’s attempts to recalibrate my understanding of Spanish art, my eye was drawn above all to a painting which seemed to confirm certain pre-existing stereotypes, or at least show a synthesis between something unique to Spanish culture with a broader European pictorial tradition. An Interrupted Banquet by Juan José Clavero has elements of both. So in this picture a civic scene loses detail towards the left of the canvas where a dark, pastel-like visage of a bull, the symbol of Andalusia, is running loose. A problem particular to southern Spain, but the fragility of life and imminence of disaster in ostensibly secure settings is universal.

Juan José Garate Clavero - An Interrupted Banquet, ?, oil on canvas, 49 x 78 cm

Juan José Garate Clavero – An Interrupted Banquet, ?, oil on canvas, 49 x 78 cm

The temporary exhibition running when I visited Carmen Thyssen was Summer Days, a collection of artworks from all over the Western Hemisphere, cataloging depictions of leisure days at the beach. Helpfully included were examples of beachwear from the turn of the 20th century. The highlight was the marquee piece used in most of the exhibition’s advertising: Edward Hopper’s The ‘Martha Mckeen’ of Wellfleet. The exhibition also showed off the works of one of the Spanish painters who really left an impression on me; Joaquin Sorolla, a builder of coastal scenes through striking washes of colour, where the rocks are just as fluid as the sea. His favoured subjects at the beach are children, and he frequently positions them to the edge of the canvas which helps create that organic feel and makes you less attuned to the painter’s compositional gaze, focusing more on the children’s dignity on the sand.

A final note to mention about Carmen Thyssen, one true of many museums in this list but particularly in their case, and that is how well-constructed their website is. There is scarcely a single painting which does not possess a sizeable yet intriguing blurb. Carmen Thyssen is a museum with a clear project and a significant passion for it, and I loved visiting it. if you are in Malaga, a visit is a necessity.

Carmen Thyssen Museum, Calle Compañía, 29008 Malaga, Spain

Picasso Museum

The Picasso Museum in Malaga is probably always doomed to be a best-of-the-rest selection, unable to compete with the museums dedicated to him in Barcelona and Paris, but for an artist like Picasso, perhaps the most versatile to have ever lived, breadth can trump depth. From the early naturalism of Olga Khokhlova with a Mantilla to the lyrical works of his 90s via experiments with blue paint and sculpture, the museum in Malaga has a selection from all periods of Picasso’s career and has a more conceptual approach to textual accompaniment than Carmen Thyssen – but just as exciting. Directly printed on the walls are quotations taken from Picasso via Andre Malraux, with thought-provoking statements which claim a canvas should ‘bristle with razor blades’ and my personal favourite, how art ‘is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon’

Picasso’s sculpture is less known than his painting, but his work with clay is known even less so. A ceramic still life in the museum owes a debt to the platos de engano, a particularly Spanish form of pottery which consists of trompe l’oeil arrangements of fruit which are in fact fake, which Picasso takes to another level by removing even the illusion of three dimensions by carving the fruit directly onto the bowl. Other pieces to stand out were Bather and Woman and Child. The former features fluid overlapping whirls which ensure we cannot know the bather from the bath. The latter lacks the melancholic beauty of its Blue Period equivalent, but conjures a universal admiration for motherhood in its gigantism, both in terms of its emotional massiveness and the changes it makes to a woman’s body; so rarely seen in art history. In short, while an enjoyable excursion, this Picasso museum falls short in some important areas: it cannot rival the collections held elsewhere, it lacks the star quality of his top-tier works, and it does not have the requisite pieces to elaborate on how the artist was actually inspired by growing up in Malaga. Having said that, the quotations provided from Picasso which adorn the walls are that rare thing: a textual addition which acts in tandem with the art on display, never hectoring an interpretation onto you or intruding onto your contemplation of the object in front of you. Nevertheless, you leave the gallery feeling educated and challenged.

Louise Bourgeois: I Have Been To Hell And Back

One of the few artists since Picasso who can rival him for longevity and versatility of material is Louise Bourgeois, and her work, deeply rooted in particularly female feelings of shame and confession, was an intriguing counterpoint to Picasso’s brash brushstrokes. Offering an extensive collection of works, the exhibition represented the largest retrospective of her work held in Spain to date. There could have been danger of boredom when organising the breadth of two artist’s collections, but the variety of pieces on show keeps things interesting, especially as her biography is compressed into a photographic timeline in the first room.

My personal highlights of the exhibition were her Cell pieces (more on these later), metal or wooden cages surrounding a tableaux of her sculptures offering a direct route into the artist’s vulnerable core. The gallery has ample space to play with, which allowed the pieces to hum with grace, whether dangling from the ceiling or sprouting from the floor. As an arachnophobe, I’d deliberately avoided Bourgeois’ gigantic spider sculptures for some time, but plucked up the courage to scan past the one placed in the atrium – if you do worry about that sort of thing, you should be alright. A quick thought on that note  – when trigger warnings first came onto my radar at university, I had the instinctive reaction that most people do: I balked from them, assuming that they represented a clampdown on freedom of expression. Yet in Louise Bourgeois the hypocrisy of that position is mind-numbingly obvious. Without going into too many details, her work touches on potentially upsetting and triggering themes. The experience needed for those triggers is something I am much less likely to have (being a self-identifying man), to the point that I almost don’t have to think about them. Yet I would ignore all that, while desperately appealing for some prior warning whenever I am about to come across a spider. If you’ve ever played an RPG you’ll understand this, as giant versions of them are oddly the norm regardless of the fantasy universe you’re in. I still find it hard to reconcile the two thoughts in my mind, and would appreciate input on it. Should I be allowed the luxury of a warning against looking at something which instinctively fills me full of adrenaline? Or is that shock, the artist’s pre-empting of my hormonal reaction a statement that needs to be heard without a muffle?

Museo Picasso Malaga, Palacio de Buenavista, Calle San Agustin, 8, 29015 Malaga, Spain


Centro José Guerrero

Soleded Sevilla: Variations On A Line

I didn’t stop as long in the Jose Guerrero as I did in the other galleries of my trip, so I can only offer a short comment here – and that is, how the naturalized American and abstract expressionist Soleded Sevilla drew on the influences of Moorish geometry in her own compositions. Much of the American school was concentrated on creating a new visual language for moods that disconnected from the bourgeois society, but in Soledad’s case, surrounded by Granada old town, the influence is obvious and respectfully drawn from in lattices and volumes.

Centro Jose Guerrero, Calle Oficios, 8, 18001 Granada, Spain


Museum Of Fine Arts

One of the hallmark attractions of Seville, the Museum Of Fine Arts was something of a disappointment. The space offers a tremendous opportunity, but is ruined by poor design decisions. Cavernous spaces of the old church have their contemplative mood pierced by unnecessary videos running from televisions which are not hidden well enough. Art galleries in Spain are also designed a little too efficiently, as they force a linear progression through the gallery and don’t offer much chance for digressive browsing.

The saving grace of this museum is its strong collection of pieces by Francisco de Zubaran, who was commissioned to produce works for monasteries in Seville in the 17th century and has had a lasting relationship with the city since. Known for a distinct style of tenebrism, his works are more austere than Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro as he tends to depict solitary figures, and his blackness is almost impenetrable to the extent that backdrop materials which Caravaggio favoured, like curtains and tables, are non-existent. The sight of religious figures in moments of despair against a colourless abyss is redolent of Beckett’s most pared-down plays, a comparison not entirely arbitrary as the painter is offered a shout-out in Beckett’s 1932 story ‘Sedendo Et Quiescendo’.

Francisco de Zurbaran - Dying Christ On Crucifix, 1630/40, oil on canvas, 255 x 193 cm.

Francisco de Zurbaran – Dying Christ On Crucifix, 1630/40, oil on canvas, 255 x 193 cm.

There, the author surrogate Belacqua Shuah compares himself to the ‘Zurbaran Saint Onan’ in a reference to his Peeping Tom predilections. His best paintings of saints in meditation are to be found in Madrid and London, but for the price of admission, the Seville Museum Of Fine Arts is justified on his works alone.

Their collection of 20th century pieces is small, but one painting stands out; Rafael Martinez Diaz’s Ninas Porbes (Poor Girls). Little details of perspective are just ever so slightly wrong. The girl immediately facing you has her eyes set askew, meaning you cannot fully empathise with her situation as you never get to totally meet her gaze. The chair is slightly too big for the table. The room itself is made to feel even smaller than it actually is. I am not Catholic – I didn’t grow up in a Catholic country, nor a Catholic family. So I can’t try to predict how someone of that background would respond to the bulk of the museum. But I can give you my personal response, and that is how the muted tones of grey and sepia of this painting, the resigned expressions of the girls’ faces, the ironic evocation of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes on the table, made far more of an impression on me than the tiring excursion through Virgin Marys, explosions of colour, and acts of magic respectively. In much the same way that a Giorgio Morandi still life can reveal more about loneliness and fear than an aloof and overworked self-portrait, subtlety is key. But subtlety does not equal difficulty, at least not by my definition. Unpicking the pity behind Martinez Diaz’s painting is only as difficult as the act of engaging in empathy with the people portrayed. Being able to unpick finer details of a sparse painting is a cipher for being able to understand someone else’s imaginative space and, if necessary, being able to help them.

Museum of Fine Arts of Seville, Pl. del Museo, 9, 410001 Sevilla, Spain

Andalusian Centre For Contemporary Art

Tucked away in a neglected part of the city on the south side of the Guadalquivir, the Andalusian Center for Contemporary Art was the perfect ending to what had been a surprising and challenging trip. Housed in an oversized space on a dusty south bank, the comparisons with the Tate Modern are obvious. What lifted the gallery over so many I have visited is that they did not blankly give you a historical building in the hope that its prettiness would win you over; it used the building’s history (firstly a monastery, then a pottery factory) at all times in their exhibitions, and often in ways which targeted particular historical narratives.

This was most pronounced in an exhibition entitled The Present In The Past which, quite simply, used the geography and history of the gallery space in a more thoughtful way than I have ever seen before, though many have tried. The accompanying leaflet’s extensive borrowing from Andreas Huyssen is unnecessary as the exhibition says so much in its own right. Areas of the monastery which were historically forbidden to women had explicitly feminist artworks placed within them, including Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen, in which the artist alphabetically progresses through kitchen equipment, raising them to camera and violently mimicking their action. Continuing this theme, Louise Bourgeois made a reappearance as one of her cells, Arch of Hysteria, was reassembled in the monastery’s former sacristy, the rooms where vestments would be stored. The appropriateness to house a Bourgeois there is uncanny, given her prominent motif of the spider as the nurturing mother, weaving as her own mother, and the makers of vestments, did. I was lucky enough to be in the gallery at an awkward time for most people on a Sunday, meaning that sacristy was completely empty, but the experience of slowly finding the centre of Bourgeois’ cell on my own was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in a museum, trapped in there with the artist’s ghosts and a surrounding wall preventing me from being distracted by anything else.

As well as the religious history of the site, its significance in manufacturing pottery is recognised and dissected. The refectory holds several examples of pottery found at the site, in addition to a piece by Valeriano Lopez where ceramics are shattered, playing on how the Spanish word for ‘granada’ can mean a hand grenade or a pomegranate, the original motif on the Fajalauza plates. I found it a striking move to exhibit both Lopez’ conceptual piece with the carefully preserved specimens in the same room, as their proximity made me consider which is the most accurate representation of history: an entropic tendency towards chaos and disorder, or as a model for craft and harmony we should learn from. This is an exhibition which encourages you to think and gives you the material to do so: the quotations given from cultural scholars feel incisive and curious, not elitist.

It also made me feel, which is why I want to give the works by Jose Manuel Broto a mention. Surrounded by statues of saints, their deep splotches of red hum with energy; with the blood of the slaughtered bull, with the burgundy of Rioja, with the dye of the crucifixion. I’ve been perhaps unfairly cynical about Catholic art up to this point, because Broto’s works show me the conceptual connection between my own favour to works that are powerful through lyrical abstractions, and puts forward the point that the images of saints work in the same way, with washes of deep feeling, to believers, by making me see them afresh. Curating at its finest.

Maria Canas: Laughter In The Dark

Maria Canas’ exhibition was similarly concerned with the theme of chronology, and was just as diverse in its use of materials, even though there was only one artist behind it. She also has the now-familiar Spanish artist’s interest in the image, though her focus is on the mass produced image behind film, television and its dispersal on the internet. The order in which you pass by rooms could have been rethought, as the marquee video Spain Is Pain was the first thing you saw, which might help grab the time and attention of those who would lack the energy in later rooms, but the trade-off was to make everything else seem like an after-thought following such an overarching statement. Which might help explain the hoarse quality of Canas’ other pieces, trying to recapture an energy that is not always present.

Spain Is Pain was a rollicking tour through parts of Seville which the tourist would ordinarily miss, particularly the gypsy slums of the city which are ignored by the authorities while flamenco dancers perform a baile down the Avenida de la Constitución in its Disneyland equivalent. The rapid fire style held onto inquisitiveness about its subject matter, which is absent in the admittedly hilarious Holy Thriller video where a Holy Week band plays a tribute to the departed pop singer Michael Jackson. Many of Canas’ works share this latter pieces’ trait of holding up something for you to condemn without ever really explaining beyond an insistence on anger in the first instance – a bit like the psychology of the bully.

I appreciate this so far sounds like falling into the ‘shrieking creative woman’ archetype, but I loved If The Bull Is Raging, Give Him Cows: another piece critical of Spain but with a defiant feminist spin too. When Canas’ focus is on a narrower target, she is more likely to strike, whether it is her adopted city or in a piece of gender commentary. It falls down when she engages in very half-hearted state-of-the-world-ism. Unfortunately that was the driving force behind The Trilling Hand, a video piece which is as lazy in its concept as its execution, a compilation of short videos (Vine length) which illustrated technology in dumb ways, e.g. a young child thinking a magazine is a faulty tablet because the pictures on it do not move. I have written before about the Fletcher/Carroll gallery in Fitzrovia, London, and one of the reasons it is my favourite gallery is because its central artistic project is my biggest unsolved question: the effect of technology on humanity. In their exhibitions, they frequently surprise me by showing me technologies, behaviours, forms, interactions I had never considered. In essence, it performs the function of great art: to present the familiar to you as if experienced for the first time. Maria Canas has no engagement with technology at all. The criticisms she makes of it being distracting, childish, selfish, are not new or unique because they are the criticisms made of all technologies throughout history. The tablet for her could be the television, or the radio, or anything else. An exhibition like Mary Ramsden’s Swipe from last year gives you a form – the smartphone – and makes you challenge your engagement with it by presenting it in a different context, which is what the gallery space can achieve. Canas didn’t use The Trilling Hand to tease out uncertainties in the world, she used it as a mouthpiece to express her fixed views. More effective than the video is a heap of technological junk left in a corner of the room, demonstrating to you the extensive shadow left by devices we all own, and would rather forget.

Still, I warmed to Canas again with the final work in her work, which lended its name to the exhibition, Laughter In The Dark. Television screens surrounded the viewer on all sides in an imitation of the womb while they played footage of inspiration female figures from cinema. The intent behind the piece was just as strong as her others, but the resultant tone was more of deference and gratitude than acid-tongued fury.

Jose Ramon Sierra: Zigzag

Finally, there was a wing dedicated to works by the artist and figurehead of the old monastery’s renovation into a gallery: one Jose Ramon Sierra. A dense display, most impressive of all were the canvases which broke their frames to incorporate found materials and worked them into 3 dimensions, turning the painting underneath into just one part of a sculptural collage. The exhibition was also bold in not segregating his design pieces from his artistic ones. An open-minded approach to housing the artist’s work which embodied the generous and engaging heart of the gallery he helped found, and the country of his birth.

Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, Avenida Americo Vespucio, 2, 41092 Sevilla, Spain