Picasso and Miró at the Bass Museum
From expressive figurative illustrations to abstract geometries to surrealist musings, a new show at the Bass Museum of Art offers a rare look at sketches and drawings by some of the most influential artists of the past century.
"20th-Century Works on Paper from the Fundación Mapfre Collection: Picasso, Tàpies, Miró, and Others" features 80 works by Spain's renowned masters and artists from other countries whose careers were affected by that nation.
Created in an age when some still considered drawings subservient to media such as painting and sculpture, many works vibrate with an immediacy and freedom that illustrate the experimentation of the period. At a time when an interest in contemporary works on paper is flourishing, these gems at the Bass are nothing short of a revelation.
The well-organized exhibit is arranged in four sections. Each work is accompanied by elaborate wall text in English and Spanish. There's little dense theoretical baggage.
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The show's chronologically evolving segments include "Pioneers of the Avant-Garde," "The International Influence," "Cubism and the School of Paris," and "The Surrealist Movement."
It's an introduction to some of Spain's lesser-known talent, as well as a primer on those who soared to international stature during an era when the tension between figuration and abstraction ruled.
At the exhibition's entrance, Joaquim Sunyer's Pastoral conveys an idealized view of peasant women working and sunning themselves in a primitively rendered country meadow. The oil-and-gouache-on-paper piece depicts featureless nude women in a Cézanne-like scene suggesting a bucolic wonderland. The lyrical composition hints at abstraction while the pink, teal, and green hues dominating the surface enhance the picture's vitality.
Two works that immediately command attention are Juan de Echevarría's portrait of a woman and Darío de Regoyos's portrait of a young boy. The first, Basque Woman (Fisherman's Wife), is a large charcoal-on-linen piece that captures the sitting subject in profile with her hands folded across her apron. Her hair is knotted in a bun; her cheeks appear hollow. Her features are angular and there is a stoic yet dignified aspect to her mien. Behind her, a port city's buildings squat in the distance and geometric sails are propelled across the waves under cotton-ball clouds.
In Portrait of Manolito Pendas, Regoyo captures the barefoot lad with a sailor's cap jauntily cocked on his head. He leans on a ship's railing, his doleful eyes looking back at the viewer. The artist has concentrated on the tyke's expressive features in the evocative drawing.
The exhibit picks up speed in the next section, where it reflects the influence of international artists who flocked to neutral Spain during World War I.
A colorful work by one of few women in the show, Ukrainian Sonia Delaunay, is reminiscent of a target rendered in striking primary hues. Portugal Disc (1915), represents a glowing sun whose light radiates in expanding, abstract concentric circles. It is a dynamic example of the experimentation with color and form that was unfolding at the time.
Russian Serge Charchoune's Six Dadaist Portraits (1922) in ink and pencil on paper portrays his subjects as doodles. Spirals, arabesques, ovals, triangles, and hearts create whimsical figures that retain an air of the subjects' features.
Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García exerted vast influence on Spanish artists during the first quarter of the 20th Century. The exhibit includes two of his constructivist pieces. Constructivist Art is a mature example of his "constructive universalism." It contains stylized symbols of fish, vases, the sun, and people executed in simple, earthy pre-Incan or Andean designs.
A stunning, remarkably modern suite of ink-and-watercolor-on-paper works represents Uruguayan painter Rafael Barradas, who was a catalyst in Torres-García's evolution toward abstract art.
Ten Illustrations for "The Devil's Adventures" (1915-16) offers a phantasmagoric vision of the temptation of Christ, with damned souls and sinners poised over the abyss. On one panel, an innocent young girl with braided hair picks roses from a poisonous bush. An angel protects her as she sucks the venom from her pricked finger while a demonic entity claws at her. On an adjacent panel, the same girl sits in a field reading her catechism. A satanic cupid aims an arrow at her breast as an ectoplasmic incubus menacingly gurgles under her feet. Nearby, a Cyclops Jesus glows under his halo while he walks on water. Rather than relating New Testament narratives, Barradas's nightmarish passages seem inspired by underground comics.
The box office attractions in the Cubism section are Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris, whose works broke with the past to mark a turning point in Western art. One Picasso is a scintillating tempera on paper that features his signature harlequin figure. The abstract geometry of 1924's Untitled (Harlequin and Ponchinella) — featuring salmon pink, pearl gray, velvet black, chalk white, dirty brown, and mustard yellow hues — makes the picture look as though it has been torn to bits and rearranged haphazardly.
Gris's The Guitarist is a preparatory sketch for one of four lithographs the artist created for Gertrude Stein's A Book Concluding with As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story. Gris executed the small graphite-on-paper drawing shortly after he recovered from an emotional breakdown. The modest work is one of a few of the Spaniard's pieces given pride of place in the section. Gris was known as the "Third Musketeer of Cubism" along with Picasso and Georges Braque, who is oddly missing from this show.
The exhibit culminates with a nod to Surrealism highlighted by a napkin-size ink-on-paper piece by Salvador Dalí, the movement's clown prince.
Mental Solitude (1932) features Dalí's iconic melting pocket watch and quirky anamorphic forms stacked inside each other like Russian nesting dolls. A solitary cypress sprouts in the receding landscape. The phallus-shaped tree is sometimes associated with death in Mediterranean cultures.
Female artists are scarce in this overwhelmingly macho lineup. But Remedios Varo's surprising Shadow Catalogue is an eye-catching collage that makes an impact. The photomontage features images of a harp, candlesticks, a silver tea set, and assorted pieces of furniture superimposed by a bubbly cherub. At the bottom of the composition, a woman's manicured hand tweaks the nub of what appears to be a futuristic silver vibrator.
Perhaps the most mystifying of the surrealist works here is José Caballero's It Could Occur at Any Moment, which suggests Spain's hidden history of religious corruption. The artist's immaculate drawing exudes impressive technical skills, brims with psychological depth, and looks like a Gothic cabinet of oddities.
In it, a large chest of drawers tumbles open, spilling severed hands and feet onto the floor. A decapitated fop bedecked in his frilliest finery sits in a chair. Putrefying dead bodies profane a statue of the Holy Mother. Beneath the virgin, a drunken harlot whose face has been slashed gazes heavenward in ecstasy.
The spooky drawing is one of the most compelling on exhibit and a strong argument for why a visit to the Bass provides a rare chance to catch amazing works by artists seldom on view. More often than not, it's the obscure names rather than the headliners who steal this show.
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