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Exhibition brings together key masterpieces from the portraiture genre for the first time in Spain
Antonio Saura, Imaginary Portrait of Tintoretto, 1967 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-GP / Philippe Migeat © Antonio Saura Succession /, VEGAP, Madrid, 2012

MADRID.- The exhibition Portraits: Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou invites us to take a fascinating journey through the rich, complex genre of portraiture as interpreted by the various art movements of the 20th century. To this end, FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE has selected 80 exquisite masterpieces by some of history’s greatest artists from the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne-Centre Pompidou (MNAM-CP) in Paris.

Portraiture is one of the mainstays of art history, a genre in which tradition converged with new formal proposals following the advent of modernism in the late 19th century. Portraiture has generated some of the quintessential icons of contemporary art. It has also proven receptive to the formal discoveries made by the historical avant-garde movements. Portraiture has been used to reflect on the human condition and the perspective of the other, as well as to explore the very essence of the artist.

Curated by Jean-Michel Bouhours, curator at the Pompidou, the show spans a time period that begins with the portrait of Erik Satie painted by Suzanne Valadon in 1892-93 and ends with John Currin’s The Moroccan from 2011. Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Henri Matisse, Robert Delaunay, Antonio Saura, Jean Dubuffet, Joan Miró and Amedeo Modigliani are just some of the artists represented here, whose works comprise a remarkable collection of high-quality oil paintings and sculptures brought together for the first time in Spain.

The Exhibition
Portraits: Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou revolves around a single question: of all the pictorial genres derived from academicism, why has portraiture been so receptive to so many formal breakthroughs, producing the majority of our 20th century icons? To answer this question, the show offers a chronological overview that allows visitors to perceive the changes in style and form that the portrait has experienced over the course of the century, keeping pace with the efforts to explore and define the human essence. Portraiture cannot be properly appreciated without taking into account a whole series of philosophical, religious, mythical and metaphysical premises, or without considering the particular aesthetic embraced by each artist. Moreover, one of the portrait’s defining traits in the contemporary period is the indelible presence of a certain pathos which, bound up with history, has embodied the violence, barbarity and tragedy of the human condition.

The exhibition begins with a portrait gallery featuring some of the most familiar faces from the Montmartre scene circa 1900, all of which explore the dark side of human personality. This historical period was marked by the appearance of psychoanalysis and its theories about the subconscious, and of faddish pseudo-sciences such as physiognomy, which sought to assess a person’s character by examining his/her facial features. The exploration of the “inner self” and the quest for the human soul were new obsessions that appealed to the artists of the day. The bags under the eyes of the women depicted by Auguste Chabaud and Alexej von Jawlensky seem to be a metonym for their own darkness: femmes fatales or fallen angels, transformed into the idols of a new urban, electric world through painting. The melancholy of Amedeo Modigliani’s Dédie and the distant, distorted gaze of Chaïm Soutine’s bellboy or Marc Chagall’s poet accentuate the almost supernatural presence of the sitter’s inner universe.

Visitors to the show are invited to venture into the deepest, darkest corners of the personalities of artists who portrayed themselves, projecting their own essence and self-perception as well as their fears and phobias onto the works. This is particularly evident in the case of Henri Matisse and Francis Bacon’s self-portraits. For many artists, representing their innermost selves was one of the most complicated tasks they could undertake. This difficulty, combined with the exercise in introspective searching, makes each self-portrait a metaphysical and pictorial manifesto. Like Narcissus in Ovid’s tale, the artist gazes at his reflection in the mirror and attempts to reproduce that image of himself on the canvas, one stroke at a time. The author thus becomes both subject and object, an instrument of his own endeavour. The self-portraits of Van Dongen, Matisse, Vlaminck, Pougny and Foujita are excellent examples of this internal exploration.

Through the genre of portraiture, artists have been able to engage in formal investigations and reflect on modes of representation associated with mimesis. The isolation of the face from the rest of the body and the simplification of human morphology towards abstraction confirms the contemporary artist’s desire to convey an idea rather than create an imitation of life. The works in the show by Joseph Csaky, Henri Laurens, Robert Delaunay, Max Ernst and Pablo Gargallo testify to that quest for the ideal form, far removed from the psychological carcass.

In this quest, pursued with particular intensity by the historical avant-gardes, the debate on the role of the mask came to the fore thanks to a newfound fascination with primitivism. Accurate resemblance to the model ceased to be a requirement for portraits, which instead resorted to devices such as the abstraction of the face’s morphological features and the translation of personality into a plastic language in order to achieve greater expressiveness, as exemplified by the work of Juan Gris, Fernand Léger and Julio González.

The women painted by Pablo Picasso boldly proclaim the beauty of the imperfect, in contrast to the traditional extolment of classical perfection. Some of the portrayed subjects are transformed into beings on the verge of collapsing, cracking, caving in on themselves. Sometimes the artist interprets this complex character as a shattered mirror, a clear allusion to the fragmentary makeup of human personality, as in Gino Severini’s self-portrait; at others, he views it as a grotesque, tangled web, as Jean Dubuffet did. Sometimes the artist resorts to deconstruction or decomposition, coming within a hair’s breadth of destroying the portrayed subject, a yawning chasm that is apparent in the work of Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti. In all of them we detect a final, desperate attempt: the impossible struggle to conquer death through art.

The appearance of photography altered the course of contemporary portraiture in painting. At first photography borrowed the codes of pictorial art, offering a new guarantee of objectivity and faithfulness to the original in exchange. However, as the two media settled into coexistence, painting also borrowed other qualities from photography, such as posing or the low-angle perspective, while simultaneously defending the plasticity of the pictorial or the motif. Against all odds, the painted portrait maintained its autonomy and reasserted itself by broadening its horizons and aesthetic possibilities, as the last section of the show featuring the most contemporary artists clearly reveals.

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