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An encounter with the 1930s at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Installation view of the exhibition "Encounters with the 1930s". Photo: Joaquin Cortes/Roman Lores. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2012.

MADRID.- Encounters with the 1930s, one of the most important exhibitions of the season, is the Museum’s contribution to the commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the creation of Guernica (1937), Pablo Picasso’s emblematic art work.

The show, jointly organized by the Museum’s departments of Collections and Exhibitions, will occupy a surface of more than 2,000 square meters divided into two areas. The first, on the second floor, will contain part of the permanent collection, with Guernica as the central point of the itinerary. The other section, on the first floor, will analyze the paths traced by artists in their interpersonal and international relationships while seeking to spur their creativity.

The show is made up of more than four hundred exhibits from prestigious institutions around the world, both Spanish (IVAM, Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña, Filmoteca Nacional, Filmoteca de Cataluña, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Residencia de Estudiantes, the collections of the Museo Reina Sofía, etc.) and foreign (Centre Georges Pompidou, Pushkin Museum [Moscow], MoMA, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum [New York], National Gallery of Art [Washington, D.C.], Philadelphia Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum [New York], The Wolfsonian-FIU, International Center of Photography [New York], Nationalgalerie [Berlin], etc.). Some of the most important artists of the 20th century will be represented, including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Max Beckmann, Robert Delaunay, André Masson, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Luis Buñuel, Joaquín Torres-García, Hans Arp, Fernand Léger, René Magritte or Mario Sironi and many others. The exhibition will also be a unique opportunity to see pieces that are visiting Spain for the first time, such as Antonio Berni’s New Chicago Athletic Club (1937) or Wolfgang Paalen’s Combat des princes saturniens II.

Based on the results of a collective investigation, the exhibition aims to redefine the conceptual and historical parameters of a fundamental period of the 20th century, essential for a full understanding of our own times. Yet to be studied in sufficient depth, this was a time of conflict when art and power came into confrontation and mutual support. Although cloaked in an appearance of eclecticism, this was nevertheless a phase when art was enabled to question its own postulates. In addition, the thirties constitute an essential period for the Museo Reina Sofía itself, since they form the fundamental axis of the permanent Collection, with Guernica as its center of gravity.

Although this is not the first exhibition on the subject of the thirties, it is the first to propose an “episodic” view of the decade that prioritizes connections between artists and moments of stylistic eclecticism.

Encounters with the 1930s has a six-part structure: Realisms; Abstraction; Exhibition culture: national and international projects; Surrealism; Photography, film and posters; Spain: Second Republic, Civil War and exile. Each of these sections encompasses the main preoccupations and problematics which marked the decade from a political, aesthetic and cultural viewpoint, constituting a point of encounter which, in Mendelson’s words, has to be “interpreted openly in order to reveal the roads leading to an understanding that personal relationships and tensions between artists constituted the prime underlying framework for experimentation.” The aim is to present this troubled and exciting period not only on the basis of propaganda narratives but also through the ways found by the artists themselves to trace their own paths through an atmosphere of growing violence.

The decade in question is characterized by the rise of totalitarian governments which used the support of the arts to “coordinate a narrative of creativity that was frustrated by the requisites of power and the monumentality of the State,” explains Jordana Mendelson. At the same time, many artists who were working under the auspices of public institutions even managed to find ways to hinder the progress of the tasks they had been assigned, while others, who defended the singularity of the artist’s voice, placed their talents at the service of government organizations or used advertising as a tool for reaching the masses. Artists thereby demonstrated, Mendelson concludes, that both aesthetic conformity and nonconformity could challenge or overthrow the established order.

The decade of the thirties is marked by the Wall Street crash of 1929, the subsequent worldwide depression, the need for artists to confront a new economic and political reality, and a hitherto unknown development of communications under the impulse of technological innovation in publishing and the media. Mass production and the extension of transport networks enabled patterns of consumption to reach the most remote places. Artists were by no means unaffected by all this, and made use of such novelties to disseminate their works, manifestoes and personal letters. Political ideas were thus transmitted with the same speed, and objects and theories crossed borders.

The circuits followed by artists in the thirties were not linear, since they were as well versed in abstract art as in realism and surrealism. Although these three trends dominated the visual arts, there were moments of fracture, idiosyncratic episodes and microhistories which the curator sees as indicative of an enormous richness. It is in these eclectic and local histories of individual artists, open to numerous interpretations, that “we find an exquisite manifestation of the disconcertedness, the frustration and the intimidation sensed by anyone who tries to pigeonhole the thirties within a single definition.” This exhibition therefore tries to present a demythified view of the thirties by showing works that exemplify visual complexity, technical dexterity and conceptual profanity, allowing them to be analyzed as individual pieces but contextualized at the same time within an interrelated history.

The opening section of the exhibition juxtaposes works by artists who were fascinated by cultural conflict. Despite their different geographical origins, styles, political affiliations and artistic training, they transcended these differences in foregrounding such dominant themes as portraiture, work and leisure, everyday life (urban scenes and rural environments) and so on. Some chose woman as an artistic object (Togores), made the body expressive of something other than aesthetic appearance (David Alfaro Siqueiros), or underscored their commitment to the working classes (Stanley Spencer and Ben Shahn).

The variations in realism during the decade demonstrate that there was an interest, a dedication and an urge to explore in painting that surpassed the directives of any theory or controversy. As Jordana Mendelson says, the different artistic disciplines “resorted to realism in the period between the wars to indicate the desire of artists to reach the largest possible public, even when those viewers were divided, or at least differentiated, by class interests or political commitments.” Among the works on display in this first part of the exhibition are pieces by Alfaro, Guston and Beckman, as well as a work by Berni which has traveled to Spain for the first time from the MoMA in New York.

In the thirties, the perseverance of abstraction as a form of creative investigation transformed the movement from purely Utopian reflection into a number of controversial positions, often locally motivated, whose supporters found themselves trapped in the crossfire of the debates on form and politics. The bridge between Europe and the United States was forged by international travel and political commitment.

During this period, the biomorphic forms of Hans Arp proved more attractive than ever to international artists, especially those who combined abstract art with surrealism (Barbara Hepworth, Marinel·lo). For his part, Moholy-Nagy, who exerted a decisive influence in photography, film and abstract art, transferred his experiments with light, movement and design from Europe to the United States. Josef and Anni Albers were to have a comparable impact on Black Mountain College, a center for experimentation in the humanities which congregated artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg.

Joaquín Torres García is the clearest example of an artist who contributed decisively to the abandonment by abstract art of the European formula of manifesto-statements and its arrival on the American continent as a genuine revelation. The artist opened up new paths for abstract art with the publication in Montevideo of the journal “Círculo y Cuadrado” and the foundation of the Escuela Taller de Artes Plásticas.

Ad Reinhardt was meanwhile one of the artists in the American Abstract Artist group whose work illuminated the impact of the Spanish Civil War and Spanish artists on the development of experimental abstract art in the United States. Besides pieces by some of the artists mentioned, this section moreover features works by Klee, Baumeister, Kandinsky, Calder, Mondrian and Hans Arp. Color Box (1935), by Len Lye, will also be projected in the same room.

In the thirties, exhibitions constituted settings on a grand scale which manifested the role of artists as contributors to government projects, both for a domestic public and for display outside the country.

By means of art works, decorative projects and documentary material, this part of the exhibition documents events like the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris, the Mostra Fascista (Italy, 1933), the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, and the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Of special interest is the way in which artists were recruited to create a national image for exhibition pavilions, and their contribution to the general design of fairs and propaganda materials.

Besides the great international expositions, this section also looks at those which served as counterpoints or “responses” to the national projects of the large-scale exhibitions.

Various projections will also be shown on the Paris Pavilion of 1937 and the New York World’s Fair, 1939-40.

The international expansion of the surrealist movement in the thirties guaranteed its influence on the work of certain experimental artists and on commercial culture. André Breton became the arbiter of orthodoxy within the movement. From the beginning of the decade, and after the exhibitions organized by the Julien Levy Gallery in New York (Surrealism, 1932) and the MoMA (Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, 1936), the movement rapidly rose and culminated, the curator says, with the erotic dream of the Venus Pavilion designed by Dalí for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

This section is based on the international exhibitions on surrealism held in the course of the decade: Tenerife (1935), London (1936), Paris (1937) and Mexico (1940), in which artists with a considerable reputation at the time, such as Miró, Arp, Picasso and Ernst, were mingled with representatives of “local factions”, such as Toyen, Frida Kahlo, Henry Moore and Wilhelm Freddie. Such juxtapositions are described by the curator as “surprising”.

Two decisive events are held up as challenges to the hegemony of Breton. The first is Dalí’s collaboration with gallerist Julien Levy, and the other is the Exposició Lògicofobista in Barcelona, which included work by young artists like Remedios Varo, Joan Ismael, Antoni García Lamilla and Leandre Cristòfol. Joan Miró, an artist who took part both in the official exhibitions held at that time under the auspices of Breton and in those organized by the MoMA, nevertheless maintained his independence.

Works by Breton, Oscar Domínguez, Benjamín Palencia, Magritte, Picasso, Masson, Matta, Ferrant and Dalí are accompanied in this section by a projection which documents an exhibition on surrealism organized by the MoMA in 1936. Appearing in it are works by Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí and other artists.

In the thirties, photography joined the stream of mass culture, and the marginal position of amateur photographers was superseded by the prominence accorded to prestigious artists. The period saw an increase in the number of photographic yearbooks and in the collaboration of professionals with fashion magazines (such as Man Ray’s work for Vogue). At the same time, retrospectives on the discovery of photography were organized and accompanied by chronicles written by first-rate critics (like Walter Benjamin and Lucia Moholy). Documentary photography also dominated the pages of journals and, in Mendelson’s words, “was used by governments to create evidence that would justify reforms and social critique.”

The discipline was conditioned by forced or voluntary migration. A large number of talented European and American photographers traveled from one place to another, developing facets of their work related to advertising or journalism. The emergence of illustrated magazines contributed to this. In the meantime, experiments with typography, collage and photomontage made it possible for artists to create new forms.

Many of those who dominated the art of photography also cultivated that of the cinema camera (Walker Evans, Moholy-Nagy, Paul Strand). Documentary films became immensely popular during the thirties, leading to the use of public funds by governments to create film and photography units. Artists experimented in these disciplines with realism, surrealism and abstract art.

As regards posters, special mention is merited by the graphic designer Josep Renau, who argued publically throughout the thirties for the use of the new media and technologies in the representation of politically relevant subjects. As the curator of the exhibition explains, Renau “invoked the necessity for a new kind of Realism which would relate the political tragedy of the time to a suitable form of mass representation (…) Renau’s treatise, published in 1937, is one of the most exhaustive and energetic defenses of the need to combine avant-garde experimentation, political commitment and commercial initiative.”

Paul Strand, Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko are among the artists represented in this section, which is completed with the projection of Walker Evans’s Travel Notes (Tahiti, 1937) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The second floor of the Museum will house this section, which brings the exhibition’s itinerary to a close. It is made up of three fundamental areas corresponding to the Republic, the national and international vision of the Civil War, and exile.

The second floor of the Museum will house this section, which brings the exhibition’s itinerary to a close. It is made up of three fundamental areas corresponding to the Republic, the national and international vision of the Civil War, and exile.

It is well known that Spanish artists played a very active part in the creative practices of the period. Many went into voluntary or forced exile after the Civil War. Also, however, a large number of foreign artists were exiled in Spain after having to leave their countries. Among the illustrious names who settled in or passed through the Iberian Peninsula were Diego Rivera, Jacques Lipchitz, Calder, Margaret Michaelis, André Masson, Mariano Rawicz and Mauricio Amster. All of them must be taken into account when it comes to understanding the complexity of modern art in Spain. Spanish artists entered into dialogues with their international colleagues, and their works were created and judged in accordance with similar criteria. Nevertheless, as the curator of the exhibition explains, “the history of the absence of a solid market for experimental art and the general intolerance of the Spanish public toward the avant-garde is a history of resistance to the visual practices of the foremost contemporary artists.” Even so, this does not mean that the avant-garde was completely absent from Spain, since international artists visited the country and took part in some of its major exhibitions.

Mendelson speaks of an “alternative history of the avant-garde” which would include, for instance, Alberti’s narratives in the magazine “Luz” (in which he wrote of his meetings with artists and intellectuals from the Soviet Union), the montages of Josep Renau published in the magazine “Octubre”, and Ernesto Jiménez Caballero’s book “Circuito imperial” (1929), which relates the author’s journeys through Mussolini’s Italy. Also of interest are the work produced by Diego Rivera and Lipchitz, the influence of Ibiza on the work of Walter Benjamin and Raoul Hausmann, the collaboration of Eli Lotar with Buñuel on the film Las Hurdes: tierra sin pan, the performance of Calder’s circus for ADLAN in Barcelona, the creation of the Mercury Fountain by the same artist for the 1937 Pavilion, the influence of Le Corbusier on GATEPAC, Man Ray’s photographs of the architecture of Barcelona, and the
involvement of international artists in the production of propaganda during the Spanish Civil War.

In Encounters with the 1930s, it is sustained that these works are not exceptional but characteristic of the experience of modernity and the avant-garde in Spain. “They show us other ways of describing contemporary art in relation to Spain,” says Jordana Mendelson. “Spanish artists would thus be inscribed within the broader narrative of art in the thirties, which stresses the different media expressions of modernity in the visual arts, and amplifies it to cover a multimedia and interdisciplinary framework.”

The itinerary of this section brings visitors in turn to the following rooms: Cinema; Scenography and the visual arts in the Second Republic; The satirical war drawing; Visions of War and Rearguard; Eclectic modernity; Spanish art in the Republic; The Spanish Pavilion of the Republic, 1937; Aidez l’Espagne!; André Masson; The international press on the conflict in Spain; Resonances of the Telluric in the Spanish exile.

Paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, posters, journals and films will help visitors to understand the art of the time in its internal and external relation to Spain, as well as the events taking place in the country.

Works by Alberto Sánchez, Picasso, Miró, Masson, Adam Smith, Lipchitz, Catalá Pic, Marinel·lo, Cristòfol, Torres García, Julio González, Ortiz Echagüe, Philip Guston, Grosz, Le Corbusier, Magritte, Jove-Pau, Chauvin, Luis Fernández, Esteban Francés, Quintanilla, Remedios Varo, Renau and others will be displayed in this section, which will also devote an area to the cinema (for instance, there will be a screening of Jaume Miravilles’s 1936 film El entierro de Durruti).

An important part of Encounters with the 1930s is the one related to international exhibitions. One of the most important was the one organised in Paris in 1937. The Museo’s collection dedicates, on the second floor, some galleries to the works present in the Spanish Pavilion, with Guernica as central axis. The exhibition presented intends to widen this discourse, but with a different reading, in relation to the narrative of the galleries on floor 1.

This section opens with a gallery dedicated to theatre. Specifically with the curtains that the artist Alberto Sánchez made for La romería de los cornudos (1933), a ballet piece starring La Argentinita. It is one of the jewels of the Museo’s collection that hadn’t been on display since the exhibition dedicated to Alberto 12 years ago. The important and large loan made by La Argentinita’s family complements this work. Besides, the show gathers several examples of the different initiatives that the Second Republic established in relation to theatre, such as the group La Barraca, the Pedagogic Missions, the national ballets, etc.

It is noteworthy that the link between the visual avant-gardes and theatre is a line of investigation that has always interested the Museo and that will develop in the future. In this part of Encounters with the 1930s it becomes a transversal subject, highlighting the importance of theatre during the Second Republic, maintained during the years of the Civil War and exile —this fact is underlined in the galleries dedicated to political theatre, undertaken in the streets during the conflict—, and also its prominent presence in the 1937 Pavilion —for which specific commissions supporting the Republic— and exile, as it became one of the ways of expression used by many exiled Spanish artists, such as Alberto Sánchez or Esteban Francés.

Continuing with the Republican phase, the show underlines the government’s support to the artistic modernity of the time and its wish to internationalise. One of the galleries includes works by different groups and movements, such as constructivism, the Escuela de Vallecas, GATEPAC, ADLAN or the School of Paris. The pieces of these artists, organised around publications and exhibitions, show the great eclecticism of Spanish art during the decade.

Another line of force in Encounters with the 1930s is Goya and his influence as an icon of Civil War, especially, through the Desastres de la Guerra. On the one hand, this artist’s presence was very relevant in the 1937 Pavilion, where a special edition of this series was available for purchase. On the other, the Republic used these works as central axis for several exhibitions organised abroad to raise money. The influence that both Goya and his Desastres de la Guerra had in many artists is depicted in the galleries of the show.

In the Civil war area there’s a room dedicated to Realisms, one of the most used genres during this time, due to the urgency to convey messages. Realism is depicted both in its Soviet and its political —closer to the avant-gardes— facets. Also remarkable is an important series of drawings made by Alberto for the Nueva cultura magazine that proceeds from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It is the first time these works are shown in Spain, along his well-known piece Ríos de sangre.

Satirical drawing was also of great importance during the conflict. It occupies one of the first galleries, in which a collection of etchings by Francis Bartolozzi, shown here for the first time.

The section dedicated to the 1937 Pavilion gathers commissions specifically made by the Republic to great avant-garde artists that were living abroad, such as Julio González, Picasso or Miró.

The international aspect of the conflict, that is, how the Spanish Civil War was perceived and depicted outside Spain, is documented through abundant editorial material, produced to support and publicize the Spanish cause. In this sense the David Smith’s Medallas del deshonor is noteworthy, as is René Magritte’s Le drapeau noir (1936–37), proceeding from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Besides, a monographic room has been dedicated to André Masson’s work in relation to Spain, where the artist lived for two years (just before the conflict and during the first years of the war).

This space, which contains most of his works of this period, based on his experience, has been possible thanks to the important loan made by his family.

The exhibition continues with several covers dedicated to Spain which were published by three major magazines of the time (AIZ – Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, Vu and Regards). Lastly, a room on exile shows, among others, three important pieces recently purchased by the Museo: one by Esteban Francés and two by Remedios Varo. This section features the prominent portraiture of artists related to the international Surrealist trend. Luis Buñuel’s film Los Olvidados (1950), shot during his exile in Mexico, is the final piece of the show.

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