I was pleased to read a press announcement recently from the Meadows Museum in Dallas, which has one of the most important collections of Iberian art outside of Spain, announcing that they had acquired two new works by two important 20th century Catalan artists: Santiago Rusiñol i Prats (1861–1931) and Josep de Togores i Llach (1893-1970). This is terrific news, but I think there’s an important distinction that needs to be made here regarding the use of the term “Modernist”, at least when it comes to Catalan art. It’s certainly true that Rusiñol was a “Modernista”, as that term is understood in Catalonia, but technically speaking, Togores wasn’t: in fact, he was quite the reverse.
If he has to be placed anywhere, and it’s difficult to do so because his style changed over time, Togores really belonged to the school of “Noucentisme” (“New Century-ism”). This was a movement in the early 20th century in which Catalan artists, architects, and thinkers sought to eschew the fantastical mixture of historical revival, eclecticism, and bohemianism exemplified by much of the art and architecture of the Modernistas – what we would understand as Art Nouveau – in favor of a kind of a more muscular, Mediterranean classicism that anticipates the Social Realist movement in America and elsewhere during the 1930’s. Perhaps because, by the time World War I came around, Modernisme was considered to be bourgeois establishment, rather than highbrow, the idea of returning to a classical, but modern-looking, style took root.
This is why, for example, that even though a number of Modernista architects and artists continued working in Barcelona well into the 20th century, a visitor would notice that by 1920, more and more apartment blocks, civic buildings, and public squares, as well as the art in and around these structures, were being produced in the kind of stripped-down classical style espoused by Noucentista artists and designers. Meanwhile, a number of the Modernista buildings and their over-the-top contents were already being torn down or thrown out, even though in some cases they were not even a decade old.
Rusiñol is one of my favorite artists, and it’s nice to see that one of his many paintings of the famous gardens at Aranjuez, a place he visited many times and indeed where he died one day while he was working, has now entered a major American collection that can be visited by the public:
Togores isn’t well-known outside of Spain (not that Rusiñol is, either), but he was quite a remarkable figure. He went deaf in his childhood, but it didn’t stop him from becoming an artist who studied and exhibited with some of the most important artists of the 20th century, including Picasso, Braque, and many others. His 1927 portrait of the Mester family acquired by the Meadows is very typical of his work:
Probably my favorite painting of his however, which not only embodies the spirit of the Noucentista movement but also has more than a whiff of the Art Deco about it, is his 1922 painting “Couple à la plage” (“Couple on the beach”), painted in France but now in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. Later Togores abandoned this heavy-limbed style, turning to Surrealism and finally to religious painting. Yet he was definitely not a Modernista – he would have looked at the disheveled morphine addicts and dingy dance halls depicted by Modernista artists like Rusiñol in much the same way as today, some of look at things like love-ins, Woodstock, and Cosmopolitan magazine.
In any case, it’s great to see that two important Barcelona artists are now going to be seen by a wider public in this country. Let’s hope that these are not just isolated examples of their art coming, permanently or temporarily, to these shores. And with that, off to some news stories we go.
Speaking of the Reina Sofia, readers will recall my telling you recently about the convoluted court case of a scion from Spain’s most powerful banking dynasty, and the early Picasso he kept on board his yacht. Last month, Banco Santander heir Jaime Botín was convicted of attempting to smuggle the painting out of the country, fined nearly $60 million, and sentenced to an 18-month jail term, but prosecutors complained that the sentence wasn’t harsh enough. The judge apparently agreed, and has now upped both the fine and the prison term, to over $101 million and three years in jail. Meanwhile, as his Picasso sits in storage at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, Botín is appealing his sentence, but no doubt with an added urgency given this rather unusual upping of the stakes.
I must confess that, before I read about a major new exhibition at the Albertina on German Realist painter Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), I had never *heard* of Wilhelm Leibl. It does go to show you however, that no matter how much you think you may know about art, there are always new-to-you artists to discover. Leibl’s work was strongly championed by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), but today he isn’t quite the household name in the art world that Courbet is. Rather than shock, Liebl focused on looking closely at individuals, such as in the striking self-portrait shown below, as well as in creating very direct, carefully observed images of Bavarian peasants engaged in their daily activities. In some ways his work reminds me of the more folksy images of another great Realist, the Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920), and it would be interesting to find out if Zorn was aware of Leodl’s work.
“Wilhelm Liebl: The Art of Seeing” is at the Albertina in Vienna through May 10th.