Sunday, March 29, 2009

Art and Protest

However valid the reason for doing it may be, I always feel a little self conscious when traipsing along a busy street holding a union banner.

So, after an interminable bus journey (never take the 95 to Barcelona, always take the 94) I finally made it, half an hour late, but, as it happens at exactly the right time to take place in the march.

Our ‘march’ was a damp stroll around the block leaving a small tree outside the employers association as a sign and symbol of our protest. Our group (a couple of hundred strong) was protesting about the lack of progress there has been about the negotiations for the private (unregulated) section of education. The annual debate about the increase in wages looks very far from settled and the employers are trying to negotiate by trying to trade worse conditions for a small amount of money. Some things never change no matter what country you are in!

Because of the damp conditions there was no food provided as had been promised and the Catalan contingent of the protest were outraged; the British section just shrugged. Never let it be said that national stereotypes were obvious!

Duty done and whistle blown I went by metro to España to begin the long walk to MNAC. To my horror the whole of the front of the building was shrouded in dark netting as some sort of rebuilding is in progress. My horror was not that the building might be closed, but rather that the view from the first floor restaurant would be obscured while I had my well deserved lunch.

In the event I needed have worried as my attempts to have a meal were met with an expressionless “Impossible!” by an impassive maitre d’hotel who I could tell relished the refusal.

Foiled by my gourmet inclinations I was determined to be satisfied by my cultural aspirations and so, having got my free ticket by the magical production of my Amics de MNAC card I visited the present temporary exhibition “Sorolla. Visión de España,” from the Colección de la Hispanic Society of America.

The exhibition was in two parts. One part was of preparatory sketches and drawings for the commission and the second part was of the massive paintings themselves.

With the pretention which has become an essential part of my character, I did, of course prefer the sketches to the finished work. The finished panels were to grace the Manhattan headquarters of the Hispanic Society of America and were to show characteristic scenes representing the different regions of Spain.

The sketches that I liked showed fishermen wading through water; a couple of oxen and the sinister hooded figures from Easter time. The painting was fluid and gestural (a meaningless word used on the introductory blurb) but the impasto gave an almost sculptural effect. The ink drawing of the two oxen was obviously a quick sketch on a piece of paper which came to hand. It looks almost like some sort of hieroglyphic and, while the representational meaning of the piece emerges from the lines, it is a very satisfyingly abstract looking work.

For me the subject matter of the Easter penitents (as with depictions of bull fighting) is uncomfortable in a way in which more obviously distressing subject matter (e.g. human suffering) is not. The semi abstract sketch-like quality of the portrayal of the Easter procession in the work that I like makes the subject more of a design idea than a faithful representation.

The large scale works have a brio and vitality which is attractive and some of the brush work has all the exuberance of a Sargent. Throughout the time that I was looking at the paintings, which seemed to me to be accomplished but entirely unoriginal in their execution, I was reminded of a painter who I couldn’t place when I was in the exhibition.

It was only when I was leaving that I suddenly remembered who it was I was thinking of – Frank Brangwyn. Given the size of the finished paintings I really should have made the connection with the paintings I had looked at each time I went to the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea for one of the many concerts I heard there. Those massive paintings intended for the House of Lords have much in common with the panels produced by Sorolla (though I think that Brangwyn’s are the more accomplished) the same range of characters and the depiction of flora and fauna in generous colour and a clear representational style.

The exhibition was interesting without being fully satisfying. The range and extent of the material on sale associated with the exhibition seemed to indicate that my lack of enthusiasm was not shared either by the exhibition organizers or by the general public. So be it.

As a bonus I decided to finish my trip to Barcelona was going to what is probably my favourite exhibition space – Caixa Forum.

I revisited the Joaquim Mir show and am more firmly convinced than ever that the paintings he produced during his short stay in Mallorca are by far the most impressive he produced.

I was also struck by how badly they had all been framed. Many have come from private collections and it is easy to see that proud families have produced what can only be called ‘Heritage Frames’ to show how important the individual painting is. Given what the paintings depict the subject is often ludicrously at odds with the opulence of the frames. Still, an exhibition not to be missed – and free to boot!

Another exhibition in the same collections of Modernista buildings (and free too) is a retrospective of the paintings of Mersad Berber, a Bosnia artist of whom I have never heard. Although his name is not household, the quality of his drawing is so clearly related to that of the Great Masters that his images have a disturbing familiarity.

His debt to the history of art is made quite explicit in his various ‘homages’ to artists like Velazquez, Ingres and Gericault. Indeed his version of ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ almost covers a wall and is quite as disturbing as the original.

He has a delicacy of touch in line and assertive confidence in his brushwork. His use of collage gives a busy look to his canvases and suggests a narrative which is sometimes ambiguous and provocative.

As I ‘did’ his work last, I think that the pictures deserve another look when I am less tired.

Now for some mindless reading from the pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs!

Me Stephen! You reader!
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