God Is Almost Dead

Prelude To Spanish Modernism: Fortuny To Picasso At The Albuquerque Museum

Steven Robert Allen
4 min read
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I've heard a lot of people griping about how much the Tricentennial celebration is costing our city. Get over it. Question: How often does the city's 300th birthday come around? Answer: Only once in 300 years. We've got reason to celebrate.

One of the coolest Tricentennial events around town is a trio of large-scale exhibits at the Albuquerque Museum exploring the history of Spanish art over the last several hundred years. The latest installment, Prelude to Spanish Modernism: Fortuny to Picasso, recently opened. It covers the international development of Spanish art from 1860 through 1910.

During this period, Western art in general and Spanish art in particular both fueled and documented society's transition from an ancient, strange world ruled entirely by monolithic religion to our familiar pluralistic world of today. There aren't many, if any, saints or angels or theological allegories in this show. Instead, as the exhibit moves chronologically forward, we enter a world in which, although the inhabitants wear slightly different clothes than we do, they seem to possess similar cosmopolitan values to those that rule our current secular democratic order. Religion isn't entirely absent here. It's merely been pushed to the background.

For me, the painting that symbolizes this the best is José Jiménez Aranda's “Holy Week in Seville” from 1879, ironically one of the few paintings in the show that includes any religious content at all. A hugely ambitious, naturalistic work, this painting depicts a large crowd of people gathered in a public square to listen to a Franciscan friar preach from a raised pulpit. It's a fascinating painting, partly because of the artist's sophisticated rendering of depth of field. The proportions and perspective look so natural they're almost photographic.

Compositionally, however, the painting's greatest strength is that the axis around which the entire image revolves isn't the preacher, who is a relatively insignificant figure in the piece. Rather, the painting's subtle focus is on a young woman in a black shroud, whose attention is glued to the painter rather than the sermon. By implication, the artist doesn't seem to care much about the preacher or his sermon. Instead, for better or worse, he's focused on the ordinary mass of humanity, which he's somehow granted a significance as profound as any saint's.

Besides emphasizing such thematic shifts, the exhibit also focuses on innovations in technique. With its broad but ingenious brushwork, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida's “Children of the Sea” from 1908 takes us several steps closer to our current pluralistic art scene. Depicting ordinary naked kids playing on a beach, this image was painted quickly, giving it a feeling of dynamic movement. Sorolla is also highly attentive to light. The boy in the foreground—shielding his eyes from the sun as he glares brazenly at the painter—looks like he might run off the edge of the frame at any second.

A chamber near the end of this exhibit pays tribute to Barcelona's El Quatre Gats (The Four Cats), a café operated by members of that city's avant-garde that was designed to combine elements of a Parisian café with Spanish tertulias, public spaces in which people gather to talk and exchange ideas. During El Quatre Gats' brief life span, it served as an important meeting place for artists and intellectuals, hosting recitals, exhibits and even puppet shows. Near the beginning of his career, Pablo Picasso presented a show in the café consisting of portraits of cultural elites from the region.

Sadly, the café closed in 1903, partly because the city's best artists had started migrating to Paris and other global art centers. Prelude to Spanish Modernism documents a period in art history in which the best Spanish artists became towering international figures. During this same period, Picasso began a career in which he would eventually come to be regarded by many critics as the single most important creative genius of the 20th century.

In this sense, yes, this exhibit is designed to educate, but as any fan of “Sesame Street” knows, learning really can be fun. Do not fear it. The third and final installment in the series—Picasso to Plensa: A Century of Art from Spain—will run from Dec. 18, 2005, through April 16, 2006.

Prelude to Spanish Modernism: Fortuny to Picasso runs through Nov. 27 at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain NW). Admission to this exhibit is $9 for adults with a $1 discount for New Mexico residents with ID, $7 seniors, $4 students with ID, $1 kids 12 and under. Kids 3 and under are free. Admission is free Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on the first Wednesday of every month. 243-7255, cabq.gov/museum.

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