Rediscovering the Mediterranean: finally a show from an European perspective

Cristiana Aspesi Curti  -  October 24, 2018

An exhibition at the Fundacion MAPFRE in Madrid puts side by side European figurative artists from the short 20th century. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Rarely you are able to look at the origin of European visual cultures through the particular lens of educated comparison. Especially when it comes to 1900s and the avant-garde movements. There is now an occasion in Madrid, until 13th of January 2019, that the passionate traveller-collector shouldn’t miss.

The exhibition Redescubriendo el Mediterráneo hosted in the airy rooms of the Fundaciòn MAPFRE in Paseo de Recoletos was conceived by Pablo Jiménez Burrillo (Managing Director of the Culture Area of Fundación MAPFRE) and Marie-Paule Vial (former director of Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris), together with the efficient contribution of the Madrid Foundation’s scholars Leyre Bozal Chamorro, Josep Casamartina i Parassols, Francisco Javier Pérez Rojas, José Luis Alcaide Delgado, and in collaboration with Daniela Ferrari, expert of Italian 1900s and curator of the sparking Feierabend (VAF) collection at MART in Rovereto. This wonderful show seems to assert that it is still possible – despite these sad times – to concretely cooperate for revitalizing our common cultural roots.

This is indeed the gift you take with you after visiting this exhibition, born within a 2-year-long European initiative called Picasso-Méditerranée 2017-2019 (created by Musée National Picasso-Paris and Fundación MAPFRE), dotted with masterpieces and distinguished by such an attentive selection that leaves you truly amazed. Despite the only-apparent simple contents, the exhibition presents a penetrating and straightforward didactic, sophisticatedly executed.

Three European countries feel, at the turn of the century, the need to renew, in the sense of overcoming the revolutionary Impressionist wave, as well as the tangle of the Accademia, their own visual culture through a research inspired by the light of the Mediterranean, whose coasts are perceived as the ultimate tópos of the myths our Civilization is founded on. Epic suggestion, the happiness of Nature, places of delicate light and vibrant air, the culture of the “coast”, simple and strong, the symbol of a “return” to a collective homeland, in the cycle of the Homeric nóstoi, first among all that of the emblematic Ulysses… thus can be summed up the most important conceptual passages of a path that involves our civilizations in the past, and in modern times too.

The Mediterranean as Culture, Landscape and Idea: three theoretical guidelines coming across the poetic path of Spanish, French and Italian painters during the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, until after the First World War. After the Second World War such united identity, despite being emphasized by the good intentions of the European Union, won’t have the same expressive power of this still happy period of time. Nowadays, by God, in this Europe unable to produce authentic artistic movements and monopolized by the overpowering art market which dilutes – and sometimes divides – cultural momentum, talking about a return to communal identity roots seems indeed a nonsense.

The show is subdivided into three research fields which fluently interweave.

Spain intends the Mediterranean as an alive and carnal culture, immanent and identitarian, distinctly Catalan and Valencian, but also of an island, whereby the Woman and the Nature are the archaic symbols of a vibrant and brave society, characterized by strong contrasts and clear priorities. In the case of Spanish painters like Joaquim Sunyer, Josep de Togores, the extraordinary Salvador Dalí or the discovery (for us) of Julio González, Joaquim Mir, the ingenious Hermen Anglada Camarasa, the “De Nittis-like” Ignacio Pinazo and the most famous (still for us) Joaquim Sorolla, such “primitive” manifestation embodies the happiness of being, the magic of dreaming and the formal and poetical inspiration of art. The Mediterranean coast represents a civilization wrapped in local proud and in a sense of cultural regeneration with the birth of the first really-Catalan artistic movement, noucentisme. Post-impressionist suggestions still keep alive the passion for landscape painting, whose stylistic unity is so similar to their French colleagues’ one that can make you think of a same formal mess.

For French painters, still in debt to the very recent work of Cézanne, as well as to the much-loved Gaugin’s and more in general to the Impression paintings, the passion for light is the main theme and stylistic linchpin of this season. The show includes works by Aristide Maillol, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Georges Braque, André Derain, Raoul Dufy, Maximilien Luce, Paul Signac, Othon Friesz, Théo van Rysselberghe and many others, completed by the “French” Pablo Picasso as counterweight – in an endgame which literally leaves you breathless – to Henri Matisse, almost as Spain and France would find a solution in the great master of Màlaga.

Starting from light to end up in the dazzling light of the Midi coasts and beaches of Saint-Tropez, Divisionism and Pointillisme still influence the work of Valtat and, naturally, of Signac. However, with Manguin, for instance, the stroke becomes more concise, while the color burst out in its most absolute liveliness. Braque’s landscapes from 1906 and 1907 are extraordinary, before his definitive turn to Cubism with the wonderful Route à l’Estaque from 1908, echoed by the great work by Dufy. The light of Estaque (the Gulf of Marseille) influences most part of the French section in the exhibition, although it is the coast of Cannes, Nice and Vence which attracts Matisse (whose hypnotic work Vague from 1952 is also on show) and Picasso who are playing in such a perfect duo, not even Corelli and Bastianini back in their heydays.

The brilliant Italian section is, despite an apparent formal contrast, cleverly inserted between the French section and the Picasso-Matisse epilogue. Our artists feel the Mediterranean as a concept that covers the skin and bones of our culture, the archetype of our own Civilization, the truly Mare Nostrum of Poetry and History. More than a formal influence, it is a critical reference that no artist can really avoid. Furthermore, in the epoch of the Novecento movement, here far from being in contrast with the dreamlike classicism of the “French” de Chirico and his brother Savinio, the mighty figurativeness of Campigli and Carrà, which echoes the archaism of our Primitives (and the color, for Carrà, of the most beautiful waters of Venetian vedutista) has an expressive strength of those who know very well the ground they step on and the culture they feed on that seems to connect almost without interruption to the Picassian “Mediterranean” head of a woman from 1921, while the Donna al Sole (Woman in the Sun) by Martini evokes, more freely, the Méditerranée by Maillol (sadly not on show). The Ritorno all’ Ordine (return to Order), for us, takes on ontological contents.

You are stroke by the selection in the section dedicated to Italy, as previously said, which – albeit less in number – is really exemplary of the results of our art in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The guests at the vernissage were awe-struck by the quality of these works, lent by MART and by a small, yet excellent group of private collections. This demonstrates how much work there is still to do in order to properly valorise the Italian culture in the European environment.

Redescubriendo el Mediterráneo reveals unexpected qualities and is evidence of how a well-conducted research, together with a rigorous selection of artworks can lead to outcomes we should go back to also for the understanding of our contemporaneity. In order to know the European art of the 21st century, you inexorably ought to go through the analysis of this fruitful period for modernity, herald of every visual revolution, cradle of informal, and even conceptual art, strong pillar of our culture. This exhibition undoubtedly deserves to be shown again within an Italian-French circuit, to then go and “convert” the Northern European siblings. Just to say, in case there was race: ‘we would win’.