Monday, September 14, 2015

Day 33: Modern Art at the Reina Sofia Museum

The Reina Sofia Museum is Spain's national museum of 20th-century art. It was opened in 1992 and it was named for Queen Sofia, mother of the current king of Spain. Its permanent collection is mainly Spanish, with a sprinkling of international works.

We went there on our first day in Madrid because it was the last day of a major exhibition from the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, which is being remodeled.

White Fire: The Kunstmuseum Basel Modern Collection

Very few of the paintings from Basel's modern collection continued the pictorial tradition of relating to the real world.


Ferdinand Hodler was the best known Swiss painter of the late 19th and early 20th century. The painting below is a remarkably straightforward and realistic depiction of a mountain in Switzerland, capturing recognizable formations. He used a loose brushstroke, in the manner of the post-Impressionists. He crowned the mountain with a halo of clouds.

Ferdinand Hodler
Mount Niesen Seen from Heustrich, 1910

Ernst Kirchner, a German artist, painted an Expressionist version of another Swiss mountain scene. From all that pink and purple, I'd say he loved the place.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Davos in Winter. Davos in Snow, 1923
Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter known for intense paintings like The Scream, but he also painted fairly benign landscapes like this one. This example is interesting for its high perspective on a spit of land projecting into the sea. It creates a sense of isolation and wonder.

Edvard Munch
Coastal Landscape, 1918
This landscape with figures seems peaceful enough. If the face in the foreground reflects his own mood, I'd say he was happy to be back.

Edvard Munch
Road in Aasgaardstrand, 1901
Analytical Cubism

Analytical Cubism sought to deconstruct forms and present them in new patterns. It was invented by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Here's an example by Braque. The violin is in the lower foreground and the pitcher is sitting behind it.

Georges Braque
Pitcher and Violin, 1909/1910
Fernand Léger was also an early practitioner of Analytical Cubism. In the example below, you can pick out the hands meeting in front of the Woman in Blue. Her head is marked by an oval with a red rectangle.

Fernand Léger
Woman in Blue, 1912

Synthetic Cubism

After a few years, both Braque and Picasso turned from de-constructing the image to composing new images by layering forms. Each artist painted an overhead view of the stuff on top of a small table, in very similar canvases. Notice that they pasted bits of newspaper into their compositions, or painted forms that look like clippings from the journals.

Georges Braque
Gueridon (small circular table), 1913 
Pablo Picasso
The Pedestal Table, 1913-1914
Fernand Léger used his version of Synthetic Cubism for most of his mature work. In this example, he treats the human body like any object, and presents it as layers of cylindrical forms in a decorative design.

Fernand Léger
Nudes on a Red Ground, 1923
From Expressionism to Abstractionism

Paul Klee, a Swiss born painter of German heritage, started as an Expressionist, but his highly eccentric style was influenced by Cubism and Surrealism, and eventually approached Abstractionism. His works are generally modest in their presentation and seem to come from a comical attitude.

Paul Klee
Senecio (Soon to be Aged), 1922
Paul Klee
Blue Night, 1937


The deconstruction of forms started by Cubism inevitably led to the idea that subject matter was unnecessary. A painting could be composed of new forms invented by the painter. Abstractionism was invented by Vassily Kandinsky. Forms and colors were treated in relation to each other and the work's internal composition, instead of referring to objective reality.

Vassily Kandinsky
Heavy Red, 1924
Piet Mondrian brought a rigorous geometry and color balance to Abstractionism.

Piet Mondrian
Composition No. I, with Red and Black, 1929
Theo van Doesburg was a Dutch artist who was 8 years younger than Mondrian and very much impressed by his style. Together they founded a school of art they called De Stijl. Van Doesburg created more complex compositions than Mondrian.

Theo van Doesburg
Composition in Half-Tones, 1928
Georges Vantongerloo was a Belgian artist who was closely associated with Mondrian and van Doesburg and joined them in founding De Stijl. His work is not often shown in museums, but I think it is very pleasant. I like his light touch, his complex compositions, and his experimentation with colors.

Georges Vantongerloo
L2=S violet, yellow, green red, 1933
Georges Vantongerloo
Function-Composition, 1937
In the 1950s, Josef Albers, a German-born American painter and educator, elected to hold the geometry static while he pursued experiments in color. He did a long series of paintings based on the square. This one has a wonderful combination of colors.

Pop Art was a movement of the 1950s and 60s in which artists were concerned with images borrowed from other media, such as photographs.

In the next example, Andy Warhol took an image of a car crash from a newspaper or magazine, and manipulated it to form an abstract pattern of clashing colors.

Andy Warhol
Optical Car Crash, 1962
The German painter Gerhard Richter appears to have used an image from an advertisement for the next painting. It has the intimacy and spontaneity of a personal photo, but the perspective is impossible. He has blurred the image to suggest a memory of a lost experience; will these people ever feel this exhilarated again?

Gerhard Richter
Motorboat, 1965

The collection included a few sculptures that I liked very much. The idea of building something new from scratch instead of imitating reality came readily to sculptors.

Antoine Pevsner was a Russian sculptor in the constructivist movement.

Antoine Pevsner
Construction with Developable Surface, 1938
Max Bill was a Swiss artist who worked in every form of visual art. He favored Concrete Art, which rejects all reference to the real world. He liked geometric puzzles.

Max Bill
Construction with and within Cube, 1944-1945
Donald Judd was an American minimalist sculptor who assembled groups of identical rectangular forms into different arrangements.

Donald Judd
Untitled, 1970
Carl Andre is a living American minimalist sculpture who likes to build forms out of standardized units. This example also shows off the qualities of cedar.

Carl Andre
Cedar Piece, 1959/1964
Bruce Nauman is a joker. He is a living American artist who works in every medium, but he is generally trying to be disruptive and puzzling. In this next work, he applies the lowly neon advertisement to an art statement: "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths." Is he promoting this idea or treating it as just another meaningless slogan?

Bruce Nauman
The True Artist, 1967

Collectionism and Modernity
Two Case Studies
The Collections of Im Obersteg and Rudolf Staechelin, Basel

This exhibition brings together two leading collections of early modernist art that now form part of the holdings of the Kunstmuseum Basel. These two collectors were friends and both were members of the Basel Arts Committee. Their collections reflect their personal taste and what was available on the market at that time. Between them, they managed to acquire several important canvases.

Vincent van Gogh

This work is unusual for its wide format. It suggests that this garden, which belonged to a painter that van Gogh admired, offered a spacious vista, too broad for the ordinary canvas. Instead of settling on some central subject, your eye roams across the canvas, along the line of trees. Have you ever seen so many shades of green? What a bounty. A skittering cat and a picket gate make it seem like a personal space, rather than a public park.

Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890
Daubigny’s Garden, 1890

Paul Gauguin

This painting by Gauguin is an early work, when he was still working in France and his style was rooted in Impressionism. The color combinations and the subtle composition are very attractive.

Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903
Landscape with Red Roof, 1885
The next painting is from Gauguin's Tahitian period, when his forms got bolder, his blocks of color got broader, and his subjects were usually Tahitian women. In February of 2015, this painting was sold by the family of Rudolf Staechelin to the chairman of the Qatar Museums for almost $300 million,  the highest price ever paid for a work of art as of this writing. When this show was over, the painting was sent to its new owner in Qatar. We were lucky to get to see it.

Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903
When will you marry? 1892
Ferdinand Hodler 

One of this artist's landscapes was included in the 'White Fire' exhibit. In this example, his brushstroke and his coloration are Expressionist. 

Ferdinand Hodler, 1853-1918
Portrait of Régina Morgeron, 1911
Pablo Picasso

The range of styles commanded by this prolific artist is dumbfounding. The first two paintings were done in the same year.

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Woman in the Loge, 1901
Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
The Absinthe Drinker, 1901
Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Harlequin with Mask, 1918
Suzanne Valadon

Suzanne Valadon came from a poor family and began working lowly jobs at age 11, meaning that she had little formal education. She became a model for artists, including Auguste Renoir, when she was 15, and modeled for over 10 years, using the time to study the techniques of the artists she worked for. When she started making art herself, she received strong support from Edgar Degas. While she painted a variety of subjects, she is best known for frank female nudes.

Suzanne Valadon, 1865-1938
The Frog, 1910
Marc Chagall

Chagall's self-portrait shows him to have a surprising self-image. His broad collar, side-long glance, and refined features look archly feminine.

Marc Chagall, 1887-1985
Self-Portrait, 1914
Alexej von Jawlensky

Jawlensky was a Russian expressionist painter active in Germany. Several of his works were exhibited, showing how he progressed toward abstraction.

Alexej von Jawlensky, 1864-1941
Self-Portrait, 1911
Alexej von Jawlensky, 1864-1941
Mystical Head: Head of a Girl (Frontal), 1918
Alexej von Jawlensky, 1864-1941
Abstract Head: Black-Yellow-Purple, c. 1922

Reina Sofia's Permanent Collection

The big disappointment of the permanent collection is that photography is not allowed in a large section, including Picasso's famous Guernica and lots of other work by Picasso. The collection's great asset is a large group of works by Salvador Dalí. The collection also introduced me to a few excellent Spanish artists who are not well-known outside of Spain.

Pablo Picasso

Picasso painted these two paintings the same year as the two very different works in the 'Collectionism' exhibit from Basel; scroll backward a little to compare. The first example is charming and unique because the sitter is frankly smiling. 

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Bust of a Smiling Woman, 1901
Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Woman in Blue, 1901
Albert Gleizes

We first discovered Gleizes at the City of Paris's Museum of Modern Art. Here's another example of his colorful brand of Cubism. It is fairly easy to pick out three women who are sewing. By the suggestions of buildings and parks, I imagine they are working in a factory in town.

Albert Gleizes, 1881-1953
Women Sewing, 1913
Sonia Delaunay

Also at the City of Paris's Museum of Modern Art, we encountered several attractive paintings by Robert Delaunay. I was disappointed that there were no works by his wife Sonia Delaunay, who was equally talented and with him founded a version of Cubism known as Ophism. I was happy to find this excellent example at the Reina Sofia; it was originally an advertising poster.

Sonia Delaunay, 1885-1979
Dubonnet, 1914

Robert Delaunay

This figurative painting by Robert Delaunay retains ties to reality and to tradition.

Robert Delaunay, 1885-1941
The Gypsy, 1915
Joan Miró was a Spanish Surrealist who created his own figures that are suggestive of real objects without being definitive, and distributed them in undifferentiated space. Do you have stuff like this floating in your unconscious mind?

Joan Miró, 1893-1983
The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings, 1953
Before he got into Surrealism, Miró treated objective subjects in a colorful and somewhat simplified style. This type of thing is easier to understand, and easier to like.

Joan Miró, 1893-1983
House with Palm Tree, 1918
Salvador Dalí

Dalí might fairly be called the prototypical Surrealist, exploring his fantasies, memories, obsessions and fetishes with wild abandon, and gleefully exposing them to the art world. Never has a painter had a more prolific imagination or a greater talent for expressing it. He is best known for works like the following, using real objects distorted symbolically and combined in a symbolic setting.

Salvador Dalí, 1904-1989
The Enigma of Hitler, 1939
He was particularly fond of optical illusions in which one form could represent two different subjects. For instance, a face is embedded in the following landscape/still life.

Salvador Dalí, 1904-1989
The Endless Enigma, 1938
It is touching to see that Dalí could be calm, realistic, and even tender.

Salvador Dalí, 1904-1989
Girl from the Back, 1925
Salvador Dalí, 1904-1989
Girl at the Window, 1925
Rosario de Velasco

This woman is a minor Spanish artist whose works are mainly retained by her own family. This example is impressive for its unusual perspective, its technical accuracy, and the rippling play of shadows. She added a thought component by calling it Adam and Eve. Are they so much in love that the world feels brand new? Since they are wearing clothes, perhaps they have already been chucked out of Eden and are wondering what to do.

Rosario de Velasco, 1910-1991
Adam and Eve, 1932
Nude Figures

Three works interested me because they treat the nude figure in new ways. These two paintings both have unusual perspective and simple compositions that fill the canvas. Both depict firm, touchable flesh and realistic muscle detail.

José de Togores, 1893-1970
Nudes on the Beach, 1922
Robert Fernández Balbuena, 1890-1966
Nude, 1932
The following sculpture also has an unusual perspective in the sense that you hardly ever see full-size nudes just standing there; most nudes have an interesting posture or activity. Also it is unusual to see a male and a female nude in the same work. These figures are in the same space, but they are not together or aware of each other. The point seems to be to confront the viewer with an unsentimental, unromantic look at human anatomy, except these people are especially well formed.

Antonio López, b. 1936
Man and Woman, 1968-1994
Man Ray

Man Ray was an American artist who spent most of his career in France. He was part of a movement that seemed to have a love-hate relationship with art, called Dada. He was always trying to surprise you with some quirky perspective. He worked in a variety of media, but he is best known for his photography. Click on these iPad shots to enlarge them.

Man Ray, 1890-1976
Venus total eclipse, Kiki Naked, Ingres’s violin
Man Ray, 1890-1976
Kiki from Montparnasse, Tears
One Dada trend was to combine unlikely objects. Man Ray equipped this oversized metronome with a photograph of an oversized eye that goes from open to closed as the pointer swings back and forth.

Man Ray, 1890-1976
Indestructible Object, 1923-1933

Having an opportunity to see the two exhibits from Basel, Switzerland, was exceptionally good luck. The quality of the art was very high, and the selection added to our understanding of art history in the 20th Century. The opportunity to look at Spanish art of the 20th century was also valuable. Spain can boast of three artists who were major stars of the period: Picasso, Dalí, and Miró. Seeing their works in the context of a broader look at Spanish art increased our understanding.

The museum is housed in a handsome old building that is arranged in a square around a sculpture garden. This type of plan causes a lot of extra walking. There used to be a lot of stair-climbing as well in this three-story structure, but two glass elevators have been tacked onto the front, giving it a rather distinctive look. A new building in the back offers a dramatic restaurant with your choice of gourmet dining or the snack bar. We used both in the course of a long day.

In the courtyard formed between the museum, the building with the restaurant and a building housing an art library, was a lovely shaded courtyard with this terrific sculpture depicting a brushstroke. Roy Lichtenstein was always making humorous comments about the art being made around him.

Roy Lichtenstein
Brushstroke, 1996