Sunday, 27 November 2016

'A Thyssen Never Seen' at CaixaForum, Barcelona

I saw the excellent 'A Thyssen Never Seen' exhibition at CaixaForum on my recent visit to Barcelona. The 'Thyssen' in the title refers to the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection based in Madrid which has loaned 63 paintings to stage this exhibition. The CaixaForum is part of the philanthropic arm of La Caixa bank and I saw an excellent Impressionist and beyond exhibition at it's Madrid branch over the summer. I'm pleased to report that this exhibition matches the same high standard of the Madrid exhibition, really well laid out and thought through, spacious and it has a lovely booklet for visitors. More of that later.

My main reason for going to Barcelona was to see a painting by Fra Angelico, 'The Virgin of Humility' which is on permanent loan from the Thyssen Museum in Madrid to the National Museum of Art of Catalonia in Barcelona. It was further loaned to CaixaForum for this exhibition, so it was to the exhibition I found myself walking on Monday morning.

The CaixaForum is a converted old factory made up of several buildings and the Thyssen exhibition has its own building. The main entrance was busy with people and a couple of school groups, loud and full of life and that was a nice start and the noise dropped as I went into the exhibition building, turned right to walk down a short corridor and, straight ahead was Fra Angelico's 'Virgin of Humility' waiting to be viewed. There were three early Renaissance paintings (including a small Duccio) on the wall before reaching the Fra altarpiece but these were flush to the wall so couldn't be seen until you're right in front of them.

The exhibition is organised around five themes: religious paintings, portraits, objects, landscapes and the city. In part, it's showing off the glories of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, showing the extraordinary range of works in the collection, from Duccio in the late 1200s to Richard Estes in 1967. And almost every kind of painting in-between.

The painting I really wanted to see was an altarpiece by Fra Angelico called 'Virgin of Humility' with the Virgin and Child flanked by angels holding a gorgeous cloth of gold as a background while seated in the court of Heaven. It's a really lovely painting by the good Fra, delicately painted and full of detail you can only really see when you get up close to the painting.

Gold and blue, with a splash of deep red in the centre as the Virgin's tunic, with the Infant dressed in a related pink holding a lily for his mother. The Virgin is also holding a lily in a vase, one of her symbols of purity. I stood in front of this painting for some time, gazing at the detail of the Virgin's hair behind her ear and her delicate fingernails and trying to work out the Latin inscription in the Virgin's halo without success. If anyone know what the inscription says, I'd love to know.

The next room focused on portraits of people and paintings of characters, from Hans Memlink to Lucien Freud, showing a wide range of styles over the intervening 600 years. I was particularly taken with the painting 'Portrait of a Robust Man' by Robert Campin that I first saw in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid (which is where this photo was taken when I was there over the summer). The painting is possibly of Robert de Jasmines from around 1425.

If you ignore the fur trim around the neck of his coat and the hair style, this man could be alive today and living round the corner from you. It is very realistic with the creases around the eyes and forehead, the fat face and the jowls. Is he happy or sad? I don't know but, on the basis that he probably commissioned this painting himself, I'm happy to contribute to his ongoing immortality. He's not the prettiest or handsomest of men but he's actively saying 'I was alive, I was here' by the very act of being painted and I have to admire that. I don't know anything about him and I think I would like to know a bit about who he was and how he lived.

Most of the portraits were from Northern painters, which isn't surprising since portraiture was largely developed in the North and one of the poster girls for the exhibition is Ruben's 'Portrait of a Young Woman with Rosary'. 

The gorgeous background of red drapery and the complexity of her shiny bodice and her ruff really enhance the simplicity and realism of her face, passively looking out at the viewer. I wonder if she ever thought that total strangers would gaze on her 400 years after she sat for this portrait? 

There are a range of other portraits on show such as from Andrew Wyeth, Alberto Giacometti and Edward Hopper showing the vast range of the Thyssen collection. 

The next section of the exhibition focused on still lives and objects, starting with the grand old Dutch Masters but the painting that kept my eyes on it was Picasso's 'Fruit and Vases'. This isn't a painting I'd normally be attracted to, with it's rather dull palette and subject matter, but it's a good example of needing to see paintings 'in the paint' to properly appreciate them. There's something about the simplicity of the composition and green/gold/brown colours that really drew me into this one, painting one vase through another with the random fruit to the fore. The vases are simple in design and I like seeing the large vase through the smaller glass vase, such a simple effect and not a new thing at all but it keeps grabbing my eyes. I also can't help but see the front two pieces of fruit almost as a chicken waiting to be cooked. O well, it ca't all be magic! 

Coincidentally, I bought a scarf in the same colours and with an angular pattern the following day. Was that an unconscious influence of seeing the painting that made me buy a scarf that can only be considered dull by comparison with my more normal scarves? Odd that. 

Another painting that caught my eye was this rather small painting by Jan Breughel of Christ asleep in the fishing boat during a storm on the sea of Galilea. As well as the deep colours drawing me into the storm it reminded me of the Delacroix exhibition last year at the National Gallery in London which included one of Delacroix's several copies or interpretations of this painting that was included in the exhibition. So this was the painting that sparked his interest in the theme. It's a very dramatic painting, with the storm gathering and the Disciples starting to panic as the Christ happily sleeps in the middle of the boat. Have faith people, he's saying, it'll all be all right.

The final section of the exhibition focused on 'the city' and this is where it seemed we see the most 'modern' paintings. I really liked Pissarro's 'Rue Saint-Honore in the Afternoon' and even quite liked a Canaletto, but it was 'Architecture II (The Man From Potin)' by Lyonel Feininger, an American painter I haven't heard of before, that I wanted a good look at. It's an odd composition really, almost like you're drawing aside a curtain and looking out of a window at the city scene of angular men in suits busy being busy.

A painting I waited to get a good view of was Kandinsky's 'Johannisstrasse, Murnau' from 1908 with it's gorgeous green and pink houses and a solitary woman with her shopping basket. The muddy-looking ground reflecting the gloomy sky with the bright houses separting them. I wonder where the woman is going since none of the buildings look like shops - perhaps this is a residential district and she's heading off to do her daily shop in town? I don't know but I want to make up stories about the people who live in these colourful houses and their colourful or mundane lives.

The final painting brings us right up to date with Richard Estes' 'Telephone Booths' from 1967. It's a large work that brings New York to mind with it's shiny telephone boxes in a row that we've all seen it gritty films from the '60s and '70s and which you don't often see anywhere these days. The phone boxes reflect the outside world while the women inside are making urgent telephone calls to hospitals and homes or maybe gossiping with a friend about who they've just seen in the street and who she was with. It was, at the time, a depiction of the modern world but now, with mobile phones, it's a bit historical and that adds another layer to the painting. The only thing missing from the painting is the rubbish you'd expect to see in the street outside phone boxes.

So there you have it, this is a really good exhibition with a very wide range of paintings on show ranging from the late 1200s to 1967 - what a span of topics and styles and the thematic organisation of the exhibition helps us to appreciate it more. If you're visiting Barcelona over the next few months then I'd strongly suggest you visit. It's only €4 to get in and there's something there for everyone. Go and see it!

When you go in you can pick up a small postcard sized leaflet explaining the exhibition in Catalan, Spanish and English. It's a sign of the creativity of CaixaForum that it isn't just any old explanatory leaflet, it's made of light card with perforated folds. One side of the leaflet has text explaining each theme while the other has postcard-sized reproductions of some of the paintings on display. What a great idea! I haven't seen something like this before and it looks really good. The CaixaForum is, in effect, giving away free postcards, especially since none of the featured paintings are available to buy as postcards in the shop. I love this idea and I hope more institutions take it up.

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