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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Barcelonade chez Maeght

by Pierre Barbancey

Barcelona Frenzy at the Maeght Foundation

Translated Friday 31 August 2007, by Helen Robertshaw

Contemporary art. The Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul, which successfully forged connections between major artists such as Miro and Tàpies, has this year been exploring the work of artists from the Catalan capital.



Special correspondent.

Working with an unofficial list of specifications given to him by the Maeght family, the director of the Foundation, Michel Enrici, is endeavouring to bridge the gap between the vibrant artistic past inaugurated by Marguerite and Aimé and the present activities of their heirs who have previously devoted more time and energy to their own galleries (in Paris and Barcelona). This is due to the fact that the Foundation, even though it bears their family name, is subject to a legal status which means the artworks remain separate from the family estate. Barcelona was thus bound to capture the imagination of the director. And indeed, why not ? After all, the Catalan painter Joan Miro has his own labyrinth within the gardens of the Foundation, in Saint-Paul. The Miro collection is very impressive : 275 works, amongst which, 8 large paintings, 160 sculptures and the largest collection of drawings by the artist. Antoni Tàpies was also a close friend of Aimé Maeght and his work is regularly displayed at the Foundation. So the connection between Barcelona and Saint-Paul was an obvious one to make.

However, the task isn’t as easy as it seems. In their foreward to the exhibition catalogue, Michel Enrici and Victoria Combalia, the scientific commissioner, explain that this exhibition – "1947-2007, Barcelona" (1) - "aims to look at Catalan art in particular. Without disregarding the numerous encounters that Spanish artists and artists from all over the world have had with this city, we felt that it was appropriate, having explored the history and the artists’ studios, to focus on the complex desire felt by artists who feel the need to belong simultaneously to a local, national and international art movement".

The start of the exhibition is enjoyable, but offers no surprises; the curators have displayed the works in chronological order, so as visitors we feel as though Miro himself is guiding us through space and time. We thus arrive effortlessly at the Dau al Set period, literally translated as the "seventh side of the die", the art movement created in 1948 of which Tàpies, Ponç, Cuixart and Tharrats were a part and which, beyond the artworks produced – which are similar in terms of the techniques used and their shared aesthetic preoccupations rather than in terms of their iconography – was associated mainly with the journal of the same name whose main contributor was none other than the poet Joan Brossa. In Franco’s Spain, which was subjected to censorship and the cultural drought that inevitably goes with it, these artists needed to group together, to form a close-knit unit in order to oppose the dictatorship, even though their works – we can make such observations today – recall those produced by Rothko or Pollock between 1930 and 1947.

The journals enabled artists to share information, to exchange ideas and show their work, like the photos retouched with ink. Joan Brossa, who fought on the side of the Spanish Republic, was heavily influenced by Surrealism, was interested in film and theatre, was then involved in socially engaged work, visual poetry (some are indebted to the work of Apollinaire and Mallarmé), and "object poetry". Moreover, his poems, written in Catalan, were seized by the Francoist police in 1951. If, in France, some people were under the illusion that artists enjoyed a certain freedom in that part of Spain at that time, Brossa’s experience is marked by the totalitarianism affecting the rest of the country. His numerous "object poems" on display at the Maeght Foundation, apart from being delightful to look at, show that simplicity and humour often enable the artist to overcome obstacles in representation and communication: a tambourine adorned with Soviet decorations (Object poem, 1969), the shape of a shooting star cut into a banknote (Winter Solstice, 1989), a diamond bracelet attached to some handcuffs (Nuptial, 1984).

Tàpies the "master painter"

The rest of the exhibition is not without interest because here we have the chance to discover artists whose works have rarely, if ever, been exhibited in France. We notice that after the Dau al Set adventure, which came to an end in 1956, informal art gains a certain prominence, very much under the influence of Tàpies even if, following the example of Antoni Clavé, abstract art also appears on the scene. During the 1960s, the influence of pop art also reaches Catalonia (Antoni Llena) whereas others flee the Francoist repression and leave the country (Rossell, Xifra, Miralda). Conceptual art soon attracts young artists who flirt with "Arte povera" (Jordi Pablo, Fina Miralles) as is demonstrated by their fondness for performance art and their predilection for very basic materials. In this respect, Tàpies, who is still alive, emerges as the "master painter" as people often refer to him. His works, which are scattered throughout the exhibition, testify to his enduring presence.

Little by little, however, we begin to sense not a disintegration but an individualisation of the artistic journeys whose connection with Barcelona appears to be rather vague. In fact we start to ask ourselves what these artists’ works have to do at all with the Catalan capital. The phenomenon is interesting and not unique: the original matrix does not have its origins in the local, regional or national cultural fabric even if an artist’s work remains marked by their roots. Unfortunately, the exhibition doesn’t explore this contradiction in any depth (neither does it look at the fall of Francoism). The exhibition isn’t particularly informative; it doesn’t provide the visitor with many clues. The downfall of the exhibition lies, paradoxically, in the chronological arrangement of significant artworks which remain difficult to place in a historical, social and artistic context. This is, incidentally, achieved very well in the exhibition catalogue.

(1) Saint-Paul. Exhibition until 4 November 2007. Catalogue 238 pages. www.fondation-maeght.com

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