“In the Shadow of Dictatorship: Creating the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art,” at SMU’s Meadows Museum
By Dian Parker
In 1937, Picasso painted the famous Guernica as a way of protesting the leveling of a small Basque village by German aerial bombers under General Francisco Franco’s command. Most of the civilians killed in Guernica, Spain, that day were women and children. (The men were away fighting.) It was market day, so everyone was in one convenient place for a mass murder. The German and Italian forces who ensured Franco’s victory were, within three years, to have all of Europe at their mercy.
Under Franco’s reign, which lasted from 1936 until his death in 1975, despite his concentration camps and firing squads that killed hundreds of thousands of Spanish citizens, artists continued to create. Many fled to Paris, where their compatriots Picasso and Miro had paved the way for artists from Spain. Thanks to the great strength and courage of these artists, we have today a legacy of Spanish art created during those violent, tyrannical years.
Fernando Zóbel, artist and collector, was responsible for saving hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and other art objects from this period. At the height of the Francoist dictatorship, he founded a museum dedicated to nonfigurative art. The Museo de Arte Abstracto Español (Museum of Spanish Abstract Art) opened in 1966 above the ancient city of Cuenca, in a network of 15th-century houses suspended over the Huécar River—a complex called Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses). The museum—a unique structure, with three stories and a labyrinth of stairways—attracted the attention of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. When Barr visited the facility, he said that the museum was “the most beautiful small museum in the world.”
Today, we are fortunate and privileged to be able to view pieces of this astounding collection at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, Texas. The Meadows is a division of Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts and the leading U.S. institution focused on the study and presentation of Spanish art. The museum, “a small Prado for Texas,” is home to one of largest and most comprehensive collections of Spanish art outside of Spain.
“In the Shadow of Dictatorship: Creating the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art” is a new exhibition of works by Spanish modern artists, mainly from the 1960s and 1970s. These works were created during oppressive military control and brutal fascism. Because of Fernando Zόbel’s vision and tenacity, we have some of this exciting and powerful collection on view for patrons of the 21st century.
The exhibit is curated by Clarisse Fava-Piz, now in her second year as a Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Meadows Museum. Before coming to the museum, she was a fellow completing a research grant at Casa de Velázquez in Madrid. “Curating this show has been a wonderful and thrilling challenge for me,” Fava-Piz said. “When I visited the museum in Cuenca, I fell in love. It was one of the best museum experiences I’ve ever had. The museum is a unique dialogue between modern art and the environmental landscape.”
The museum in Cuenca and the collection of 700 hundred works of art, as well as Zobel’s personal library, belong to the Fundación Mark in Madrid.
Fava-Piz worked closely with the foundation to organize different venues for the Meadows show. The exhibition originally started in Granada and went on to Barcelona. The Meadows Museum is the third and only U.S venue on the tour, which will end at the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz, Germany.
There are 42 art works in the exhibition: paintings, mixed media, and sculpture representing 32 artists. Now in their 80s and 90s, only four of the artists are still alive. “In the Shadow of Dictatorship” honors these artists, affording a rare opportunity to view and appreciate the Spanish avant-garde.
Some of the Artists and Their Work
The River IV (El Rio IV) is by Fernando Zόbel (1924–1984), the very person responsible for collecting and preserving all of the work in the show. The painting is a vaporous film of brown, blue, and gray on white ground, evoking steamy, flowing water. Zόbel accomplished this effect by using a syringe to apply the oil paint to the canvas, enabling him to create thin, delicate lines inspired by Japanese sand gardens. The result is luminosity on a grand scale.
The Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (1924–2002) is known around the world for his monumental works of art in wood, steel, iron, and stone. In this exhibit is a massive poplar wood sculpture, Rough Chant IV (Abesti gogorra IV), which is an assemblage of thick, carved wood beams stacked upon one another in a tongue and groove fashion, resulting in an abstract work that is muscular and rhythmical. The form is solid and heavy—a song not of words but of masses hewn from the earth. The coupled blocks reveal an undercoating of lighter tones featuring the natural grain inside the blond poplar wood. The sculpture is organic, honoring the liveliness of the tree burnished by weather and the artist’s hand. Chillida once said, “Don’t forget that original comes from origin.”
When in New York in the early 1950s, José Guerrero (1914–1991), a native of Granada, was included in the Guggenheim’s Younger American Painters: A Selection exhibition, along with de Kooning, Pollock, Kline, and others. In 1971, Guerrero painted Blue Intervals (Intervalos azules), which is included in the Meadows exhibit. The abstract is saturated in luminous Prussian and cerulean blue. Black lines frame three borders of yellow green, topped with ten black arched squares. Guerrero described the vibrant composition as “ordered rhythmic patterns.”
One of the four living artists with work in the exhibition, Eva Lootz (b.1940), a native of Vienna, became one of the leading sculptors of the late twentieth century due to her large-scale installations in Madrid. In the 1970s, she worked with organic materials and later explored environmental systems—waterways, climate impact, linguistic interactions between
species—through multimedia. Black Painting (Cuadro negro) is an amorphic U-shape in browns and gray. The acrylic paint is watered down to pool at the edges, like the skin of mushrooms or gills of fish. Filmy and translucent, the paint converges into a deep center of darkness. The mysterious womblike quality of the painting is reminiscent of caverns disappearing into the earth.
As an echo of authenticity, Curator Clarisse Fava-Piz painted the walls of the exhibition space to match the color of the walls in the Cuenca Museum. “I wanted the same color of the walls as Cuenca, which is not a sterile white but white with a spoonful of red added. The walls in this exhibition are now a beautiful warm white, with titles of the art in red on the wall panels.” The show occupies seven galleries of the museum. Fava-Piz painted the walls of one of the galleries all black, to capture the ambience of a certain room in the Cuenca Museum. “The three large works in the black gallery look as if the paintings are floating. Because Cuenca was a work of love and friendship between all the artists, in the exhibition I wanted to convey a sense of playfulness and for the viewer to be surprised by all the color.”
Homage to Zurbarán (Homenaje a Zurbarán), hanging in the black gallery, is by Gustavo Torner (b.1925), who was born in Cuenca. Homage is made with methacrylate on painted wood. Two nearly touching cones, possibly a slender hourglass sifting radiant golden sand, is gleaming three-dimensionally.
Another painting, Number 396 (Número 396) “floating” in the black gallery, is by Madrid native Antonio Lorenzo (1922–2009). On the horizon line are layered bands of vibrant colors against a ground of the unbleached linen color, ecru. Bright orange, Indian yellow, black, pink, and brown stretch and glom together, creating a dense convergence of colors and shapes. His paintings and prints are housed in Madrid, the British Museum, and at MOMA.
One of the best known and lauded practitioners of Spanish abstraction was another native of Madrid, Luis Feito (1929–2021). Smears of black and scarlet red gallop across a glowing yellow background in his Number 460-A (Número 460-A).
Manuel Rivera (1927–1995) worked with overlapping metallic screens, then painted on wood. Sun Mirror (Espejo del sol) gleams and wavers in Indian and Venetian reds, darkening at the bottom and glowing in the top center. Rivera, who was born in Granada, admired Rothko, and the admiration is evident in this painting.
Rafael Canogar (b.1935), a native of Toledo, Spain, has one of the largest paintings in the exhibit, Toledo, which was also on display at MoMA in 1960. Thick layers of black and white swirl upward like an active volcano, with one slight gash of red. Visibly dense, dynamic brushstrokes erupt out of blackness with furious force. Canogar said, “In our Spanish culture black is a symbol of mourning and death, connoting transcendental transit to another dimension, unknown and mysteriously always present on man’s horizon.”
Known for her geometric abstractions and spatial installations, Soledad Sevilla (b.1944) was born in Valencia and completed a series of paintings on Las Meninas, exploring the architecture and geometry of Velázquez’s famous painting. In another series, she reimagined the Islamic palace of Granada, paying homage to Spain’s rich culture. At the Meadows, one of her lyrical, large-scale untitled paintings, Untitled (Sin título), uses a chain link pattern repeated throughout the organic composition. The delineated pastel colors of pink, purple, and blue are nearly invisible, as if in between clouds.
Two other living artists in the exhibition are Cuenca native José María Yturralde (b.1942) and Jordi Teixidor (b.1941), who was born in Valencia. They were both appointed as the first assistant curators of the Cuenca Museum by Zόbel. Yturralde’s assemblage Rhythm (Ritmo) is a series of offset parallel lines made of wooden rods on a stark white background. Because the lines are placed unevenly but the same distance apart, they offer an illusion of movement. Teixidor’s Yellow Bands (Bandas amarillas I) combines geometry with wavering yellow hues. His work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1976 and at the Guggenheim in 1980. A retrospective of his work last year at Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (IVAM) featured Endgame, the titular painting that was created over a span of 18 years. Both of these artists’ paintings are dimensional, receding then moving forward in dynamic rhythm.
“Artists of the El Paso group (1957–1960) like Canogar, [Antonio] Saura, [Manolo] Millares, [Martín] Chirino, have in their works the intense charge of a modernity of which Picasso is a paradigm,” Fava-Piz said. “In Spain there have been exhibitions with titles such as Art after Picasso. These creators and others from the collection appeared in that collection. This generation of artists traveled to Paris because the city was one of the nerve centers of art. New York was a little further away and not all of them during those years could travel, as they did later.” Even though the Francoist dictatorship was brutal and oppressive, once these artists became known, Franco used their fame as propaganda to win more support from Europe.
Modern abstract Spanish art is an understudied and underrated field. “In the Shadow of Dictatorship: Creating the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art,” on display at the Meadows Museum through June 18, 2023, provides a rare opportunity to witness artists who triumphed in their work despite a great wave of terror. Their art is charged through with beauty and dynamic power, destined to live on for many more generations to come.