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The Museo Nacional del Prado presents a new focus on 19th-century social themes

Through nearly 300 works

Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado
Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado

Until 22 September and in an almost unprecedented manner, all the exhibition galleries in the Jerónimos building will be used to present Art and Social Change in Spain (1885-1910). With the sole sponsorship of Fundación BBVA, the exhibition offers a unique opportunity on a scale never previously seen in Spain to learn more about painting’s move towards social themes of a type that had previously been largely absent or only rarely depicted.

The diversity of techniques and creative registers in the almost 300 works that comprise the exhibition - many never previously exhibited - make it possible to illustrate artists’ very wide range of responses to the challenge of representing the transformations taking place in the society their day through aspects of it rarely depicted in art up to that point. These include industrial and women’s work, education, illness and medicine, workplace accidents, prostitution, emigration, poverty and ethnic and social marginalisation, colonialism, strikes, anarchism and demonstrations.

Although the origins of this exhibition project lie in the importance of the Prado’s collections of social painting, in itself a reflection of the works created for presentation at the various National Fine Arts Exhibitions, the generosity of almost a hundred public and private lenders means that visitors can see works such as Victims of a Fiesta by Darío de Regoyos, Burial in the Countryside by Pablo Picasso and Study of a Gypsy Woman by Isidre Nonell.

The Museo Nacional del Prado and Fundación BBVA this morning presented Art and Social Change in Spain (1885-1910). Curated by Javier Barón, Chief Curator of the Department of 19th-century Painting at the Museum, the exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to discover the phenomenon of social art which, although relatively short-lived - barely twenty-five years around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries - reveals numerous appealing and interesting aspects.

In the period between the liberal governments of 1885 and 1910 decisive transformations took place in Spain with regard to the modernisation of the country, in a way comparable to the rest of Europe. Artists ceased to depict historical subjects in order to focus on contemporary life, with the result that their works became eloquent testimonies of those changes. Influenced by photography, Spanish painters aimed for objectivity in representation, adopting a naturalistic style similar to the one that had triumphed in France and other countries but with a distinctive national identity in some works thanks to the study of Velázquez and his role as a prestigious point of reference. Many of those works were presented at the National Fine Arts Exhibitions, from where the State acquired a significant number of them, explaining why the Museo Nacional del Prado houses the most important collection of social painting in Spain. Twenty of these paintings, most of them of large format, constitute the core of the exhibition. The first that the Museum has devoted to this subject, it is particularly relevant given the presence of works of this type in its collections which are not, however, extensively represented in the permanent display and are thus insufficiently known. In addition to painting, sculpture and the graphic arts are also included, as well as photography and film, which together played the most significant role in configuring the image of the era.

The themes chosen to articulate the sections of the exhibition encompass different aspects of contemporary life, including those which due to their lack of beauty, supposed indecorousness, apparent triviality or seeming absence of interest had barely been considered before. They include industrial and women’s work, education, illness and medicine, workplace accidents, prostitution, emigration, poverty and ethnic and social marginalisation, colonialism, strikes, anarchism and demonstrations. Other themes which, in contrast, had a long tradition in painting, such agricultural labour, the work of seafarers, religion and death, were now seen in a new light and for this reason they are also present in the selection.

The exhibition analyses the diversity of interpretations of all these themes, the relationship between different artistic fields, such as photography, illustration and painting, and the crisis of the system of naturalistic representation following the triumph of its most notable exponents, such as the brothers Luis and José Jiménez Aranda, Vicente Cutanda, Joaquín Sorolla, Santiago Rusiñol and Ramon Casas.

Social art of the first generation flourished between the Paris Universal Exhibitions of 1889 and 1900, at which two Spanish painters, Luis Jiménez Aranda and Joaquín Sorolla, received the medal of honour respectively. Although it continued to be cultivated by other artists until 1910, naturalist proposals were replaced by others of a more expressive nature. Simultaneously, the influence of Velázquez declined and was progressively replaced by that of El Greco among the innovative artists who were also aware of the transformations that had taken place elsewhere in Europe. The first important example was Darío de Regoyos followed, after 1900, by Francisco Iturrino, Ricardo Baroja, Hermen Anglada-Camarasa, Isidre Nonell, Evaristo Valle, Joaquim Sunyer, Pablo Gargallo, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and José Gutierrez Solana. Ignacio Zuloaga and Julio Romero de Torres also pursued new directions from markedly individual viewpoints that revealed more interest in certain aspects of the art of the past. Filmmaking had taken the potential for representing life to its furthest extent, with the result that artists abandoned large formats and objectivity and pursued a radically modern orientation which took into account the revolution brought about by Post-Impressionism in Paris. It was there that painters, sculptors and graphic artists, including numerous Catalans and Basques, found an appropriate channel to develop their ideas with greater freedom and outside the context of the academy. With regard to the present exhibition, the fact that they continued to depict the same themes previously favoured by the naturalists makes it possible to highlight the rich variety of approaches to those subjects in a short period of time which is consequently of great interest and significance.

* Photo caption:

From left to right: Marina Chinchilla, Directora Deputy Management Director, Museo Nacional del Prado; Silvia Churruca, Head of Institutional Relations at the Fundación BBVA; Miguel Falomir, Director of the Museo Nacional del Prado; Javier Solana, Head of the Board of Trustess of the Museo Nacional del Prado, and Javier Barón, curator of the exhibition. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado

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