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Thursday, January 4, 2007

day seven: museum fatigue, finally

The train to Toledo was sold out this morning so I made my way to the Reina Sofia museum. The museum's primary commitment is to twentieth-century modern Spanish artists plus the hits by international artists that bolster the narratives and arguments that the curators want to construct. The galleries are all numbered and the chronological movement forward relentless.

The pre-WW2 half of the collection bored me to death, and I usually have a perversely high tolerance for museums. I don't think I can look at art between 1900 and 1945 anymore. Perhaps I favored it too strongly in my youth, but I feel like I've seen it all already. Throw in an army of second-tier modernists from Spain, and the experience becomes maddening.

The postwar half held genuine surprise for me. I had not known that postwar Spanish art under Franco, or at least some elite portion of it, kept in step with the larger international movements. There was Spanish abstract expressionism in the 1950's and 60's, and conceptualism in the early 70's. There was even a work that looked suspiciously like Bruce Nauman's Human/Need/Desire at the MoMA.

The best Spanish AbEx—or at least what looked like it—on display was Anton Saura's La gran muchedumbre (1963). This is not it but the closest, very, to it that I could find online. From afar, it looks like a late Pollock except for the fact that, on closer inspection, it reveals a sea of cramped faces. I couldn´t help but think this was a painting done in reaction to living under fascist dictatorship, but I don't know enough about Saura to say that. Even so, my surprise was due to my incorrect assumption that Franco had successfully stifled the arts until La Movida of the late 1970's and 80's. Apparently not.

Finally, a word about Guernica. I can't say I was disappointed since I had never thought much of it in reproduction. Alas, it is just as dull in person. For me, its only interest lies in its visual quotation of Goya's Third of May 1808, a far more moving and distressing depiction of war. People speak of Guernica and other works as if they really believe that art has the power to stop war or some such business. People seem to forget that Picasso´s side lost that war and Spain was plunged into forty years of fascist rule.

Art is useless in the face of war. Looking at art does not make us better people or offer transcendent visions of the divine and the sublime or whatever. At its best, it is something to be looked at and loved precisely because of its uselessness. This is a point that I will surely need to return to soon, particularly since it stands in tension with other things I believe and have said about art. Reader, stay tuned for more.


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