, Málaga, February 2019 to February 2020

, Málaga, 27th September 2019 to 1st March 2020

, Málaga, 27th September, 2019 to 1st March, 2020

, Málaga, 24th September, 2019 to 2nd February, 2020

Thyssen Museum
, Málaga, 14th June, 2019 to 13th October, 2019

Reviewed by Jim Burns


Gallery-going is a curious activity. In Málaga, there are queues to get into the Picasso Museum while the splendid Russian Museum is quiet and only sparsely attended, at least on my various visits. There are practical reasons for this. The Picasso is located in the city-centre and is clearly one of the attractions that passengers from the cruise ships that regularly dock in Málaga are encouraged to visit. The Russian Museum is some way out of the centre. And Picasso is a name that everyone, art lover or not, has heard of.

It seems a pity that more people don’t take the trouble to make the short journey to the Russian Museum. It’s a large building, with ample space for the displays. The current year-long Saints, Queens and Workers is an extensive survey of the subject, with a wide range of icons, paintings, and artefacts. The leaflet linked to the exhibition says that “the Europeanisation of Russian culture occurred in large part in parallel with the emancipation of women”. I doubt that most of the artists who painted portraits of titled ladies, peasant women, and various others, will be known to many British viewers, unless they happen to have a specific awareness of Russian art history, But there are numerous fine things to be seen, with the nineteenth century, in particular, demonstrating how much power and affluence the Russian Royal Family and related aristocracy could put on show.

There are representations of peasant life, sometimes indicating the levels of poverty and suffering they endured, and sometimes showing them in an almost almost-rosy light. The Stalinist era may have brought us propaganda images of seemingly well-fed women singing merrily as they drove tractors, but the nineteenth century also had its share of pleasant-looking peasant girls dressed in colourful traditional costume and without a hint of any kind of deprivation. There is a side-room with a screen that has a series of excerpts from Russian films, both documentary and drama, which focus on aspects of the female experience, and they sometimes seem to get closer to the reality of day-to-day life in Russia.

Nikolay Roerich could be another artist who is not likely to get a nod of recognition from many people, including it may be even in Russia. He appears to have lived outside the country for much of his life, a fact that meant he was never going to be condemned when socialist-realism became the dominant trend in Russian art. Roerich’s concerns were mostly centred on a “search for traces of the movement of peoples from the East to the West and for proof of the immense role that India, China and Siberia had played in civilisation”. Shambhala (Shangri-La, as it’s also known) is a primarily Buddhist concept and supposedly a land where peace, and answers to mankind’s problems, can be found. I’m generalising and simplifying, and it’s much more complex than I’ve suggested.

Roerich was an archaeologist, writer, and philosopher, as well as a painter. From the 1920s to the 1940s he lived in India, where he died in 1947. His paintings reflected his wide interests, and were often of mountains and occasionally small country scenes. In the 1940s he drew on some Russian history and mythology to represent the triumph of victory over evil, and to indicate that he still had a degree of allegiance to the land of his birth.  All his work had a strong sense of colour and form, and of firm lines.

The small exhibition about the poet, Anna Akhmatova, takes up just one room, but is informative. Her story of how she survived the vicissitudes of Stalinism is fairly well-known outside Russia, though the facts of her early life may not be too familiar. The books, paintings, and details of her contemporaries, as well as a handful of poems translated into English, give a picture of an almost-heroic struggle to stay alive and preserve her individuality. Stalin seems to have toyed with her, allowing her to stay free of arrest, but keeping up a campaign of surveillance and harassment, and having her son imprisoned more than once. Many of her friends and associates disappeared into the Gulag or were shot.

We are in a different more-modern world at the Picasso Museum, where approximately one hundred works by Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder are spaciously displayed side by side. The two artists did meet in Paris in the 1930s, but not to the extent of sharing each other’s ideas about art. The suggestion that there may be some connection has surely come from later commentators and not from any formal written records left by either artist. The curators seem to justify their belief in a relationship of concerns in the following way: “Calder and Picasso wanted to present or represent non-space, whether by giving definition to a subtraction of mass, as in Calder’s sculpture, or by expressing contortions of time, as in Picasso’s portraits”. I stumbled over these words, and preferred just to look at the individual works and decide for myself what they added up to.

Calder is, of course, best-known for his famous “mobiles”, constructions of wire and other materials which dangle from the ceiling in an attractive manner. They’re entertaining to look at, but I find it difficult to think of them in any other way. There are his wire standing-figures, too, which are ingeniously fashioned, and have the appearance of having been bent into shape in a matter of minutes. But were they? As with some of Picasso’s doodle-like drawings they can be deceptively simple. Still, this is the kind of exhibition I find interesting for its art-historical aspect but otherwise remain largely unmoved by. 

There were not many visitors to the exhibition, whereas the Picasso Museum generally was busy, as the crowds of tourists shuffled dutifully from room to room, sometimes directed by a guide to select a specific painting and admire it, but otherwise seeming rather aimless in their choice of what to look at. I had the impression that many of them would have preferred to be at a different gallery, if they had to be at a gallery at all, and in this respect it occurred to me that the Russian Museum might have more to offer. It isn’t as if the Picasso Museum has a particularly good permanent collection of his work. Much of it seems to be of a fairly minor nature.

There could also be more of interest in the permanent collection at the Carmen Thyssen Museum. Just a short walk from the Picasso. Largely built around late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Spanish art, it offers a sample of admittedly fairly-conventional paintings. The period referred to wasn’t perhaps an important one in terms of turning up many innovative Spanish artists, but there were a number of talented painters who did produce skilled and appealing work. There are several especially eye-catching coastal scenes. One or two of them reminded me of the sort of paintings being created by artists in Newlyn and St Ives around the same time.

The small temporary exhibition at the Carmen Thyssen offers “thirty-four collotypes on paper” which made up Max Ernst’s 1926 Histoire Naturelle portfolio : “They mark the start of the technique known as frottage , a semiautomatic creative process whereby unexpected effects and images are obtained by laying a piece of paper on a textured surface and rubbing over it with charcoal”. The artist then “added details to transform the silhouettes into landscapes or fantastical figures, enigmatic worlds or evocations of nature that triggered thought-provoking recollections of reality”. To my mind, they sometimes work, and sometimes not. It could be that it’s the quality of what the artist adds that makes the difference?

This isn’t a large or important exhibition, but certainly of value to anyone interested in the experiments and history of the Surrealist movement. A copy of the original portfolio is also on display.