Jackson Pollock’s Mural: Energy Made Visible. Picasso Museum. 21st April to 11th September, 2016

Picasso: Eye Games: Collection. Picasso Museum. 14th March to 11th September, 2016

Reflections of Pop. Carmen Thyssen Museum. 17th March to 4th September, 2016

Dada and Surrealist Film. Centre Pompidou. 21st March to 19th June, 2016

The Knave of Diamonds: Towards a History of Russian Avant-Garde. Russian Museum. January to July, 2016

The Four Seasons, Russian Museum. January, 2016 to January, 2017                                                  

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Malaga, they say, is fast becoming the new Barcelona. And from the point of view of galleries the city is certainly expanding. I’ve listed only a few of those I visited and there are various others, some of them specialising in local interests, such as flamenco. The city hosts music and film festivals and there is plenty of street theatre and similar activities. My own main concern was to look at the exhibitions listed.

The large Jackson Pollock mural was originally commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 for the entrance hall of her New York townhouse. Pollock was then relatively unknown and hadn’t arrived at the technique of “action painting,” as the critic Harold Rosenberg termed it, nor had he become identified with so-called “drip painting,” and the popular notion of him almost dancing around a canvas laid on the floor while splattering paint across it direct from a can. In 1943 he was still influenced by surrealism and also by encounters with the work of Picasso. He had also seen large murals painted by the Mexican artists, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. Add to those experiences Pollock’s awareness of Spanish artists like El Greco, and Joan Miro, and it’s possible to see how, with the rhythms and colour, he was working towards something unique by not letting the artists mentioned totally dominate his thinking. What is also evident is that Pollock had seen and absorbed lessons from an exhibition of avant-garde photography that the Museum of Modern Art in New York had mounted in 1943. As the booklet accompanying the exhibition says: “During the very summer months when the painter was working on Mural, the show brought together 133 prints by photographers of action and energy such as Herbert Matter and Barbara Morgan, with reference to dance, movement and light converted into line.”

Some of the photographs are on display alongside the mural, together with paintings by Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, and others. The overall effect is to place the mural in context.

The Picasso Museum has a permanent collection of the Spanish artist’s paintings, but also presents exhibitions around specific themes. The latest one is Eye Games, which “takes a look at the depiction of the “gaze” in Picasso’s work.” I’m going to commit the great heresy and admit that a lot of Picasso’s work never strikes me as all that interesting. I do like and admire his early paintings, those produced in the period before the First World War. And Cubism always intrigues me. I recall seeing an exhibition in Malaga in 2013 which surveyed his activities prior to moving to Paris in the early-1900s, and it tied in with Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 at the Courtauld in London in the same year. Taken together, they presented a fascinating picture of a provocative and imaginative artist starting to make his mark. But in the Picasso Museum in Malaga I had the feeling that a great deal of minor work was on show, and it amused me that there was an almost hushed, reverential atmosphere with people looking solemnly at paintings which ought to have raised a smile. It was only when a party of schoolchildren poured in and started to chatter and chuckle that things got better.

It isn’t too far from the Picasso Museum to the Carmen Thyssen Gallery where a surprisingly good selection of Pop Art is on show. The attraction of it is that it looks at work produced by Spanish artists in the 1960s and 1970s, so is not just another round-up of the usual American and British painters that we expect. Spain in the period referred to was, of course, still under Franco’s rule and foreign influences were not always welcomed. But there were signs of a loosening of social restrictions, and it’s pointed out that most Spaniards first experienced Pop Art through its use on record and magazine covers. A collection of them is on display to back up the art works by Eduardo Arroyo, Luis Gordilla, and a couple of teams of artists functioning as Equipo Cronica and Equipo Realidad. What is striking is that the paintings are not just imitations of British and American Pop Art, but instead have obvious Spanish themes and influences, including to my mind, a greater awareness of surrealism.

The Carmen Thyssen Gallery is noted for its collection of 19th and early-20th century Spanish art, with most of the painters probably little-known outside Spain. Do the names Julio Romero de Torres or Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta ring any bells for you? I’m reminded of a passage in Eduardo Mendoza’s novel, An Englishman in Madrid, where, in 1936, an English art-expert is invited to value a collection of paintings: “I am no specialist in Spanish paintings of the nineteenth century, but what little I do know leads me to believe that perhaps this was not the most outstanding period in your country’s art. Of course that’s unfair because nothing can compare with Velasquez or Goya……but that’s how things are; outside of Spain important figures such as Madrazo, Dario de Regoyas, Eugenio Lucas and many more are eclipsed by the great figures of the past. Possibly Fortuny, or Sorolla, and ……..not much else…..” 

What the Englishman says is probably true, but despite criticisms that can be levelled against the artists named, all of them represented in the Thyssen collection, I always find their work pleasurable to look at, and I visit the gallery each time I’m in Malaga. It’s also a fact that many of the paintings have a documentary interest in that they show places, social customs, modes of dress and behaviour that would change as Spain moved into the twentieth century. The English art expert grudgingly indicates that Sorolla (Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida) might be an exception to his suggestion that most Spanish artists are little-known outside their own country. And it’s true that Sorolla did make an impact in places like Paris and London during his lifetime. This year sees a major exhibition of his work, under the title Sorolla and the Paris Years, at Giverny in France.

The relatively new Centre Pompidou, a colourful cube-shaped building, is in the renovated port area, and has paintings by Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Rene Magritte, and others on loan from the parent Centre in Paris. The current temporary exhibition is devoted to Dada and Surrealist Film, with work by Marcel Duchamp, Hans Richter, Man Ray, and several others, and encompasses “the graphic abstractions of Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, the photographic experiments of Man Ray, the zany anarchistic, iconographic provocations of Rene Clair and Francis Picabia, and the rhythmic collage of Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy.” There are fifteen films, and personal tastes may decide which are the most interesting, though all of them add up to a fine survey of what was being done in Paris in the 1920s. Personally, I found the opportunity to see the legendary Kiki of Montparnasse on film satisfying. And I never fail to be amused by Rene Clair’s Entr’acte, with its wonderful runaway-hearse sequence.

The Russian Museum is located some distance from the city centre, but it’s well worth making the effort to get there. The Knave of Diamonds group was founded to oppose “the then-prevailing symbolist movement,” and staged its first exhibition in 1910, with artists like Natalia Goncharova, Robert Falk, Mikhail Larionov, Ilya Mashkov, and others, participating. The major influences on many of the painters were European post-impressionism and Russian folk-art: “The simplification of artistic language and its jarring nature, along with the use of motifs borrowed from everyday life are some of the main tenets of this group.” The group lasted for several years, though with the inevitable dissensions that are invariably associated with artistic movements. Mikhail Larionov, who had named the group, and Natalia Goncharova, left because they did not approve of “the profound influence of Cezanne on the paintings produced by its core members.” However, “despite such conflicts, between 1910 and 1917 practically all of Russia’s avant-garde artists – Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexandra Exter, Olga Rozanova, Marc Chagall, and others – exhibited their work at Knave of Diamonds shows.” The exhibition reflects all this activity. It’s worth noting that a new exhibition, Chagall and his Russian Contemporaries, opens on the 20th July and runs to the 6th of November, 2016. 

Many earlier Russian artists, mostly from the 19th century, can be found in The Four Seasons exhibition. It’s a superb collection that not only represents the changing nature of the urban and rural landscapes as the seasons slide into each other, but also brings to our attention painters who may not be known to those who don’t have specialised knowledge of the history of Russian art. Alexei Savrasov, Isaac Levitan, Nikolai Sverchkov, and Boris Kustodiev: I’m not going to pretend that I can make any claims to being knowledgeable about these names. But walking around the exhibition is a chance to familiarise oneself with artists who otherwise might never come to one’s attention.

As I said earlier, I’ve only written about the main exhibitions I visited, and there are several other galleries in Malaga, including some devoted to contemporary work. I did go to the Museo del Patrimonio Municipal which offers “an illustrated journey through the history and the art of the city, its identity and origins.” There are paintings by artists associated with nineteenth century Malaga, though the names of Carlos de Haes, Horacio Lengo, and Emilio Ocon may not mean much to non-Spanish visitors. But the paintings are worth seeing.