Picasso Museum, Málaga, 9th October, 2017 to 28th January, 2018


Carmen Thyssen Museum, Málaga, 6th October, 2017 to 25th February, 2018


Russian Museum, Málaga, August, 2017 to January, 2018


Russian Museum, Málaga, August, 2017 to January, 2018

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I suppose it’s sometimes difficult these days to provide fresh outlooks on art movements from the past. Exhibitions are held everywhere and curators must struggle to decide on which approach to take to attract attention from the critics and the general public.

We are Completely Free is certainly not the first exhibition about women artists and Surrealism that I’ve seen (I recall one in Manchester a few years ago, Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, Manchester Art Gallery, 2009/10 ), but it’s certainly among the best. With eighteen artists represented it offers a wide range of spirited and provocative paintings which demonstrate how active and important women were to Surrealism. There was a tendency at one time to see Surrealism as largely “a male movement of writers that increasingly opened up to visual artists”. And Leonora Carrington, looking back, remarked, “It was a group essentially made up of men who treated women as muses”. That wasn’t how she saw herself as a woman and artist.

Carrington is probably one of the better-known women linked to Surrealism, and the exhibition also features work by Dora Maar, Meret Oppenheim, Eileen Agar, Frida Kahlo, and some others whose names might be recognised. But I suspect that Maruja Mallo, Angeles Santos, Remedios Varo, and Germaine Dulac will not be as well-known, other than to specialists. This isn’t a comment on the quality of their work, and a 1929 painting by Santos was one of the most striking in the exhibition. We usually associate Surrealism with Paris and think of it as a French movement, but it’s interesting to note how much the idea appealed to Spanish painters like Santos, Varo, and Mallo. And it’s good to see the fine American artist, Kay Sage, in the exhibition.

Cubism is often identified with Picasso and Braque and located in Paris prior to the First World War. But, as an explanatory note at the start of the exhibition at the Carmen Thyssen Museum points out, there were “as many Cubisms as there were artists who practiced it”. The Spanish painter, Juan Gris, was part of what is referred to as the “second Cubist experience”, with Gris, María Blanchard, Jean Meitzenger and Albert Gleizes involved in producing “a synthetic art of flat geometrical planes which brought together abstraction and figuration”.

The exhibition at the Carmen Thyssen Museum focuses primarily on Gris and Blanchard, though with examples of work by Meitzenger and Gleizes also represented. Gris was in Paris as early as 1906, but according to Douglas Cooper’s The Cubist Epoch, he “played no part in the evolution of Cubism during the following five years because he was earning his living as a humorous draughtsman and completing on his own his formation as a painter”. When he did start to work in the Cubist manner he proved to be his own man and was not simply an imitator of Picasso and Braque. His version of Cubism was “more rational”. Sadly, Gris died in 1927 at the relatively early age of 40.

María Blanchard doesn’t rate a reference in Cooper’s book, and she certainly didn’t have an easy time, either as a person or as a painter. She was born with severe physical disabilities in 1887 in Spain, but persevered with her training as an artist. It was when she went to Paris in 1909 and met Gris and other Cubists that she began to develop into a painter of significance. She seems to have been badly affected emotionally by the death of a friend and patron, and shortly after by Juan Gris’s death. Blanchard had a hard time in the early-1930s as worsening economic circumstances affected sales of her work. She contracted tuberculosis and died in 1932.

What is striking about her Cubist compositions, especially the early ones, is the sheer vibrancy of the colours she used. The paintings catch the eye immediately on entering the gallery.

Colour is a major factor in the work of Alexei Jawlensky and his son, Andreas. The senior Jawlensky (1864-1941) was born in Russia and initially worked in realist and impressionist styles. He moved to Germany in 1896 and was influenced by Expressionist ideas, and in fact judging from the work on display he appears to have absorbed “a wide variety of influences”. I have to admit that it was possibly because of that fact that I occasionally found Jawlensky’s work less than exciting. It seemed to lack character at times. This didn’t stop the Nazis from seeing it as dangerous, and Jawlensky was included in the notorious exhibition of “Degenerate Art” in 1937.

Andreas Jawlensky was born in 1902 in Germany and showed promise as an artist from an early age. He “remained in his father’s shadow for a long time”, though his work was quite different. He was much more interested in “the surrounding world: nature, people, and scenes of life”. But, like his father, colour was a key factor in his canvases.  He had taken out German citizenship and was conscripted into the army during the Second World War. He was captured by the Russians and sentenced to ten years imprisonment for “anti-Soviet activities”. It might have been understandable had the paintings he produced on his return to Germany in the 1950s been bleak and reflective of his experiences, but they are, instead, full of colour and vitality.

The Russian Museum in Málaga is as pleasure to walk around, and its large exhibition tracing the rise and fall of the Romanovs is still on display. The final painting of revolutionary soldiers and sailors in the Winter Palace leads into a small, but fascinating exhibition of photographs and posters from the early days of the Revolution. The photos show crowds demonstrating, soldiers and armed civilians parading, and Lenin speaking (with Trotsky carefully cropped out of the picture).

As for the posters, they perhaps point to the relative flexibility of artistic ideas that were still acceptable before Stalinism took over and “Socialist Realism” became the norm that everyone had to adhere to. Poets and poster designers, inspired by the seeming promises of a radical overhaul of society, worked together to use avant-garde ideas to promote messages of solidarity, freedom, and justice. That it all later went wrong should never be held against them, though some observers might have suggested that the signs of censorship and restrictions were already in evidence long before Stalin came to power. They were probably inherent in the communist system.           

Anyone in Málaga, and interested in Spanish art, could also find it worthwhile visiting the recently-re-opened Museo de Málaga, which has a large selection of paintings and sculptures by artists associated with the city. Picasso is represented, of course, but most of the others will perhaps not be familiar to non-Spanish viewers. Not all of the works on display are necessarily first-rate, but they do offer an enlightening view of life in the city over the years, and the concerns of its artists.