Rediscovering the Mediterranean


The exhibition Rediscovering the Mediterranean, which can be visited at the Fundación MAPFRE Recoletos Hall in Madrid from October 10, 2018 through January 13, 2019, presents a series of paintings and sculptures by various artists who found the period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries a fine time for creating and representing art, a feeling of well-being they wished to project onto the coming artistic generations. The Mediterranean as a reconciliation with the past, but also a place of artistic freedom which, in its different forms, was thus to become one of the great references for the creation and evolution of modern art.


France: the Midi studios

At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, throughout Europe the sea was rediscovered, particularly the Mediterranean. Sunbathing started becoming fashionable, beneficial for the health of both body and soul, and the heirs to Impressionism and plein air painting continued seeking the light and vibrant color of the waves, and the joy of a world they saw as recovering a lost Arcadia. If, until then, the French coast had been a mere transit point for travelers on the grand tour heading to Italy, the train from Paris to Lyon – which reached Marseille in 1856, Nice in 1864, and Ventimiglia in 1878 – facilitated traveling south, attracting writers and painters. This rediscovered landscape would henceforth be intimately linked to the concept of modernity.

In the 1880s, following in the footsteps of the Marseilleborn painter Adolphe Monticelli, Vincent Van Gogh settled in Arles. He rented a house there with a view to converting it into the “southern studio” and encouraged his friends Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin to join him. During that period, Van Gogh became a master of color, through which he could convey his emotions.

Mediterranean Classicism is present in the pointillist works of Signac, who discovered the small port of Saint-Tropez in 1892, where he spent time with his friends Henri-Edmond Cross, Théo Van Rysselberghe and Louis Valtat; in the more mature Cézanne who returned to Aix-en-Provence and made Mont Sainte-Victoire famous; in Monet’s hedonistic vision of the Mediterranean coastline; in the bathers Renoir painted in Les Collettes, in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, where he remained for the last years of his life; in the color of Matisse; in the works that Friesz produced in L’Estaque, together with Derain, Dufy and Braque. This presence of Mediterranean Classicism is also to be found in the influence exercised by earlier artists on painters who were somewhat different, particularly Camoin, but also Manguin and Marquet; or in the later works of Bonnard, who clarified his palette in order to be able to depict the landscapes of Le Cannet. A classicism that speaks of tradition and primitivism, but which also speaks to us of modernity, because it heads that way, it is born here.


The culmination of the Mediterranean: Matisse and Picasso

In the summer of 1904, Matisse moved to Saint Tropez with his friend Signac. The views and the motifs he discovered there led to watercolors and drawings that announced the path he was to take. That was when he produced the sketches for Luxe, Calme et Volupté, where we can see the influence of Seurat’s divisionism, likewise evident in Jeune fille à l’ombrelle. From 1907 the fauve movement began to fade and, influenced by the painting of Cézanne, who wanted to produce “paintings like those in the museums”, the female figure took center stage in his work.

After a series of travels that took him to Briska, Seville, Granada and Tangier, and filled his paintings with arabesques and odalisques, Matisse traveled to Nice in 1917 and stayed there for virtually the rest of his life. Little by little the monumental figures from earlier years were replaced by a more everyday, intimate style of painting, with color and lines gaining prominence. However, his work undoubtedly focused on the relationship between light and pure, flat color, together with defined outlines.

For Pablo Picasso, both Mediterranean traditions and the light and vegetation of the region proved essential stimuli for creating. His first trips to the Côte d’Azur date back to the 1920s and 1930s; a place where he would encounter that Classicism which, together with Primitivism, pervades his whole oeuvre.

Each summer vacation on the Côte d’Azur meant a change of scenery for Picasso and, therefore, a change in the motifs on which he worked. Seduced by the isolation and the views over the Bay of Cannes, Picasso bought La Californie in 1955. A large villa-studio where he combined all the motifs that had interested him up to then: depicting the studio, the painter and his model, and the female figure. During this period, he also worked on different “interior landscapes”, as he himself called them: the motifs he observed from his window — The Pigeons — or variations on the interior of La Californie based on the different tones of light coming through the windows. The luminous intensity and powerful color of the works painted in his studio of La Californie condense and exalt his Mediterranean heritage.

Italy: places of the soul

In November 1918 the magazine Valori Plastici was founded in Rome by Mario Broglio, who was also its editor. Collaborations were made by Carlo Carrà, Giorgio de Chirico and Alberto Savinio. While it did not have a set editorial line, this publication seemed to question the role of the artist in the contemporary world, as well as the development of new languages that engage in a continual dialog between recovering the past – and therefore, a return to realism – and the desire to instill this discourse at the very heart of modernity.

In the painting of Giorgio de Chirico, references to the past, to Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Raphael, Titian, Ingres and Courbet are all present. We can also contemplate that idea of time stood still, which is related to his metaphysical period, and with the need to return to legends, to a place that seems to be even way beyond Classicism: we can see this in two faceless statues which he calls The Muses, as well as the horses he depicts on the sea shore, surrounded by fragments of Greek ruins.

Likewise, Carrà’s boats or the scenes depicted by Campigli continue along that path where time seems to stand still. Scenes that could prove familiar to us no longer are and are displayed as something strange and disturbing; infused with melancholy, the paintings of these Italian artists seem to tell us about loss, a loss difficult to define, describe or represent. Images of the soul that remind us that the past, Classicism and the happiness of that Mediterranean Arcadia will never again be the same.


Valencia and the joy of everyday life

Modern Spanish painting found Valencia to be a point of reference right from the mid-19th century. In the previous century, the grand tour, after passing through Italy and rereading the classics, had already begun to awaken interest in seascapes and vedute. In the second half of the 19th century, many Valencian artists were interested in this genre and were able to faithfully depict the Mediterranean, highlighting the qualities it possesses, both as a landscape and as a setting for a good life.

As a good modern painter, Ignacio Pinazo was one of the first to show interest in the aspects of Mediterranean life. Almost always on small woodblocks, his brushwork is loose and fast, which denotes his love of drawing and watercolor. In works such as Dusk at the Breakwater III, light and atmospheric effects prevail over the anecdote and storytelling, thus anticipating a whole generation of painters who were to utilize these elements to express sensations, as is the case of Joaquín Sorolla.

Already enjoying international recognition in the late 19th century, Sorolla was to make the sea the centerpiece of all his work, taking an interest in the lives and work of the fishermen, and the strolling or bathing vacationers. The beach scenes present in the exhibition – such as To the Water!, Rocks of Javea and the White Boat or Clotilde and Elena on the Rocks – manage to capture the depth and transparency of the water, with their deployment of full ranges of color, and celebrate that scenario filled with children playing and women bathing. A sea full of light and joy, a natural habitat that can be identified with the description of the golden age in the Mediterranean.

Their own world: Palma de Mallorca by Mir and Anglada Camarasa

Joaquim Mir was one of the most notable landscape painters of the fin de siècle period. Upon his arrival on Mallorca – for the first time in 1899 and, on repeated occasions, between 1901 and 1903 – Mir’s painting changed radically, moving away from the compositions of a social nature for which he was famous. On this Balearic island, the painter was fascinated by the rocky areas and sheer cliffs along the coast, the caves that carved openings between them, and the weird light producing a phantasmagoric, unreal appearance.

In this period, Mir also did murals at the house of the textile industrialist Avel·lí Trinxet. One of the most famous is present in this exhibition; it depicts the garden and is harmonious, in terms of both its composition and the color of the brushstrokes.

As for Anglada Camarasa, he settled in Port de Pollença in 1914 and started painting Majorcan landscapes, which closely resemble that sense of purity so characteristic of those by Mir. Being in contact with the island’s landscape produced a radical change in the themes he painted. Famous for being one of the major drivers of modernity in Spain, Anglada had created a painting style in which spots and color prevailed over linear aspects, most noteworthy being his representation of women in nighttime Paris scenes and, later, typically Spanish female figures. The landscapes and seascapes he produced in Mallorca are, however, in a very different tone, although the violence of the color he employs is, possibly, even more present. A color that takes him over and over again to the limits of his painting, as we can see in Grotto at the Bottom of the Sea and Bottom of the Sea, works that clearly drift toward abstraction.

Noucentisme and the formation of the Catalan identity

On this journey through the rediscovery of the Mediterranean we have proposed here, Catalonia holds a privileged position, given its location. From 1900, springing from Symbolism which was still in force, a new view of the Mediterranean was to appear and give rise to the first genuinely Catalan movement of the 20th century – noucentisme. The renewal of the artistic atmosphere of Barcelona was to be one of the leitmotifs in the artistic writings of Eugenio d’Ors, in a longing to reclaim the moral vision of art to regenerate society. The Classicism of D’Ors was swiftly accepted as the artistic aspect of this movement, while Catalonia was taken to be the guardian of the Mediterranean cultural tradition.

Joaquim Sunyer and Joaquín Torres-García are, in this sense, the artists who were the best at conveying the ideas of D’Ors, based on the abandonment of the fin de siècle Decadent movement in favor of recovering the spirit of the Renaissance and Classicism, making beauty the goal of art. In this sense, the noucentisme of D’Ors took the identity-related aspect as a starting point.

After a brief Modernist period, Joaquín Torres-García, who continued the Symbolism of Puvis de Chavannes, arrived in Catalonia and proposed a serene, classic style of painting, filled with idealized figures. He established his ‘Escola de Decoració’ in Terrassa, attended by talented pupils such as Josep Obiols, Rafael Benet or Josep de Togores.

As for Joaquim Sunyer, he had returned from Paris in 1908. Settled in Sitges, he progressively abandoned Steinlen’s influence and, just like Torres-García, he devoted himself to ‘noucentisme’. Shortly afterward he painted Mediterránea and Pastoral, both faithful to Matisse and Cezanne, which would prove to be a career milestone. In 1905, Aristide Maillol presented a plaster version of his sculpture Mediterranean at the Parisian Salon, whose marked Classicist nature is apparent both in the physiognomy of the face of the seated female figure and in the treatment of its sculptural volume and mass. The time Togores spent in Banyuls with Maillol in 1921 triggered the definitive evolution of the Catalan painter’s work: landscapes and voluptuous female nudes emerged from his brush under the influence of the famous sculptor.

The presence of the female figure, a constant feature among Catalan painters, pertains to a Classicist tradition likewise followed by sculptors such as Enric Casanovas, Josep Clarà or Manolo Hugué, although there are notable differences in the case of the latter. Included in the noucentisme movement by D’Ors, Hugué, on the other hand, showed little interest in that idealized Catalonia of Torres- García; his personal interpretation of Classicism, paying attention to a more authentic, rural Catalonia and with a predominance of rounded shapes, reveals his taste for Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. This interweaving of Classicism and Primitivism also interested Julio González, in whose hands the female figure was to become avant garde in the 1930s and 1940s.