25.11.2012: A tale for a country

Ramon Casas (1866-1932), Madeleine. Oil on canvas, 117 x 90 cm, 1892 (Museu de Montserrat). Photo: Museu de Montserrat.

Sorry folks, but this week, instead of the usual seven shots post, I feel it is time for the occasional 750-word-long op-ed. My subject today is how to present Catalan art to the world, which is perhaps not the hottest issue in the field, but is at least one that is familiar, and hopefully attractive, to the readers of this blog.

My little thoughts had been ignited by the reading of a very interesting Master thesis by Laura M. Cales, a young researcher from the University of Colorado. Her chosen subject is the relationship between the works of two fin de siècle Catalan painters, Ramon Casas (1866-1932) and Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931), with the Parisian sources of their style. The relationship has always been portrayed as merely dependent, with Casas and Rusiñol just behaving as talented yet delayed followers of French Realism and early Impressionism. Cales contends this view, and argues it is a result of relying on a wrong conceptual framework. In her own words:

If we do not privilege the dichotomous ideological constructs of center and periphery/province, modern and retraso, and so forth, and reject the notion of Spain as a late-comer to European modernity as a framework for assessing some of the country’s artistic production, then we may situate Casas and Rusiñol’s relationship with Parisian art and culture as a meaningful, intercultural activity that allowed for critical self-distance and a process of learning, appropriating, and translating different forms of promoting and making art.

(Laura M. Cales, The Barcelona – Paris Connection: A Response to the Critical Framings of Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol’s Engagement with French Art and Culture, Thesis for the degree of Master’s of Arts, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 2012; p. 106, retrieved from ProQuest, at http://www.proquest.com).

I would certainly counter-contend, and say that Spain and Catalonia were in fact late-comers, and that Paris was really a cultural hub that attracted, and fed, a great deal of European and American periphery talent, thanks to its impressive succession of artistic innovations. But this does not downgrade Cales true contribution. That is, her effort to reintegrate periphery and centre into a wider picture, and to advance the understanding that the dynamics involved in a cultural transfer process always imply a degree of cultural creativity and dialogue.

These ideas of “critical and creative appropriation”, and “intercultural exchange” can also be fruitful when considering other moments in the history of Catalan art. As we have seen in this blog, Dr. Castiñeiras’ study on the Romanesque Tapestry of the Creation (wool on wool, 358 x 450 cm, end of the 11th century – beginning of the 12th century, Museum of the Cathedral of Girona) has revealed it as a speculum principis (“mirror for a prince”) for the young Ramon Berenguer III, count of Barcelona, taking a step further an iconography program that was set by the Coronation “Star” Mantel, presented to the German Saxon Kaiser Henri II some decades before -among some other earlier works (Manuel Castiñeiras, El tapís de la creació,  Catedral de Girona, Girona, 2011; pp. 32, 93-94 and 114).

On the other hand, it means nothing especially original to say that the same concept of transfer works for other parts of Europe. As posted here in August, we can put the Czech Madonna from Roudnice (by the Master of the Trebon Altarpiece, c. 1385 -1390, Convent of Saint Agnes of Bohemia, National Galleries in Prague) side by side with Pere Serra’s (active in Barcelona between 1357 -1408), Our Lady of the Angels (c. 1385, MNAC, Barcelona), and discuss both of them as “translations” of the International Gothic Style born in French and Northern Italian courts.

Digging a little deeper, I think we could perhaps use these kind of examples to advance a certain understanding of national culture. I like to call it “thankful understanding”, meaning that the fine works of art of a certain national school, always owes something to the achievements of another one from a near, or far, nation. In an ideal world, cultural institutions like the MNAC (you know we are talking about a museum) would foster this kind of approach in their projects.

All in all, and thanks to Laura Cales, we can now feel comfortable with these brand new concepts like “intercultural exchange” or “creative appropriation” when talking about late 19th century Catalan art. I think we can be perfectly happy with that, since it is nothing more and nothing less than using our current vocabulary to tell a very old tale.

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