Apollo Magazine (UK)

From the Archives

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Robert O’Byrne on Spanish art on the cusp of the Civil War

The former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, when asked by a journalist what was most likely to knock a government off course, is said to have responded: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ Whether or not the remark is correctly attributed, its sentiment remains true and is applicable well beyond the political sphere. A year ago, when the April issue of Apollo was being prepared for publicatio­n, few people realised that one single event – the emergence of a highly transmissi­ble virus – might soon have such an impact throughout the world.

Similarly, years ago in April , when Apollo carried a ‘Letter from Madrid’, it is unlikely that either its author, Catherine Moran, or the magazine’s editor, Thomas Leman Hare, had any expectatio­n of the turmoil about to be unleashed in Spain. Moran had already contribute­d to earlier issues, writing, for example, in April and May about the collection assembled by Guillermo de Osma and held in the Instituto de Valencia de Don Juan, Madrid, and in October and December of the same year about art works owned by the Duke of Alba.

However, her ‘Letter from Madrid’, like those received from other capital cities, was intended to provide an overview of current cultural activity, with particular focus on recent exhibition­s. None of the key Spanish names we associate with the period – Picasso, Miró, Dalí and so forth – were mentioned by Moran: they were more likely to feature in reports from Paris or New York. Instead, she turned her attention to emerging artists whose work was beginning to be shown in Madrid.

Some of these have since drifted into relative obscurity, such as the Argentinia­n-born José A. Merediz, who Moran described as ‘an artist of sincerity and the possessor of a style both dignified and sober’. Merediz was then exhibiting in the galleries of the Sociedad de Amigos del Arte alongside ceramicist Francisco Pino, about whom it is also not easy to find much informatio­n. Moran may have provided an explanatio­n for this, writing that he ‘has been working for some years past in comparativ­e retreat in the little town of Andujar, for long renowned for its kilns’. Yet his work sounds tantalisin­gly attractive – wall tiles, for example, ‘for the most part worked in white and two shades of blue [with] a remarkable perspectiv­e […] attained with this apparently simple, almost rough, medium’. The American architect Arthur E. Middlehurs­t is also little known today, but appeared in Moran’s text due to an exhibition of his Mallorcan watercolou­rs, the strong tones he employed apparently giving his scenes ‘a richness of atmosphere usually confined to oils’.

Some artists mentioned in the Madrid letter remain familiar, such as Carlos González Ragel, who had just held his first exhibition of what he called ‘esqueletom­aquia’, essentiall­y representa­tions of familiar figures, but stripped of their flesh so that only the skeleton remained. According to Moran, ‘the essential resemblanc­e caught in the silhouette­s and general bearing is extraordin­arily realistic.’

She was also able to spot emerging talent, like that of the Valencian painter Gabriel Esteve i Fuertes – writing that ‘in the sumptuous textures and gorgeous colouring of the native costumes of this province he finds ample material for the building up of the colour-schemes in which he revels.’ Moran was especially excited by the work of Catalan Surrealist, Ángeles Santos, then not yet , whose vast canvas Un Mundo (today in the collection of the Reina Sofia Museum) had caused a considerab­le stir when first shown in in Madrid’s Salón de Otoño. Later that year Santos had her first solo exhibition in Paris, and no doubt expected to be able to continue developing her career in Spain.

It could be Moran also intended to write further Letters from Madrid for Apollo, but this was not to be. Soon enough events intervened. In the same month that Moran’s piece was published, the king of Spain, Alfonso XIII, fled the country and the second Spanish Republic was proclaimed. Over the next few years, the country drifted further and further away from stable government until civil war erupted. By

some of the artists that Moran wrote about had left Spain, Ángeles Santos among them, while Ragel had been admitted to psychiatri­c hospital. Except as a distractio­n, work by the likes of Gabriel Esteve i Fuertes seemed less and less relevant during a period in which Picasso would respond to the upheaval of his country by painting Guernica. The potential disruption of even a single event should never be underestim­ated.

In the May issue The smell of Old Masters, the threat to Lutyens’ Delhi, and the Joan Eardley centenary. Plus: an interview with Michael Rakowitz

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