Un­der the Stars

The London Magazine - - GUY SANGSTER-ADAMS -

Fed­erico Bel­tran Masses: Un­der the Stars, Fe­bru­ary 10 – March 24, 2016

‘I ar­rive in Lon­don with the nerves of a child still at art school,’ de­clared the Cuban born Span­ish painter, Fed­erico Bel­tran Masses, ahead of his 1929 ex­hi­bi­tion at The New Burling­ton Gal­leries. ‘I await the ver­dict of [Lon­don] with more fear than I would any other art world cap­i­tal’. This was his first Lon­don show, but Bel­tran Masses was no in­génue, he was al­ready in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous, a lodestar to which the denizens of a glit­ter­ing in­ter­war fir­ma­ment were ir­re­sistibly drawn for their por­traits, just as visi­tors ea­gerly queued to see his exhibitions.

In­deed his fears proved un­founded, the ex­hi­bi­tion was a re­sound­ing suc­cess, fanned by the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing his painting, Salomé, or to quote one of the 192 ar­ti­cles that the ex­hi­bi­tion gar­nered world­wide, ‘the most dar­ing nude pic­ture ever painted’. Ow­ing more to Os­car Wilde’s play than the Gospel of Mark, the painting de­picts Salomé, naked but for her jewellery, arch­ing back­wards on sump­tu­ous cush­ions, her thighs apart, her hand across her eyes, con­vulsed in grief or or­gasm, as a ser­vant presents her with the head of St John the Bap­tist on a plat­ter.

Out­raged con­ser­va­tive quar­ters branded the work im­moral and Bel­tran Masses through pique, or an ex­am­ple of the highly as­tute self-pub­li­cist he was, briefly with­drew it from the ex­hi­bi­tion which went on to at­tract 17,317 pay­ing visi­tors within three weeks and to sell 12,000 cat­a­logues. He was nei­ther a stranger to con­tro­versy nor to the ef­fi­cacy of hav­ing mer­chan­dise for sale, some­thing we might wrongly as­sume to be a mod­ern pop cul­ture phe­nom­e­non, and equally to how lu­cra­tive any kind of pub­lic­ity can be on sales.

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