Under the Stars
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.