Fundació de les Arts I els Aristes

Carlos Morago Fernandez, El taller de grabado, Courtesy of the European Museum of Modern Art, Barcelona, Spain

The Fundació de les Arts i els Artistes, created in 2005, is an important twenty-first-century initiative promoting contemporary realism. The foundation recently presented its seventh annual Figurative Painting and Sculpture Exhibition at the European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM) in Barcelona, under the auspices of Jose Manuel Infiesta, foundation creator and director of the museum. Painters and sculptors from  eighty-five  countries  participated, and a prize of 36,000 euros was offered, with a 44,000-euro acquisition fund for sculpture. The international scope of the project was reflected in the jury, with a preponderance of artists—including Norwegian Odd Nerdrum, Spaniard Antonio Lopez Garciá and American Jacob Collins—as well as critics and gallery owners. Infiesta emphasizes the value to society as a whole of figurative artists, with their ability to tell stories and communicate emotion.

The exhibition opened October 4, 2013, in the handsome spaces of MEAM, which occupies the Palau Gomis, an eighteenth-century palace in the El Born district of Barcelona. First prize was awarded to Carlos Morago Fernandez for El taller de grabado, which balances realism with geometric formalism. The canvas is divided into three vertical areas, with blank shadowy panels flanking a deep-perspective view into a well-lit studio or office. A strip of transoms above the main part of the composition reinforces the surface pattern.

Most of the works receiving honorable mention were straightforwardly realistic, although elements of postmodern irony and conceptual  play, reflecting recent stylistic fashion, were visible in the exhibition as a whole. Alejandro Marco’s El nonagenario is a monochromatic close-up of a wrinkled hand. María José Cortés presents a riff on the self-portrait, showing artist and subject through the device of mirror as painting, in La paleta del olvido. Deangel Deangel’s Niños con monja evokes older modes of representation, while adding a contemporary edge. The group portrait—a young boy and girl, standing, flank a  seated  nun,  who  places  her  hands  on  their  shoulders—has  the  unsmiling formality and old-fashioned clothes we associate with  early  twentieth-century studio photography. The faces of the three models have the delicacy of hand-tinting. But, instead of portrait-studio props, the artist places the group against a black-void backdrop. More radically, he draws on the details of the children’s clothes in what looks like white chalk, setting them off against the painterly deep red of the nun’s habit.

Among other works receiving honorable mention were Jaime Valero Perandones’s Retrato Número 5, a close-up, head-on portrait of a dark-haired young woman with bare shoulders and wet hair, and two examples  of  the figure in a landscape genre. Miguel, by Eduardo Alsasua García, considers a contemporary peasant, seated on a rickety chair in front of a crumbling rockface. Solidly planted and wearing a hat to shade his eyes from glaring sunlight, he could be the protagonist in a Gustave Courbet painting, except for his sneakers and a plastic stool. The rocks and brambles of the harsh landscape emerge with notable clarity. Exilio Urbano, by Jacobo Alcaldo Gibert, presents similarly rough terrain but opens up a vast empty stretch of fields, with distant trees on the horizon and a sky of amassing storm clouds. In this case, the lone figure at the center of the composition is, as the title suggests, a contemporary city man, out of place in the countryside. The one attempt at myth among the honorable mentions is Roberto Ferri’s Il figlio del mattíno. The title suggests the fallen angel Lucifer, and the male nude with dark wings stretched out across rumpled drapery may embody the original beauty of the devil before his fall. A slit-like  wound in his side throws an  allusion to Christ into the mix.  The eroticism of the image suggests Caravaggio. It is an accomplished and daring painting, but it demonstrates the difficulty some other contemporary artists have in steering the classical nude away from kitsch or pornography. Another nude, not among the honorable mentions, reveals how realism can convey spiritual  gravitas  through  the  unclothed  human  body.  American  John  Nava’s C. Standing is a simple three-quarter portrait of a pregnant woman. Nava, known for his church tapestries as well as his paintings, conveys the latent sacramental grace of the body.

The exhibition included still life and landscapes as well, but the emphasis was on the human face and figure. If the great subjects of the History Painting genre, which dominated Western art for centuries, are still largely out of reach, contemporary realists are engaged in an important enterprise, and this ambitious exhibition is a significant step in the right direction.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2013, Volume 30, Number 4