Spanish Realism Today

by Gail Leggio

Running concurrently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, “Antonio López García,” is the first retrospective at an American museum for this important artist. The exhibition of forty-five paintings, drawings and sculptures includes nine works from the museum’s own collection, representing a serious commitment to a school too little known in the United States. While contemporary Spanish realists display considerable stylistic diversity, they share a taste for naturalism, patient craftsmanship and respect for humble subjects—characteristics of the legacy of Velázquez and Ribera. López (b. 1936) entered the San Fernando School of Fine Arts in Madrid at age 13 and, as a young artist, investigated surrealism, or the version of it described as magic realism. Atocha (1964) retains an element of enigmatic narrative, juxtaposing a nude, copulating couple with a detailed view of the area around Madrid’s railway station. López’s cityscapes can take months or even years to complete. South Madrid (1965–85) became a long-term project, evolving over two decades as the artist meticulously recorded the changing city from his chosen vantage point. His oil paintings do not have the rich surfaces and velvety chiaroscuro of the old masters. Matte surfaces and diffuse, filtered light signal López’s awareness of modernism. New Refrigerator (1991–94) is an unmistakably late-twentieth- century work. The open door of the appliance reveals a consumer-society cornucopia, and the heavy form seems to float against a cloudy, almost abstract space. The most striking work is Sink and Mirror (1967), a vertiginous tight shot down into a bathroom sink. A glass shelf of toiletries functions as a suspended altar and displaced portrait of the absent resident. The pearly daylight, from an unseen source, softly illuminates everyday paraphernalia. López’s pencil drawing of his oldest daughter at the age of 10, María (1972), has a similar gentle light. The child’s face and hands are delicately etched against the dense mass of her dark coat. The accompanying catalogue, Antonio López García, includes an essay by Cheryl Brutran and entries by Miguel Fernandez-Cid.

Antonio López García, Sink and Mirror, 1967
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There are other Spanish artists working in the soft style, including Isabella Quintanilla
(b. 1938), whose depictions of windows and doorways convey a muted sense of longing. Her Entry (1970, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is typical of her liminal spaces; a shadowy foreground draws us into a mysterious brightness beyond. Carlos Morago (b. 1954) is continuing in this tradition. His 2006 exhibition at Arcadia Fine Arts in New York City demonstrated a canny balance between abstract shapes and illusionistic depth. His subjects—The Corridor and The Abandoned Warehouse (both 2006)—are haunted, depopulated industrial spaces. The utilitarian geometry of the buildings makes for strong compositions, but the artist’s attention to detail and hushed sense of temporal loss give off an affecting melancholy.
There are other varieties of realism being practiced in Spain today. The artists showcased in “Four from Madrid: Contemporary Spanish Realism,” a 1994 exhibition at the Oglethorpe University Museum in Atlanta, favor tight painthandling and a more academic style. Each of the painters has a distinct point of view. The Japanese artist Gustavo (Tsuyoshi) Isoe (b. 1954) moved to Madrid at age 20 to study the masterpieces in the Prado. His color palette is muted. Nude (1993–94) is a monochromatic overhead view of a girl lying on a blanket of newspapers, the lines of type forming complex patterns. The grisaille tonalities give the image the cool refinement of an Eve from the back panel of a Flemish polyptych. The Nest (1994), like Nude executed in mixed media, has the textural intricacy of a naturalistic drawing by Dürer or Ruskin. The mass of twig, grass and shell seems to float in space. Isoe brings an intense eye to oil paintings such as Still Life: Pomegranate with Grapes (1992), which has a reverence for simple objects reminiscent of Zurbarán, although the broad sunlight and ochre tonalities have a more modern feel. Francisco Roa (b. 1963) also deals in figures and still lifes, but his juxtapositions are slightly surreal. Nude (oil, 1993–94) uses a woman’s back as a kind of erotic abstraction, the way Ingres or Man Ray would, drawing attention to her elaborate hair ornaments and a couture-draped velvet sarong. A bisecting string and lunar ring break up the inky background. Guitar (oil, 1989) suspends the eponymous, richly detailed object against a wrinkled white paper background. A sense of disorientation is aggravated by the blue wing of an outsized butterfly. Roa is also a fine draftsmen, depicting ordinary household paraphernalia and plants in velvety, smudged charcoal.

Bernardo P. Torrens, Telliez’s Venus III
Courtesy Oglethorpe University Museum, Atlanta, Georgia

The two remaining artists in “Four from Madrid” studied medicine and are largely self-taught as painters. Both are interested in anatomy and the figure. Dino Valls (b. 1959) depicts fictional worlds that combine a modern sensibility with medieval iconography and mediums, egg tempera as well as oil. Arbor Vitae (Tree of Life) takes the shape of a triptych altarpiece, although the naked figures, interlaced with skeletons and accessorized with multicultural attributes, come from some heretical, alchemy-based system. Valls uses a multi-panel composition again for Pregnant Altarpiece, in which Mary has to stoop to wedge herself into her central Gothic arch. The hyper-reality and confrontational stares of the other figures add to the subversive edge. In a perverse fairy tale painting, Labyrinth, a young barefoot girl seems trapped in an M.C. Escher version of a seventeenth-century Flemish interior. Bernardo P. Torrens (b. 1957) achieves a more contemporary look with his academic nudes and enigmatically costumed figures. He paints with acrylic, using an airbrush, and the finished work has a startling gloss. A series of reclining nudes in cold, institutional spaces riffs on Velázquez’s great Rokeby Venus. In Tellez’s Venus III, a woman lies, back to the viewer, on a narrow marble ledge, touchingly vulnerable. In My Own Pietà, Torrens presents a black man tenderly holding a recumbent white woman. This same sense of melancholy imbues clothed figures, such as the woman in Blues Time, simply dressed in skirt and pants, with her face eloquently buried in her hands. Torrens had a solo exhibition in 2005 at the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in New York City.

American Arts Quarterly, Volume 25, Number 2