What a strange lot we are, visiting museums. And how particularly strange in the way we all create our own “menu”, choosing paintings or sculptures and photographs that will become part of our own mental, portable museum. The feeling on occasions is that of being dancers among the works of art. A feeling, furthermore, that, without having talked much about painting, Adrian Tyler and I are dancing to a similar score.
At the heart of his book we encounter a trio of luminaries that speaks for itself: Morandi, Rothko and Mondrian. The association between Mondrian and Rothko is a logical one. Rothko is Mondrian plus Matisse, or perhaps even better, Mondrian plus Bonnard. It is more difficult to relate Mondrian and Morandi, despite the fact that their surnames are made up of the same letters. What is clear, however, is that although his starting point is reality, Morandi is as abstract as Mondrian and that both assimilated the lesson of Cubism. Finally, we have the Morandi-Rothko link, in which respect it is worth remembering that during his years of training the Russian-American painter went through an Italian novecento phase. The connection was also made by Severo Sarduy in two successive sonnets published in his anthology A Masked and Fleeting Witness: Sonnets and Stanzas (1985). Both admirable poems, the one on Rothko is dedicated to Andrés Sánchez Robayna. The first line of the poem on Morandi is “A lamp. A glass. A bottle.” The first line of the one on Rothko is “Not the colours or the pure form.” Sarduy makes the link again in a third sonnet, “To painting”, published in 1987 in the Mexican magazine Vuelta and posthumously reproduced in his Complete Works. In that poem, in addition to returning to “Morandi’s old rose and grey” and to Rothko’s lucidity, he expands the circle to El Greco and the gold in The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, to Bonnard, one of Rothko’s great beacons, and, in the poem “White”, to Octavio Paz, who was in fact the editor of Vuelta. Once again in the Complete Works we find “To the letters of the alphabet”, a poem written in Geneva in 1988 that refers not only to various writers and to other painters (Duchamp, Monet and Rembrandt) but once again to Mondrian: “Piet Mondrian paints listening to bebop.”
Here in Tyler’s book we fly over the three large double-page spreads to which I am referring, with Morandi’s old rose and grey (a still life of 1948 to 1949 that Tomàs Llorens and I included in our 1999 retrospective on Morandi held at this Museum and at the IVAM), the sombre Rothko Green on Maroon (1961) that was the first work by the artist to enter the permanent collection of a Spanish museum, and one of Mondrian’s late New York works, New York City 3, of 1941, in which we hear the syncopated rhythm of boogie-woogie. This is a movingly unfinished Mondrian that makes use of his strips of tape, painted in the three primary colours plus black and white. A Mondrian “in progress”. A Feldman-like Mondrian: very Vertical Thoughts. I am particularly happy that these three great modern masters to whom I have devoted the above lines should now appear together in these pages. They are the heart of “my” Thyssen and of Adrian Tyler’s Thyssen. Tyler immediately captures the essence of each of the three in a brilliant sequence, which also allows us to appreciate that neither Mondrian nor Rothko made use of frames and to remember that the latter imposed very strict conditions on the display of his works, particularly that of low lighting, as did his musician friend, the above-mentioned Morton Feldman, who insisted that his music be listened to at a low volume. The studs on the edges of the Mondrian are particularly beautiful, as is the edge of the Rothko with its staples. Never before have we seen the prosaically material nature of these elements so beautifully photographed. In addition, and suddenly attracting our attention (always to the rhythm of those “visitor-dancers” who flit here and there among the galleries) are Bacon, Bramantino with his Risen Christ, Jan Brueghel, Canaletto, Corot (not, surprisingly, with a landscape but with an interior), a pool by Degas, Juan de Flandes and his Aragonese Infanta, a Brittany period Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and his Artaud-like burning yellows (Antonin Artaud, Van Gogh le suicidé de la société, 1947), a black, quintessentially Madrid-like and almost Solana-like Goya, even with regard to its title (Uncle Paquete, ca. 1818–1819, from the period of the Quinta del Sordo), the Toledan gold of El Greco, Hans Baldung Grien (a name that, like many others, I first heard about in the late 60s of the – alas – last century from Fernando Zóbel, a key figure in my aesthetic education), Pieter de Hooch, Kandinsky, Murillo, Patinir, Picabia, Rembrandt with the only self-portrait in this book, Ribera, Ruisdael, Zurbarán (an artist greatly admired by Morandi, who had a monograph on him among his small library), without forgetting the bewitching geometry of a Trecento panel…
This is the litany to which we should add the three names on which I focused at the outset of my text. A prestigious litany that encourages us to reflect on the role of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in the aesthetic education of Spaniards now that the Museum is celebrating its first twenty years of existence. When I embarked on the path of art – in what were not necessarily the “Good Old Days” – in order to see the works of the great modern masters one had to look for them outside Spain, in nearby Paris, London, Switzerland or Germany, or in more distant New York. I refer to artists such as Bacon, who was a figurehead for Spanish New Figuration, to Corot, to Degas, to Gauguin and Van Gogh, to Kandinsky and Mondrian, to Morandi, who would go on to become the beacon for some of the “Prodigal Sons” of Neo-metaphysical painting, to Picabia and to Rothko, who had enjoyed the unconditional admiration of our El Paso group and who would continue to enjoy that of so many Spanish painters and writers of successive generations.
Corot has also been a figurehead for some of Spain’s finest painters of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in particular some of those who have pursued the figurative tradition. One example is Miguel Galano, who presented his exhibition Corotiana in 2008 at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias, an event that had the “bonus” of a landscape by Corot (Le Parc des Lions at Port-Marly, 1872) loaned by the very museum through which Adrian Tyler is now guiding us. In this photographic ballet Tyler has not, however, chosen one of Corot’s immortal landscapes, some so Nerval-like and others so Stendhal-like (when the subject is Italy). Rather, he has selected one of the artist’s three interiors, that of the church at Mantes (ca. 1865–70), a work familiar to all admirers of this admirably discreet artist. Corot depicts the church in shadow and includes the figures of a man and woman who seem to be known to him. Interiors of churches immediately bring to mind the whiteness of Saenredam’s – a compatriot of Mondrian and another artist to whom I was introduced by Zóbel – and the old golds of the churches of Jenaro Pérez Villaamil. Moving into the 20th century, I could make reference to the austere nave of Saint-Séverin, one of the jewels of medieval Paris, painted by Robert Delaunay (nor should we forget his exteriors of Laon cathedral), and to a Venetian altar by Zoran Music.
Dutch domestic interiors. The silent life of Vermeer’s works. Luminous, calm painting that, as with Morandi, attracts poets like a magnet, in this case a wide range from Paul Claudel to Zbigniew Herbert and including Murilo Mendes, Claude Esteban and our own José Jiménez Lozano, the latter two particularly alert to the art of Saenredam. Interior with a Woman Sewing and a Child (ca. 1662–68) is an Amsterdam period work by Pieter de Hooch, a native of Delft and one of the most pleasing of Eugène Fromentin’s “maîtres d’antan”. Tyler has focused here on the classical concept of the “painting within a painting” that has been so admirably studied by Julián Gállego. Other significant elements in the painting are the white light pouring in through the window on the left and the gold Baroque frame.
Saint Casilda, the saint of roses, here painted by Zurbarán (ca. 1630–35), is reduced to a swathe of intensely chromatic brocade, its train almost brushing the ground and its tip outlined against the grey background in a dialogue with the gilding and moulding of the frame. This is one of the most surprising, dazzling and felicitous images in Tyler’s survey.
Once again in Seville we have Murillo: almost imperceptible at first sight, another fine “morceau” of painting, in this case a fragment of an urban scene with a delicate campanile that can just be discerned in the background of The Virgin and Child with Santa Rosa of Viterbo (ca. 1670), another saint associated with the rose from which she takes her name.
Moving onto Antwerp we encounter another building, this time an isolated country house reflected in the pond on the left of Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (ca. 1518–24) by Patinir. These are houses that our eye rapidly picks out as we move around museums, singling them out as possible places to live. How often have we dreamed of settling down in one of them. This house by Patinir with its pond. That house by Cézanne near his native Aix, which our memory has combined with another house that we once saw on the Castilian Plateau. Magritte’s house in the Brussels suburbs. That boat-like house in Bruges immortalised by William Degouve de Nuncques. That little house with its garden and high wall on the outskirts of Florence by Ottone Rosai. Even Hopper’s typically American apartment at night, by a park, which we recently had the chance to see in the memorable retrospective on the artist held at the Museo Thyssen.
Canaletto: always the life of the city, a little fragment of Venetian life, here singled out by the photographer and extracted from the right-hand side of one of his superb vedute, The Grand Canal from San Vio, Venice (ca. 1723–24). This is another house that is in fact a grand palace, the Barbarigo (a surname that once again takes me back to Zoran Music and to his wife, Ida Cadorin, whose artistic name was Ida Barbarigo as she used her second surname and not that of her father, the painter Guido Cadorin). On the façade of Canaletto’s palace we see a large window and a serving woman leaning out of it, while above her on the roof is a man sweeping a chimney of the type to be seen in Carpaccio’s works. Canaletto’s painting is a novel unfolding before our eyes, a chronicle by Carlo Gozzi, a sketch by Proust (who championed Vermeer) or by Henri de Régnier, who is commemorated with a municipal plaque of 1948 on the garden wall of the Ca’Dario. Seen this way by Adrian Tyler, to our surprise Canaletto almost becomes another genre painter like his fellow Venetian Pietro Longhi (“He is not such a great master as others / who preceded him in the same city / nor did his brushes ever rise above / the piazza and its little woes”, and so on), or, further back in time, like Carpaccio, whom I have just mentioned in relation to the chimney on the Palazzo Barbarigo. I remember how, in Terisio Pignatti’s monograph on the artist of 1958 (published in Skira’s estimable square-format collection) Carpaccio was cut up piece by piece, starting on the front cover with the blown-up poodle on the floor in Saint Augustine in his Study in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni… The gilded frame and typically pink Italian wall become key elements in this quintessentially Canaletto-like photograph by Adrian Tyler. I would like to conclude my short text with that image, which is the one that I ultimately like the most in the entire book, although there are other candidates: Corot, Goya, De Hooch, Mondrian, Rothko, Zurbarán, etc. This is because, and very rightly I say, it is Venice that emerges in all her glory: Venice, the homeland of painting according to Ramón Gaya in reference to Titian: “Dusk is the hour of painting”. Venice: the homeland and the hour of painting. Venice: which is also the place where, in 1965, Elliott Erwitt, in an image that was included in his 2002 retrospective at the Reina Sofía, was dazzled by a gallery in the Accademia with its canvases that had disappeared in the evening light, transformed into mirrors…