The Juan March Foundation creates the jargon of art history in 3D.
The Juan March Foundation in Madrid presents a new exhibition entitled “Genealogies of art or the history of art as visual art”. They did something liberating, radical and common sense. “In the beginning was the eye, not the word,” the series tells us, which seems obvious, but the evidence is sometimes buried. Art historians are more to blame than most because their raw material is visual. The geek, or even watching closely, is sometimes difficult. It’s easier to chat than to watch. I am not against placing art in a social, economic and political context, but the interpretation often stifles the object. Textual storytelling goes beyond visual storytelling. I see a lot of shows and read a lot of catalogs. Sometimes I think of Eliza Doolittle when she sang, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words.
The foundation of the exhibition is a famous diagram designed by Alfred Barr in 1936 for an exhibition he made at the new Museum of Modern Art in New York on the roots of cubism and abstract art. Barr (1902-1981) was the founding director of MoMA, a museum entrepreneur and an art historian. It’s the diagram that started a million diagrams, and in all the mapping and tracking, sometimes the art, what we see, is forgotten. The Juan March show takes Barr’s two-dimensional diagram and makes it three-dimensional. It’s a brilliant spectacle.
First, a bit of institutional history, because the Juan March Foundation is astonishing. In 1955, Juan March (1880-1962) established the venue, which funds elegant art and theater spaces and the highest quality and often experimental exhibitions, plays and concerts. It’s free and open to the public. Exhibits typically focus on isolated artists and ignore movements, emphasizing art little known in Spain. I saw a big exhibition of Paul Klee years ago – his drawings – and a retrospective on Asher Durand, the presenter painter of the Hudson River School. Spain has little landscape tradition. Have you ever been to Extremadura? It’s like the surface of the moon. It’s hot and dry, flat and rocky. No one would paint it. American landscapes are wet and free. Madridlenos came in droves to see the show.
The Juan March is in the Salamanca district of Madrid’s Upper East Side, in a plump, international-style building that resembles a spaceship. In General Franco’s Spain in the 1950s, avant-garde culture was frozen. A culture more daring than flamenco and Velázquez was seen as disruptive and, if not downright red, a suspicious shade of pink. How was the place cleared?
The answer is “Juan March”. A leading journalist in the 1930s called March “the last pirate of the Mediterranean”. Last pirate? “No, it’s possible. A body of water surrounded by France, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Greece, the Balkans, Libya, Egypt and Turkey, among others, is the School’s Ivy League campus. piracy that produces graduates every year and with a vigorous alumni association. He grew up in Mallorca and made his first fortune in smuggling and his second in selling contraband to both camps during WWI.
He was Franco’s fixer and the richest man in Spain, as well as one of the world’s first billionaires. March engineered Franco’s rise to power, like an engineer. He dealt with nuts and bolts on the Phalangist side in the Spanish Civil War. Need to move troops, but there are few “planes”? He found them. He distributed the earnings money that the Allies provided in 1940 and 1941 to maintain Spain’s neutrality during World War II. He was making money in publishing, utilities, banking, keeping things running smoothly. He played with others when it seemed mutually useful. Otherwise, he was invisible. And a giant of culture.
March wanted a space for contemporary culture in Madrid, and what March wanted, March got. The place’s mission was largely humanistic, never putting a stick in the eye of the state, but presenting eclectic and new art, theater and music rooted in aesthetics, in the sensory experience, rather than in the Dogme. March knew there was a new world beyond Franco, and he knew he would be largely free. He understood that aesthetics are exceptionally democratic because we all have the same senses but we prioritize and treat them individually. In his new cultural space, he gave Spain a subtle boost towards its post-Franco future.
A visitor from Genealogies of art can watch the show in several ways. For me, it’s insider baseball since I was raised as an art historian through diagrams, schools, influences, and trends. Pedagogically, it is a German obsession to put things into classes and categories, and many of the great art historians were German and many taught at American universities. Fortunately for me, I went to Williams College, where the pedagogy was more French than German. The teaching emphasized the senses. Viewing art was an intellectual, emotional and physical experience. These picky patterns seemed porous and at times arbitrary, and certainly not as artists think. So I see the exhibition as an examination of the gap between art and academics.
Or you can forget about the diagrams, which I found confusing and dense at times, and focus on the amazing loans the museum has secured. The Juan March has reserve money and immense credibility. It is a first-rate scholarly place. I think they channel the old man a bit too. He has done great things quietly, by hook or by crook in his case. The Conservatives are doing great things with great ambition and serious thinking.
Among the first things in the exhibition is a magnificent painting by Paul Cézanne, The Alley at Jas de Bouffon, from 1890, from the Museum of Art and History of Geneva. All Cubist paths, Barr thought, led to Cezanne, but there is also what Barr called “black sculpture,” which is African tribal art. In Barr’s day, while I was a student, Cézanne was to Picasso what Isaac was to Jacob in the Old Testament. Isaac begot Jacob, whose sons created the twelve tribes of Israel. Picasso launched a hundred movements around cubism around 1912. There are magnificent things by Odilon Redon, Kandinsky, Severini, Boccioni, Gris, Léger, Braque, Moholy-Nagy.
Visually, the show makes sense of Dada, Miro, Mondrian, and Bauhaus as not-so-distant cousins. It is logical that Picasso is the common thread of the exhibition. He was the avant-garde giant in Barr’s time. Matisse is almost invisible. Barr found it too decorative.
There’s very little American work in the show, but that’s Barr’s sensibility. His diagram dates from 1936. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Moholy-Nagy eventually moved to America, but Barr didn’t think much of the locals. Lewis Hine is in the exhibit, depicting “the aesthetics of the machine,” but there is no Stieglitz, Sheeler, Stuart Davis, and the curators, like Barr did, have shown restraint and taste excluding Georgia O’Keeffe, a good but overrated artist. The impressionists are not there, and neither are the great masters. Barr’s “genealogies” speak of an invigorating, new and modern world. There is an American skyscraper or two in the show.
The Juan March does not have an exact parallel in the United States. The Munson-Williams-Proctor in Utica is a large museum with an art school and a distinguished musical program. It was intended as a one-stop-shop for high culture, but it sits in a despicable location and has a low-profile curatorial profile. The Morgan Library is near – a man’s vision, a vigorous lecture program, and small shows focused on offbeat topics. The Clark Art Institute might be, but it’s got so tired and flabby. American museums today don’t care much about aesthetics or ideas, anyway. Delegations of American conservatives should come to the Juan March to learn how to be less boring.