The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum opens a major retrospective devoted to the painter Ignacio Zuloaga

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The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum opens a major retrospective devoted to the painter Ignacio Zuloaga
Miguel Zugaza, director of The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum; Nora Sarasola, director of Obra Social BBK; and Gorka Martínez, general director of BBK.

BILBAO.- This summer, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, with the sponsorship of BBK, presents a major retrospective devoted to the painter Ignacio Zuloaga (Eibar, Gipuzkoa, 1870–Madrid, 1945), who in his day was regarded as the most important Spanish artist with the greatest international fame.

In the early 20th century, Zuloaga's painting ushered in a new way of understanding figuration, with a highly personal aesthetic that merged popular elements and classical references using the languages of the avant-garde and the tradition of the Spanish school.

Made up of almost 100 paintings, the exhibition is the first retrospective held on the painter's entire career since 1990, showing examples from his early years until the time he earned domestic and international renown. The in-depth research carried out in recent years has made it possible to show many of the artist's unknown works and facets to the public for the first time.

The painter's masterpieces conserved in the Bilbao museum—Portrait of the Marqués de Villamarciel (c. 1893), The Cardinal (1912) and Portrait of Countess Mathieu de Noailles (1913), among others—are joined by loans from private individuals and institutions, such as the Museo Ignacio Zuloaga in Pedraza (Segovia), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, along with international institutions such as the Hispanic Society of New York, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna di Ca'Pesaro in Venice and the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico.

The joint curators, Javier Novo González, head of the museum's Collections Department, and Mikel Lertxundi Galiana, researcher, are at the foundation of this major retrospective, the catalogue accompanying it and the vast set of documents which will enable the public to better understand the magnitude achieved by the painter. Books, magazines, photographs, letters and other documents will show Zuloaga's facets as both a human and a mass phenomenon.

The exhibition is divided into three periods:

Zuloaga before Zuloaga 1889-1998
The works of Ignacio Zuloaga are associated with Realism, a style in which he virtually trained himself in late the 1880s in Madrid and Rome, and which he later perfected in Paris at the end of the century. There, ever since his arrival in 1889, he took an interest in social realism and the symbolic aesthetic, which resulted in works with a cool palette and poetic atmosphere featuring anonymous figures from the Parisian underworld. Zuloaga captured these visions in small formats in which he experimented with different avant-garde languages.

Zuloaga 1898-1925
In 1898, Zuloaga's career shifted course dramatically, reaping him international success which had been unprecedented for Spanish painting since the time of Goya, with the exception of the brief yet fertile output of Mariano Fortuny, which is solely comparable to that of his contemporary Joaquín Sorolla.

This time marked the beginning of his fascination with country life in the villages of Castile, which he now captured on large canvases, once again featuring singular, humble figures. These works enshrined him internationally as a brilliant, unique artist, while the country that produced him accused him of using his paintings to rub salt into the wound of the national crisis that came in the wake of 1898. In no time, his vision of Spain was classified as ill-timed, such that even well into the 20th century his success profoundly irritated the old structures of Spanish art, including the institutions and their leaders, artistic competitions and their juries, art critics and, by extension, public opinion, which had been totally alienated by the former.

Late in the 1890s, Zuloaga had shaped his own language in which, despite the glimpses of the references from his youth, his ties with the traditional Spanish school are obvious, from Mannerism and the Baroque until Goya. Due to his personality and family relations, Zuloaga always moved in privileged, cosmopolitan intellectual circles. However, the painter never ceased being attracted by the radiant magnetism of bohemian, worldly life, leading him to populate his works with unique characters, from either Paris or Segovia, such as beggars, dwarves, hunchbacks, morphine addicts, gypsies, prostitutes, fortune tellers, dancers, singers, cabaret singers, picadors and bullfighters.

This is a stage when he earned a great deal of fame for his scenes of rural life, of bullfighters and gypsies—what has come to be called "España Negra", or Black Spain—as well as for his monumental portraits boasting refined elegance. This period spans from his earliest international triumphs until his exhibitions held in the United States in 1925, featuring the painter's most emblematic works.

Zuloaga after Zuloaga 1925-1945
After being celebrated on his US tour in 1925, Zuloaga exploited the formulas that had garnered him success, working almost exclusively to produce commissions from a select clientele who wanted their portraits painted by the master.

This is a period marked by portraits, with hardly any genre paintings except for his delicate still lifes. Yet it is also an obscure period that is often overlooked by the majority of his biographers since it is so ideologically delicate. The two World Wars, and particularly the Spanish Civil War, led his figure to become fodder for national propaganda because of his reputation and his artistic language, which was so distant from the scene of the avant-gardes' formal experimentation.

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