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Creative forks: Jeremy Roe reports on an exhibition that seeks to reposition Joaquin Torres-Garcia as a pioneer of European abstraction.

Torres-Garcia at His Crossroads

18 May-11 September

Museu National D'Art De Catalunya, Barcelona

Catalogue by Nicolas Armas and Tomas Llorens

ISBN 9788480432320 (paperback) 25 [euro]

(Museu National D'Art De Catalunya)

The Museu Nacional D'Art De Catalunya's (MNAC) romantic hilltop setting is an apt location for this exhibition of over 80 previously unseen works by the Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia (1874-1949). Torres-Garcia studied and worked as a leading artist in Barcelona between 1891 and 1920, before going on to work in New York, Florence, Paris and Madrid. Only in 1934 did he return to his native Montevideo, where, with characteristic energy and conviction, he worked until his death in 1949. Torres-Garcia tends to be classified by his Uruguayan origins and discussed in terms of his role in transmitting modernist abstraction to Montevideo and Buenos Aires, among other South American cities. However, as this biographical sketch suggests, this view tends to overlook much of his career, and above all, his prominent role as a European artist. Such historiographical oversights are redressed in 'Torres-Garcia at His Crossroads', which traces his artistic development from 1900-44, representing it firstly in terms of European cultural traditions--especially the Barcelones and Parisian variations of Classicism and Romanticism--and secondly with regard to his pioneering engagement with avant-garde ideas and forms of abstraction.

Creative crossroads are the leitmotif of the exhibition, which is organised into five rooms. The first contains two large-scale works: the 1944 preparatory sketch for the mural Maternity. The Family (Fig. 3) and the 1942 painting Universal Constructive Art; the surprising contrast of the former's academic Classicism to the latter's abstract grid, filled with symbols, makes clear that Torres-Garcia was not merely concerned with shedding artistic tradition and moving on from his creative junctures--rather, his work was stimulated by a constant play of ideas, forms and traditions. The works elsewhere in this exhibition are further testament to this, being almost entirely drawn from the artist's personal collection of some 3,000 works--nowadays the collection of Alejandra, Aurelio and Claudio Torres--to which he would return throughout his life, thereby maintaining himself at a sort of permanent creative crossroads.


A novel feature of the exhibition is curator Tomas LIorens' efforts to 'unweave' Torres-Garcia's art in four thematic stages that work backwards in time--backwards from Montevideo to Barcelona, backwards from the 'universal constructivist' Torres-Garcia to the Torres-Garcia famed for his murals, commissioned by the Diputacio de Barcelona, celebrating Catalan national identity. It is with Torres-Garcia's early classical works, testament to his being a key representative of Barcelona's Noucentisme, that the exhibition's survey ends and begins again, for the visitor can then reverse the process and re-trace, chronologically, Torres-Garcia's development. That he recycled, in 1944, a maternity scene visible in the top left quarter of his preparatory drawing for The Golden Age of Humanity, from one of the early Diputacio works, would have been down to much more than simple expediency: Torres-Garcia had been misinformed that his early frescoes had been destroyed. However, by returning to the Classicism of his early work he made it clear that this was not an artistic language he had sought to vanquish through abstraction, but rather a foundation for his reflection on art as a vehicle for intellectual and ideological values and as a system of representation.

The following room traces this reflective journey from a romantic transcendence of time--evoked in his 1916 sketch, for another of the Diputacio series, of a giant Pan-like figure piping mankind to dance inscribed with an evocative line from part two of Goethe's Faust, 'Lo temporal no es mas que simbolo'--to the fleeting and appealing immediacy of his Barcelona (Fig. 2) and New York. In these latter works, Torres-Garcia can be seen exploring the grid structure, on the one hand as an inherent characteristic of a modern city and on the other as a form to explore the symbolic potential of everyday motifs. He also explored the potential for language within images, as in the 1916-17 drawing Discovery of Oneself, and technologies of communication underscore the 1921 collage Today, with its dynamic display of the passage of time.



As is to be expected with the unveiling of a graphic archive, there are many striking encounters, such as two complete sketch books, one made while in New York, which can be perused as digital copies and a series of cut-out figures of New York street characters that recall the many toys Torres-Garcia also designed.

While still concerned with a play of ideas, the next two rooms address key elements of modernist thought--namely, the dichotomy of 'reason' versus 'nature' central to abstraction. The former is represented by a series of drawings, from small sketches to carefully meditated ink drawings, dated around 1930 and documenting experiments with the rational grid structure. Yet for Torres-Garcia the human figure, both as a triumph of nature and as an object to be 'reasoned' upon, was of equal concern during these years, as is witnessed in his return to classical themes combined with experiments in cubist, primitivist and naive modes of representation.

In the final room, notions of reason are developed by exploring Torres-Garcia's enquiry into 'Method'. Some drawings show him trying to classify symbols, others show him seeking a synthesis of the abstraction of the grid and the plasticity of form, and another group appear as finished pictographic statements conceptualising his notion of Abstract Man's place in the universal and natural order. Then, in a section entitled 'Atlantis', we come across less of a crossroad than a figurative allusion to the artistic destination Torres-Garcia sought: a universal artistic language transcending time and place, word and image, abstract form and object-hood. In this series, the journey back through Torres-Garcia's development comes to a sort of conclusion, with early drawings such as Morphology and Animated Forms capturing his concern to develop art through an enquiry into the capacity of forms and objects to change, and the meanings such a process can result in.

The return to the two works in the first room is not the only conclusion to this charting of Torres-Garcia's creative nexuses, the Alejandra, Aurelio and Claudio Torres collection has also loaned 14 paintings and sculptures to the MNAC which are on display in its modern art galleries. Not only do these complement the exhibition, but as one passes through rooms of other early 20th-century Catalan art to see them, a further opportunity is offered to ponder the many crossroads of cultural traditions which were part of the continual stimulus in Torres-Garcia's work throughout his career.

Jeremy Roe is an AHRC Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham.
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Title Annotation:Torres-Garcia at His Crossroads
Author:Roe, Jeremy
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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