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Madrid exhibition

THE UNSEEN. From Informalist painting to the postwar photobook (1945-1965)

February 26 June 5, 2016

Following World War II, both Europe and the world saw the rise of a type of painting that was extremely different to the interwar one. Cubism, the Expressionist movements and Surrealism were followed by a painting that specifically questioned its "form" in pictorial terms and in a notably radical manner. This "other" art, known since that time as "Informalism", found its spokesman in 1952 with the French critic Michel Tapié in his book Un art autre [Art of another kind], which had a subtitle, Où il s'agit de nouveaux dévidages du reel [When dealing with new unwindings of the real] that already expressed the author's intention to focus on the new forms, the new dévidages [unwindings] that had happened to reality. Postwar painting throughout Europe had certainly started to make use of "other" materials of a humble type and ones quite different to the noble and conventional ones of painting, such as sand, gesso, cardboard, pieces of paper, sackcloth, rags and cloth and a wide range of rubbish and cast-off material. Artists combined them, fragmented them, destroyed them or used them to construct surfaces and masses on the canvas – in some cases extremely dense ones – of unconventional materials with an unformed or deformed appearance, which were also worked in new ways: with the hands, with spatulas and palette knives; smearing them, sewing them, tearing, sticking and unsticking them, applying them in patches or painting with them. The gestures of painting thus changed as much as its materials and supports, given that its subject had now become painting itself and its forms, or its distortions.

Salvatore Scarpitta. "Trapped Canvas" [Lienzo atrapado], 1958 Salvatore Scarpitta. Trapped Canvas, 1958
Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Geneva
© Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Geneva. Photo: Sandra Pointet

As to be expected, this transformation of painting was not just associated with formal experiments: the Informalist painters' desire to create another type of art was naturally not disconnected with the universal experience of the war given that, in an extremely visible way, the war (this time truly a "world" war) had given the entire world, from Europe to Japan, another "unwinding". In literal terms, its destructive force had smashed to pieces, disfigured and distorted the material and spiritual physiognomy of all civilised forms, from those of human beings to those of monuments, cities, villages and even nature itself.

Art could not avoid that destruction nor did it wish to approach it through traditional means. After the conflict and with the forms of reality destroyed, painters and photographers looked for new visual possibilities, and the canon of the avant-gardes was to some extent another victim of the war. Finding a response to the holocaust and to the death camps and labour camps, to Auschwitz and to Siberia, to Hiroshima and to the photographs that the press and documentaries were disseminating on the horrors that had taken place (huge scale massacres of civilians, the incendiary bombing of London and Berlin and of cities with little or no military importance such as Coventry, Dresden and Hamburg, mass deportations, desolation, death and destruction) was not an easy task, but both painting and photography endeavoured to achieve it through works that still impress and move us today.

This exhibition presents European painting from the immediate postwar period to the mid-1960s alongside photography from those same decades with the aim of submerging viewers in the historical context of the time in order to achieve an understanding of the break that artists brought about following the war

Nonetheless, it is possible that today, seventy years after the end of World War II, when its memory is no longer alive and when very few first-hand witnesses to that catastrophe are left, those distorted and abstract forms of art are now above all perceived "formally" when they are exhibited: as one more pictorial trend to be added to the history of art, and as separated (as is characteristic not just of the passing of time but also of the exhibition space) from the terrible context to which it responded and overcame with gestures of almost unprecedented force. For this reason, the exhibition THE UNSEEN. From Informalist painting to the postwar photobook (1945-1965) presents European painting from the immediate postwar period to the mid-1960s alongside photography from those same decades with the aim of submerging viewers in the historical context of the time in order to achieve an understanding of the break that artists brought about following the war.

The exhibition includes 160 works of art, documents and films loaned from different institutions and public and private collections in both Spain and abroad, including the Fondation Gandur pour l'Art in Geneva, the Centre Pompidou, the Pinacoteca di Brera, the Folkwang Museum in Essen, the Dietmar Siegert Collection, the Fundación Foto Colectania, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Museo d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, among others.

THE UNSEEN. From Informalist painting to the postwar photobook (1945-1965) establishes a close relationship between painting and photography through a type of photography that involves approaches comparable to that of panting, as in works such as Chizu – The Map by Kikuji Kawada. In addition, it reveals the relationship that exists between European postwar abstraction and the German Subjektive Fotografie artists, with photographs by Hermann Claasen, Helmut Lederer, Otto Steinert and the Spaniard Francisco Gómez. Also on display are photobooks and the type of photography that moves in the ambiguous terrain between the photographic document and artistic form.

Otto Steinert. "Lampen der Place de la Concorde 3 " [Farolas de la Place de la Concorde 3], 1952.
Otto Steinert. Lampen der Place de la Concorde 3
[Streetlights on the Place de la Concorde 3], 1952
Museum Folkwang, Essen
© Estate Otto Steinert, Museum Folkwang, Essen

With regard to painting, the exhibition combines the presence of artists and photographers of recognised prestige (including Pierre Alechinsky, Karel Appel, Alberto Burri, Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, Georges Mathieu, Pierre Soulages, Wols and the Spaniards Antonio Saura, Rafael Canogar, Manolo Millares, Fernando Zóbel, Gustavo Torner and Luis Feito) with magnificent unknown figures (Natalia Dumitresco, André Marfaing and Georges Noël), notable among them a dynamic group of Czech artists (Jan Klobasa, Jan Kubíček, Pavla Mautnerová and Jiří Valenta) who demonstrate the importance of the Informalist response from that part of Europe which, following the war, would suddenly be cut off and separated into a different block under the Soviet Union.

The exhibition also includes work by Wolf Vostell and by the French Nouveau Réalisme painters (François Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella and Jacques Villeglé, among others), whose décollages of advertising posters on film, politics and commerce anticipate – in the manner of a kind of photographic negative of what would be Pop Art – the new mind-set that arose in Europe from the mid-1960s and which would take shape in art forms that tend to celebrate a social reality which had moved from the privations of the postwar era to an atmosphere heavily influenced by consumerism and advertising and one characteristic of global capitalism, market economy and the welfare state, in which we still exist today.

  • Francisco Gómez. "Hand Prints", 1960Francisco Gómez. Huellas
    [Hand Prints], 1960
    Fundación Foto Colectania, Barcelona
    © Archivo Paco Gómez/Fundación Foto Colectania
  • Jacques Villeglé. "Boulevard Saint Martin", 1959Jacques Villeglé. Boulevard Saint Martin, 1959
    Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Geneva
    © Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Geneva. Photo: Sandra Pointet

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