Top 10 Works At The Museo Nacional De Bellas Artes
Article by Anna Lowe.
Following my recent post on MALBA’s Top 10 works, I now intend to continue with further museum-themed lists until, like all film sequels, San Telmo market or the hipsterfication of burgers, the format has lost all novelty and pleasure. By the end of the month you will know what to look at and why when visiting BA’s most important art collections: the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA), the Museo de Arte Moderno Buenos Aires (MAMBA) and the Collecion Fortabat. You may also enjoy testing the limits of your attention span and interest in art.
Right then, let’s go. The old-school stuff. The National Museum of Fine Art is located in Recoleta on the Avenida Libertador in a converted water pumping station. It actually opened in 1896 and went through two prior locations (in a shopping mall on Florida Street and then in a beautiful pavilion building in Plaza San Martin) before settling in 1932 in Recoleta. Below, is list of my ‘Top Ten’ works currently on display at the MNBA. The museum actually have a huge collection of more than 14,000 works; holding the most important collection of Argentine art in the world and a strong body of international modern art. However, the museum is currently under renovation and so the only art on show is European and Argentine up to the 19th century. No matter. It’s still great stuff…
Rembrandt van Rijn: Portrait of the Lisbeth van Rijn, 1634
This painting is the jewel in the donated ‘Hirsch Collection’. The portrait is of Rembrandt’s sister Lisbeth and is painted in typical 17th Rembrandt style – contrasting light and dark to illuminate her face and intensify her gaze towards the viewer. You might think Lisbeth is fairly ugly with her bulging eyes and double chin, but she is nonetheless fashionably dressed with detailed pearls and jewels. The art history ‘gossip’ surrounding this painting suggests it’s probably not by Rembrandt himself or may be a collaboration. Rembrandt had many assistants and this painting is unsigned with insensitive features such as the forehead, clothing and plain background.
El Greco: Jesus in the Olive Garden, 1600-1607
The MNBA is currently celebrating the baroque painter El Greco’s 400th anniversary with important loans from both the El Greco museum in Toledo and the Museo de Arte Decorativo (Buenos Aires). But they also have their own El Greco in the collection – a stunning image of Jesus the night before his crucifixion. El Greco (The Greek) was born on the island of Crete, Domenikos Theotokopoulos but worked mainly for Spanish and Italian Catholics who presumably couldn’t pronounce his name. Painting during the Counter Reformation, his works aim to stimulate the faithful with vibrant colours and expressionist features. El Greco is totally unique among his contemporaries for his elongated and twisted figures (to create a bond between heaven and earth) and use of unrealistic light effects (white paint on the surface of the canvas). In this image of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane we see three elements: sleeping disciples in the shadows; Jesus receiving the shining visit of an angel; and in the background, soldiers coming to take him.
Francisco de Goya: Fire in a Hospital, 1808-1812
In this work Fire in a Hospital, the building is half hidden by smoke. In the foreground, the painter has sketched a group of figures and highlighted a woman lying face down on a stretcher carried by two men. The painting is from Goya’s so-called ‘black-paintings’ which depict the Peninsular War of 1808–1814 following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. Goya remained in Madrid throughout and, although he painted portraits of Joseph Bonaparte and other French sympathisers, he was repulsed by the atrocities of war and painted these images without commission as political commentary. The composition is innovative in the use of a spatula rather than paint brush, giving a sense of the dynamism and energy of war. Goya is also influenced by El Greco (see above) for his dramatic contrasts of light and dark – here the red flames.
Rene Francois Auguste Rodin: The Kiss, 1889
Schiaffino, the first director of the MNBA, loved French classical art (see my article on the temporary exhibition of nudes). He bought Rodin’s Moon and Earth in marble and managed to negotiate with Rodin to acquire this plaster cast of ‘The Kiss’ as a buy-one-get-one-free type deal. How canny! The Kiss is a super famous sculpture originally titled Francesca da Rimini (named after the woman it depicts). Francesca is an Italian noblewoman (famous from Dante’s Inferno) who falls in love with her husband’s younger brother and, while they read the courtly tale of Lancelot, they kiss and are both murdered by her husband. In the sculpture, the book can be seen in Paolo’s hand.
When first displayed The Kiss was quite controversial because Rodin sculpts Francesca not just as an idealized, naive beauty (aka. in academic style) but as a full partner in adultery (note the lustful position of her arm). But in spite of this erotic rule-breaking, Rodin sought futher innovation and called this sculpture “a knick-knack following the usual formula.”
Edouard Manet: The Surprised Nymph, 1861
Manet paints his wife, Dutch piano teacher Suzanne Leeynhoff, numerous times throughout his life. If you compare this first portrait (vaguely realist) to the last, clearly impressionist work, you really see the transition in Manet’s style and can appreciate why he is such an important 19th century artist. Of course The Surprised Nymph isn’t openly a portrait of his lover Suzanne, it is supposed to be a mythological work of a nymph. But, painted just two years before Manet’s momentous ‘Lunch on the Grass’, it’s viewed as an experiment in modern art. The nymph here isn’t an idealised classical beauty but looks like the real, rather portly, Suzanne with defined cellulite and direct eye contact with the viewer.
This painting was originally intended as a religious image from the story of Moses and when standing in front of it you can see where Manet has painted over the beginning of a basket on the left, and a second face in the top right-hand corner.
Van Gogh: The Moulin de Galette, 1886-7
In the MNBA’s room of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art you will find lots of treasures such as an interesting Degas portrait and a compelling Gauguin. But if you will insist on me writing a snappy ‘Top Ten-type blog post, I will oblige by presenting only van Gogh.
This fresh, light van Gogh is of a windmill in Montmartre. At the beginning of his career van Gogh lived with his brother Theo in Paris and was interested in the dramatic process of industrialism. Although painting 19th century Paris, he studied this windmill numerous times and stresses the rustic charm of the area with figures dressed as peasants – marking the persistence of the rural environment. Nevertheless you can just about make out lampposts in the distance, suggestive of the modern city. The low-angle perspective of this painting allows a low horizon and luminous clear sky.
Edgar Degas: Two Ballerinas, Yellow and Pink, 1898
This work is done in pastel, which became Degas principal medium after the mid-1880s. He developed a technique of fixing each layer and building up intense colours without them muddying together. Although the dancers here are less obviously in motion than in the earlier works the rich texture, vibrant colours and Catherine-wheel like form conveys a new kind of vitality. The painting is unusually large for a Degas pastel work and you can also see the influence of cinema and photography (new mediums at the time). Degas was never afraid to abandon the horizontal plain in favour of a tilted focus or angled frame in order to capture the movement and psychology of his dancers.
Prilidiano Pueyrredon: Portrait of Manuelita Rosas, 1851
You were probably wondering when I’d get around to Argentine art! My last three entries are strictly Argie. This is a VERY famous portrait of the Federalist dictator Rosas’ daughter, Manueltia. Pueyrredon is one of the first prominent Argentine artists and this commissioned portrait is actually commemorated on the twenty peso note. The painting is hung in the MNBA next to a portrait of her father Juan Manuel and you can see father and daughter share the same nose. It is an unashamed work of propaganda; the bright red dress is a political reference to the Federalist colour and Manuelita is painted leaving a note in her father’s study (she was used for political diplomacy). Pueyrredon is known for his naturalistic detail and you can see the care devoted to her jewels, dress and dancing slippers. Before leaving this room check out Pueyrredon’s more typical landscapes of 19th century Buenos Aires and the surrounding countryside.
Candido Lopez: After the Battle of Curupayti, 1893
Lopez is known for his works on the Paraguayan War, otherwise known as the War of the Triple Alliance. This war, fought between 1864 and 1870, is the bloodiest conflict in Latin American history and comparable in scale to the American Civil War. Lopez painted over 50 works on the subject and the selection displayed are not hung in any chronological order. They all take the same panoramic format with miniature figures as Lopez wanted to highlight man’s futility against an inhuman landscape.
The most dramatic painting is After The Battle of Curupayti which represented Argentina’s greatest loss. In minute detail we see naked men, because it was common to re-use a soldiers clothes when they were killed.
It was during this battle at Curupati that Lopez was involved in a grenade explosion and had to have his right arm amputated. If you look at the dates of the paintings in this room you can see they are painted about twenty years after the war because Lopez taught himself to paint with his left hand in order to turn his original sketches into paintings. That’s dedication!
Ernesto de la Carcova: Without Bread and Without Work, 1894
Ahh! A strike! Something more Argentine than the Sunday asado. This painting by Carcova is the first work by an Argentine in the style of social realism and was inspired by the financial crisis of 1890s, unemployment and mass immigration. Carcova creates a tragic atmosphere and draws the observer into the devastating scene. The mothers face is thin due to lack of food and the father is clearly enraged. If we look at the composition, the triangular shape and position of the chair encourages us to consider the scene outside the window. Here there are chimneys with no smoke and police on horses fighting with the workers.
You didn’t think I was going to only write about ten!? As is customary, it’s time for the bonus painting.
Della Valle: The Return of the Indian Raid, 1892
This is the first nationalistic Argentinian work. Painted by Della Valle, The Return of the Indian Raid deals with indigenous issues and can also seen as a work of political propaganda. The painting is inspired by General Roca’s infamous 1878 Conquest of the Desert (commemorated on the hundred peso note) a military campaign by the Argentine government which effectively wiped out the indigenous population of Patagonia. The implicit message of this painting glorifies this ‘civilization’ mission because the Indigenous men are presented as ungodly barbarians. They have stolen a semi-naked white woman, horses and a dog, as well as religious items indicating they have looted a church. The decapitated head strapped to the leaders horse is perhaps the head of the priest. This painting was intended to be evocative and stir up nationalistic spirit. The sky takes up half the canvas and only spears break the horizon – the dawn setting perhaps equates the men with the forces of nature.
So that’s it! My quick round up of the most important works on display at the MNBA (helpfully presented to you in room order). Those readers really paying attention might even note that the museum is hung chronologically. Ten points.
Need more art? Experience a behind-the-scenes look at 7 of the city’s art galleries on The Palermo Gallery Walk and talk first hand with curators, owners and artists about local art, trends and current exhibitions.