The Temple of Realism
Located in Barcelona’s charming old town district of El Borne, the European Museum of Modern Art, better known as the MEAM, is housed in Palau Gomis, a lovingly restored 18th century Renaissance-style palace hidden among the rows of tightly-packed historic buildings lining the enchanting narrow winding streets one loves to get lost in.
The MEAM is operated by the Fundació de les Arts i els Artistes — Catalan for the ‘Arts and Artists Foundation’ — which is a privately funded initiative that promotes 20th and 21st century art. The Foundation’s raison d’être is to counteract the tunnel vision marketing of abstract and modernistic art by powerful tastemakers and art speculators, in order to support figurative (i.e., representational / realist) artists who are often automatically excluded from official initiatives.
The MEAM’s goal is to encourage present-day expressions of art using contemporary language while honoring traditional artistic skills, and it differentiates itself from other contemporary museums by actively supporting the living artists whose notable works it collects and/or exhibits.
Since its opening in June of 2011, the Museu Europeu d’Art Modern — this is its official Catalan name — has linked tradition and modernity, unquestionably becoming a must-visit place for art lovers.
The MEAM’s prestigious collection currently includes more than 1500 works of art by 300+ artists hailing from five different continents, not only illuminating the diversity of contemporary artistic expression within the realm of realism but also reminding the world that modern art need not be devoid of beauty, artistry, meaning, or craftmanship.
Read more about Heldens and his art HERE.
On Friday night September 22nd at 8 pm the inauguration took place of Figurativas 2017, the 9th edition of this highly prestigious biennial Painting and Sculpture Competition, an international exhibition showcasing realist paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Earlier that day, before the crowds poured in, I wandered through the deserted exhibition space marveling at a remarkable array of exquisite artworks, and enjoying the intimacy and quietness the museum offered. There were so many pieces that drew me in, so many details I wanted to study up close — I felt overwhelmed at seeing so much beauty and felt frustrated at not having enough time to give each piece the attention it merits.
That Friday evening, the well-attended awards ceremony was hosted by José Manuel Infiesta, director of the MEAM, and Tomás Paredes, president of the Association of Spanish Art Critics, with many of the participating artists and hundreds of guests in attendance. The room was completely filled with people — standing room only — while the director gave an impassioned speech and announced the winning artist and ten honorable mentions who all received framed certificates for their accomplishments.
The First Prize was granted to David Eichenberg for his provocative painting entitled Rubber One. Eichenberg and his wife Stephanie traveled from the United States to attend the awards ceremony. The evening before, we had dinner together at an excellent gourmet tapas restaurant and over a few glasses of sangria I asked him how he felt. “It’s a great honor to have my piece chosen as the winner of the Figurativas 17,” said Eichenberg, and smiling broadly he added, “The best part is the validation of the risk I took stepping outside of my comfort zone in doing this piece. I could not be more pleased that Rubber One will become part of the permanent collection at the MEAM.”
Read more about Eichenberg and his painting HERE.
Earlier that day, before the opening, I meet with museum director José Manual Infiesta, a serious, distinguished-looking gentleman who doesn’t smile easily but whose eyes light up as soon as the conversation turns to his favorite topic; he’s passionate about anything and everything related to Art. He states, “There is no excuse to waste a life in not enjoying art. Art is the one thing that never tires, that always lifts up, even during the hardest of times.”
An art enthusiast since his early teens, Infiesta became an architect by profession but also studied art history, published books and magazines about art, music, and ballet, and has always been deeply devoted to the arts — from opera and ballet to painting and sculpture. Around the year 2000 he started collecting art, and in 2006 initiated the Arts and Artists Foundation which eventually led to the creation of the MEAM, which specifically seeks to steer contemporary art away from the abstract and back to representational art in order to give it the prominence and respect it deserves.
Infiesta describes the MEAM as “La casa de los artistas.” He wants his museum to be a haven of refuge for all realist artists who have felt isolated, overlooked, and scorned during the past century while modernism invaded the artworld. In fact, one of the artists I met during the opening, Cortés Antequera, described the MEAM as a temple — not as a religious space but more akin to the term ‘contemplate’ which in turn links to the word ‘museum,’ its origin meaning ‘a space to contemplate the Muses.’
The MEAM rotates its exhibited art every two months, showing new acquisitions as well as collection pieces, making sure that the public can visit the museum about ten times a year and never see the same display twice. Moreover, the MEAM actively engages the public, artists, art students, and art lovers by holding workshops, conferences and round table discussions, and also hosts 150 classical, jazz, and flamenco concerts a year. The MEAM is undoubtedly a place where the arts come together and it does indeed feel like a home for the earnest realist artist.
The MEAM is also closely affiliated with the Barcelona Academy of Art, which offers a variety of art courses where the classic academic approach is seen as a tool that students can use to build their own creative personality and artistic language. About 80% of its pupils are foreigners, demonstrating that there’s a thirst among art students worldwide to learn the time-honored skills and methodologies no longer offered in most of today’s educational art institutions.
Asking him about the premise of Figurativas, Infiesta enthusiastically launches into a — probably oft repeated — monologue, saying, “Figurativas isn’t like other art competitions where artists send in work — often competing with other genres or non-related mediums such as video installations — win prizes, attend an awards ceremony, and show work in a gallery-type setting — after which everything comes to a grinding halt.”
Without pause, Infiesta continues, “In stark contrast, our ideology behind the Figurativas competition is to reunite all the representational artists of the world who not merely compete with each other but more importantly form part of a long-term project that is inclusive and supportive. We actively join forces with realist artists so as to gain the public’s attention and enable these artists to reach the heights and respect they deserve in a world where abstract, experimental, and modernistic styles have been enjoying the spotlight to the exclusion of all other genres. Figurativas gives these artists a voice by purposely focusing on representational art, eschewing abstraction and other aberrations, seeking to draw attention to the fact that contemporary art can actually be beautiful, well-made, and created with sensitivity and emotion.”
According to Infiesta, “For the artist, the importance of Figurativas lies in participation, rather than winning. The value lies in forming part of an ideological mindset that is getting stronger, louder, and more internationally renowned each year. The quality of the art shown in Figurativas is extraordinary. The public will hear us if we all shout out at the same time and come to realize that modernism is not the only ‘artform’ out there.”
The jury of the IX Prize for Painting and Sculpture Figurativas 2017, was composed by J.M. Infiesta, Alex Kanevsky (Russian artist), Daniel Graves (US artist and founder of the Florence Academy of Art), Antonio López García (Spanish artist), Nicola Samorí (Italian artist), Leandro Navarro Ungría (Madrilenian gallerist), and Tomás Paredes (art critic). These seven men selected painting finalists from 1386 entries by painters from 68 countries and sculpture finalists from 272 submissions by sculptors from 35 countries — a monumental task.
Of course, I confronted Infiesta with a recurrent criticism aired on social media regarding the exclusively male jury. Not at all fazed by my query, Infiesta replied, “When I pick the Figurativas jury, my sole criterium is to pick a panel predominantly comprised of accomplished artists, and I add one gallerist, one art critic, and myself, an art lover. I don’t include the usual well-connected society types that have no idea about art, as I believe it’s offensive for an artist to be judged by someone who doesn’t know how to paint.”
Infiesta is obviously used to being criticized, especially on his stance regarding abstract and modernistic art, so he doesn’t feel particularly impressed by those who complain about the conspicuous gender inequality of his selection of this year’s jury.
Infiesta continues to elaborate, “This is the typical demagoguery of modern times — all genders have to be represented, all ethnic groups, all sociocultural and economic levels, etcetera… so should we also include good and bad judges?” He explains he chooses the best people he can reach and engage to be part of the jury, and he doesn’t look at whether they are men or women, or what nationality they have, or any other artificial labels. “Yes true, these happen to be all men, so what?” As to my suggestion of the importance of gender balance, he retorts, “There is no balance. We are talking about art, not about gender issues.”
Softening a little, Infiesta insists his choice of jury is not in any way an expression of his view on women, which indeed he admires and wants to include. In fact, he invited artist Lita Cabellut for jurying but, unfortunately, she became ill and had to decline coming to Barcelona to sit on the jury. Over time he has invited several other prominent women artists, including Jenny Saville, none of which even responded to his invitation.
In a connected world where onlookers have easy ways to voice criticism, he’s always expecting the next reproach. With a defiant twinkle in his eyes, he says, “All these types of criticism make me laugh… Is that the only thing people have to say? I’m killing myself working on this art project and this is the only thing they comment on?”
Another example of recent criticism came after Eichenberg’s painting Rubber One won first prize. The painting is indeed quite conflicting and polemic, and the internet was very harsh on the winning painting. To Infiesta it’s not relevant who wins, but that the collective overall quality of the selected pieces in the Figurativas is exceptional in its entirety. And it is.
“It is very easy to criticize the winner, much harder to criticize the entire exhibition.” Still, Infiesta was surprised Rubber One won. Despite being part of the jury, he’s not there to exercise influence, instead mainly enjoying the process and listening to the opinions and discussions exchanged between the other jury members. Seeing all the art submissions also gives him the opportunity to acquire art pieces for the MEAM that may have been overlooked by the jury.
He wants the exhibition to impress those who visit the MEAM and say, “Wow, I’ve never seen so much quality artwork together in one place before.” The MEAM certainly does that for me — I’ve been there three times since it opened and every single time its collection impresses me with an overwhelming sense of beauty and excellence I’ve not encountered elsewhere. It’s very inspiring to see such a great variety of realist art in such a beautiful setting, it feels like a safe zone and makes me aspire for greater heights as an artist.
It gives Infiesta immense pleasure to know that the art collection will live on long after his death, because it’s part of the Foundation. The MEAM is — what he proudly describes as — a ‘little giant’ that brings together all this excellent art and connects those working together towards a shared goal of principles. He loves seeing the synergy and friendships that form and flourish between artists at the museum.
In reply to what his most ardent aspiration is, Infiesta says, “To break these artists’ isolation; they have been working alone for so long, to shine a light on them and give their art a place to be seen far and wide, so that more modern art museums and art institutions will also start including realism instead of repudiating it as passé. Realism is the most universal art form in human history, and despite recent antagonism, it has found a way to adapt, evolve, and be relevant to its time.”
The two-yearly Figurativas competition has indeed created a new surge of public interest, slowly but surely succeeding in encouraging the renaissance of contemporary realism, and representing realist artists from across the world by giving them an essential and prominent platform.
The Figurativas 17 exhibition is truly marvelous in both quality and diversity of subject matter and expression. All mediums are represented, from oils, inks, acrylics, and watercolor to pastels, graphite, and ballpoint pen. Expressions vary from ultra-smooth brushstrokes to spirited impasto, and from monochromatic to flamboyantly colorful. Approaches range from hyperrealism to atelier style academicism, and from traditionally painterly to innovative, pushing the boundaries of realism. The same can be said about the selection of sculptures, showing a wonderful and interesting assortment of materials, coloring, and surface finishes. Figurativas proves that today’s realism is anything except boring.
The subject matter is mainly comprised of portraiture and figure paintings and sculptures, interspersed with landscapes, cityscapes, and a few interior paintings. I was mildly disappointed there were no still lifes except for one single splendid sculpture of a fruit platter carved in Carrara marble with a bee made out of Murano glass by Italian sculptor Riccardo Ricci. Of course, many of the interior settings with human figures showed still life content. The same can be said for the lack of the wildlife and animal genres, even though some paintings and sculptures had animals in them.
It made me wonder whether the jury was biased against these genres in general, whether the submissions had not reached the desired level of quality, or whether perhaps the name ‘Figurativas’ is confounding still life and wildlife artists into thinking the competition is solely aimed at the human figure, since so many mistakenly identify the word ‘figurative’ to mean the ‘figure’ genre instead of its intended meaning which is ‘realist’ or ‘representational’ art.
The images shown in this article are of a small selection of paintings that most caught my eye, and I must apologize for not including any of the many magnificent sculptures — I would’ve gladly shown all of the work. My initial intention was to highlight a few paintings but I soon came to realize it would be impossible to describe the exhibition adequately and do it justice — I’d just end up gushing profusely. All I will say is that Figurativas 17 is one of the best exhibitions of contemporary realism I’ve seen to date.
I highly recommend you purchase the Figurativas 17 catalog. Even though it’s a Spanish edition, the mainly visual contents makes it a highly worthwhile addition to any art library.
In conclusion, the biennial Figurativas Painting and Sculpture Competition is an important international player bolstering the revitalization, advancement, and elevation of excellence in fine realism. It is a testament to the strength of contemporary realism, proving it continues to be relevant, interesting, and alluring. Bravo!
“Because, in the end, it is only the human being — and not the value of money — that gives meaning to Art, and in turn it is only Art that can give meaning to society. And without Humanity and without Art, this society is directly headed — yes, well-guided by investors, bankers, and speculators — towards self-destruction.”
Translated excerpt from the Figurativas 17 catalog by José Manuel Infiesta
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, Belgium.
Originally published in PoetsArtists Magazine, October 2017.