Friday, 7 October 2016

Lluïsa Vidal: Painter of Modernism. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (23 September 2016-15 January 2017)

Self Portrait (1899)
Deep in the basement of the behemoth that is the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya ("MNAC"), I discovered a female Modernist painter previously unknown to me, Lluïsa Vidal (1876-1918).  In all my reading around late nineteenth and early twentieth century painting by female artists, not once have I come across her name.  I do not think I am alone in not being aware of this artist though and she is one (of only two) female artists represented in THIRTY galleries devoted to Modernism at MNAC.  In fact, this is the first retrospective devoted to the artist by this (and possibly any) institution!

Vidal was the only professional female artist of Catalan Modernism and one of the very few Spanish women of that period who went abroad to receive art lessons.  Born into an art-loving upper middle-class family, her professional career started in 1898, when she was twenty-two and held her first exhibition at Els Quatre Gats Café in Barcelona, which was a popular meeting place for artists in Catalonia.  She was the first and only woman to hold an exhibition there.

Class at Academie Humbert (1901)

In 1901, she moved to live and study in Paris for a year.  While in Paris she learned about and become a supporter of, the European Feminist movement.  When she returned to Barcelona, Vidal became a member of a feminist group there and collaborated on the magazine Feminal for the next eight years.  In 1911, Vidal also started her own teaching academy as well as undertaking numerous commissions and exhibiting extensively.
This exhibition brings together more than 70 works and reviews all aspects of her work as a painter, cartoonist and illustrator.  Like many female artists of that time, the main content of her oeuvre reflect the subjects that were readily available to her – female portraits, domestic scenes, self-portraiture.  Early in her career though, she did paint en plein air, but her focus was still aimed firmly at figuration.

Girl with a Black Cat (1903)

Vidal was an exquisite draughtsperson, so I was initially surprised to read that some critics of the time judged her painting as being “too manly”.  But looking closely at a huge painting like The Cellist Resting (1909) I noticed on the rendering of the sleeves and bodice impasto daubs of paint left on the canvas.  This was obviously a conscious decision and demonstrates a bravado, rarely seen from a female painter around that time.  In her most considered paintings, Vidal's brushwork is evocative and expressive, sober and compelling.

The Cellist Resting (1909)

Only five years older than another Catalan artist whose life and art are enshrined in both art history narratives and popular culture, Vidal and Pablo Picasso never met and yet their initial life paths took a very similar direction.  Both showed very early prodigious artistic talent, both exhibited at Els Quatre Gats Café and most importantly, both lived and studied in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century.  I wonder what would have become of Vidal (and her painting) had she, instead of Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) met Picasso while in Paris and became the only female member of his avant-garde tertulia.  Alas, it was never to be and Vidal died prematurely at the age of forty-two of Spanish Flu in 1918.  After her death, her name and work fell into total obscurity and despite MNAC owning a number of her paintings, it is only this year that an exhibition has been held to recognise her achievements in her own country.  Hopefully now this will increase awareness about Vidal and that she will also start to be included in updates of surveys on the rise of female artists at turn of the twentieth century - a place where this Catalan New Woman and Modernist painter deservedly belongs.

Self Portrait ( c. 1900)

Illustration for Artistica Magazine (1910)

Illustration for Feminal Magazine (c.1907)

Photograph of Lluisa Vidal (far right) teaching in her academy (c. 1912)