Conversations in the Basque Country and Beyond at Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

BBKateak is an exhibition proposal which seeks to offer the collection new stories during the museum’s renovation and expansion. Periodically updated, each of the galleries shows an unexpected face-to-face interaction between two artists and their works, often distinct in time, culture and geography, but both bearing a strong influence on contemporary Basque art.

Some pairings are straightforward. Opposite Antonio Miro’s ‘Portrait of Phillip II’ (1549-1550), there are Antonio Saura’s imagined portraits from the 20th century (Imaginary Portrait of Philip II no. 3, Antonio Saura (1967) pictured at top), drawing on his interests in the Spanish Baroque and Golden Age. But the curation goes deeper, subtly acknowledging how many of the works which inspired the artist, including one at the Museo del Prado, were made by women artists like Sofinisba Anguissola, and were, until recently, misattributed.

Ignacio Sáez also leans into art history, with large oil-painted textiles and detailed drawings, perhaps themselves in conversation of the artist’s practice. In the same room sits work by the Flemish Baroque artist Sir Anthony van Dyck, a nod to how oil painting began and emanated out of 15th century. Flanders, now Belgium.

The exhibition, as others in the Basque Country, speaks of the artists’ particular regional identity. It’s connected to the global – by its coast and border location- as, in part, a means of distinguishing itself from Spain. This sort of regionalism-as-nationalism also avoids, or silences, complex relationships with race and colonialism, entangled with the wider histories of the Iberian Peninsula.

Born in Valladolid and later based in San Sebastián, artist María Paz Jiménez moved between Madrid, Argentina, and Paris, travelling between fantastical (more derisively, ‘esoteric’) surrealism, expressionism, and abstraction in her works. Paul Gauguin is paired with Elena Aitzkoa, more of whose sculptures can be found at the nearby Azkuna Zentroa.

More jarring partners unsettle our expectations. Traditional still-life flower paintings are placed near a work from Jeleton’s Political History of Flowers. Itself a collaboration, another conversation between the collective’s two artists, the project draws on the political misrepresentation of plants over time, from ‘biopiracy’ in ecology, to the execution of the Thirteen Flowers in Francoist Spain.

In media, the curation provokes us to connect between metalwork (oft considered ‘craft’) and the art of painting, both inspirations to Art Nouveau, with modern sculptures by Nemesio Mogrebejo, and Orazio Gentileschi.

Next door, instead of Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ (c. 1615-1617), we find a later rendering by the 17th century painter, Francisco de Zurbarán. (Again, the curators acknowledge its subject, highlighting how upper class women from Seville often posed for portraits after their namesakes.) Isabel Baquedano is curated with equal respect; we find early works ‘painted at a time of artistic maturity’, alongside those from the 2010s, a few years before her death.

Importantly, women feature throughout the exhibition; only one room, on the theme of ‘Womanology’, makes an explicit point on gender. Layered in front of Frans Pourbus the Younger’s 17th century portrait of Maria de’ Medici sits Dora Salazar’s ‘Weaving II’ (2001), a sculptural work in copper wire. (In media, it engages in another conversation with the modernist artist and sculptor Gego, currently on view at the nearby Guggenheim Bilbao.) Another untitled work, taken from her Salazar’s ArteaGara portfolio seems to reinterpret Leonardo da Vinci’s model with a woman’s body in mind.

Installation View
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic
Untitled, ArteaGara portfolio, Dora Salazar (2019) - silkscreen on paper
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

Many of the works delight in the details. José Arrue (1885-1977) and José Ramón Morquillas (1947-2023) share a name, time, and subject, depicting Hieronymous Bosch-like crowds. The former presents an idealistic perspective of traditional Basque country picnics (aurreskus), where young women drink from great tanks of beer, whilst the more upper-class and middle-aged sip delicately from behind the curled hair over their ears. Older still are the women in headscarves dancing, joining a young man, kicking up his feet in a circle dance.

Ramón Morquillas’ satirises the theme; from the 1970s, he was an active ‘social artist’, often working in public, and pursuing a multidisciplinary practice, for different modes of communication. His direct engagement extended to membership of the Surrealist Party of the Basque Country; ‘Container’ (1985-1986) was the artist’s response in sculpture to the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Guernica, in 1987.

The Intellectuals of my Village, José Ramón Morquillas (2001) - digital collage
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

Pablo Picasso appears, naturally, in a special display closing the 50th anniversary celebrations, and the works of David Hockney. As evident in his current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, he isn’t shy about his idolatry (The Blue Guitar portfolio (1976-1977) begins with the line from Hockney, ‘who was inspired by Wallace Stevens, who was inspired by Pablo Picasso.’) More interesting is the connection with Alfonso Gortázar, who also reflects on the profession of painting – and has a penchant for yellow-coloured clothes.

Homunculus, Manolo Millarres (1959)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

Implicit in these works is the question of what it is to be Basque, or Iberian. Born in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Manolo Millarres was strongly influenced by the island’s Indigenous Guanche culture, often silenced since the Spanish colonial occupation. His early Canary Pictographs were as rooted in surrealism but, as with the other artists on display, he moved between both media and artistic communities, becoming a founder member of the LADAC group when back on the island.

Punctuating BBKateak is Nadia Hotait’s three-channel film, Unseasonal Autumn (2022-2023), an existential musing on the future of humanity. Her introduction is also a conclusion - ‘In order to create a new universe, the previous one must be extinguished.’ – but one that fits perfectly to the start promised by this new approach to the museum’s collection.

Bilbao Fine Arts Museum seeks to reflect its own metamorphosis with these constantly changing displays. (And in collaboration, including That Time with Tabakalera in San Sebastián, in which Mari Puri Herrero, one of the previous occupants of Gallery 15, is given her due space.) Yet, it’s a reminder that museums and art galleries should never be static; an exhibition proposal that should be central to their redesign.

Unseasonal Autumn, Nadia Hotait (2022-2023)
PHOTOGRAPH BY e.g. Unseasonal Autumn, Nadia Hotait (2022-2023)

BBK Art Route IV: Perspectives of Bizkaia is on view at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Belles Artes de Bilbao) until 3 December 2023. The BBKateak programme, in its different iterations, is on view during the Museum’s full redesign.

*    *    *

Jelena Sofronijevic

Jelena Sofronijevic is an audio producer, journalist, and researcher based in London. I make content at the intersections of cultural history, politics, and the arts. Beyond my works in print, I produce EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of empires through art, and historicity, a new series of audio walking tours, exploring how cities got to be the way they are, recorded on location in London (2022) and Tokyo (2023). My full portfolio of work is available on my website, Twitter, and Instagram.