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SMU’s Meadows Museum showcases abstract art collection built in Franco’s fascist Spain

‘In the Shadow of Dictatorship’ offers a glorious account of an unlikely museum.

Update: The exhibition, ‘In the Shadow of Dictatorship,’ has been extended and will now run through July 30.

SMU’s Meadows Museum has never been more plugged into a Spain that is modern in spite of itself than now, with a riveting show on Spanish abstract art.

By the 1960s, the heady days of Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War had long since dissolved into a slog to nowhere under dictator Francisco Franco. In 1966, into this unlikely world, came the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art.

More than 40 works from that museum, ranging from the late 1950s to 1980, are now on radiant display at the Meadows thanks to a new exhibition, “In the Shadow of Dictatorship: Creating the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art.”

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“Spanish abstract art was not a school,” says Clarisse Fava-Piz, the show’s curator. “Indeed, Spanish artists developed a variety of modes … from the expressive brushstrokes … to the hard lines of geometric abstraction.”

Fernando Zóbel, who gathered a group of friends and like-minded artists to found the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, is pictured at Harvard University in the 1950s.(Archivo Fernando Zóbel / Biblioteca y Centro de Apoyo a la Investigación, Fundación Juan March, Madrid)

It all goes back to Fernando Zóbel, a debonair 30-something Spaniard who fled the real estate branch of a company founded by his great-grandfather in Manila to pursue a life of art in his country of origin. Before long, he had gathered a group of friends and like-minded artists, and together they opened the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca, about 100 miles east of Madrid.

For the museum entrance, Zóbel commissioned Eduardo Chillida, already a celebrated sculptor, to create the first work seen by visitors — just as it is in Fava-Piz’s inspired installation at the Meadows. Rough Chant is made of poplar wood and reminds me of early stone works by Henry Moore. Both are smaller than later pieces by the artists and are made of materials that give them an aura of the elemental.

This irresistible collection is on tour during an overhaul of its home in Spain. To achieve that home, Zóbel found himself right back in property development, this time restoring a cluster of “Hanging Houses,” perched since the 15th century on a rocky precipice overlooking a river in Cuenca. He and his friends considered this not just a nice thing to do, but a necessary enterprise. That’s because their art was admired at biennales in Venice and São Paulo but ignored in Spain. To avoid contact with Franco’s unsavory regime, Zóbel financed the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art himself.

Luis Feito’s Number 460-A is the signature picture of the exhibition. Appearing on the cover of the elegant, excellent catalog, this explosion of red, yellow and black seems to exude the Spain of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. José Guerrero does the same in Somber Red, but it is his Blue Intervals that caught my eye. One of the loveliest paintings in the exhibition, with something resembling the heads of matches stylized in black across the top of a vertical azure burst of revelation. Black is the recurring color of the show. There’s even a small black gallery steeped in surprise.

José Guerrero's "Blue Intervals" is one of the loveliest paintings in the exhibition, evoking a book of matches.(Santiago Torralba / Museum of Spanish Abstract Art)

Franco turned the 1930s and ‘40s into an age of atrocity known as the White Terror, but by 1966 he had the country under unquestioned control and could cede social and cultural order to the Catholic Church.

Fortunately, Zóbel was good at getting along with the bishops. He commissioned Manuel Hernández Mompó to produce a major piece called Holy Week in Cuenca. This is a subtle, subdued creation. So is the work of Zóbel, who painted with a Japanese-influenced sense of space and a mystical sense of light.

These artists, who saw themselves as heirs of Velázquez, Goya, Picasso and Miró, built a museum in a country where nothing like it had existed before. This show is a glorious account of that accomplishment, expertly curated by Fava-Piz.

I find myself wishing this collection could live forever at the Meadows while other, newer creations might move into the Hanging Houses of Cuenca. As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Sculptor Eduardo Chillida was commissioned to create the first work seen by visitors at the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art — and the artist's "Rough Chant" serves the same role as a gateway to the Meadows Museum exhibition.(Santiago Torralba / Museum of Spanish Abstract Art)


“In the Shadow of Dictatorship: Creating the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art” runs through July 30 at SMU’s Meadows Museum, 5900 Bishop Blvd. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults; $10 for seniors 65 and older; $4 for non-SMU students; and free for Meadows Museum members, youths under 18 and SMU faculty, staff and students. Free on Thursday evenings after 5 p.m. Free from June 20-July 30.