Fine Arts Museum of Bilbao, October 18, 2021.– The museum has recently added to its collection the painting Guernica by Agustín Ibarrola (Bilbao, 1930), a mural ten meters long by two meters high created around 1977 as a tribute to and reclamation of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937). The work was acquired (€300,000) last June at the ARCOmadrid fair through the extraordinary contribution of the Basque Government, the Provincial Council of Bizkaia, and the City Hall of Bilbao, institutional patrons of the Fine Arts Museum of Bilbao.
An emblematic work of Basque art and one of the most ambitious in the painter’s production, Ibarrola’s Guernica is also one of the most significant episodes in the recent trajectory of the Bilbao’s museum. It also acts as a historical document by being a testimony of a socially and politically convulsive period -the Spanish democratic transition- and reflects the transcendence of Picasso’s Guernica, painted forty years earlier, in contemporary art.
The exhibition of Ibarrola’s Guernica is once again at the museum, thanks to the support of Iberdrola’s Artistic Dissemination 2021 Program, and brings one of the most important creations of 20th-century Basque art to the current public, whose affiliation with the history of the institution provides the opportunity to update the knowledge of the piece, and its artistic and social context in which it was painted thanks to the documentation preserved in its archive and library.
The work had not been shown to the public since the 80s and, since then, it had been stored in the artist’s studio in his farmhouse in Oma (Kortezubi, Bizkaia). It was well preserved, so it only required preventive conservation treatment, which was carried out in the museum’s workshop thanks to the Iberdrola-Museum 2021 Conservation and Restoration Program.
Since its creation, Ibarrola’s Guernica has been linked to the history of the museum, being exhibited in the late 70s on two occasions in the then newly created Gris room of the modern building, very close to the place where it is now being presented to the public once again.
In 1977 it was unveiled on one of the sidewalls of this space, located on the second floor of the building constructed by Álvaro Líbano and Ricardo Beascoa in 1970, which was conditioned as an exhibition hall in 1975. On the second occasion, it was part of a museum montage designed by the artist himself, in which he included large-format advocating pieces along with others of geometric and abstract language. Guernica was exhibited once again, outside the museum, in 1980.
The ten oil paintings of 200 x 100 cm each that make up this large narrative frieze reinterprets, in a new context clearly belonging to Ibarrola’s creative universe, some of the iconic motifs of Picasso’s work: the dead soldier, the wounded horse’s head or the woman with a child in her arms.
Along with them, there are formal elements characteristic of Ibarrola’s production of those years, such as the geometric wefts of intertwined straight lines that run through and organize the composition. With this visual metaphor of the “lattice” Ibarrola denounced the lack of freedom and the oppressive climate of Franco’s dictatorship. In the right half of this large frieze of sinister atmosphere, the painter places scenes starring undifferentiated masses of protesters and the forces of law and order.
The emblematic palette of whites, grays, and blacks that Picasso used in his Guernica is only altered by the stains of bloody red with which Ibarrola stains and perforates a few elements of his painting.
In addition to paying homage to Picasso’s Guernica, Ibarrola’s mural was also the Basque painter’s contribution to the citizens’ movement that, after 1977 -when democracy was restored and it seemed possible that the painting would leave the Museum of Modern Art in New York for Spain- began to demand its deposit in a Basque institution. Ibarrola shared this claim with a group of artists and intellectuals who demanded the transfer of the painting to a new museum to be built in the Biscayan town of Gernika. The movement was unified under the slogan “Guernica Gernikara” and generated numerous initiatives until the painting was installed in the Casón del Buen Retiro in Madrid in 1981. In this context, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum was postulated as a possible venue, as the documents on display prove.
Two other oil paintings of identical dimensions (190 x 100 cm), created by Ibarrola around 1973-1979 and recently donated by the artist, are exhibited along with the piece. Both were part of the 1979 installation in the museum’s Gray Room. Together with the mural, these two paintings are an example of the important plastic and spatial research developed by Ibarrola in those years alongside his social works.
The exhibition also holds documents kept in the museum’s archive and library and, to a lesser extent, in other public and private collections. The collection contextualizes the background to the creation of Ibarrola’s Guernica and the history of the mural before it entered the museum’s collection. Most of the materials are unpublished or rarely shown, and now provide the public with valuable information to understand the symbolic and testimonial value of the mural between 1977, the year of its creation, and 1980, when it could be seen for the last time before the artist decided to keep it in his studio in Kortezubi (Bizkaia).
The selection includes press releases, minutes of the museum’s Board of Trustees, catalogs of the artist’s individual exhibitions held in Barakaldo, Bilbao, Gernika and Sestao between 1977 and 1981; articles from the magazines “Cuadernos para el Diálogo“, “Ere“, and “Mundo Obrero“, and the newspapers “Deia” and “La Gaceta del Norte“, among others. They include Ibarrola’s statements about the “Guernica Gernikara” movement and the willingness of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum to be the provisional site for the location of Picasso’s painting.
A selection of the plans of the preliminary museum project commissioned in 1981 by the museum for the installation of Picasso’s Guernica to Equipo de Diseño, S.A., made up of Juan Ignacio Macua and Pedro García Ramos are of particular interest. The plans, along with related documentation, have been donated to the museum by the gallery owner José de la Mano.
In addition, an audiovisual presentation includes historical images of great interest related to Ibarrola’s work, including those of the unique montage conceived by the painter for his exhibition in the Gray Room of the museum’s modern building in 1979.
© Agustín Ibarrola, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2021.