On 5 October 1908 the City Council and the Provincial Council of Vizcaya signed the founding deed of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, an institution of reference for both the city and the museum world in general.
To mark its 110th anniversary the museum is now presenting the exhibition ABC. The alphabet of the Bilbao Museum, sponsored by BBK and curated by the writer Kirmen Uribe (born Ondarroa, Vizcaya, 1970). This is an unprecedented type of exhibition which will occupy the entire Old Building, Rooms 1 to 31, following the major redesign of its interior space undertaken in the past few months.
The exhibition's starting point is an original idea through which the museum is intending to combine the remodelling of its galleries with a new form of presenting the collection to visitors, resulting in a new way of seeing them. With this aim in mind the traditional criteria for displaying works – chronologically or through schools of art and artists – have been replaced by an extended alphabet that includes 26 letters plus the "ñ" and the "ll" used in Spanish and the Basque digraphs "ts", "tx" and "tz".
The exhibition has taken shape through the literary curatorship of the writer Kirmen Uribe who is particularly familiar with the museum, having regularly visited since his childhood. This is evident in his books Bilbao-New York-Bilbao (his first novel, published in 2009) and The moment of waking up together (his most recent, published in 2016), in which paintings by Aurelio Arteta and Antonio de Guezala are a key element in the respective plots.
Using each of these 31 letters, Uribe has sought out a key word in Basque, Spanish, English or French that functions as the literary inspiration and curatorial argument for the choice of a work of art from the Museum's collection, displayed in each of the galleries of the Old Building. This unique installation has also benefited from the collaboration of artists Ana Isabel Román and Eduardo López.
The result is the construction of a survey comprising letters and words in four languages that spans the history of art and the collection through different periods and styles. In Uribe's words: "rather than time it is ideas that connect the works, giving the collection a different meaning."
The exhibition brings together works that are habitually on display in the galleries but which are now shown alongside artistic objects that have only rarely been seen and which are usually kept in storage. This juxtaposition emphasises the quality and variety of the Bilbao Fine Art Museum's collection, a collection that essentially spans the 13th century to the present and encompasses the key episodes in the history of western art.
The exhibition thus includes some of the best-known works and artists in the collection (Lucas Cranach the Elder, José de Ribera, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Francisco de Zurbarán, Martin de Vos, Orazio Gentileschi, Francisco de Goya, Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Ignacio Zuloaga, Joaquín Sorolla, Eduardo Chillida, Jorge Oteiza, Francis Bacon and Antoni Tàpies, among many others); as well as photographs by Alberto Schommer and Gabriele Basilico; graphic work by Joseph Beuys and David Hockney; a 2nd-century AD stone bust from Palmyra; and the exquisite group of Japanese works of art from the Palacio-Arechabaleta bequest.
In addition to works from the museum's own collection the exhibition includes loans from other institutions that complete its argument. Among them are the sandstone plaque from the prehistoric site at Ekain (Gipuzkoa) dating from 12,000 BC, on display in the first room entitled Art; and Aurelio Arteta's iconic oil on card, Idyll on the Playing Fields, loaned by the Athletic Club, on display in the Kirol [sport] room; and the Bilbao Mirror in the Mirror Gallery, from the Basque Museum of Bilbao. Likewise, the recently-acquired sculpture by Ángel Bados, which won the 2018 National Sculpture Award, and a never-before-seen film by Valentín de Zubiaurre are also being presented for the first time.
Through a selection of more than 300 pieces and 200 artists, Kirmen Uribe has created a survey characterised by its subjectivity and emotion, in which words lead the visitor into "unknown and more complex territories" where poetic freedom establishes a dialogue between Paul Gauguin and Joseph Beuys, for example, as presented in the first room, entitled Art.
The result is to construct an artistic record full of cultural references: art historians such as Ernst Gombrich and John Berger; linguists such as Koldo Mitxelena; philosophers such as Walter Benjamin; and of course writers and poets from Homer to Unamuno, Virginia Woolf, Bernardo Atxaga, Charles Baudelaire and Gabriel Aresti.
This literary and artistic account including experiences and anecdotes from the lives of artists, as well as legends that offer keys to reading the works from a different viewpoint. In the Iron room a reference to the bilboes [shackles made with iron from Bilbao] referred to in Shakespeare's Hamlet illustrates the iron sculptures on display by Oteiza and Chillida, while the section entitled Etxe [house] looks at the refuge that Sonia and Robert Delaunay encountered in the coastal town of Elantxobe (Vizcaya).
Uribe also offers reflections on the acts of experiencing and looking which the exhibition proposes in the manner of haikus, such as those included in the room devoted to death [Heriotza]: "the dead having died, life always goes on", or in the one devoted to the iconography of Bilbao: "when we look we never see only the present".
The museum will thus be celebrating its 110 years by presenting an exhibition in its recently reinstalled galleries in which literature and art create a panorama filled with ideas that will enable visitors to rediscover the collection.
Kirmen Uribe is one of the most widely-read and translated Basque authors. His first novel, Bilbao-New York-Bilbao, won the Spanish National Book Award (Narrative) in 2009 and became a world-wide publishing hit. Prior to that his book of poems Meanwhile take my hand, gained the attention of critics and the public (it won the Spanish Critics Award for narrative in Basque and was published in English in the United States). Uribe's most recent novel, The moment of waking up together, which was simultaneously published in Basque, Spanish, Catalan and Galician and which won the Critics Prize for narrative in Basque, will be made into a film by Asier Altuna.
Uribe's articles have appeared in international publications such as The New Yorker.
He has recently received a grant from the New York Public Library to write his next novel there.
Uribe's passion for art dates back to the visits he made as a child with his aunt to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. As a result, paintings by Aurelio Arteta and Antonio de Guezala play important roles in his novels.