The museum has recently added the painting Guernica by Agustín Ibarrola (Bilbao, 1930) to its collection. It is a ten-metre long by two-metre tall mural made in around 1977 in tribute to and as a claim for Pablo Picasso's Guernica. The work was acquired (300,000) last June at the ARCOmadrid fair thanks to an extraordinary contribution from the Basque government, the Provincial government of Bizkaia and the Bilbao Town Hall, institutional patrons of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum Foundation.
An emblematic work of Basque art and one of the most ambitious in the painter's oeuvre, Ibarrola's Guernica is also one of the most significant episodes in the Bilbao museum's recent past. It is also valuable as a historical document as a testimony of a socially and politically tumultuous timethe Spanish democratic Transitionand because it reflects the importance of Picasso's Guernica, painted 40 years earlier, in contemporary art.
Exhibiting Ibarrola's Guernica in the museum again shares one of the most important creations in twentieth-century Basque art with today's public thanks to the support of the 2021 Iberdrola Artistic Dissemination Programme. The work's association with the history of the institution offers the chance to update knowledge of both it and the artistic and social context in which it was painted thanks to the documentation conserved in the museum's archive and library.
The work has not been displayed in public since the 1980s, and since then it has been stored in the artist's studio in his farm in Oma (Kortezubi, Bizkaia). It was in a sound state of conservation, so it only required preventative conservation treatment which was performed in the museum's workshop thanks to the 2021 Iberdrola-Museum Conservation and Restoration Programme.
Ever since it was created, Ibarrola's Guernica has been associated with the history of the museum, where it was displayed twice in the late 1970s, at that time in the recently created Grey gallery in the modern building, very close to the place where it is now being shown to the public again.
In 1977, it was revealed to the public installed on one of the side walls in this space, located on the first floor of the building constructed by Álvaro Líbano and Ricardo Beascoa in 1970, which was set up as an exhibition gallery in 1975. The second time it was displayed was as part of a museographic design created by the artist himself, which included large-scale protest works alongside others with a geometric, abstract language. Guernica was displayed again outside the museum in 1980.
The ten oil paintings measuring 200 x 100 each which are part of this large narrative frieze reinterpret some of the iconic motifs in Picasso's workthe dead soldier, the injured horse's head and the woman with a child in her armsin a new context that clearly belongs to Ibarrola's universe.
Along with them are formal elements characteristic of Ibarrola's works from those years, such as the geometric grids of straight, crosshatched lines running around and organising the composition. Ibarrola used this visual metaphor of the 'grille' to condemn the lack of freedom and the climate of oppression in the Franco dictatorship. The painter placed scenes featuring indistinct masses of demonstrators and the forces of law and order on the right half of this large sinister frieze.
The emblematic palette of whites, greys and blacks that Picasso used in Guernica is altered only by the blotches of bloody red that Ibarrola used to tinge and perforate a few elements in his painting.
In addition to the tribute to Picasso's Guernica, Ibarrola's mural was also the Basque painter's contribution to the citizen movement that started to call for it to be deposited in a Basque institution after 1977the time when it seems possible for the painting to leave New York's Museum of Modern Art and return to Spain, where democracy had been restored. Ibarrola shared this claim with a group of artists and intellectuals who demanded the painting be moved to the new museum which had been built for this purpose in the town of Gernika in Bizkaia. The movement coalesced under the slogan 'Guernica Gernikara' and generated numerous initiatives until the painting was installed in Madrid's Casón del Buen Retiro in 1981. Within this context, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum was suggested as a possible site to host it, as reported in the documents displayed.
Two other oil paintings of identical sizes (190 x 100 cm) are displayed next to the work; Ibarrola made them in around 19731979 and recently donated them to the museum. Both were part of the 1979 display in the museum's Grey gallery. With the mural, these two paintings are examples of Ibarrola's important artistic and spatial inquiry in those years, in parallel to his more socially-conscious works.
The exhibition also presents documents conserved in the museum's archive and library and, to a lesser extent, in other public and private collections. Together they contextualise the backdrop of the creation of Ibarrola's Guernica and the history of the mural before it joined the museum's collection. Most of the materials have never been published and seldom displayed, but they provide the public with invaluable information to help them understand the symbolic and testimonial value of the mural between 1977, when it was created, and 1980, when it was displayed for the last time before the artist decided to conserve it in his atelier in Kortezubi (Bizkaia).
The selection includes press releases, minutes from the museum's Board meetings; catalogues 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; and other materials. They also include statements by Ibarrola about the 'Guernica Gernikara' movement and the decision that the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum would be the provisional site of the Picasso painting.
Of special interest is a selection of blueprints from the preliminary museographic design that the museum commissioned Equipo de Diseño, S.A., made up of Juan Ignacio Macua and Pedro García Ramos, in 1981 for the installation of Picasso's Guernica. The blueprints, along with the related documentation, have been donated to the museum by the gallery owner José de la Mano.
Likewise, an audiovisual compiles historical images of keen interest related to Ibarrola's work, including images of the historical display that the painter designed for his exhibition in the Grey gallery in the museum's modern building in 1979.
"La llegada del Guernica de Picasso a España y la polémica en torno a su emplazamiento (The arrival of Picasso's Guernica in Spain and the controversy surrounding its location)"
Genoveva Tusell. Professor of Art History at UNED
25 October 2021, 7 pm, Auditorium
"Agustín Ibarrola: la construcción de una pintura 'ambiciosamente contemporánea' (Agustín Ibarrola: The construction of an 'ambitiously contemporary' painting)"
Miriam Alzuri Modern and contemporary art conservator at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum
21 February 2022, 7 pm, Auditorium
Free of charge
Streamed on the museum's YouTube channel