Federico Beltran Masses: Under the Stars, Stair Sainty Gallery, London, February 10 – March 24, 2016

‘I arrive in London with the nerves of a child still at art school,’ declared the Cuban born Spanish painter, Federico Beltran Masses, ahead of his 1929 exhibition at The New Burlington Galleries. ‘I await the verdict of [London] with more fear than I would any other art world capital’. This was his first London show, but Beltran Masses was no ingénue, he was already internationally famous, a lodestar to which the denizens of a glit- tering interwar firmament were irresistibly drawn for their portraits, just as visitors eagerly queued to see his exhibitions.

Indeed his fears proved unfounded, the exhibition was a resounding success, fanned by the controversy surrounding his painting, Salomé, or to quote one of the 192 articles that the exhibition garnered worldwide, ‘the most daring nude picture ever painted’. Owing more to Oscar Wilde’s play than the Gospel of Mark, the painting depicts Salomé, naked but for her jewellery, arching backwards on sumptuous cushions, her thighs apart, her hand across her eyes, convulsed in grief or orgasm, as a servant presents her with the head of St John the Baptist on a platter.

Salomé, 1918 Oil on canvas, 141 x 165 cm © Courtesy Stair Sainty gallery
Salomé, 1918
Oil on canvas, 141 x 165 cm © Courtesy Stair Sainty gallery

Outraged conservative quarters branded the work immoral and Beltran Masses through pique, or an example of the highly astute self-publicist he was, briefly withdrew it from the exhibition which went on to attract 17,317 paying visitors within three weeks and to sell 12,000 catalogues. He was neither a stranger to controversy nor to the efficacy of having merchandise for sale, something we might wrongly assume to be a modern pop culture phenomenon, and equally to how lucrative any kind of publicity can be on sales.

In 1915 in Spain, at the age of nineteen, he had gone from being an artist of note to an overnight celebrity sensation when the committee of The National Exhibition of Fine Art branded his painting, La Maja Marquesa, immoral and refused to exhibit it. Beltran Masses knowingly broke convention with the portrait which shocked the committee because it not only featured a recognisable member of the Spanish aristocracy, Countess Gloria Laguna, naked but for a white mantilla, but also pictured her reclining between two fully dressed women; widely known to be a lesbian her disastrous marriage had ended in divorce. The title was also considered a scandalous contradiction as it was beyond the pale that a woman would be a maja (a lower class woman) and a marquesa.

A major pro-Beltran Masses press campaign ensued, resulting in the work being put on public display for six days – thousands queued daily and 6000 postcards were sold. Although this must have pleased Beltran Masses no end, his experience at the hands of the committee motivated him and his wife, Irene, to move the following year to the more free-spirited Paris where they would live for the best part of thirty years. Equally, I fully imagine that choosing to live in Paris was not done purely out of irritation, but with an insightful eye to his career development, it was after all the Jazz Age international capital of art, fashion, and intellectual ferment.

Granada, 1929 Oil on canvas, 98 x 100 cm © Courtesy Stair Sainty gallery
Granada, 1929
Oil on canvas, 98 x 100 cm © Courtesy Stair Sainty gallery

Intriguingly although his nonconformist style would lead to many more commissions from strong, independent and unconventional women, it equally did not deter members of the conservative establishment from sitting for him. His royal endorsements began with King Alfonso XIII, who bought a painting at his farewell Spanish exhibition in 1916, would later sit for a portrait, became a personal friend, and with whom the 1929 London exhibition was presented. The year after which he painted Pope Pius XI, and ten years later his successor, Pope XII, and also King George VI.

In 1920 Spain also bestowed the artist with the honour of their whole pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which propelled him into international renown, and in 1925 Beltran Masses, in modern pop parlance, broke America. Rudolph Valentino hosted an event in Los Angeles, inviting Hollywood stars, millionaire business tycoons, their wives and lovers, many of whom the artist would add to the impressive list of pan-European royalty, aristocrats, and famous dancers he had already painted. Valentino, William Randolph Hearst, Mrs Guggenheim, Mrs J. P. Morgan, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Joan Crawford, all became sitters, collectors, and friends.

All of which makes it seem very mysterious that Beltran Masses’ work would not be exhibited anywhere, even in Spain, from the 1950s to the 2000s and that his death in 1949, at the age of 64, went unreported outside of Spain. A mystery worthy of a novel from the interwar Golden Age of Detective Fiction except that the crime is not murder but forgetting.

La Maja Maldita (The Wicked Maja), 1918 Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 202 cm © Courtesy Stair Sainty gallery
La Maja Maldita (The Wicked Maja), 1918 Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 202 cm © Courtesy Stair Sainty gallery

With the advent of World War II both the art market and Beltran Masses went into decline. As his health deteriorated so too his profile – always his best publicist, he managed his own career and had no solid dealer relationships to continue to promote his work. In 1943 he returned to Barcelona for urgent medical treatment for his failing eyesight. He and his wife became great friends with the doctor who treated him and after Beltran Masses’ death in 1949, Irene moved in with the doctor and his family, living with them for nearly twenty years, and bequeathing the artist’s estate to them on her own death. The near abandonment of figurative painting from the late 1940s through the 1970s, and the political and cultural isolation of Spain under Franco, also played a part in how Beltran Masses came to be forgotten for so long.

Over the last nine years Antonia Salom, the granddaughter of Beltran Masses’ doctor has been endeavouring to change this. When she inherited Beltran Masses’ archive from her grandmother it was with the instruction, ‘you have to do something with this because this history cannot be lost’. She is currently working on a catalogue raisonnée of his work.

With support from collector, Josep Roig, three public exhibitions were put on in Spain from 2007-2011, then in early 2012, Galerie Alain Blondel, recognising that the artist was undeservedly ignored outside Spain staged the first dealer organised exhibitions of his work since the 1930s first in Paris and then later that year in London in collaboration with Stair Sainty gallery. As I write this Stair Sainty are holding a second exhibition of his work, ‘Under the Stars’.

If there is a positive to Beltran Masses’ work being unseen and forgotten for nearly three generations it is that it heightens exponentially the power of seeing them in person now. Not least La Maja Maldita which hangs imposingly and irresistibly at one end of Star Sainty’s marble clad, ballroom-like gallery. With Salomé, and La Maja Marquesa, it was, says Antonia Salom, one of Beltram Masses’ ‘personal favourites, that he kept for himself all his life; he never wanted to sell them’.

La Maja Maldita painted in 1918 evocatively encapsulates his dramatic change in style after arriving in Paris, from realism to highly idiosyncratic mystical symbolism. He became, as The Sketch described in 1934, ‘a paint- er of souls’, striving to capture the character of his sitters portraying them in a mysterious, seductive, richly coloured, fantastical nocturnal world.

The sitter is Carmen Tortóla Valencia, pioneering dancer, feminist, and liberated bisexual seductress, who is pictured reclining on a chaise longue against his signature midnight blue (which became known as Beltran blue) background. Naked beneath black lace, only her face and left arm are un- covered or out of shadow, her hand pulls back the lower part of her mantilla to reveal her breasts. Her eyes which are left in shadow by the mantilla, as with so many of his portraits gaze out of the frame with, for me, a Gatsby-an air, ‘searching through the glitter and razzamatazz for something . . . someone’ to which one might append, for the truth of themselves.

Only her lips, in his signature vermillion, are clearly lit. Lips, for Beltran Masses, were the only way to tell the true character of his sitters, as he explained to the Los Angeles Examiner in 1925, ‘eyes may lie – lips never!’ The effect of Beltran Masses’ lighting, shining a key light on the lips, em- phasising the contrast between bodies and their setting, is rather filmic, rather like a lighting cameraman. To create the effect he often painted in a darkened room, using artificial light.

Seeing Beltran Masses paintings for the first time is rather like suddenly and fantastically being able to see black and white silent films in full colour – the colours their directors might well have intended. The paintings also play wonderful havoc with time in that they are completely a part of the time they were painted, featuring the stars of glittering parties long since over, but equally magically they feel completely a part of the present moment, as if the party is happening right now around one. They give the imagination the most fabulous run, just as they did for the post-war generation; as Beltran Masses wrote in 1938: ‘Art is a safety valve for our imagination – an escape from the chains forged for our lifetime by the cursed war of 1914’.

By Guy Sangster-Adams

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