Ria Higgins

Spanish Modern Landscapes at Colnaghi

Many of us long for the darkness of the last year to pass and for warmer days to arrive. We are already dreaming of blue skies, golden beaches and white rocks, seeing the summer sun set across the countryside. Art can sometimes take us to these places and a new exhibition of Spanish modern landscapes at Mayfair’s Colnaghi Gallery does just that.

One of the first paintings we see is a couple gazing down across Tossa de Mar, an old fishing village between Barcelona and the French border. Fishermen have pulled their boats in for the day and tiny sailing boats skate around the bay, the late afternoon sun giving the sea an intense blue richness. You just want to dive in. In the background, the walls and turrets of the village’s medieval past glow like gems; spangled shades of amber, gold and honey.

It was painted by the Catalan artist Laureà Barrau after he fell in love with the village in 1903 and returned many times. Other artists would be drawn there, too, including Marc Chagall, who called it a ‘blue paradise’. Barrau has been compared to the great Spanish master of light, Joaquin Sorolla, and it’s not difficult to see why. He was obsessed with the luminosity of sunlight on the landscape and eventually settled in Ibiza, where this obsession continued until his death at the age of 94.

Installation view, Isidre Nonell (Barcelona, 1879-1911), Morning Sun, 1896, oil on canvas, 72 x 90 cm. Image Courtesy of Colnaghi, Artur Ramon Art, and Sala Parés

A fellow Catalan was the painter Isidre Nonell, who died of typhoid fever when he was only 38. Having fully embraced the impressionist sensibility, he was just out of art school when he captured the rural scene Morning Sun (1896), an oil that oozes haze and heat. Two towering haystacks stand in a field of wheat so burnished by the sun they pick up terracotta tiles and the scorched earth of the hills. Shortly after painting it, Nonell moved to Paris where he shared a studio with Picasso before returning to live the rest of his short life in Barcelona.

This exhibition is a collaboration between Colnaghi and two of Barcelona’s oldest commercial galleries Sala Pares and Artur Ramon Art, and it highlights a group of Spanish artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who, while successful in their native land, never reached the dizzying international heights of contemporaries such as Sorolla. All of them studied at academies in Barcelona, many also trained in France and Italy, but most of them returned to Spain, bringing the rebellious influences of the Impressionists and Fauvists with them.

Hermenegildo Anglada-Camarasa (1871-1959), Olive Tree, c.1950, oil on board, 50 x 36.5 cm. Image Courtesy of Colnaghi, Artur Ramon Art, and Sala Parés

The latter can be seen in the work of Hermen Anglada-Camarasa who moved to Majorca after falling in love with the island. In one of four works he has in this show, we see the gnarled bark of an ageing olive tree take centre stage. Its bulbous trunk and dense foliage lean heavily to one side, brought to life by thick writhing brushstrokes of paint. These are repeated in the bold colours of the mountain behind, where sunlit shades of cream, rose and sage dance across its jagged contours, dipping in and out of moody mauve and magenta shadows. For the artist, it is clear to see that the humble olive tree and the noble mountain were equal in stature.

Modest Urgell (Barcelona, 1839-1919), Landscape with Lady, oil on canvas, 80 x 180 cm. Image Courtesy of Colnaghi, Artur Ramon Art, and Sala Parés

As much as we yearn for the sun, the show’s strength lies in the sharp contrast of landscapes. Dappled shade in a walled garden, a lake on a moonlit night or brooding clouds before a summer storm brings a sombre coolness to the gallery’s rooms. One painting that stands out is by Modest Urgell, a modern Romantic who was known for his atmospheric expanses of sky, sea and land (Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí were among his fans). In Landscape with Lady, a solitary woman stands at the edge of a marsh, staring down into still silver-grey waters that mirror a vast desolate sky. Melancholy hangs in the air. Is it a death she mourns? Or is she hiding a broken heart? Only Urgell’s landscape knows the answer.

Words by Ria Higgins.

Spanish Modern Landscapes is at Colnaghi, 26 Bury Street, SW1, from April 12-June 18. The exhibition can be viewed via the 3D walkthrough here, from March 31-June 18.

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