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    Letter from Madrid
by Ysabel de la Rosa
Prado chief
Eduardo Serra
On guard at the Prado
Ignacio Zuloaga
El Cristo de la Sangre
at the Reina Sofía
Ignacio Zuloaga
at the Reina Sofía
Antonio Banderas
Eduardo Úrculo
La Castañera
(Chestnut Vendor)
Eduardo Úrculo
Podicis Monumentalia
Eduardo Úrculo
Felix Vallotton
Priest Punishing a Student
Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo
Minister of culture Pilar del Castillo recently named Spain's former defense minister, Eduardo Serra, as president of the Prado for the new millennium. Serra is the first to admit the word "art" is absent from his resume, but given the Prado's current state of affairs, Serra's strategic defense skills will likely be put to good use. Serra plans to increase private business participation in Prado sponsorships and acquisitions and hopes to triple the museum's operations budget. These goals are likely to present some uphill battles in a country where there exists almost no separation of art and state. Yet, the largest battle Serra confronts as president of the Prado's "patronato" is internal.

Serra inherits an historic hornet's nest, with more than 300 disgruntled employees, who have long-standing complaints about working conditions, internal communications, and management competence and direction. Spain's flagship museum has gone without a chief of security for four months, and the museum's employee "watchdog" committee had sent a report to Serra declaring that director "Fernando Checa is not the appropriate candidate to oversee the Prado's future expansion." Employee committee president Antonio Solano later told the press, "If Serra wants internal peace in this museum, he'll have to create it from scratch."

Prado sculpture curator Miguel Ángel Elvira won't be on hand for future Prado peace talks. Elvira is now director of Spain's National Archeology Museum. He succeeds Marina Chinchilla, named museum director roughly a year ago, who followed Martín Almagro, who was director for all of seven months. Chinchilla has been named subdirector general of museums in Spain.

Heating up at the Reina Sofía
Things were literally hot at Madrid's Reina Sofía Museum in August. During a lunch break, a repair crew on the museum's fifth floor left two electric cables a little too close to each other. Teo García, the museum's press officer, smelled burning rubber at the same moment a police helicopter spotted the "smoke signal" rising from the roof of the museum. The fire was caught early, but news of the small flame prompted a flood of media calls. Reporters all asked about the valuable collection, which includes Picasso's Guernica. "The art is fine," García said repeatedly to media callers. And then he'd ask, "Hey, don't you want to know if we people are all right, too?"

Still safe in the Reina Sofia galleries are retrospectives of Sam Francis and Francisco Toledo, the survey of a century of Spanish photography dubbed "Spain: Yesterday and Today," and a very pleasing display of the 17 Zuloaga paintings in the museum's permanent collection. Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945) was a Basque artist who painted prototypical Spanish scenes and personages in a bold and decidedly international manner. His work continues to serve as a major reference point in Spanish art of the turn of the 20th century.

Úrculo's classic pop
Star-watchers in Marbella were keeping an eye out for Antonio Banderas, but art-watchers were taking a second look at Eduardo Úrculo, who also had a summer presence in this coastal resort city. A very colorful presence, in fact. Úrculo's prints have been the subject of a retrospective at Marbella's Museo del Grabado Espańol Contemporáneo (Museum of Contemporary Spanish Engraving/Graphic Arts).

Born in the Basque Region one year before the end of Spain's civil war (1938), Úrculo grew up in neighboring Asturias in northern Spain. Before coming to Madrid on an art scholarship in 1957, the artist was largely self-taught. The important influences in his youth were black-and-white reproductions of Modgliani, Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh.

After finishing his courses at Madrid's Círculo de Bellas Artes, Úrculo traveled to Paris, where he made a point of seeing his "objets inspirés" in person at the Louvre and other institutions. After his exposure to academic-traditional French and Spanish influences, Úrculo flirted briefly with Surrealism and abstraction in the early 1960s and then "discovered" the Pop masters Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Rauschenberg in the early '70s.

Although you can track Úrculo's influences in time, you can't pinpoint them by looking at the 38 works in the MGEC show. There's too much variety and originality here for Úrculo to be described as "influenced by" any one or several artists.

One fast, direct way to glimpse this variety would be to place Úrculo's 1957 lithograph La Castańera (Chestnut Vendor) next to his 1977 serigraph Podicis Monumentalia and then add the 1999 etching Geisha. The differences in color, technique and message in these three works bear out the artist's own description of his career trajectory.

"For me," says Úrculo, "every decade has marked a change in my style. I see these changes as deaths and resurrections, like shedding skins."

Like many Spanish artists who stayed in Spain under the Franco regime, Úrculo's international recognition is not what it should be. His work has been purchased and/or shown in only six countries outside of Spain. In addition to the MGEC show, the Sofia Imber Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas, Venezuela, hosted a retrospective of the artist's painting and works in other media. These are important and instructive shows that should help pave the way for Úrculo's universal and unusual work to reach a wider audience in the 21st century.

The exhibition is on view through Sept. 17, 2000, at Museo del Grabado Espańol Contemporáneo, Hospital Bazán, 29600 Marbella, Málaga, Spain.

French toasts in Madrid
Work by two great printmakers is on view at La Caja Negra gallery through Aug. 31: three decades of lithographs by Honoré Daumier (1808-79) from the Espino/Sánchez Grande Collection, and 22 lithographs by the Swiss artist Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), done for the early 20th-century anarchist magazine L'Asiette au Beurre.

Vallotton's prints are so stylized, they have a slightly Japanese woodblock feel to them, a striking contrast to Daumier's electrically energetic gray lines. However, the two artists share a similar contempt for the injustices and hypocrisies of their contemporary societies.

At the Thyssen Museum is "Victor Hugo: Chaos in a Brush," a revelatory exhibition of approximately 150 drawings, paintings and art objects by the author that French school kids love to hate. It turns out that the prolific writer was an equally prolific, and inventive, artist, producing more than 4,000 visual works in his lifetime.

Hugo's paintings, which were done between 1831 and 1880 but never really exhibited, make modern art look late for its appointment with the 20th century. This fascinating show is on view through Sept. 10. For more info, go to the museum's website. The show subsequently appears at the Maison Victor Hugo, Oct. 12, 2000-Jan. 7, 2001.

YSABEL DE LA ROSA writes on art from Spain.