Concepción Mejía de Salvador is a 19th century painter from Granada who has been erased by art history. The Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Reina Sofía … Her canvas entitled Family scene he is the victim of a journey of almost 100 years through gallery stores that have not bothered to conserve, much less to restore his legacy. In 2016 she arrived at the Prado, and her luck was not better. Its fabric is so deteriorated that it is impossible to even distinguish the protagonists. What it shows, on the other hand, is something else: the treatment that the State has given to many painters who, unlike theirs, are not protagonists in the main galleries. Today Mejía’s painting is the one that welcomes the exhibition of Guests.
“It is a self-criticism towards the museum and towards the history of art itself, because the role to which we are heirs is a very manipulative one that undid many chapters that we are never going to fully recover. That of women is one of them,” he explains to elDiario.es Carlos G. Navarro, expert in 19th century painting and curator of the exhibition that can be visited at the Prado Museum in Madrid until March 2021.
The tour takes the visitor into a sad but necessary reality divided into 17 sections, all of them with something in common: a misogyny legitimized by the State through commissions, awards or acquisitions and whose legacy continues to this day. For example, with the concept of “genius” used to justify that only the most talented authors have the honor of hanging their works in the most important museums. A term, protected by gender privilege, which, however, is destroyed shortly after the show begins: “We want to compare all women only with men of genius, and never the inept and mediocre with great women”, It can be read next to Concepción Mejía’s painting in a quote attributed to the journalist Carmen de Burgos.
In fact, among the authors who open the exhibition we do not see Sorolla, Rosales or Fortuny. “I chose artists unknown to most of the visitors so that it would be easier for me to show that the idea of quality is a prejudice against women. The difference is that the men were recognized with prizes,” says Navarro. A great example of this are the National Fine Arts Exhibitions, held in Spain from 1856 to 1968 where, as the posters of Guests, those works that adapted to the patriarchal mold triumphed. “There are many state awards that are not justified from the plastic point of view. There is a very striking picture, Forgive God sends us by Luis García Sampedro, who from the rigor of the plastic arts would not have deserved a medal, but the message is so clearly manipulative that the State rewards it because it satisfies its own discourse “, observes the commissioner.
Labeling them as “less capable” has been something repeated ad nauseam for centuries, also in painting. That is why some authors have represented them in the atelier doing secondary tasks and with little training, such as embroidery or sewing. If they decide to take the brush, the perspective changes. “If they want to be something else, they make you laugh or feel sad. Serafín Martínez del Rincón laughs openly at that in the The artist. A 19th-century viewer knows that a framed painting is varnished and therefore already finished. But it represents her, with a suit still posing, which is anachronistic for her background, pretending to paint in a humorous way. As if to say: ‘What a laugh, she’s a painter’ “, appreciates the historian.
Not even queens were saved. Juana I of Castilla was also a reflection of the need to protect those women who held a position of power, hence both in painting in particular and in history in general it has survived to this day under the nickname of “Juana la Loca “. “The painters of stories say they are faithful to the story and in the comments of the paintings they always add the historical sources in which they have been inspired, but with Juana de Castilla they make an exception. Although the letters of the father are published in which they recognize that Juana’s confinement is due to her own political interests and not because she has a mental state that is incompatible with normal life, the artists look the other way and decide to build the romantic myth of a woman who is incapable of governing due to madness of love “, appreciates the art expert.
The nudes of horror
Probably one of the crudest parts of the exhibition is the section dedicated to the nude, a genre that had no male equivalent. All the paintings have in common that they were valued by the artistic critics of the moment as if they were The Nymphs of Sunset, that the happy samples are inserted in nature. But the content of what we see when entering the room, as the curator explains, is quite different: “Sexualized minors, women enslaved and naked, or forced to pose even if they don’t want to. Also cut into pieces, like Mateo Inurria’s sculpture, which it has a medal of honor, the supreme medal that in many national exhibitions is not even awarded, for the trunk of a woman without head, without arms and without legs.
One of the two sections of the exhibition could be filled only with nudes of sexualized girls
Also in this area are Innocence Y Chrysalis, two canvases by Pedro Sáenz winners of the second medal at the National Fine Arts Exhibitions. In them he shows naked girls as a spectacle of the passage to adolescence, a subject that does not seem to be exceptional. “They are artists completely well regarded by the State. The works are bought by the Government of Cánovas del Castillo, which is conservative, but I assure you that one of the two sections of the exhibition could be filled only with nudes of sexualized girls. It was an argument absolutely frequent “, warns the commissioner.
Along with the paintings by Sáenz is exhibited the “libertine novel” by Álvaro Retana, entitled Too modern girl. It tells the story of Pili (called Pilila), who ends up raping her father’s friends as a result of having received a too liberal education. “In addition, with the condescending tone of the patriarchal discourse that girls have an awakening that ravages them if they do not have male control. This debauchery of life is something that scandalizes, horrifies and fascinates the creators of the 19th century”, criticizes Navarro on some creations that, as he adds, “have been validated by the State since the 19th century with these awards.”
On the contrary, the Government of that time did act against works such as The satyr by Antonio Fillol, which shows a man accusing another of raping a girl. “They removed it from the national exhibition with a royal decree that labeled it an immoral painting and equated it with scenes of prostitution, which were not allowed either,” adds the historian.
As an institution that belongs to the State, the Prado Museum is one of the organizations responsible for collaborating in an art history stained by the patriarchy. The book The invisible ones (Captain Swing) highlights how the art gallery has been ignoring women for more than 200 years, both in terms of the works exhibited (only 11 works of the more than 1,700 exhibited in the permanent collection are by women) and in the purchase of paintings (in the last decade only three paintings by authors have been bought). The disparity also begins from the halls and reaches the top management, a place that in two centuries has never been occupied by a woman.
“The museum is heir to a macho legacy that it actively reviews, and this review is due to a liquid conscience that has protected the appearance of this self-critical exhibition,” says Navarro, who assures that on his agenda “there are many names of works by women what to buy”. The curator maintains that “the museum understands the message it has received from society” and that they are working on it, but that “many hands and efforts are still missing.” “This exhibition is not the end, it is the beginning,” he adds.