Málaga in southern Spain is a striking contrast of old and new. It’s not just because of the ancient monuments and contemporary galleries. It’s also because of the city’s art.
There are many places where this is evident but one that stands out for me is the Carmen Thyssen Museum, located at the site of the 16th century Palacio de Villalón. When I visited, it was presenting an exhibition of over 70 works from the famous Musée d’Ixelles in Brussels with the aim of providing a “comprehensive and unique overview of the main trends in Belgian art from the fin-de-siècle [end of the century] to the 1940s”.
The exhibition starts with the impressionist period of the late 19th century. At this time, Belgian art was grappling with the same concerns as the country itself: embracing the fast-paced growth of an exciting and modern future while also wanting to escape to the simpler times – think realism and landscapes – of the past. Indeed, one of the aspects that most characterises this period is the idea of capturing the ephemeralness of light and colour as it exists in nature, with many works highlighting the beauty of ordinary things, whether in a cityscape or a still life.
One of the best examples of this on display was the 1901 painting ‘Tea in the Garden’ by Théo van Rysselberghe, who, like many other Belgian artists, was influenced by French impressionism but developed his own style. This work, featuring three women who were most likely members of his family, showcases his experimentation with pointillism, which he called ‘divisionism’. It’s a process that involves the artist applying small dots or loose brushstrokes side by side so that the result is blended in the viewer’s eye.
This idea of capturing the essence of things and not the things themselves became more apparent in the Symbolist movement at around the same time. It was about breaking away from reality, looking inward to “the realm of the soul and a return to a lost paradise” and forging a path to the avant-garde. Again, given that the young country was going through a process of industrialisation and questioning whether all this progress was for the best, it’s not surprising that art (starting with literature and then spreading to other genres) began to reflect this sense of doubt, concern, and even bitterness about social change.
One of this movement’s key figures was Fernand Khnopff. His work reflects an introspective style and seems to portray a sense of ambiguity and otherworldliness through androgynous creatures and mythological motifs. There’s a similar sense of the mysterious in the works of Léon Spilliaert, a largely self-taught artist whose work often features dreamlike landscapes and seascapes, as well as solitary figures lost in thought. He, like many, faced some initial resistance from the country’s art establishment but his work is now seen as an important contributor to Symbolism and even influenced later artists like René Magritte, who once remarked that “everything we see hides another thing” and that “art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist”.
Indeed, this sense of outer worlds reflecting inner worlds (no matter how disturbing they might be) is most clearly seen in the Surrealist movement, the core philosophy and main principles of which were explained in André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. In terms of art, the two most influential Belgian practitioners in this style were Magritte and Paul Delvaux. And while I was somewhat familiar with the former’s work – you’ve almost certainly seen depictions of his 1964 painting The Son of Man, which features a man in a suit and bowler hat with his face obscured by an apple – it was wonderful to get a look at some of the latter’s paintings up close for the first time.
Much of his work features nude figures, which might be why so many people in the museum suddenly seemed shy about taking pictures. And yet even the settings in which these figures exist seem to be naked in the sense that they are, like much of the movement, expressions of “raw thought, freed from the control of reason and from any aesthetic or moral precepts”. Indeed, Delvaux said it best himself: “Surrealism! What is Surrealism? In my opinion, it is above all a reawakening of the poetic idea in art, the reintroduction of the subject but in a very particular sense, that of the strange and illogical.”
The exhibition ended back in March but the museum has more than 200 pieces in its permanent collection, which together form the most complete corpus of 19th century Andalusian painting in Spain. If you’d like to see more Spanish art in regal settings, here are three ideal choices in the city:
- The Museum of Málaga was created in 1972 through the merger of the Provincial Museum of Fine Arts (1913) and the Provincial Archaeological Museum (1945), which is why it now has over 15 000 archaeology pieces and more than 2000 works of fine art. They’re all housed in the spacious Palacio de la Aduana, originally built in the late 18th century to serve as a customs house but converted into a barracks for soldiers in the early 19th century and later serving as a hospital during the Spanish Civil War.
- The Cultural Centre of the Unicaja Foundation was also built in the late 18th century and, besides presenting various exhibitions, has a large auditorium that it uses for music, theatre, and cultural events throughout the year. It’s right next door to the Málaga Cathedral, the construction of which began way back in the Gothic period (although its style is Renaissance) and which you can learn about through a rich audio guide that goes into a lot of detail about its incredible architecture and religious art.
The Picasso Museum is housed in the 16th century Palace of the Counts of Buenavista and was declared a national monument in 1939. It was inaugurated in 2003 and now contains over 200 of his paintings, sketches, sculptures, engravings, and ceramics. It’s also a short walk from the Picasso House Museum where the artist was born in 1881 and which also includes some of his original work. Visiting both sites felt particularly poignant given that this year is the 50th anniversary of his death.