This is how the history of North America was painted according to the Thyssen | Culture

It was first an overwhelming, unspoiled nature that European conquerors encountered upon arriving in what is now the United States. Then, the interaction of the human being with those landscapes. Then the cultural encounter of those who arrived, with those who already lived there and with those who were transferred in the worst possible way against their will. In the end, it was the cities, leisure, advertising, material things that transformed that original environment. The Thyssen Museum in Madrid tells the history of North America from the end of the 18th century until well into the 20th century in American art in the Thyssen collection, the exhibition that closes the year of tributes for the centenary of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza.

“We have given the American art collection a tumble”, explains Paloma Alarcó, head of Modern Painting at Thyssen, “we have gone from a stylistic and chronological vision to one based on thematic that is more transversal”. In other words, the visitor no longer finds historical landmarks but rather a journey that is based on nature, people and the things that emerged from these interactions. Thus, a landscape painting by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, known as the mother of American modernism, coexists with Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, both 19th century artists, in the same room.

A sample of the paintings that denounce the extinction of the Indians in the Thyssen Museum.
A sample of the paintings that denounce the extinction of the Indians in the Thyssen Museum.JUAN BARBOSA

This new way of presenting the works, which has been extended to the museum’s permanent collection, allows us to understand how these ancient artists embodied “the relationship of man with nature under romantic conventions”, typical of their time, but also that they were anticipated to the scientific and environmentalist spirit, one more theme of these new times. For this reason, the pieces by Willem Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock – the Baron was branded as “daring” when he bought pieces by the author, they remember in the museum – do not clash in these first rooms with those of artists from the mid-nineteenth century such as John Fredrick Kensett.

The years pass as the exhibition progresses. The human being is no longer a mere spectator of these sublime landscapes, he begins to harvest, raise cattle and finally transform nature in a more brutal way with the arrival of industry. But the dates of the paintings skip this order and skip from one century to another to explain the same phenomena from the various artistic perspectives of authors of all currents. In the same way, Baron Thyssen completed his collection with his last great passion, the art that was made in the United States. “It began in the early sixties, but it was especially from the seventies when his interests as a businessman led him to this country and he began to buy massively,” recalls Guillermo Solana, artistic director of the museum. He formed a collection that mixes old and contemporary pieces until it became, according to the person in charge, “the most important of its kind in Europe”.

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Racism and cultural appropriation

The paintings in the exhibition also advance other current issues such as the debate on colonialism, racism and cultural appropriation in the rooms where the Euro-American presence is praised as opposed to the indigenous or Afro-American. It is in Charles Willson Peale’s portraits of white children in peach plantations, and in Charles Wimar’s account of the Indians aware of their disappearance in the face of the advance of the conquerors. There is an attempt at coexistence as the decades progress between slaves, working class, migrant Jews, African Americans and Asians that implodes in the conflict that continues to this day.

A portrait that extols the Euro-American essence compared to the African-American and that of the first settlers.
A portrait that extols the Euro-American essence compared to the African-American and that of the first settlers.JUAN BARBOSA

This social struggle occurs in the cities. Nature is exchanged for skyscrapers, avenues, public transport and the individual lost in the mass. Max Weber interprets the change from Cubism and Futurism; Eward Hopper from the solitude of contemporary man; Raphael Soyer chooses to capture the new roles of women in trades or simply shows them consuming. Leisure begins when leaving the office, on weekends, in the parks, on the beach, in the bars, in the clubs where the jazz sounds that almost seems to be heard in the works of Arthur Dove and Jackson Pollock.

The end of this story of more than 140 pieces to which Alba Campo Rosillo, from the Terra Foundation Fellow of American Art, has contributed to give a narrative sense, is pure capitalist materialism. Things are endowed with a symbolic and economic value. First in the form of traditional and innovative still lifes like those of Stuart Davis. Then they become an excuse to reflect on consumer culture as in the work of Roy Lichtenstein.

This piece by the pop artist, an emblem of the museum, is a sample of what may happen to the permanent collection starting next year. Neither Solana nor Alarcó dare to set a date in which Thyssen changes again. For now it is only a certainty that the chronology will not be the guiding thread of the discourse of this institution, although there will be a clear distinction between the collection of Carmen Cervera and her son Borja Thyssen, the one of her former husband, and that of the rest of their relatives who have been depositing paintings from their own collections. When the agreement between the baroness and the Ministry of Culture for the transfer of her works is finally signed, some 180, Solana clarifies, will be exhibited on the first floor of the museum. The pieces are already prepared, only one formal act is missing between all the parties and the return of the great star: the Mata Mua by Gauguin.

American art in the Thyssen collection. From December 14 to June 26, 2022.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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