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Girl at Her First Communion (1914), a work that precedes the artist's post-cubist phase.

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Girl at Her First Communion (1914), a work that precedes the artist's post-cubist phase. Salvador Salas
Art

Picasso museum revives enigmatic painter María Blanchard, the grande dame of cubism

As a woman and an artist, she did not conform with the canon; this exhibition features an exceptional creator, ignored by history, who was bold enough to develop her own artistic style

Regina Sotorrío

Malaga.

Friday, 3 May 2024, 13:49

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Much of María Blanchard's story rests on assumptions, clues and even legend. It is not known why she moved away from cubism; it is said that she died poor but there is no evidence to confirm it; nor is her entire list of works known. There are losses, gaps and decades of neglect. "But there is her work," states José Lebrero, the exhibition curator, standing in a room of over 80 works of art. Museo Picasso Málaga does the Spanish painter justice with a tour of 20 years of her work, two decades during which María Blanchard became the "best cubist painter" in history, before developing her own artistic avant-garde style.

María Blanchard, Pintora a Pesar del Cubismo (María Blanchard, A Painter in Spite of Cubism) is open to visitors until 29 September 2024.

The exhibition reveals an exceptional artist who was treated "condescendingly" by the art world, when she was not ignored altogether. Her life was never easy. She was a woman creator in a world of men, the only woman cubist painter in Paris at the start of the 20th century.

She painted the feminine universe in a unique way, through costumbrist scenes of women who read and work

"She was not going to be a role model, or a muse, or a lover, or wife to a genius." But nor would she integrate into women's intellectual circles of the time, with people such as Gertrude Stein. She was, moreover, a sad and tormented woman, who since birth was trapped in a body misshapen by kyphoscoliosis, which caused a serious back deformity. And finally, she was an "expatriate" in the literal sense through her move to Paris, but also in the figurative, because her exit from cubism "does not conform with" the canon of dominant discourses.

The exhibition, sponsored by Fundación Unicaja, is the fruit of research carried out by José Lebrero, symbolising his return as curator after 14 years at the helm of the museum, a position he left in December. The new director, Miguel López-Remiro, publicly congratulated Lebrero for his "superb" exhibition.

Picasso regarded Blanchard as another member of his "fighting and heroic" group of artists

The show, which has almost 50 lenders, among them museums and private collections (some have banned photos being taken of their pieces), offers a renewed image of Blanchard with never-before-seen paintings. We must also remember that this is only the third retrospective dedicated to the enigmatic painter, the previous one having taken place twelve years ago in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Born in 1881 into a wealthy family from Santander, a young Blanchard moves to Madrid to take up her art studies. The opening of the exhibition reflects this stage of her life, featuring small academic portraits from the 20th century which illustrate classic themes such as Gypsy Woman (1905-06) or Woman from Brittany (1928-30). But a portrait that follows breaks with this tradition: Woman in a Red Dress (1913). This is no longer a real model; we are entering the world "of illusion, where the vision of a woman is being constructed". By now Blanchard has been to Paris (she arrived for the first time in 1909) and has experienced the aesthetic radicalness of Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, or Picasso himself, which is reflected in marked shapes and a non-realist use of colour.

Cubism

The next step happens naturally and occupies almost half of the room. It presents the "most canonised and recognised" María Blanchard, the cubist painter. And not in vain, as she is the first Spanish woman to adopt this geometric and fragmented style that represented absolute modernity.

At this exhibition, furthermore, her star painting from the Museo Reina Sofia, Cubist Composition (1916-1919), is on show, as well as Woman with a Fan (1913-15), a replica of the work that she brought to the controversial cubist exhibition in Madrid, Los Pintores Íntegros, organised by Ramón Gómez de la Serna in 1915.

Salvador Salas

After receiving fiercely harsh criticism, she left Spain for good, settling permanently in Paris. In her cubist phase she mainly painted still life, but also feminine figures with children that precede her later works depicting maternity.

Another piece that precedes Blanchard's definitive change is Girl at Her First Communion (1914), with a dramatic face whose makeup she does in a unique way. This work hints at her post-cubist phase and her return to figurative painting, but with a style and theme that is totally different to those of her contemporaries.

The exhibition highlights Blanchard's feminine universe, as she painted women reading and working in the home, as well as costumbrist scenes with other women, such as Two Sisters (1921).

There is the cook, the embroiderer, the washerwoman and the fortune teller, this last one painted à l'italienne or in the style of Spanish Baroque painting that reveals her profound art history knowledge.

And she captures women at lunch, at the dressing table, and in maternity, with several images of women breastfeeding, in an aesthetic that was hardly the norm at the time: not naturalist and with marked shadows.

This tour of the new Blanchard includes La Boulonnaise (1922-1923), the work that sparked a war between the Museo del Prado (which bought it) and the Museo Reina Sofía (which believed that, due to its historical period, it corresponded to its collection); and the pastel on paper, Girl at an Open Window (1924), usually kept at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, has been lent especially for this occasion. It has never been exhibited outside the UK, just like the works Lunch (1922) and Girl with a Bracelet (1922-1923), one of the many paintings that she did of children, though she herself was not a mother.

Her last years

Blanchard's last years saw much of her pessimism and pain. The faces of her portraits are blurred and her expressions reveal sadness, such as that in Women from Brittany (1928-1932). They are paintings that speak of a "painful" ending, on a physical level, with her body already in a poor state. María Blanchard died in Paris in April 1932 at the age of 51. It is said that she died poor, but there is no evidence of this. "What is definitely known is that she did not die rich; she had a modest life," Lebrero says.

The exhibition, which features works from almost 50 lenders, is the third retrospective dedicated to this enigmatic artist

Despite the difficulties she faced, Blanchard was considered by Picasso to be one of his own. They had a lot in common: both were born in 1881 in the suburbs and both left for Paris as young adults to experiment with the avant-garde. There was hardly any information documented about the relationship between the two, but during his research Lebrero found a revealing testimony: a letter that Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro wrote to his mother after "poor" Blanchard's funeral in 1932. In it he speaks of the sadness felt by all of his friends regarding her untimely death, including that of Picasso, saying: "How our group is dwindling, our first fighting and heroic group, how few of us are left."

María Blanchard, A Painter in Spite of Cubism follows in the footsteps of other exhibitions held in the Museo Picasso Málaga, which help to rewrite art, through the contributions of many women who have been silenced.

"It's not happening as a mere occurrence or to follow a trend," Lebrero clarifies, who encourages the new director to "continue this line of work".

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