Work by three late nineteenth century artists is on display. / S. SALAS

Because the night

The Thyssen museum highlights Spain's legendary "dark side"


Grim, decadent, lowlife. Prostitution. Such are the key words deployed in the introduction to a 34-print exhibition presented in the Museo Carmen Thyssen's Sala Noble, until 25 September. However, rest assured. Recommended for you, if into decoding Spanish cultural expressions, "Negra es la noche / Black is the night – Solana, Cossío, Bores" is anything but depressing.

This bijou show shines a fresh light on three late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth century artists, who made their mark during the interwar period, prior to the Civil War; though hailing from the north (Cantabria University's art museum collection, in Santander), the images on display are far from cold; ranging from sharp black and white woodcuts to etchings in shades of grey, they possess a dynamic edge.

Dark Spain

Solana infused his mean street scenes and dingy interiors with unequalled gloomy realism

"España Negra" refers to a poverty-stricken era: steeped in squalor, devastated by hunger. Depicted by the best-known of the Thyssen trio, the iconic Madrilenian genre painter José Luis Gutiérrez Solana (1886-1945), it is cloaked in the cruelty associated with Spain's ever updated "Black Legend" (sparked by the Inquisition, rekindled under Franco's dictatorship, and still hard to shake off...).

Not to be confused with Valencia-born Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) – "The King" of sun-drenched hues, expressing high-society felicity (who has a street named after him in Malaga city's hip and happening Pedregalejo beach district...), Solana, "al contrario", infused his mean street scenes and dingy interiors with unequalled gloomy realism; harking back to the somber tones of Van Gogh's Potato Eaters, his unbridled miserabilism has been described as a form of "neo- or late costumbrismo".

Pagan feasts featuring mask-clad revellers are a recurrent theme evoking the carnivalesque imagery of the Belgian modern master, James Ensor, as well as Goya's grotesque masked characters.

Younger and less famous than Solana, the other two painters highlighted here, honed their skills in Madrid and Paris. Born in Cuba to Spanish parents, who returned to their native land, Pancho Cossío (1894-1970) was raised in Santander.

In the City of Lights, he lightened up his palette developing a brand of post-cubism that could have become his trademark, had he not returned; his later figurative canvases, often representing the daily existence of fishermen, exude misty lyricism.

Art specialists recall Cossío as a founder of Santander's "Ultraísta" movement, drawn to acting and writing; he appeared alongside Dali and Max Ernst in Buñuel's Golden Age (1930), and promoted Francisco de Goya as an underrated genius.

More unsavory is his post-war reputation as "El Pintor de la Falange": a former communist, who espoused the far right.

On a brighter note, Francisco Bores (Madrid, 1898-Paris, 1972) illustrated Lorca, whom he had befriended, during youthful visits to friends and family in Andalucía.

A member of the École de Paris, his signature was curvilinear constructivism.

"Black is the night" is a nod to painter-musician Darío de Rogoyos (1857-1913), who co-authored "La España negra" with Belgian poet, Émile Verhaeren.

The Thyssen's next major event is dedicated to Belgium's contribution to Modern Art. Are you up for it?