Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Magritte machine


The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza is holding the first retrospective in Madrid on the Belgian artist and leading Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) since the exhibition held at the Fundación Juan March in 1989. Its title, The Magritte machine, emphasises the repetitive and combinatorial element present in the work of this painter, whose obsessive themes constantly recur with innumerable variations. Magritte’s boundless imagination gave rise to a very large number of audacious compositions and provocative images which alter the viewer’s perception, question our preconceived reality and provoke reflection.

Magritte, El sueño
René Magritte. The Dream, 1945. Utsonomiya Museum of Art, Japan

Curated by Guillermo Solana, the museum’s artistic director, The Magritte machine is benefiting from the collaboration of Comunidad de Madrid and features more than 95 paintings loaned from institutions, galleries and private collections around the world, thanks to the support of Magritte Foundation and its president Charly Herscovici. The exhibition is completed with a selection of photographs and amateur films by Magritte himself which is part of a traveling exhibition curated by Xavier Canonne, director of the Musée de la Photographie de Charleroi, and which will now be shown in a special installation, thanks to the courtesy of Ludion Publishers. After its presentation in Madrid The Magritte machine will be seen at the Caixaforum in Barcelona from 24 February to 5 June 2022.

My paintings are visible thoughts

In 1950 René Magritte and some of his Belgian Surrealist friends produced a catalogue of products of a supposed cooperative society, La Manufacture de Poésie, which included items intended to automatise thinking and creation, including “a universal machine for making paintings,” described as “very simple to use, within the reach of everyone” and which could be used to “compose an almost unlimited number of thinking paintings.”

Magritte, El aniversario
René Magritte. The Anniversary, 1959. Art Gallery of Ontario Collection, Toronto

The painting machine had precedents in avant-garde literature, such as those devised by Alfred Jarry and Raymond Roussel, forerunners of Surrealism whose inventions emphasised the physical process of painting, albeit through opposing concepts: in the former’s the machine revolved and sprayed out jets of paint in all directions, while the latter’s resembled a printer that produced photo-realist images. The device described by the Belgian Surrealists is different and was intended to generate images that were aware of themselves. The Magritte machine is a metapictorial one, a machine for producing thinking paintings and ones that reflect on painting itself.

Since my first exhibition, in 1926 [...] I have painted a thousand paintings, but I haven’t conceived more than a hundred of those images which we’re talking about. These thousand paintings are the result of the fact that I’ve often painted variants of my images: it’s my way of better defining the mystery, of possessing it better.

Magritte, Los valores personales
René Magritte. Personal Values, 1952. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Magritte defined his painting as an art of thinking. Despite his well-known opposition to automatism as a central procedure of Surrealism, he seemed to confer an intellectual value on the de-personalisation and objectivity of that auto-reproduction of his work. The Magritte machine is not coherent and closed in the manner of a system; rather, it is an interactive procedure involving discovery. It is also recursive as the same operations constantly repeat themselves but with different results every time.

All of Magritte’s art is a reflection on painting itself, a reflection it undertakes using paradox as a fundamental tool. What is revealed in a painting, either through contrast or contradiction, is not just the object but also its representation, the painting itself. When painting is limited to reproducing reality, the painting disappears and only reappears when the painter sets everything at odds: painting only becomes visible through paradox, the unexpected, the unbelievable and the odd.

Magritte, Panorama popular
René Magritte. Panorama for the Populace, 1926. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf

In order to achieve this aim Magritte used the classic resources of metapainting, of the representation of the representation (the painting within the painting, the window, the mirror, the figure seen from behind) which become deceptions in his work. The present exhibition analyses these metapictorial devices, which are the guiding thread of the different sections. The first section is entitled “The magician’s powers” and includes various self-portraits which explore the figure of the artist and the superpowers attributed to him. The next section is “Image and word” which focuses on the introduction of writing into painting and in the conflicts generated between textual and figurative signs, followed by the third section, “Figure and background”, which examines the paradoxical possibilities generated by the inversion of the figure and background, silhouette and void. “Picture and window” analyses the painting within the painting, which is Magritte’s most common metapictorial motif, while “Face and mask” focuses on the suppression of the face in the human body, one of Magritte’s most frequently used devices. The two final sections look at opposing processes of metamorphosis, namely “Mimicry” and “Megalomania”. The first introduces Magritte’s fascination with animal camouflage, which he transferred to objects and bodies that conceal themselves in their setting, in some cases dissolving into space, while the final section presents the device of change of scale as an anti-mimetic movement, extracting the object from its normal setting and projecting it outside of any context.

1.    The magician’s power

Magritte, Tentativa de lo imposible
René Magritte. Attempting the Impossible, 1928. Toyota Municipal Museum of Art

This space brings together three of the four known self-portraits by Magritte in which he explored the potential of the artist as magician while suggesting an ironic attitude towards myths relating to the genius creator. Magritte was not interested in describing his appearance or in recounting his life through these works. His self-portraits are pretexts to introduce the figure of the artist and the creative process into the painting.

In Attempting the Impossible (1928) Magritte is seen painting a naked woman; he is real but she is only the product of his imagination, suspended between existence and nothingness. This is a version of the myth of Pygmalion, of artistic creation identified with desire and with the power of the imagination to produce reality. The Philosopher’s Lamp (1936) presents the encounter between two of the artist’s fetish elements, both of which have sexual symbolism; the nose and the pipe. In The Magician (1951) the painter is seen using his superpowers to feed himself. A group of photographic self-portraits completes this first section in the exhibition.

2.    Image and word

Magritte, La traición de las imágenes
René Magritte. The Treachery of images. This continues not to be a pipe, 1952. Private collection, Belgium

Words were a habitual device employed in Cubist, Futurist, Dadaist and Surrealist paintings and collages. Magritte introduced them into his work during his time in Paris between September 1927 and July 1930 when he was in close contact with the Parisian Surrealist group. During those years he created his tableaux-mots, paintings in which the words combine with figurative images or semi-abstract forms in the case of the early ones while in those of 1928 and 1929 they are shown alone, set in frames and silhouettes and almost always in school textbook handwriting.

In the former, image and word rarely coincide, which disconcerts the viewer and encourages reflection. The important aspect of these works is not the designated objects but the appearance of contradiction between what the image shows and what the text says. The words deny the image and the image denies the words, establishing a separation between the object and its representation. Its supreme paradox is to deny that any paradox exists. When words replace image and become the sole protagonists they are almost always depicted inside a curving surround like a comic book bread roll. Writing reappeared in Magritte’s work in 1931 in replicas or variants of these paintings and only rarely in new inventions.

3.    Figure and background

Magritte, La perspectiva amorosa
René Magritte. The Amorous Vista, 1935. Private collection, courtesy Guggenheim, Asher Associates

The production of collages and papiers collés is not particularly extensive in Magritte’s output although their influence is evident throughout his painting and thus throughout the exhibition. The first step in making a collage is cutting out and the cut-out generates a large part of Magritte’s images, creating a partitioned, stratified, compartmentalised world of planes that are partly concealed and partly reveal others further back into the pictorial space.

Between 1926 and 1931 the influence of collage became more intense. Magritte’s paintings now became filled with pierced and torn planes and with silhouettes that simulate cut-out paper and stand up vertically like theatrical set elements. In 1927 the artist began to evoke the children’s game of folding and cutting out paper to create chains of repeated geometrical and symmetrical motifs. The result is a sort of lattice, one of those elements which simultaneously reveal and conceal that are so characteristic of the artist.

Magritte, La alta sociedad
René Magritte. High Society, 1965 o 1966. Fundación Telefónica

Another frequently used device is the inversion of figure and background, making solid bodies into voids or holes through which we see a landscape or an area that is filled with something such as the sky, water or vegetation. The outline belongs to the object not the background and preserves the ghostly presence of the object. Magritte used this play of inversion of figure and background in order to develop his exploration of mimicry, which is the subject of another section in the exhibition.

4.    Picture and window

In front of a window seen from the inside of a room I placed a painting that exactly represented the part of the landscape concealed by that painting. Thus the tree represented in the painting concealed the tree located behind it, outside the room. For the viewer, the tree was in the painting inside the room and at the same time, through the mental process, it was outside, in the real landscape. This is how we see the world; we see it outside ourselves but nevertheless we only have a representation of it inside us.

Magritte, La llave de los campos
René Magritte. The Key of the Fields, 1936. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The painting inside the painting is an iconographic theme which on occasions acquired an ambiguous appearance in the work of the Old Masters. Heir to the tradition of trompe l’oeil games, in Magritte’s work it always becomes a ruse and leads to the disappearance of the painting. The artist literally adopted the classical metaphor that compares the painting to a window and took it to its furthest extent: if the painting is a window, the perfect painting would be completely transparent, in other words, invisible. The perfection of the painting consists in it disappearing, and Magritte almost reaches that point then stops. He was not, however, looking for a sudden, permanent disappearance but rather a gradual one that would always leave the viewer doubting if we are really seeing what we think we see.

The exhibition brings together outstanding examples such as The Promenades of Euclid (1955). Here Magritte creates a series of animated frames, one inside the other; the edge of the cloth, the window, the curtains. He thus moves several degrees away from reality. The painting loses its privileges and becomes just one of various framing devices. In The Key of the Fields (1936), a fundamental work that is in the permanent collection of the Museo Thyssen, the painting disappears or rather its powers are transferred to the window, the glass of which ceases to be transparent and mysteriously reveals itself as a painted surface. The painting disappears but it returns in the fragments of glass.

5.    Face and mask

Magritte, El gran siglo
René Magritte. The Great Century, 1954. Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen

Since it first appeared in 1926-1927, the figure seen from behind constantly reappears in Magritte’s work and accompanies a wide range of enigmas; with its hidden face it is the perfect silent witness to the mystery. The figure seen from behind dates back to late medieval painting but it only became significant when Friedrich made it the principal motif in his paintings. In the late 19th century Arnold Böcklin revived this Romantic motif as an expression of longing and melancholy and from Böcklin it passed on to Giorgio de Chirico and from him to Magritte.

The figure seen from behind shows us the landscape and how to contemplate it, introducing us into it. The figure’s gaze leads our eyes towards the horizon and encourages the perspectival depth but the figure’s body conceals that gaze from us. The figure from behind makes the viewer aware of the act of looking and the act of contemplation is raised to the power of two. The viewer moves from admiring the landscape to admiring the act of that viewer included in the painting.

With Magritte we also find a recurring symmetry in which a figure seen from behind accompanies another figure seen frontally with the face concealed, which are two completely different ways of hiding the face. This is often done with a white cloth covering the head or in some cases the whole body. The covered head has been related to Magritte’s early fascination with Fantômas, the hero of a series of popular novels whose kept his head covered and whose identity was never revealed, and also with a childhood memory; the suicide of his mother who jumped into a river. When her body was found her head was covered by her nightgown.

Magritte, Sheherezade
René Magritte. Shéhérazade, 1950. Private collection, courtesy Vedovi Gallery, Brussels

The coffins in the Perspectives series can also be seen as a variant on the covered head. In these works Magritte selected various icons of the bourgeois portrait in order to boycott them with his black humour. The title of the series reflects the clairvoyant powers of the painter, who is able to see the sitters in their future state. This are parodic vanitas images, mocking memento mori which laugh at death and the immortality of the great icons of painting.

Pareidolia, in which meaningful images are read into inanimate objects as more or less approximate substitutes of the human face, is a device used by Magritte in Scheherezade (1950) and in the series of nudes framed by their hair.

6.    Mimicry

[...] I have found a new possibility things may have: that of gradually becoming something else, an object melting into an object other than itself. [...] In this way I obtain pictures in which 'the eye must think' in a way entirely different from the usual.

Magritte, El futuro de las estatuas
René Magritte. The Future of Statues, 1932. Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg

Discovery (1927) marks Magritte’s first use of the method of metamorphosis which later became his most frequently employed approach, particularly during the war. In this painting the mimetic metamorphosis seems to emerge from the body whereas in other works it proceeds from the exterior, from the surrounding space. A body dissolved into the air is also the subject of The Future of Statues (1932), a cast of Napoleon’s funerary mask camouflaged with blue sky and white clouds. Just as death dissolves the self, painting dissolves the volume of the plaster into the blue of the sky. These works anticipate an important series that began in 1934 with Black Magic, in which a woman’s naked body does not disappear as it retains its forms and outlines and rather changes colour. The body becomes chameleon-like and is now located midway between two worlds; flesh and air, land and sky.

In some of my paintings colour appears as an element of thought. For example, a thought made up of a woman’s body which is the same colour as the blue sky.

Magritte, El pájaro de cielo
René Magritte. Sky Bird, 1966. Private collection, courtesy Di Donna Galleries, New York

Magritte was particularly interested in birds, using them to present a wide range of mimetic metamorphoses and transforming them into the sky, as in The Return (1940). In other examples a ship can become the sea, as in the four versions of The Seducer which he painted between 1950 and 1953, in which the barely visible ship is shown as filled with the colour and texture of the waves. Magritte described it as if the elements were living beings: the water imitates the sailing boat and the air imitates the bird, or better said, the water dreams about a boat that is camouflaged as water, the sky dreams about a dove clothed in the sky. The paradox of Magritte’s mimicry lies in the fact that the subordination of the figure to its setting can make that figure more visible, but visible through its absence.

Magritte, La firma en blanco
René Magritte. The Blank Signature, 1965. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Magritte’s mimicry can also be seen as a consequence of his interest in inverting the figure and background. The mimetic animal or object changes from being a figure to being background, or they fuse with the background so that they cannot be separated, as in The Blank Signature (1965) in which the rider and her horse blend with the trees just as the visible fuses with the invisible.

If somebody rides a horse through a wood, at first one sees them, and then not, yet one knows that they are there. [...] our powers of thought grasp both the visible and the invisible.

7.    Megalomania

In my paintings I showed objects located where we would never find them. [...] Given my desire to make everyday objects shriek out loud, they must be arranged in a new order and acquire a disturbing sense.

Magritte, Delirios de grandeza
René Magritte. Megalomania (La Folie des grandeurs), 1962. The Menil Collection, Houston

The opposing movement to mimicry, to an organism’s tendency to subject itself to its surroundings and dissolve into them, is megalomania, which tends to liberate a body or object from its context. With Magritte, megalomania became a change of scale through which he extracted an object or body from its habitual context and located it elsewhere. While with mimicry the body is devoured by the space, with megalomania it is the body that consumes the surrounding context.

The enlarged element in the artist’s works can be a natural object - an apple, a rock, a rose - and have a rounded shape, contrasting with the artificial, cubic space in which it is enclosed. Lewis Carroll, whom Magritte greatly admired and who was acknowledged by André Breton as a forerunner of Surrealism, was particularly expert at this device. The most evident source of inspiration that Magritte took from Carroll’s Alice is his series of paintings entitled La Folie des grandeurs. Their principal motif is a sculpted female torso divided into three hollow parts, each one fitted into the next like Russian dolls or like a telescope.

Magritte, El arte de la conversación
René Magritte. The Art of Conversation, 1963. Private collection

When megalomania manifests itself on the exterior it takes the form of ascent. Enlargement and levitation produce the same effect of removing the object or person from their context and projecting them into a new, neutral one where they are much more visible. Examples in Magritte include the bells that are blown up to a huge size and rise up like great balloons, planets or spaceships; the men in bowler hats conversing in the air; or the rock which becomes the principal motif in various late paintings.

In thinking that the stone must fall, the viewer has a greater feeling of what a stone is than he would if the stone were on the ground. The identity of stone becomes much more visible. Besides, if the rock were on the ground you wouldn’t notice the painting at all.

The essence of an object is revealed when we locate it in an unexpected situation, or even more, in a situation that is incompatible with its intrinsic nature.


The Magritte machine is completed with an installation in the Museum’s first floor. It presents a selection of photographs and amateur films made by the artist himself, thanks to the courtesy of Ludion Publishers. Magritte never considered himself a photographer but he was undoubtedly interested in film and photography in his daily life.

Rediscovered in the mid-1970s, these snapshots of his Surrealist friends, various self-portraits and photographs of the paintings that he was working on, as well as reels of film shot by the artist are presented in the exhibition in the manner of a family album. They include remarkable images filled with Magritte’s unique spirit.

Magritte. Photographs and films is a selection of pieces from the exhibition The Revealing Image, curated by Xavier Canonne, director of the Musée de la Photographie in Charleroi. This display can be visited free of charge.

Italian painting from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century

When the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza opened in 1992 an important and representative selection of nearly 80 works of the Italian and German schools was placed on long-term deposit for display at the Monastery of Pedralbes in Barcelona through an agreement reached between Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and the city’s mayor, Pasqual Maragall. In 2004 that group was moved to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) where it continues to be exhibited today.

To coincide with the commemoration in 2021 of the centenary of the Baron’s birth, ten of these works are now being displayed in Madrid where panels and canvases by artists such as Taddeo Gaddi, Giambattista Piazzetta and Giacomo Ceruti can now be seen in the Old Master paintings galleries of the permanent collection. This selection includes Fra Angelico’s Virgin of Humility, one of the masterpieces of the Thyssen collection and a work that has only been exhibited at the museum on two previous occasions, in 2006 and 2009.

Room 1: Italian Primitives

Taddeo Gaddi, La natividad
Taddeo Gaddi. The Nativity, ca. 1325. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on deposit at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC)

The exhibition opens with three panels by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452): The Annunciate AngelThe Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John and The Annunciate Virgin (ca. 1430), a group formerly in the Somerwell collection in Scotland that may have been part of a polyptich and which remained unpublished until they were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1970. In 1976 the Baron acquired them for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection. They are followed by The Nativity (ca. 1325) by Taddeo Gaddi (active ca. 1325-Florence, 1366), a panel possibly painted for a private oratory. Gaddi’s painting reflects both the art of his master Giotto, in whose studio he worked for 24 years, and the innovations that he introduced as he developed his own style. It was probably originally larger and would have included the scene of the Annunciation to the Shepherds as the left-hand side includes a sheep and part of a staff, while an angel is looking in that direction and pointing towards the stable where the principal scene takes place. On deposit with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston between 1876 and 1977, the painting entered the Thyssen collection in 1979.

Lorenzo Monaco, La Virgen y el Niño en el trono con seis ángeles

Lorenzo Monaco. The Virgin and Child enthroned with six Angels, ca. 1415-1420. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on deposit at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC)

The third work in this gallery is The Virgin and Child enthroned with six Angels (ca. 1415-20) by Lorenzo Monaco (1370/1375-1425/1430), one of the greatest exponents of late Gothic painting in Florence. The panel, which is recorded in a Florentine collection in 1887, passed through various private collections in Scotland and London and that of Rudolf Heinemann before it reached the gallery at Baron Thyssen’s home, the Villa Favorita in Lugano (Switzerland), in 1981. Its dimensions and subject suggest that it was the central element in an altarpiece, flanked by pairs of saints. Monaco’s figures are slim and elongated with gentle expressions, depicted with a palette of bright colours. The artist’s activities as an illuminator are evident in his paintings in the attention to detail and predominance of defined lines. The frame is the original one, albeit with a number of modern additions to the carpentry such as the predella, the lateral columns and the decoration that occupies the upper part of the structure.

Finally, this gallery includes The Nativity and other Episodes from the Childhood of Christ (ca. 1330) by Pietro da Rimini (active between 1315 and 1335), a small panel that was part of a large work dismantled before 1819 of which other elements have been identified in different collections. Da Rimini’s style reflects Byzantine models in the gilded backgrounds and the decorative nature of some details. However, his work also includes innovations, such as the intention to create depth in the scene through the perspectival depiction of the rocky landscape and the quest for realism and communication between the figures in the expressivity of their faces and gestures. Previously in the Dixon collection in Great Britain, the painting was acquired by Baron Thyssen in 1979.

Room 4: 15th-century Italian painting

Fra Angelico, La Virgen de la Humildad
Fra Angelico. The Virgin of Humility, ca. 1433-1435. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on deposit at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC)

The Virgin of Humility (ca. 1433-35), a masterpiece by the Dominican monk Fra Angelico (ca. 1395/1400-1455), now becomes the principal work in this gallery devoted to 15th-century Italian painting. Dating from the start of the artist’s mature period, the scene includes numerous symbolic details such as the lilies that refer to Mary’s purity and the red and white roses alluding to Christ’s Passion. In contrast to the frontality and use of gilding typical of the previous century, here Fra Angelico employs a type of light and chromatic range that are characteristically Quattrocento innovations. In addition, the artist employed novel techniques of a type he had already experimented with in other works, such as the use of incising, which helped him to create volume in the draperies. The painting was in the collection of King Leopold I of Belgium and in the Pierpont Morgan collection in New York between 1909 and 1935. In 1935 it was acquired by Baron Thyssen’s father, Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, and was inherited after his death by his daughter, Countess Margit Batthyáni, from whom Baron Hans Heinrich acquired it for his collection in 1986.

Room 6: the Villahermosa Gallery

Dosso y Battista Dossi, La lapidación de san Esteban

Dosso and Battista Dossi. The Stoning of Saint Stephen, ca. 1525. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on deposit at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC)

Displayed in this gallery is The Stoning of Saint Stephen (ca. 1525) attributed to the brothers Dosso and Battista Dossi (1490-1541/1542 and 1490/1495-1548, respectively), and The Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1520) by an anonymous artist known as The Master of the Thyssen Adoration who was active in Bavaria and Austria around 1520. The first work combines notable characteristics of two of the most important pictorial schools in the collection: the Italian and Flemish. The landscape evokes the backgrounds depicted by northern European artists, particularly Patinir, while some of the figures recall Italian models by Raphael and Giulio Romano. The second work presents many of the characteristics of the Renaissance-period Danube school and of two of its most important masters, Wolf Huber and Albrecht Altdorfer, from whom this artist derived the treatment of the vegetation, the elongated proportions of the figures and the architectural background.

Room 15: 17th-century Italian painting

Francesco Maffei, San Miguel arcángel
Francesco Maffei. The Archangel Michael overthrowing Lucifer, ca. 1656. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on deposit at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC)

The Archangel Michael overthrowing Lucifer (ca. 1656) is an exceptional work within the output of the Baroque painter Francesco Maffei (1605-1660). It is painted on a stone panel and depicts a subject not repeated within the artist’s oeuvre. The Venetian Maffei creates a scene filled with a sense of movement due to his virtuoso depiction of the extended wings and the numerous folds in the Archangel’s cloak. The background is masterfully resolved through the use of loose brushstrokes and an intense interplay of light and shade.

Room 18: 18th-century Italian painting

Giacomo Ceruti, Grupo de mendigos
Giacomo Ceruti. Group of Beggars, ca. 1737. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on deposit at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC)

The display concludes in Room 18 with Group of Beggars (ca. 1737), the earliest work by the Lombard painter Giacomo Ceruti (1698-1767) to enter the collection in 1975; and The Sacrifice of Isaac (ca. 1715), an early work that perfectly summarises the tenebrist style of the Venetian painter Giambattista Piazzetta (1682-1754). Ceruti’s canvas is one of his masterpieces and an outstanding example of his humanistic approach to the depiction of the humblest social classes. For his part Piazzetta modelled the figures with strong contrasts of light and shade, using ochre, brown and grey-brown tones comparable to those employed by Ceruti but with the addition of a touch of intense blue.


American Art from the Thyssen Collection

In the final event of a year that has paid tribute to Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (1921-2002), marking the 00th anniversary of his birth, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza is presenting an exhibition which brings together the magnificent collection of American art assembled by the Baron over more than three decades. The works on display come from both the Thyssen family and the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collections, as well as and principally from the museum itself, which has an exceptional holding of this school in a European context, making the Museo Thyssen in Madrid a key point of reference for knowledge of American art.

American Art from the Thyssen Collection is the result of a research project undertaken with the support of the Terra Foundation for American Art to study and reinterpret these paintings with a new thematic and transversal approach through categories such as history, politics, science, the environment and urban life. It has also taken into account issues including gender, ethnicity, social class and landscape in order to provide a more profound knowledge of the complexities of American art and culture.

This reinterpretation is revealed in the new presentation of the works in the galleries and in the corresponding catalogue with essays by the two curators: Paloma Alarcó, Head of the Department of Modern Painting at the museum, and Alba Campo Rosillo, Terra Foundation Fellow of American Art, who have also written the texts that accompany each thematic section, together with the museum’s curators of modern painting, Clara Marcellán and Marta Ruiz del Árbol. This selection of works also benefits from commentaries by the experts on American art who have participated in the project. As with all the exhibition and activities associated with the centenary of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, the exhibition has received the support of the Comunidad de Madrid.

The 140 paintings brought together for this event are displayed in Rooms 55 to 46 of the museum’s first floor, organised into four thematic sections: NatureCulture CrossingsUrban Space and Material Culture, which are in turn divided into various sub-sections that establish dialogues between paintings from different periods and by different artists, combining 19th- and 20th-century art.


The exhibition’s opening section is devoted to landscape, a central theme in the Thyssen collection in general and in American art in particular. The concept of nature was essential to the creation of the young North American nation and the emergence and evolution of the genre of landscape can thus not be dissociated from American history and the country’s political consciousness. Landscape painting defined the country while at the same time representing it, and the reflection of a virgin nature was consequently established as the ideal formula for reaffirming the growing national spirit.

Sublime America

Following the country’s independence in 1776 and above all at the start of the 19th century American artists, most of whom had trained in Europe, became aware of the grandeur of the country’s topography. In its early years American landscape painting was an adaptation of the European Romantic tradition to the exuberance of the New World, combined with a religious and patriotic sentiment. The section Sublime America focuses on nature as a source of spirituality and pride, of connectivity, life and death. This is evident in the work of Thomas Cole, the first painter to reveal the relationship between man and nature through his use of the conventions of the Romantic sublime and to visually express a religious sentiment; in the work of Frederic Church, who contributed the scientific spirit characteristic of his activities as an explorer; and of George Inness, whose visionary and poetic work aims to arouse the viewer’s emotions.

However, the influence of transcendental Romanticism goes beyond any chronological framework, making it possible to associate 19th- and 20th-century works. The allegory of the cross seen in paintings by Cole and Church is still present in the output of some of the Abstract Expressionists such as Alfonso Ossorio and Willem de Kooning, while the artists associated with the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, reintroduced the American landscape’s mystical past into modern art. Other 20th-century painters such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still remained in contact with sublime nature through abstraction.

Earth Rhythms

In the mid-19th century the positivist, post-Darwinian outlook encouraged a growing scientific interest in the natural world. This second generation of landscape painters came close to the naturalist trend that prevailed in Europe for much of the 19th century, focusing on natural history and on nature’s constant state of transformation. Asher B. Durand, a follower of Cole and a fervent defender of plein air painting, reveals a meticulously scientific realism in his work, as do John Frederick Kensett and James McDougal Hart.

Following a lengthy trip to Europe where he studied the new treatises on light and colour, Frederic Church started to reveal an interest in depicting the transformation of the landscape over the seasons and in different atmospheric conditions, as did Jasper Francis Cropsey who introduced the use of the panoramic format which became widespread among American artists around the mid-century. Slightly later, artists such as Theodore Robinson and William Merritt Chase reveal the incipient influence of the fleeting quality of French Impressionism.

Moving into the 20th century, a notable figure is Arthur Dove who focused on the transformation of the earth’s internal forces and on changing atmospheric conditions, aiming to integrate nature and abstraction in his painting. Another key name is Hans Hofmann, for whom “nature is always the source of the artist’s creative impulses” and who employed a type of organic figuration which combined his European roots and training with innovations arising from his American experience. Jackson Pollock also expressed his desire to reproduce the rhythms of nature; the choreography of the artist moving his body and his hand over the canvas on the floor was a true liturgy linked to the natural world.

Human impact

The tension between civilisation and the preservation of nature penetrated 19th-century painting to such an extent that it laid the way for our modern environmental awareness. Most of the early American landscape painters moved to live in the countryside and frequently depicted scenes of bucolic life which symbolise the abundance of the earth and the harmony between the early settlers and the natural setting. Others became interested in exploring the passing of time through human activity, as evident in scenes of ports on the Atlantic coast by John William Hill, Robert Salmon, Fitz Henry Lane, Francis A. Silva and John Frederick Peto, which find their counterpoint in Charles Sheeler’s 20th-century vision in Wind, Sea and Sail.

The legacy of the tradition of landscape painting was inherited in the late 19th century by Winslow Homer whose work reflects the confrontation of man and the forces of nature. It continues in the 20th century with Edward Hopper; the image of the dead tree that reappears in some of his works connects to those present in paintings by Cole and Durand, uprooted by destructive human impact.


With a title that refers to moments of contact between different communities, this section is organised into three sub-sections:


Settings focuses on the representation of the natural landscape as the space in which the complex history of North America has been written. From the mid-18th to the 20th century numerous paintings depict narratives that present the land as the site of colonial assimilation, exalting the Euro-American presence over the indigenous or Afro-American one. Landscape also functions as the setting for accounts of man’s domestication of untamed territories and of the inevitably of the extinction of the Native Americans. Examples include the work of Charles Wilson Peale in his portrait of the children of a rich colonist on his plantation of peaches in Maryland; that of Charles Wimar in his depiction of the indigenous people as resigned to their extinction in the face of colonial advance; and the appropriation of indigenous culture evident in artists such as Joseph Henry Sharp, among others.


This sub-section looks at the territorial, political and economic expansion in the United States towards the west, north and south in the country’s attempt to replace Europe as the sphere of influence on the American continent. The Falls of Saint Anthony, painted by both George Catlin and Henry Lewis, exemplify that progressively occupied but seemingly unaltered natural space, while the landscapes of Latin America by Church, Bierstadt and Heade reflect the discovery of those exotic locations, of commercial expeditions that set out in search of land for cultivation and zones for starting up intercontinental maritime transport. Remote terrains continued to provide a source for artistic experimentation for Winslow Homer in the second half of the 19th century and Andrew Wyeth in the 20th century.


Interactions brings together works that represent the different communities of the United States - slaves, the working class, Jewish emigrants, Afro-Americans, Asians, cosmopolitans - analysing their interconnections which ranged from alliance to conflict. On display are the famous prints of indigenous peoples by Karl Bodmer, shown alongside portraits of the colonists who posed for John Singleton Copley and members of high society painted by John Singer Sargent. A focus on the exotic reappears with Frederic Remington in the early 20th century while interest in the working class and the Afro-American community is present in the work of Ben Shahn and Romare Bearden in later decades.


This section reflects on modern American culture through artists’ gazes and on the growth and transformation of the urban space, the setting for a new society and the emergence of modernity.

The City

The mass migration of the Afro-American population following the civil war to cities in the north, in addition to major waves of European immigration transformed cities into spaces of encounter between different cultures. In turn, their appearance was transformed by industrial development, transport systems, and large avenues and skyscrapers, all of which inspired artists. Charles Sheeler compared streets and avenues with the geological formations of canyons; Max Weber expressed his experience of the city through the influence of Cubism and Futurism; while John Marin, who was associated with the European avant-gardes, conveyed the vital energy of the metropolis.

In the 1960s the new realist movements once again looked at the city from ground level, such as Richard Estes’ famous urban views and the city dwellers portrayed by Richard Lindner; people moving through the streets and around shopping malls. Outside the city but linked to it, Ralston Crawford’s Overseas Highway functions as a symbol of the freedom and independence of the American dream.

Modern Subject

Some artists focused their gaze on city dwellers not as representatives of an urban type but as individuals hidden among the crowd, convinced that it was those individuals’ personal stories that created the beat of the city. The key figures in many of these narratives are women, both in the public and private spheres and reflecting general changes in society. This is evident in the work of Winslow Homer in the late 19th century and Edward Hopper in the 20th century, artists who presented their particular vision of urban reality as a symbol of modern man’s isolation; or in the work of Raphael Soyer who depicted the new roles occupied by women, either at work or as the targets of new consumer practices. Another dimension to the modern subject appears in the paintings of Arshile Gorky, expressed through a style midway between Surrealist automatism and Expressionist gestural freedom; and in those of Willem de Kooning who reflected the dynamic energy of human beings. 

Leisure and Urban Culture

In parallel to the industrial revolution the concept of leisure emerged in large cities and people could now devote the free time gained by shorter working hours to rest and entertainment. The creation of the first public parks and the increasing popularity of walking in the countryside or on nearby beaches - an escape mechanism for city dwellers - became the subject of scenes by Winslow Homer and the Impressionists Childe Hassam, John Sloan and William Merritt Chase, among others.

At a later date amusement parks and street music would inspire Ben Shahn, who aimed to portray his country’s social reality. From the early 20th century music became extremely important in American life. Of all the new musical forms it was jazz - which was Afro-American in origin and can be seen as the result of that urban cultural interchange - which undoubtedly became most popular and inspired numerous artists including Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and even Jackson Pollock. Even at the start of the century music was a model for various painters such as Marsden Hartley and John Marin, who saw musical analogies as an alternative unconnected with appearances.


This section analyses the renewed attention that material culture has received in American art, organised into three sub-sections:


The celebration of life and the senses through pictorial representation, summarised in the Latin word “voluptas”, begins with various still lifes, from the most traditional example, such as the 19th-century example by Paul Lacroix, to the most innovative ones by Stuart Davis, an artist who aspired to create a national, modern art through the everyday. Other painters including Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lee Krasner and Patrick Henry Bruce also aimed to reconnect art and nature through a formal treatment that started with reality and progressively evolved towards abstraction. In addition, the interaction between the human and non-human became a recurring motif in the still lifes that Pop artists employed to reflect on consumer society, evident in the work of Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist.

Tempus fugit

Alluding to the passing of time and the inevitability of death is a common device within the genre of still life. Tobacco smoke, spent matches, biscuit crumbs and a newspaper refer to that transitory nature of life in the painting by William Michael Harnett, one of the principal exponents and innovators in this genre in late 19th- and early 20th-century America. Mortality was also a recurring theme for Joseph Cornell, whose assemblages include animals and a range of other motifs such as soap bubbles which are employed to represent the ephemeral nature of life.


The different cultural expressions of the country’s indigenous nations were the subject of interest by some foreign artists, such as the Swiss-French Karl Bodmer whose prints offer a visual inventory of the instruments, ritual objects and weapons of the different tribes, depicted both in isolation and in their context in everyday scenes of the village and its outskirts, and in landscapes with sanctuaries and burial grounds. Other artists expressed  nostalgia for that idealised world, such as Frederic Remington who portrayed a romantic idea of the West and its inhabitants.


Catalogue with texts by the curators, Paloma Alarcó and Alba Campo Rosillo, by Marta Ruiz del Árbol and Clara Marcellán, curators of Modern Painting at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, and by the specialists in American art Wendy Bellion, Kirsten Pai Buick, Catherine Craft, Karl Kusserow, Michael Lobel, David Peters Corbett and Verónica Uribe Hanabergh.

Paloma Alarcó, Head of Modern Paintings at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, and Alba Campo Rosillo, Terra Foundation Fellow of American Art.