Making the Local Global

Manuel Borja-Villel’s rehang of the Reina Sofí­a highlights its holdings of Spanish modernist icons—along with the unknown, the unexpected, and the international.

Buster Keaton’s silent classic One Week, 1920, plays in a gallery housing a 19th-century figure from Equatorial Guinea, a 19th-century sculpture from the Philippines, and a 20th-century piece from the Cíte d’Ivoire.

Buster Keaton’s silent classic One Week, 1920, plays in a gallery housing a 19th-century figure from Equatorial Guinea, a 19th-century sculpture from the Philippines, and a 20th-century piece from the Cíte d’Ivoire.


To show how Cubism ruptured space, Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofí­a deploys an array of works by two great Spanish masters, Picasso and Gris, as well as their European contemporaries, such as Braque, Léger, and Jacques Lipchitz. To this familiar slate, museum director Manuel Borja-Villel has added a less familiar name: Marí­a Blanchard, a Spanish Cubist whose work has been given new prominence. There is now a mesmerizing 1897 film, Serpentine Dance, by the Lumiíre brothers. And there is an American masterpiece: Buster Keaton’s One Week, the hilarious 1920 silent film that follows a pratfall-prone couple building their unintentionally constructivist dream house.

The Keaton film provides a felicitous stopping point, where strangers can share a good laugh. For Borja-Villel, it illustrates how the concept of the fragmentation of space has itself jumped around in the larger culture. “To do Cubist painting, you need to have film,” he says. “Cubism would not exist if film was not there. Keaton’s film, especially the constructivist house, probably would not have existed without Cubism.”

Near the Keaton, Borja-Villel has installed a 1912 Picasso, Still Life (Dead Birds). And to reflect Cubism’s debt to non-Western sculpture, he has added 19th-century pieces from Equatorial Guinea, the Philippines, and the Côte d’Ivoire, borrowed from Madrid’s National Museum of Anthropology. “What I’m trying to do is explain art history in a different way,” he says.

Such juxtapositions—more common in an “artist selects” show at an encyclopedic museum than in the permanent collection of a museum devoted to modern and contemporary art—animate the complete reinstallation of the Reina Sofí­a, which Borja-Villel began when he arrived at the museum a year and a half ago and which was inaugurated in late May.

“We’re building a type of narrative that is mostly Spanish—that’s what I have,” the director says. “But it’s not about Spanish art,” he stresses.

“The 21st century is not a modernistic period. It’s a global period, where local issues have lots of importance,” he continues. “In that sense we’re in a privileged position to tell a story in our collection. It’s very local in a way, having Miró, Picasso, Juan Gris. But at the same time, it could be structured in a way that could be very global, that could involve the narration of not just one story but a multiplicity of stories.”

These stories are less about the formal march of modernism than they are about themes, like “the reordering of the modern gaze” and “dystopia,” to name a couple. To make his case, Borja-Villel has integrated 299 photographs—fine art as well as documentary—and 50 film and video works, along with paintings, sculptures, and installations, rescuing 400 previously unseen objects from storage and showcasing 137 new acquisitions. “Photojournalism is like one of those rivers that emerge and disappear,” he says. “We have Lewis Hine at the beginning, later on Helen Leavitt, later Català Roca and neorealist photography.”

Reviewers praised the inventive juxtapositions Borja-Villel staged at both of the museum’s main buildings: the converted 18th-century hospital that opened first as a temporary-exhibition space, in 1986, and the four-year-old Jean Nouvel addition (the museum also controls two exhibition spaces in the nearby Retiro Park). The surprises start in the first galleries on the second floor, where satirical prints from Goya’s “Disparates,” “Caprichos,” and “Disasters of War” are integrated among early modernist works. The “Disasters of War” prints are “the key to the whole collection,” Borja-Villel says. Citing figures as diverse as Picasso, Nancy Spero, and Marcel Broodthaers, he argues that the way artists have dealt with crisis—notably in the ’30s, the ’60s and ’70s, and more recently—has roots in the way Goya managed to be both “involved and detached, both poetical and political.”

From there, visitors can proceed into a gallery devoted to the body, and then pass through magic realism and Surrealism. Or they can go through another door into galleries devoted to the concept of language, as reflected in the poetry of images, and then on to documentary—“the language of information,” as Borja-Villel calls it.

The paths leading from Surrealism and documentary converge around Guernica, which Borja-Villel has rehung to stress its role in the moment when the avant-garde, as he sees it, split from modernity and began to confront its own utopias. “It’s not an icon anymore,” he says. “Before, it was treated as a holy object.” He has filled the galleries around the painting with Robert Capa photographs of civil-war Spain, vitrines laden with anti-Franco propaganda, and artworks and films that were on view in the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Universal Expo in Paris along with Picasso’s famous mural.

In reconceiving the Reina Sofí­a as a truly international museum of modern and contemporary art, Borja-Villel faced some peculiarly local challenges. “We don’t even have modernism in Spanish, or Pop. For us it means something else,” he says. But beyond the art-historical issues, he has had to maneuver around particularly Spanish legal ones.

To obtain a loan of the Goya prints, as well as a painting by the Spanish Impressionist Joaquí­n Sorolla, he had to approach his colleague at the Prado, director Miguel Zugaza. Borrowing such works, however, directly contravenes a royal decree passed in 1995 about the dispersal of collections belonging to the state: it mandates that the dividing line between the two collections be 1881, the birth year of Picasso. That the solution had to be negotiated through official channels indicates how intertwined the Reina Sofí­a is with governmental forces, a stumbling block for several previous directors of both museums, who sometimes came and went along with frequently changing ministers of culture.

While Borja-Villel is the first Reina Sofí­a director to be nominated by an international committee of experts rather than political leaders, he still cannot allocate budgets, raise extra funds, make personnel decisions, or move employees among departments without bumping up against an antique and arcane bureaucracy. “You cannot be a museum of the 21st century with the structure of the 19th,” he says. Following Zugaza’s lead, he has filed for what amounts to a legal separation from the Ministry of Culture, a process so complicated he expects it will take at least six months to resolve it.

Sitting in his office overlooking the vast plaza separating the hospital and Nouvel buildings, Borja-Villel, a native of the northeastern province of Castellón, speaks in rapid-fire English that has improved greatly since his graduate-school days at the City University of New York, where he received his doctorate in art history. After spending two years as a visiting scholar at Yale University and doing curatorial work at the Hispanic Society of America in New York, he moved to Barcelona to run the Tí pies Foundation and then the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art before he was tapped for the Reina Sofí­a. “My last job was like running an apartment building,” he comments. “This is like running a city. I mean a city, not a mall. The problem of big museums is that they became malls. The idea of the 19th-century city is that you have neighborhoods.”

Working around the legal constraints, Borja-Villel has made major additions to both the staff and the collection. He has made 25 hires, the most high-profile being Dia Art Foundation curator Lynne Cooke, who is now the Reina Sofí­a’s chief curator. He found money to purchase works by Medardo Rosso, Picabia, Gego, Cildo Meireles, íyvind Fahlstrím, Dan Flavin, and Carl Andre, among others. He is also planning an ambitious slate of exhibitions, including shows devoted to James Coleman, Bruce Conner, Georges Vantongerloo, Francesco Lo Savio, Lygia Pape, and American Folk artist Martin Ramirez. “Atlas” takes on the idea of maps, and “El principio potosí­,” a reference to the silver mines of Bolivia, unites American 16th- and 17th-century paintings with works by such artists as León Ferrari.

“If you ask everyone when modernity starts they say Impressionism or Baudelaire,” Borja-Villel says. But he argues that it began earlier, in the age of exploration, when the encounter between pre-Columbian and European cultures produced the new, syncretic genre of colonial art.

Latin America figures greatly in his plans for the museum, which he sees as a meeting place for Europe, Latin America, and the Mediterranean. “We cannot think anymore in terms of center and periphery,” he says. He has launched a “universal archive” on the Web that will be like a social-networking site for museums to share documents, artworks, and perspectives.

With his provocative installation and programming in place, Borja-Villel hopes that the Reina Sofí­a is now on its way to becoming a world-class rather than provincial institution. That the museum’s status as a political football over the last two decades kept it from living up to its potential was not necessarily a disadvantage, Borja-Villel says. “We’re in a privileged position because in a way this museum was not done—in terms of structure, collection, physically,” he comments. “That was lucky.”

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.

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