Lately, it seems like every major museum is reevaluating how it presents its permanent collection. Much of this comes out of a push by historians, curators, and artists across the world to tell a richer, more nuanced history of art that accounts for under-recognized figures, most notably women and artists of color. The most recent example of that trend comes courtesy of the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain’s most important modern and contemporary art institution. Though this rehang opened last fall, the installation was on full display during the city’s ARCO Madrid art fair, which welcomed numerous international visitors at the end of February.
Taking its name from Diego Rivera’s famed 1939 Surrealism-inspired painting The Communicating Vessels, the title was chosen to convey the project’s flexibility and its interdisciplinary spirit. The new eight-part display, which maps out the origins of modernism in the late 19th century through art today, consists of nearly 2,000 objects across six floors—four in the Sabatini Building (including a former storage unit which had not been used as an exhibition space in 30 years), and two in the museum’s 2005 Jean Nouvel–designed extension—totaling 161,000 square feet.
About 70 percent of the works in this ambitious presentation had never been shown before, either because they were previously held in storage or were recently donated to the museum, such as Marta Minujín’s 1943 Amor a primera vista (Love at First Sight), courtesy of Miami-based collector Jorge M. Pérez. A colorful entanglement of acrylic-painted mattresses, the work has been used on much of the museum’s recent communications, speaking to the pride of place the museum has given to it within the collection. Examples of works previously in storage include Diego Rivera’s 1949 Vendedora de flores (Woman Selling Flowers), Wilfredo Lam’s 1947 Natividad, Joan Miró’s 1938 Serie Negro y rojo (Black and Red Series), and Salvador Dalí’s 1928 Cuatro mujeres de pescadores en Cadaqués, all of which are just being shown now for the first time.
Each year the Ministry of Culture and Sports helps the museum purchase works from ARCO. Last July, the museum was able to acquire 18 works (by 14 artists and one collective) for €300,000 ($334,000), including Cuentoquilómetros, a figurative 1966 acrylic on paper by Ana Peters, who is better known for her later abstract works, as well as Clara Montoya’s Llorona I (2021), a column-fountain-like sculpture filled with water and plants bound to grow over time. At this year’s recently closed edition, the museum spent €370,000 ($412,000) on 16 works, including Spanish painter and sculptor Augustín Ibarrola’s Amnistía (1976), which the artist made for that year’s Venice Biennale. That large-scale painting had disappeared for some 42 years before resurfacing as part of the Reina Sofía’s “Poéticas de la democracía” exhibition in 2018 and was brought to the fair by the Madrid-based gallery José de la Mano.
The installation of the rehung galleries is airy and well-spaced out, allowing visitors the room to contemplate the art on view. And that’s exactly what is needed for a display in which the connections between artworks on view are not blindingly obvious. You have to look for them, process, understand, interpret them even. It is part of the exercise. Which leaves the visitors with the feeling of contributing to an art history that keeps on writing itself.
The idea for the rehang dates back to 2010, when the museum was already reshuffling its collection. “As setting up the new presentation, we immediately realized that with the rise of new feminisms, new ecological challenges, we had to start working on a new display right away,” Manuel Borja-Villel, the director of the Museo Reina Sofía, said in an interview. Among the issues that the new presentation is taking up are climate change, gender fluidity, and the pandemic, the latter of which was instrumental in forcing the Reina Sofía to rethink its approach to the museum experience, shifting from “visitar” (Spanish for “to visit”) to “vivir” (“to live”). The point, Borja-Villel explained, is to make the institution not just a place to visit but a place to experience life.
This approach coincides with what Borja-Villel calls an “epistemological change of paradigm.” Behind this seemingly pedantic expression actually hides the intention of reaching as many people as possible. “Our exhibitions are not just spectacles to passively walk through,” he said. “The public has a voice and is expected to react to what they are presented with.” To him, the accessibility of the rehang lies in three pillars: history or “the exploration of the tensions between the past and the present”; the “here and now,” what we most care for; and “the work of art per se, which cannot be reduced to one single idea.”
One way the curatorial team has gone about exploring these tensions is by re-creating art historical displays, like that of Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany in 1982. On the ground floor Dara Birnbaum’s PM Magazine (1982), in which still-frames of the prime time television show PM Magazine were edited along with images of American families in their homes to point at the sexism of mass media and the society in 1980s, butts against Miquel Barcelo’s plastic-and-oil painting Nu pujant escales (Nude Climbing Stairs), from 1981. Miriam Cahn’s chalk-on paper drawing of a bed, k-bette (1982), converses with a later work by Franz Erhard Walther 1986’s Doppelte Antwort Rot (Double Answer Red), an eight-part tinted canvas sewn on wood. That 1982 show, curated by Dutch art historian Rudi Fuchs is often remembered as the triumph of painting over more avant-garde movements like Arte Povera and Post-Minimalism. But here we see the wide range of mediums, genres, and generations that Fuchs assembled reunited, showing off the eclecticism of the show that a concise art history has long elided and which Borja-Villel has intended to revive.
The main question for the curators, though, was not what history to tell, so as much as how to tell that history. The rehang is organized in eight “episódios” which, like the anthology series Black Mirror, can be enjoyed in any order. Each of these new sections, filled with works in various mediums and from disparate eras, is a standalone. This division in episodes (the trailers for which can be found online) stems from wanting to move with times. “If novels were the 19th-century frame of reference, the 20th century understood the world through movies, whereas people today respond to TV shows—a more fragmented format,” said Borja-Villel, who compared the new display to a “montage” sequence in a film or TV episode where bits and pieces all come together. Visitors are now invited to come and go, gather information as bees would pollen, nibble at or binge on the latest curatorial season—the curators who yet do not plan to swap out the displays any time soon—of the Reina Sofía, until the next one.
Another major focus on the rehang is on documents and other ephemera related to the art on view, which, Borja-Villel said, help provide additional context, by confronting various points of view. One standout gallery in Episode 1, which is titled “Avant-garde Territories. City, Architecture and Magazines,” is devoted to André Breton and explores how different the Surrealist writer’s takes on art were from those of his one of his contemporaries, the French philosopher Georges Bataille, who wrote in 1929: “I am trying to say, almost without preamble, that the paintings of Picasso are hideous, that those of Dalí are tremendously ugly.” At that time Breton still considered Dalí a fellow Surrealist and was not to exclude him from the group until ten years later. Other documents on view nearby that add to this chorus are recently acquired ones like “Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme” (1938), manifestos, invitations, and announcements for major events like “A Note on the Affair of the Surrealism Film L´Age d’Or, Cloud and Neutralité? Non-Sens, Crime et Trahison!” in 1936.
“Documents, archives, letters have the power to shake things up, to change the way we look at a work of art,” Borja-Villel added.
A key element to the museum’s new multidisciplinary approach is architecture. Like Alfred Barr who went out of his way to include films in MoMA’s collections when he served as the museum’s founding director, Borja-Villel has made a consideration of the architecture in which certain works are displayed a huge component of this project. The monumentality of some works, like with Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, which measures 11 feet 5 inches tall and 25.5 feet across, make it impossible for them to be moved to new locations within the museum. Conservators have declared it too fragile to move, though for the rehang it has received improved lighting and is shown alongside Picasso’s studies of heads of women and horses for the work as well as Dora Maar’s famed photographers of Picasso at work on the painting. Louise Bourgeois’ intimidating iron Spider (1994) sculpture dominates a space on the fourth floor, accompanied by a few of the artist’s preparatory drawings; nearby are her sculptures Pilar (1947–49) and QUARANTANIA III (1949). And Episode 1, likely to be what most visitors first encounter with the new rehang, opens with plans, sketches, blueprints by Spanish urban planner Arturo Soria y Mata as a way to introduce the modern city as a fertile ground for transformations.
“It was important to me to make room for architecture because art history materializes in concrete spaces, cities, exhibition rooms, which determine the practice of the modern artist,” Borja-Villel said. In Episode 1, on the second floor, prints of New York by Berenice Abbott and Alfred Stieglitz meet to convey the rise of skyscrapers in the urban landscape, where colorful drawings by Rafael Alberti, a Cubist self-portrait by Dalí, a gouache landscape by Gabriel García Maroto (who aspired to a Mexico-style revolution in Spain), and Daniel Vázquez Diaz’s La fabrica dormida (The Sleeping Factory), a 1925 Cubist-inspired painting of Madrid factory, collide to show different sides of Madrid, a city where utopias shape up and conflicts take place.
Because the new collection display doesn’t follow a linear timeline to art history, it can often feel at times that the order of the sections and the connections were chosen at random, which can be disorienting at times. For example, Episode 8, titled “Exodus and Communal Life,” begins on the first floor of the Sabatini Building, past an outdoor courtyard dominated by Calder and Miró sculptures, with a newsstand installation by Francesc Ruiz, titled La Settimana Enigmistica (2015). The majority of this Episode is contained in this space, with one gallery on the Sabatini’s third floor, but it also includes two galleries on the first floor of the Nouvel Building. On the Sabatini’s second floor is Episode 1, whereas Episodes, 2, 3, and 4 share the Sabatini’s fourth floor, where they beautifully blend into each other. You may get lost on the way, take a turn before reaching the end of a hallway, end up in a temporary exhibition room or chance upon Man Ray’s giant metronome, but that’s okay. Wandering this massive maze is what makes the whole experience wonderful—and what makes you want to keep coming back.