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Fernando Zóbel: paintings and drawings

The artist’s work and his unique gaze on the art of the great masters now presented at the Museo del Prado Monday, November 14, 2022

How can we appreciate the work of the great masters without being mere passive receptors of their appeal? How do we submerge ourselves in the art of the past without renouncing our commitment to the modern and contemporary avant-gardes? The answer according to Fernando Zóbel (Manila, 1924-Rome, 1984) was both simple and enormously sophisticated: study them in order to understand them and then reinvent them.

Forty-two paintings, fifty-one sketchbooks and eighty-five drawings and graphic works loaned from collections in Spain, the Philippines and the USA make up this survey through which the Museo Nacional del Prado, with the collaboration of the Comunidad de Madrid, pays tribute to Fernando Zóbel, a key figure in Spanish painting of the second half of the 20th century. Born into a Spanish family in Manila, Zóbel focused intensively on the paintings in the Prado and was the founder of the Museo de Arte Abstracto in Cuenca. He was an artist who saw his painting as an instrument with which he could navigate the complex routes traced by the history of art in order to both admire and understand them.

Zóbel. The future of the past explores the painter’s work through two themes that are essential for appreciating his unique contribution to contemporary abstract painting. The first revolves around the space between modern art and the legacy of artistic tradition, bringing together the studies that the artist made in museums around the world, in particular the Prado, with the aim of reconstructing his creative process. In addition, the exhibition charts Zóbel’s work through a second theme of a geographical and international nature, showing how drawing was the tool that allowed him in, an original and different way, to access the modernity that he encountered in Asia in the vernacular tradition of the Philippines and in Japanese and Chinese painting. Both themes arise from Zóbel’s own identity: born in Manila, he trained in the United States and then moved to Spain. Possessed of enormous intellectual curiosity and erudition, Fernando Zóbel was also a tireless traveller and an exceptionally cosmopolitan artist.

Finally, Zóbel’s work can be seen as a fascinating exercise in artistic education. His drawings teach us to look in a slow, tranquil and analytical manner. His paintings and drawings encompass within them his effort to understand the artistic intention that motivated painters such as Zurbarán, Sánchez Cotán, Van der Hamen and Velázquez.

The artist’s work and his unique gaze on the art of the great masters now presented at the Museo del Prado

Press conference Zóbel. The future of the past. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado

In Room C of the Jerónimos Building and on display until 5 March 2023, the Museo del Prado is presenting the result of a lifetime of contemplation manifested in the drawings, sketches and reflections on art and artists in hundreds of sketchbooks now presented to the attentive gaze of every visitor interested in engaging with the art of the past in order to bring it to life in the present. Organised with the collaboration of the Comunidad de Madrid, the exhibition has benefited from the support of the Ayala Foundation (Manila) and Fundación Juan March.

The exhibition is curated by Felipe Pereda, Fernando Zóbel de Ayala Professor of Spanish Art at the University of Harvard, and Manuel Fontán del Junco, director of Museums and Exhibitions at Fundación Juan March, both closely connected to the artist in professional and institutional terms. Zóbel. The future of the past recreates this modern artist’s long dialogue with the great Old Masters, a dialogue established in museums around the world but perhaps above all in the Prado. Zóbel not only spent countless hours drawing and studying the paintings in the Museum but also generously donated to it a number of important drawings by 16th- to 18th-century Spanish masters.

Structured into five sections, the exhibition reconstructs Zóbel’s poetic and artistic journey, which was bounded by the two ends of a single principle: leaning to look in order to understand the art of the great masters, and applying what he learned to his own work in order to share that knowledge. Zóbel. The future of the past focuses on the artist’s work from a transnational perspective which surpasses the geographical limits of the three continents (Asia, North America and Europe) in which he lived. Rejecting attempts to classify his work within the narrow limits of national traditions, this exhibition offers an extremely innovative interpretation of his oeuvre.

With the aim of completing this survey of the work of Fernando Zóbel, at the end of the exhibition there will be an extensive section of graphic and visual documentary material as well as a projection of the documentary “Memories of the moment. Zóbel’s sketchbooks”. Specially made for the exhibition, its subject is the lengthy conversation with the great masters of the past that fills the almost 200 sketches left to us by the artist.