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Humanist art in the Basque region

Report by David Warden

I’m always on the look out for “humanist art” when I'm on my travels. Humanist art in painting and sculpture refers to works which emphasise human or humanist values, human interests, and human dignity. This emphasis became prominent during the Renaissance, a period marked by a revival of classical learning and values focusing on human potential and achievements. Humanist art is characterised by its focus on realism, the study of human anatomy and beauty, and the portrayal of subjects that celebrate human intellect and emotions. It often portrays people with an emphasis on personal identity, reflecting the humanist belief in the importance of the individual. This can be seen in life-like portraits which capture unique features and expressions. Humanist art often draws inspiration from the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, including classical aesthetic principles of balance, harmony, and proportion. It reflects a shift from an obsessive interest in religious iconography towards a broader interest in the world here and now, including political struggle. I’ve selected six images from a recent trip to Northern Spain.

In Bilbao, I was delighted to see what appeared to be a giant H, reminding me of the humanist “Happy Human” logo. In the photo above, you can see that it's part of the supporting structure of a bridge adjacent to the famous Guggenheim Museum. The shiny metallic sculpture in front of the museum is called “The Tall Tree & The Eye”. It was created by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor. The sculpture consists of 73 reflective stainless steel spheres that are stacked vertically to create a towering, tree-like structure. Kapoor is known for his use of reflective surfaces and abstract forms in his sculptures, often exploring themes of infinity, the void, and the sublime. I don’t count this as an example of “humanist art” but it’s very impressive.

I was interested in this sculpture outside a Carmelite convent in the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. It depicts Esteban Urkiaga Basaraz, better known by his pen name “Lauaxeta”, who was a prominent Basque poet and journalist. He was executed in 1937 at the age of 31 during the Spanish Civil War because of his affiliations with the Basque nationalist movement. He was captured by Franco’s troops, court-martialled and sentenced to death. He was shot in the cemetery of Santa Isabel de Vitoria two months later. Today, he is remembered not only for his poetry but also for his role as a cultural icon who used his writings as a form of resistance against oppression. His works continue to be studied and revered, and he remains a symbol of the Basque struggle for cultural and political autonomy.

This ravishing painting of a young woman with a red umbrella is by José Villegas Cordero (1844-1921) and it has the surprising title of “On the Farm” (1903). It is displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts of Álava in the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz.

This striking bronze figure is entitled “Bust of the son of the poet Enrique de Mesa” (1926) by the Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure. Museum of Fine Arts of Álava in the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao hardly counts as “humanist art” except that it is one of the most fantastic buildings I've ever seen. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997, it is often credited with transforming the city of Bilbao from a post-industrial city facing economic decline into a vibrant cultural hub. Its collections include works from prominent artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, including large-scale installations and sculptures specifically designed for the museum.

This is one of the giant installations in the museum. It’s called “The Matter of Time” by Richard Serra, an acclaimed American artist known for his monumental steel sculptures. It consists of eight pieces, fabricated from sheets of weathering steel, a material Serra frequently uses for its texture and the way it interacts with the environment. Their massive scale creates an “immersive environment” for viewers. Again, I would not classify this as “humanist art” as it was an unsettling and claustrophobic experience walking into these maze-like sculptures. Humans are dwarfed by them and maybe this was part of the artist's intention.

The outsized modern art on display at the Guggenheim Bilbao may not be to everyone's taste, and there was certainly a great deal of so-called “art” which I considered to be of questionable value (to put it mildly) but the building itself is one of the architectural wonders of the world.

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