Artists' Ambitions / by Jeannine Cook

Every artist needs drive and ambition to get noticed and distinguish him or herself from other artists, no matter at what era.  It is never easy, a great deal of work and persistence is required and a dollop of luck often, too. And there is nothing like being in the key place where exciting art is being produced and where one can interact with talented friends.

This was the case for a Spanish artist , Ramon Casas, who was born in the right place (Barcelona) at a time of great innovation in the art world.  His life span of 1866-1932 encompassed so many new movements and approaches to art making that it must have been a heady epoch.  Friends with Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Santiago Rusiñol, Joaquin Sorolla and Pablo Picasso, amongst others, he experimented, copied, discussed, shared and celebrated being an artist with them in Paris, Madrid, Barcelona and Granada from his late teens onwards.  Born to a wealthy family, he could travel and study art, imbibing the tendencies that these ambitious artists were espousing.

A travelling exhibition (until 22nd October 2017) with the "La Caixa" Foundation in CaixaForum in the Palacio Weyler in Palma de Mallorca shows off aspects of Casas' ambitious experimentation.  Like any artist, Casas first had to build his identity as an artist and this he began to do in Paris where he explored different approaches to the modernist trends.  Soon he was involved in the Barcelona 1897 réplique to Paris' Le Chat Noir, Els Quatre Gats, a bar where artistic creativity and liberty flourished. Casas was soon distinguishing himself there in graphic design, creating bold posters that harked back to those seen at that period in Paris. Of course, as a Spanish artist, he had also to show his ability in art relating to bullfightingand he explored social realism in art, siting the paintings in Barcelona at a time of social unrest.

Concurrently, however, he was creating a series of portraits in chalk, charcoal and pastel of friends and notable people that he donated eventually to the City of Barcelona. To me, these free, loose and very skilled portraits were some of the most interesting works on exhibition at CaixaForum, but then, I am a lover of drawings!  He painted portraits too, but to my mind, they were far more laboured than the drawings and not nearly so successful.

 Portrait of Joaquin Mir, charcoal and pastel on paper, c. 1901, Ramon Casas

Portrait of Joaquin Mir, charcoal and pastel on paper, c. 1901, Ramon Casas

 Writer Miguel de Unamuno, charcoal on paper, 1904-05, Ramon Casas

Writer Miguel de Unamuno, charcoal on paper, 1904-05, Ramon Casas

 Young Girl Reading, charcoal on board, c. 1901, Ramon Casas

Young Girl Reading, charcoal on board, c. 1901, Ramon Casas

Casas depicted women very frequently in his art.  Not just society ladies, but also "modern" women leading a much more emancipated life than that of the traditional wealthy, high-born ladies.  He used women for his posters and in his work about bull fights and traditional Spanish dress, but he also spent a great deal of time satisfying another ambition, drawing and painting the female nude - a daring occupation for his time. His poses for the nudes were highly unusual -  high views, close-cropped, fore-shortened, all indicating the influence of photography. 

 Resting Woman, oil on canvas, c. 1898, Ramon Casas

Resting Woman, oil on canvas, c. 1898, Ramon Casas

 La Decadente, poster, 1891, Ramon Casas

La Decadente, poster, 1891, Ramon Casas

 La Lecture, pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper, 1900-1903, Ramon Casas

La Lecture, pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper, 1900-1903, Ramon Casas

 The Lady Driver, watercolour, ink and pencil on paper, c. 1900, Ramon Casas

The Lady Driver, watercolour, ink and pencil on paper, c. 1900, Ramon Casas

 Nude, oil on canvas, 1903, Ramon Casas

Nude, oil on canvas, 1903, Ramon Casas

Ramon Casas was successful and well thought-of as an artist in his time, but at each turn, he showed drive and ambition to tackle new subjects, new approaches to art-making. Only much later on in life did he revert to a more classical approach to art, forsaking his "modernist" label and adventuring spirit.