A figurative painter who rose to prominence in the Jazz Age, the Cuban-born artist was compared by contemporary critics with the Venetian masters Tiepolo, Titian and Tintoretto, as well as Veronese, and the Spanish painters El Greco and Goya; yet at the same time he was seen as a modernist, albeit one steeped in traditions of the past. Federico Beltran Masses: Under the Stars seeks to explore this paradox.
Comprised of sixteen large, medium and small-scale works executed between 1911 and 1934, the exhibition’s centrepiece is his erotically charged painting Salome (1918). Highly controversial in its time – when it was displayed in London in 1929 one newspaper claimed it was ‘the most daring nude picture ever painted’ – it is unflinching in its representation of the human form. Salome is seen recumbent, lain across a bed of lushly patterned cushions. Her legs are buckled, and while her face is only partially visible – one hand is thrown across her forehead; the other clasped to her breast – she is clearly in a state of anguish. Although few of his paintings were as explicit, many carry a similar undercurrent, leaving the viewer with the disquieting feeling that pleasures often come with consequences.
This is also apparent in the works for which Beltran Masses is best-known – his psychological portraits, in particular those of women. These paintings, as with much of his oeuvre, are rendered in a palette of melancholic blue notes which, abetted by shadowy backgrounds, heighten the drama and conspire to create a bewitching, almost sepulchral atmosphere. They are very much of the night, literally in many cases, for the artist seldom painted in natural light.
One of the show’s largest works, La Maja Maladita (The wicked Maja) (1918), is a typical example. Its sitter is Carmen Tórtola Valencia (1882 – 1955), a famed Spanish dancer who, like her near contemporary Isadora Duncan, eschewed convention both in the artistic expression of her chosen medium and in her private life. Fittingly, Tórtola Valencia is spread seductively across a chaise longue, attired in a translucent body stocking and embroidered slippers. On her head she wears a mantilla, the traditional headdress of Spanish women – a subversive touch, as it is commonly associated with Catholicism, a faith that the subject controversially rejected in favour of Buddhism. As with many of Beltran Masses’ subjects, the dancer is playfully vampish; her eyes are jet-black, her skin the palest white and her mouth thickened with bright scarlet lipstick.
While his adult life was spent in Paris, Beltran Masses enjoyed huge success in America, mounting exhibitions in New York, Palm Beach and Los Angeles. He spent several months there staying with his friend Rudolph Valentino, whom he painted along with other stars such as Marion Davies (lover of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst), Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford, as well as society figures and members of the plutocracy. These were largely commissioned works, and while some are in the fine tradition of the swagger portraits of the late 19th and early 20th century, almost all of them are layered with a deep, sub-textual narrative. The artist has an intimate link with many of his subjects, and this is particularly true of Pasión (1932).
The painting depicts Joan Crawford (1904 – 1977) and her then husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr (1909 – 2000) on a gondola in Venice. Set before what appears to be the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, the painting shows Fairbanks locked in an embrace with his wife, who has one hand draped in the canal. It is a troubling work, in that it is difficult to discern whether Crawford’s pose is expressing ecstasy or a more ambivalent surrender, a question made more pertinent by the fact the couple had travelled to Europe on a second honeymoon on the advice of Louis B Mayer to help save their marriage – Crawford had been having an affair with Clark Gable. Although none of the subjects actually sat for him in Venice, it is the setting for many of Beltran Masses’ portraits, and can be seen in another of the featured works, Las hermanas de Venecia (1920). A decadent note is struck here. One of the ‘sisters’ may have just been ravished; her gown is pulled back to reveal a single breast and her expression is one of rapture. The painting seems to be deliberately ambiguous — hermanas may mean sisters, as in siblings, but also cousins or members of the same organisation, a sisterhood. That the artist has painted one as a brunette, while the other is blonde, suggests the latter, while their poses allow the viewer to imagine the nature of this sisterhood.
A more conventional form of portraiture is found in Mrs Freda Dudley Ward (1921), and Mirabella (1914). In the former, Dudley Ward, later the Marquesa de Casa Maury (1893 – 1983), is dressed as a respectable society hostess. Tellingly, she is not seen in daylight in a drawing room, but reclining sensually in a nocturnal setting, which was more reflective of her colourful personality (during her first marriage she conducted a five-year affair with Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII). Meanwhile, Mirabella pays homage to Manet’s Olympia and Goya’s Maja Desnuda, depicting a maja (a lower-class Spanish women) reclining on a sofa. In contrast, the earliest work in the exhibition, La Viuda Narezo e hija (1910), shows a widowed mother attired in black with her daughter, the artist’s wife.
Beltran Masses was a superstar artist of his time, patronised by royalty as well as the glittering stars of the art and entertainment worlds. His exhibitions were wildly popular – six thousand postcards were sold of one work, La Maja Marquesa (1915), and seventeen-thousand catalogues were bought at his 1929 London exhibition – and his relationship with Hollywood stars continued long after a 1925 Los Angeles exhibition.
The title of the exhibition – Under the Stars – refers to a 1915/16 painting in the show of the same name; an unabashedly romantic composition depicting a young gypsy couple lying on the ground alone on a hillside, their donkey and caravan behind them. The male figure looks towards the night sky whilst playing on a guitar, his lover following his gaze to the stars. (This was the centrepiece of a 1916 exhibition in Madrid at which King Alfonso XIII acquired a painting now in the collection of the Centre Reina Sofia.)
Federico Beltran Masses: Under the Stars draws a symbolic line from the starlit nocturnal settings in which Beltran Masses placed many of his subjects, to the glitter of Hollywood that was ever-present in his work, and to his own star, which rose spectacularly, only to be eclipsed with the advent of abstract painting and the Second World War.
Says Stair Sainty’s Creative Director, Elizabeth Pierson Sainty: ‘This second exhibition seeks to contextualise Beltran Masses’ oeuvre by showing how he was indebted to his Spanish artistic and cultural heritage, while fusing classical traditions with psychological insights and a highly individual palette.’