Barradas, Rafael (1890-1929) - 1917-18 People in a Cafe - Study (National Museum of Visual Arts, Montevideo, Uruguay)
Watercolor; 23 x 28 cm.
Born in Montevideo and active in the city's bohemian circles in his youth, Barradas left for Europe in 1914, making his way through Milan, Paris, and Leuven before settling in Spain. Working between Barcelona and Madrid, he immersed himself in the bustling avant-garde scene over the following decade, gaining renown for his work in set and costume design as well as for his contributions to modernist aesthetics. During these years, he mingled within a transatlantic avant-garde milieu that included, among many others, Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, Norah and Jorge Luis Borges, and Federico García Lorca. In 1917, Barradas and fellow Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García exhibited the first "vibrationist" paintings, coining a new "ism" to describe works that integrated Cubism and Italian Futurism. The thrust of vibrationism was to capture the vitality of the modern city, and Barradas imaged Catalonia through the visual dynamics of simultaneous color, graphically deployed to describe its street life and urban culture.
In the early 1920s, Barradas began to seek new directions in realism, retreating from the avant-garde and turning his attention to working-class subjects. He embarked on the "Magníficos" ("The Magnificent Ones"), a series of portraits of men and women-- fishermen, innkeepers, mechanics--made monumental through a subtle architecture of colors, now reduced to a warm palette of browns, ochres, and grays. Archetypal images of the Castilian people, the Magníficos are steeped in the rustic gentility and humanity of their subjects, whose sturdy figures suggest a deep-rooted and enduring permanence in the face of the modern world. The Magníficos rank among Barradas's most compelling and important works, and without question they belong within a lineage of modern portraiture stretching from Paul Cézanne to Juan Gris.
Angel Kalenberg has drawn parallels between the thematized treatment of hands in the Magníficos, the similarly mannered hands of Vincent Van Gogh's Potato-Eaters (1885) and, more distantly, those of Michelangelo's David (1501-4). Acknowledging the monumentality of Barradas's subjects, Kalenberg finds in their hands "a sense of life not without its tenderness" and suggests that they embody the artist's feelings of "solidarity and sympathy" with his subjects. A sense of nostalgia permeates much of Barradas's late work, perhaps in anticipation of his return to Uruguay shortly before his death in 1929, and the Magníficos convey a deeply held respect for the working classes and their rituals of everyday life.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1) Angel Kalenberg, "Rafael Barradas: el tránsito," in Barradas Torres-García (Buenos Aires: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Buenos Aires, 1995), 27.