Isabel Quintanilla’s Dreamy Realism

MADRID — The first artwork in Isabel Quintanilla’s Intimate Realism at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza is the only conventional portrait in the show. The remarkable 1962 “Autorretrato” (“Self-Portrait”) was completed when the artist was in her 20s, but her tentative expression and dress, resembling a school uniform, give the impression of a much younger girl. Sketched lightly in pencil on paper, the figure appears to emerge from a haze, as if the artist is conjuring herself into being through the act of drawing. And though Quintanilla made the piece at the beginning of her long career, it already betrays the deeply felt sensitivity and rigorous skill that would characterize the rest of her work.

I say that this is the only “conventional” portrait in the exhibition because Quintanilla’s presence is palpable in her still lifes, interior scenes, and landscapes, even if her own image is rarely visible. The 90 paintings and drawings on view — many of which have never been publicly displayed in Spain — span from the 1950s to the artist’s death in 2017. Quintanilla lived and worked during a time when men dominated Spanish art and while her group, the Madrid Realists, have gained some national notoriety, most recognition has gone to its male members such as the painter Antonio López García. This expansive and thoughtful retrospective contests that history and is, improbably, the museum’s first devoted to a Spanish woman artist.

Quintanilla and her cohort chose realism at a moment of great change in Spain; their works witness the end of Francisco Franco’s regime, the country’s transition to democracy, and the decades that followed. At a time when realistic figuration had long gone out of fashion in the national art sphere, their work forms a unique record of this crucial era.

Early pieces like “La lamparilla” (“The table lamp”) (1956) are clearly inspired by Quintanilla’s fascination with Spanish Golden Age works and Dutch still life paintings, where individual objects like a watch or burning candle point to larger themes of time and decay. Later, the artist accompanied her husband, the sculptor Francisco López, to Rome for his scholarship at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de España (I found myself wondering why he won the award, and not Quintanilla). There, she conducted her own independent study of Pompeian frescoes and other ancient sources. These influences resonate in her 1966 painting “Jardín” (“Garden”), in which a line of citrus trees against an earthy red wall evokes an ancient Roman villa.

After returning to Madrid in 1965, Quintanilla created a series of quietly exquisite still lifes, often of everyday items around her kitchen. “Pensamientos sobre la nevera” (“Pansies on top of the fridge”) (1972) is one such painting. Her attention to detail transforms a handful of flowers in a cup into something sublime. The same small Duralex glass cup appears repeatedly in Quintanilla’s other sparse and intimate still lifes, evincing the artist’s uncanny ability to capture light.

Each element of these compositions is charged with meaning, and often a sense of autobiography. Unlike her stately art historical references, these still lifes often imply the preparation of a meal or the clean-up afterward, tasks that likely fell only to Quintanilla in her household. A kitchen sink full of dishes, a plastic bottle of olive oil next to a pot, and a bowl of cracked eggs waiting to be beaten all represent the daily demands on her time that kept her from the studio. Yet these humble scenes are rendered elegantly, in her meticulous but never sterile hand. The can of Ajax, wadded rag, and drying silverware in “Cubiertos” (“Cutlery”) (1971) point both to Quintanilla’s domestic labor load and to her impeccable capacity as an artist. Personal and purposeful, her still lifes encapsulate her roles as a woman, caregiver, and creator.

Quintanilla is perhaps best known for her moody interiors, where layers of light, shadow, doors, and windows create complex environments full of mysterious ambiance. Nearly all of these pictures are set in her home or studio, and it’s fascinating to observe subtle changes in decoration and design over time. The scenes are especially captivating when they diverge from Madrid’s characteristic blanching sunlight, instead homing in on the enchanting effects of rain or nighttime. Either way, Quintanilla worked across these scenes as she did in her early self-portrait: slowly building up her image until she captured what she saw before her, and what’s inside of her.

Isabel Quintanilla’s Intimate Realism continues at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza (Paseo del Prado, 8, Madrid, Spain) through June 2. The exhibition was curated by Leticia de Cos.

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