2017 marks the 80th anniversary of the agenda-setting 1937 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne. Held during dangerous times, the Exposition sparked controversy just in its planning for hosting Pavilions from both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – Germany’s Pavilion would be crowned with a swastika. But it goes down in art history for its Spanish Pavilion, which, in addition to radical works from Joan Miro and Alexander Calder, marked the unveiling of Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica.
And, to commemorate this anniversary, Mayoral gallery in St. James is hosting a small show that sets out to capture the spirit and revolutionary zeal of this Pavilion. Though the original pieces that were on show in the Pavilion back in 1937 may not be here (if you want to see Guernica, you’ll still have to head over to Madrid!) the Gallery has brought together a terrific array of works from Picasso, Miro and Calder, all of which give a sense of the excitement and the energy of this time.
There’s plenty of Miros on the walls to delight any visitor. His mural, The Reaper, which was painted at the Pavilion was lost about the same time (probably destroyed as the Pavilion was pulled down once the show was finished) but the works on show here have Miro’s distinctive palette of bright yellows and bold blues and greens.
Obviously, too, there are Picassos. Ceramics, sketches and oils. There’s nothing that can be said about Picasso that hasn’t been said a million times before but his work never fails to look radical and contemporary, even now after all these years. His portraits of Dora Maar – his muse for capturing suffering and loss – in their dark hues of blues, blacks and greys hint at the sombre mood of a time when the Far Right were on the march and a world war seemed ever more unavoidable.
Yet much as I love the Miros and Picassos, it is the mobile sculptures from Alexander Calder that lift the spirits. They are such fragile works that you don’t get to see them very often away from their permanent homes so what a thrill to see them here.
Calder’s large Crag with Yellow Boomerang and Red Eggplant, 1974, dominates the first room – in fact it is the first piece that greets you on arrival and it is a glorious delight – and the accompanying 3 feuilles noirs, 5 blanches, 2 rouges, 1960, in the corner of the room is equally delightful.
Downstairs, there is a small curation of photographs, plans and programmes from the 1937 Exposition. A real draw to this section is some of the promotional posters that show that all visitors and exhibitors knew the weight of the time and what was at stake. Depressing and a little scary how 80 years later, it seems that circle has come around again.
Mayoral, Duke Street St James’s (Behind Fortnum’s), London SW1, Open to February 10, 2017
All installation images by me.