'If only he had lived longer': Fortuny, Catalonia’s greatest Orientalist painter

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Tuesday 19 Jun 2012

Barcelona celebrates the legacy of Catalonia’s greatest Orientalist, Marià Fortuny, as the National Museum of Catalan Art exhibits 50 of his prints, some of them never put on show before

7. Moroccans in a street, Circa 1860 - Fortuny (Photo: M.Elrazzaz)

"Ask any art enthusiast about Catalonia’s most famous painters and they will tell you Dalí and Miró. Ask ‘who else?’ and you will get a long pause and a confused look." This is Jordi Reixach’s experience as a Catalan history of art professor.

"Some may mention Ramon Casas, Santiago Rusiñol or Antoni Tápies. Some would even tell you Picasso, just because he lived in Barcelona, even though he was from Malaga."

"And Fortuny?" I asked.

"Fortuny? Well, what a spectacular painter he was! If only he lived longer," he sighed.

Like many great artists who died young (Raphael, Caravaggio, Gorky), Marià Fortuny, who died at the age of 36, left a big question mark about what sort of legacy he would have had, if he had lived longer.

Who was he? What makes him "special" as an Orientalist? The National Museum of Catalan Art (MNAC) in Barcelona is a good place to find the answer, especially following the recent renovation of the graphic work section to exhibit his drawings and prints.

The Battle of Tetuan

The building is an imposing one, both for its monumentality and for its location on the Montjuïc heights in Barcelona. Originally built for the 1929 International Exhibition, the Palau Real (Royal Palace) houses the National Museum of Catalan Art, whose impressive collection spans over 1,000 years of art and is particularly famous worldwide for its Romanesque section.

In addition to works by Tintoretto, Titian, El Greco, Rubens, Velázquez, Zurbarán and many other old and modern masters, the Museum owns the largest collection of Fortuny’s works anywhere in the world, at 2,458 drawings and prints (not to mention the paintings.)

At the heart of the MNAC, a huge painting seems to attract scores of viewers. As I approached the painting, I quickly surrendered to the details. Fortuny is Catalonia’s greatest 19th century artist, and this is one of his masterpieces: "The Battle of Tetuan."

"This painting is so big that it makes you feel that you can walk right into the battlefield and witness the battle," said Joan Roig, a Catalan journalist. "Painting great battles in which Spain was involved was customary ever since the Baroque," he explains.

It was in 1859 that Fortuny, having finished his art studies in Rome, traveled to Morocco (commissioned by the authorities in Barcelona) to paint scenes from the Spanish-Moroccan War. He would paint numerous sketches that would eventually serve as snapshots, eventually inspiring the monumental 300 x 972 cm canvas depicting the culminating victory of Spain in the Battle of Tetuan. For an artist accustomed to small-scale drawings and paintings, the challenge was immense, and the result, an epic.

At the centre, Moroccan warriors facing a surprise Spanish attack on their base are fleeing their posts.  The hyperrealism of the scene is further stressed by the dynamism of the composition, with the presence of several planes that lends the painting a sense of depth. Surprisingly, and contrary to the battle paining tradition at the time, the viewer cannot recognise any of the characters, not even the Spanish leader.

Fortuny captures the essence rather than the ego. This appeals to artist José Rubio, who argues that "Fortuny opted for the exoticism of the battle, for the pomp and circumstances, and not for depicting characters that no one would remember later."

Hostage to detail

The time that Fortuny spent in Morocco came as a revelation. Countless Moroccan scenes and figures filled his sketches; his fascination was, in a way, love at first sight. What the first glance does not capture, a second one can very well serve to highlight, and this is exactly what happened when Fortuny moved to Granada to live for a couple of years.

His pale "backgrounds" eventually gave way to a frenzy of colours as the halls of the Alhambra and the gardens of Generalife lightened his palette and provided the dramatic stage and backdrop for his subjects. Moreover, the fantasy world of the Alhambra and its tales inspired several paintings, like "The Massacre of the Abencerrajes" a family supposedly massacred at one of the halls of the Alhambra. This painting, as well as others, further demonstrates the triumph of the detail in Fortuny’s opus.

No effort is spared to depict each and every tiny tile of mosaic, motif in the wall or engraving in the stucco, while the figures depicted recede to a secondary role. The viewer can only marvel at the splendour of the Alhambra’s halls and the Orientalist setting.

This was not always the case of course, as the harem that he painted in other works would also radiate a very imposing presence, but never without the exuberance of the setting and the luxury of detail.

However, attention to detail is clearly not the only virtue of Fortuny, because his mastery in capturing light and making his figures luminous – decades before any impressionist - is overwhelming. One needs only to contemplate any of his compositions to admire this quality of his. As French tourist Melanie Ferrier comments: "Had I not known that I was looking at Fortuny’s works, and if it was not for the Orientalist motif, I would have easily mistaken him for an Impressionist."

My tour comes to an end, and I leave Fortuny behind with one question in mind: What would have happened "if only he had lived longer?"


Mohammed Elrazzaz holds an MA in Cultural Management (Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, Barcelona) and is currently a PhD candidate and a professor of "Tools for Managing Culture" at the same university. He also collaborates with the Andalusi Legacy Foundation (Granada) as a writer/researcher on history and culture.

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