José María Sert (Barcelona, 1874-1945), one of the great Spanish muralists, was one of the most sought-after and controversial artists of his time. Descendant of the Catalan Renaixença (Renaissance) and trained in Modernism, he crafts his pictorial style on the peripheries of the stylistic trends of the time, applying aspects of Orientalism, clear Baroque influences and a kind of Goya-esque Expressionism, as well as a potent imagination, to create and adapt themes based on a grandiloquent narrative.
These characteristics make him an innovator of mural painting and a prolific artist that paints over seven thousand square metres in cathedrals, palaces, large rooms, private residences and town halls in various cities. However, the work that stands out above the rest is the Vic Cathedral mural.
Although the work was commissioned in 1900, Sert doesn't submit the first sketches until 1906 due to the high demand for his work from the aristocrats of that period. His output is interrupted by the First World War, and, once he retakes the mantle, Sert feels he has to modify his approach, suppressing colour and reconsidering perspectives in order to achieve depth. The work is finally finished in 1929 but is destroyed just seven years later. Clearly shaken, Sert agrees to restore the cathedral, basing it this time on the use of bas-reliefs, and finally completes the piece in the year of his death.
Sert's tumultuous life has been the subject of two biographies to date, which outline how his charisma and erudition enable him to move in circles of high Parisian society, starting after he moves from Barcelona to Paris at the age of twenty-five and establishes his studio in the French capital. Sert marries the mythical Misia Godebska, the model for Impressionist painters, and maintains close friendships with people such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, Gabrielle Colette and Paul Claudel as well as the bishop of Vic, Torras i Bages. His dealings with different personalities and royalty, such as Queen Victoria Eugenia, yield various commissions.
In France, Sert paints in the residency of Baron Rothschild, while in Britain he decorates the mansions of Sir Saxton Noble, Lady Ripon and Philip Sassoon's castle, among others. In America (Palm Beach) he paints a mural of the Adventures Sinbad the Sailor to decorate the residence of Mr. Joshue Cosden in 1924, and in New York he achieves great success as he is commissioned to carry out two large projects, one for the Rockefeller Center and the other for the Waldorf Astoria, where he paints his vision of Cervantes' Bodas de Camacho. In 1934 and 1935 Sert produces one his greatest and most significant works - painting the hall in the League of Nations in Geneva in honour of Francisco de Vitoria.
Despite the fact that his life was defined by activity and success, his work falls into oblivion following his death in 1945. This retrospective exhibition recovers the Catalan painter's outstanding body of work, displaying numerous scale models, sketches and photographic studies of his creations, which are exhibited together with a carefully selected collection of works, such as Las Cuatro Estaciones, created for the hunting lodge of the Rothschild Barons and restored for this exhibition.
Leonard Marcini, his model and gilder, has participated in the classification of the work, providing details of Sert's studio in Paris that are included in the exhibition together with works such as Elegías al pueblo vasco (1929-34), for the ancient San Telmo convent in San Sebastián, Evocaciones españolas (1942), folding screens from the Juan March music hall in Madrid, the five ceilings for the Palacio Pereda in Buenos Aires in 1932 and the Expedición de la Reina de Saba (1923-1924) for the Hotel Wendel Music Hall in Paris.