INTERVIEW WITH KOSME DE BARAÑANO

"We must learn from our past to look to the future"

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Iberdrola is sponsoring the exhibition Bilbao y la pintura (Bilbao and painting), a collection of works produced between the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th — a period in which the capital of Biscay began an unstoppable process of modernisation —. Its curator, Kosme de Barañano, introduces us to the fundamentals of the exhibition and transports us to a bubbling Bilbao, the seed of the modern-day city.

Can pictorial works narrate a key moment in the history of a city? The answer is yes, according to Kosme de Barañano, curator of the exhibition Bilbao y la pintura (Bilbao and Painting). Between the end of 19th and early 20th centuries, the Basque city was transformed in body and soul thanks to the imposition of a society eager for modernity. Through 27 paintings, the visitor will witness this evolution, but now let us turn our attention to the person who best knows the keys to the exhibition.

How did the exhibition Bilbao y la pintura come about, and what is the motivation for carrying it out?

This exhibition has been in my head for more than 40 years and I still have a copy bound by José María de Ucelay with its script and content, that is to say, with its meaning. We are talking about reviewing and rethinking the history of our city through 27 pieces of art, like set-pieces or time-songs. These pictures hone that twofold ability of memory and knowledge: history as a continuum that brings us the past of Bilbao and suggests how we should look to the future. The exhibition represents and conceptualises a very wide range of moments from the history of Bilbao through large pictorial murals that reflect the comercial ships in the estuary and the terraces given over to leisure, the life of the bourgeoisie and the villagers, among other scenes.

The historical period reflected in these works coincides with a transcendental moment for Bilbao — the beginning of an unstoppable process of modernisation. What promoted this extraordinary boom?

It is difficult to explain in an interview, in fact, it took me 300 pages of the catalogue to tell the story. Bilbao took off, or went from being a small town to a large industrial city, due to a series of circumstances: the 1841 coastal customs law, the 1849 mining law, the 1855 railways law, the disentailment of Mendizábal, the French-influenced culture, etc. But, above all, because of an idea spread by the merchants of the town that only by uniting all the citizens could Bilbao begin to expand and look to the future.

Kosme de Barañano, curator of the exhibition 'Bilbao y la pintura'

The exhibition represents and conceptualises very diverse moments from the history of Bilbao through large pictorial murals

In what way do the pictures show the drive, verve and vigour characteristic of the period of splendour that the city was going through?

Through their work, the artists recreated the Bilbao that they were witnessing. What they painted, consciously or not, is what they were experiencing in their lives and this is how they conveyed it.

As a result of this atmosphere, several different artistic languages can be seen in the exhibition. Why were the Basque painters of the time so influenced by schools of art like the impressionism?

The artists represented in the collection were not only great painters, as each of their 27 pictures shows, but they also brought to Bilbao and Spain the modernity that impressionism meant, which they saw and studied in Paris — they chose to go to the French capital to become painters and not to Rome, as Madrid academism suggested. They followed the footsteps not only of Monet and the impressionists, but also of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne and the rest pf the post-impressionists. One of our Bilbao locals, Paco Durrio, was Gauguin's trustee when he embarked for Tahiti in 1895, and in 1901, he also took under his wing a young Spanish genius: Picasso. It was another Basque in Paris, Paco Iturrino, who invited the 20-year-old Picasso to exhibit there for the first time. He also introduced fauvism to Spain, Matisse and other artists, and was portrayed by the greats of the 20th Century: Matisse himself, Derain, Balthus, Giacometti.

Kosme de Barañano, curator of the exhibition 'Bilbao y la pintura'

I belong to that line of merchants and sailors who preferred to leave rather than stay behind and that has made my viewpoint more objective

Many young bourgeois had musical aspirations and played an important role in the creation of institutions like the Philharmonic Society and the Symphony Orchestra. Was this cultural avidity typical of the city at the time?

Not that it was typical, but it was especially defining for the the town of Bilbao. There was a coming together of citizens, not all belonging to the industrial bourgeoisie, but basically tradespeople coming together to make avant-garde music, like that of Richard Wagner. This little group of friends, who used to meet in a club called El Escritorio, (the "Writing Desk"), popularly known as Kurding, founded the Philharmonic Society and the Symphony Orchestra and disseminated classical music at parties and celebrations.

In terms of modernisation and innovation, do you see much change between Bilbao at the end of the 19th Century and today?

There is no comparison between Bilbao at the end of the 19th Century, in some ways beholden to the ideals of the French Revolution and with a population of only 35,000, and Bilbao as it is now. But there does remain a vestige, a desire to look to the future: Bilbao's commitment to the Foster underground system, the Calatrava Airport and the Guggenheim Museum embodies this constant idea of embracing the future.

Kosme de Barañano, curator of the exhibition 'Bilbao y la pintura'

These artists were not only great painters, they also brought to Bilbao and Spain the modernity of impressionism

For Iberdrola it is gratifying to sponsor this exhibition, which represents the era and place in which the company was born. You are also at home. Is working on projects linked to your own roots a plus?

I have spent over half my life away from Bilbao. I have never been a prophet in my homeland, nor felt any nostalgia for it. I belong to that line of merchants and sailors who preferred to leave rather than stay behind and that has made my viewpoint more objective, both for putting on this exhibition and being proud of who our forebears were: entrepreneurs, civilised and committed.

The happiness, escapism and enjoyment portrayed in the works contrasts boldly with the melancholy, loneliness and uncertainty that we are currently experiencing because of the pandemic. Do you think this despair will end up being reflected in today's culture?

We must learn from our past to look to the future. If we succeed in balancing faith in the future with our collective memories, we will be able to work together to navigate towards a more pleasant future for all of us. Only by respecting our past, learning from what was good about it, will we be able to evolve as a civilisation. An example: in the midst of the 1839 war, when Bilbao was just the Seven Streets, and under bombardment, a group of citizens led by Máximo Aguirre succeeded in founding the Bilbao Society, a club for leisure and reading. This marked the beginning of the transformation from town to city for Bilbao, in other words a place for free and equal citizens.