Manolo Valdés: art without borders

By Cesare Giraldi


Looking at the works of Manolo Valdés is an exercise that allows you to take an imaginary voyage through the last four centuries of art history. Indeed, his sublime artistic dialectic brings with it references to illustrious creators that lived in a more or less distant past, from Velázquez to Rubens and Zurbarán, but was also forged from his more recent experiences, first positioning him among the leading figures in the Spanish pop art scene, with the group Equipo Crónica, founded in 1965, a thorn in the side of the Franco regime, and later, from the end of the 1980s, in his New York phase, concentrated on figurative, visionary sculptures, some of which are monumental, and which have remained part of his production right up until the present day. And these have earned him a lot of recognition, such as his participation in the Venice Biennale in 2000, representing Spain, along with Esther Ferrer; contributions to some of the most prestigious collections in the world, such as those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Reina Sofia in Madrid; as well as solo exhibitions all over the world. His last exhibition in Italy was in 1995, but after 25 years, the Palazzo Cipolla Museum in Rome has decided to organise his great comeback, with the exhibition Manolo Valdés. Le forme del tempo, which opened its doors on the 17th October and will be on until the 10th January, organised in collaboration with the Contini Gallery. Around seventy works, directly from the artist’s studio and important private collections, composed of paintings and sculptures in wood, marble, bronze, alabaster, brass, steel and iron, some in large dimensions, document Valdés’ creative journey from the early 1980s to today.

His dialogue with the artists of the past, however, is striking and distinctive. As if the image taken from an artist with baroque memories were transformed, adopting the changes of later periods, until it arrives before us, in new clothing, with holes and tears in the material impressed by its long journey through time. It is no surprise that the curator of the exhibition, Gabriele Simongini, observes: “The central work, of capital importance for the inexaustible coming-and-going of Valdés through the labyrinth of art history, is Las Meninas by Velázquez, in particular for its weaving of reality and illusion, for playing with truth and appearance, which constitutes the heart of this masterpiece and the Spanish baroque, but also of Valdés’ own work. The artist manages, almost by magic, to convey a sculptural three-dimensionality to figures and characters that were previously “condemned” to the two-dimensionality of the canvas – he continues. “He continuously subverts the roles in the sculptural values he gives to painting, with his overflowing materiality, and the pictorial values he often gives to sculpture, through the importance of colour, as well as in the surprising sculptural “materialisation” of his designs in his large-dimension works of extreme visual and poetic lightness.”


The theme of women returns frequently to his chosen subjects, in continuity with Matisse and Picasso. Women celebrated in all their dignity and authority, not only as a symbol of harmony and beauty, but also as an image of strength and courage, as we see in the horse-riding women in some of his female portraits, wearing expressions that are not demure in the slightest. This is a feature that highlights the clear boundary between reference to the styles of the past and the reworking of the figure based on his modern sensibilities. Valdés is on a perpetual search for synthesis between different eras and artists; an authentic journey through time that he manages to exalt through his technique. It is no wonder that Professor Emmanuele F.M. Emanuele, President of the Fondazione Terzo Pilastro Internazionale, which is organising the exhibition, was fascinated by Valdés and chose to restart Palazzo Cipolla’s exhibitions after the lockdown with his work. “The works of Valdés, whether paintings or sculptures, are journeys of explosive force and vitality, conveyed by the artist’s skillful working of hugely varied materials in order to communicate an almost tactile sensation upon observation. In his work, I particularly appreciate his inclination for drawing, in a completely transparent, natural way, from the artistic repertoire of the past, in order to reinterpret it with a contemporary twist. It confirms my conviction that art is an uninterrupted flow, a constant dialogue between the greats of yesteryear and the greats of today, and it makes no sense to enclose it in strict periods with no exchange between them. Making space for events such as this exhibition is even more important in this dramatic moment in history, afflicted by the public health emergency and the resulting serious economic and social crisis that has hit us. I will do all I can to provide a response to this situation, through art and culture, in the hope that it will contribute to alleviating the distressing existential condition our fellow citizens are in.”