This group show, focusing on the legacy of dandyism, is curated by RMS La Asociación, one of Spain’s most active curatorial teams. The goal, we are told, is to present a genealogy of contemporary artists addressing issues that, far from vanishing, maintain their dimension well. Comprising the work of 35 artists working in an array of media, the show, while belonging to the previous director’s programme, is the first to be held under the auspice of newly appointed Miguel von Hafe.
Dandies are known for their ambiguous position between modernity and nostalgia; they distrust technology and would rather collect old books. Dressed à la mode, they ignore the value of time as it slips past them. We tend to place dandyism amongst 19th century social transformations, but it can be traced back to the Greeks; one of Baudelaire’s quotes backs this up, conveniently supported by Richard Hawkins’ 2006 collages from the series Urbis Paganus III.
The show has a three-part structure based on three key figures of dandyism: Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire. Sur le dandysme aujourd’hui’s discourse is woven through with quotes by the many authors who have dealt with the topic (many having been dandies themselves). This is one of the very wise moves of a well-judged show, which, intentionally or otherwise, underscores the relation between dandiysm and art.
The mere existence of an individual as a dandy is often regarded as a work of art in itself. Beau Brummell didn’t produce much beyond his unusual, striking elegance. JA Barbey d’Aurevilly wrote that his silence ‘was another way of producing an effect’.
Not far removed from this quote, Ignasi Aballí’s buckets of paint suggest the possibility of a self-made work of art. Aballí, one of Spain’s most interesting artists, opens the buckets and watches them dry because he doesn’t know what else to do. Similarly, Aballí’s dust-covered canvas covered, ‘Pols (15 anys a l’estudio)’, 2005, recalls ‘Élevage de poussière’, 1920, Man Ray’s picture of Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’, both works also being the product of intense inactivity.
As has often been said, Duchamp is, like Brummell, more a work of art in himself than the objects he produced. He is perhaps the connection between Brummell’s discreet blurring of the frontiers between art and life, and Oscar Wilde’s self-awareness and public dimension. Wilde embodies a very familiar typology of dandyism. In his brief memoir of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, he praises his publicity-making skills and highlights the works of those whose exposure to the public have turned them into the great celebrities of today’s art world. Stars like Warhol, Koons, Sherman, Douglas Gordon or Tracey Emin epitomise, through narcissistically constructed identities, a wide array of multifaceted selves. In one of his self-portraits, now a classic, Douglas Gordon stares at the camera in his blonde wig and asks his fascinated audience which of his many stolen egos they prefer.
In a more speculative tone, Baudelaire’s perception of dandyism is determined by the transformations which occurred in 19th century society and the consolidation of modern life. A huge guillotine by Piero Golia welcomes the visitor on the ground floor, surely an emphatic reference to troubled and decisive years. In one of the many quotes taken from The Painter of Modern Life, 1863, Baudelaire says that ‘dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence’. Charged with a somewhat melancholic tone, this section of the show offers a gloomy selection of paintings by artists such as Zak Smith, TM Davy, Hernan Bas in a red-painted space that pays hommage to the 19th century salon. RMS La Asociación have also taken Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against the Grain, 1884 as a point of departure, a book that stresses the decadent drive that grows around dandyism. Baudelaire’s and Huysmans’ dusky atmosphere is best depicted by Muntean/Rosenblum’s epic tableaux of teenagers who share their existential uncertainties in a postmodern world and Iris van Dongen’s thoughtful women in misty settings, all of them lost in a world of their own.
Javier Hontoria is a writer based in Gijon