Bilbao and Painting

– At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Bilbao is a town that expands in every sense of the word, both from an urban as well as an industrial perspective, which is reflected in painting.

– The works depict very diverse scenes, such as the boats and terraces on the river, the everyday life of the commercial bourgeoisie, and that of the village folk; popular festivities, the heroes of new (imported) sports, or the daily tasks in a fishing port.

– Both the sea and the ships are a recurring theme in the paintings of Bilbao at the turn of the century, which most artists conjure in an effort to capture their color and thus reflect their vital role in the town’s commerce and culture.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents Bilbao and Painting, an exhibition sponsored by Iberdrola, that brings together a selection of paintings created by artists working in Bilbao in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who traveled to Paris and incorporated the ideas of modernism from French Impressionism and the Avant-gardes. At the turn of the century, Bilbao became one of the most prosperous cities in Spain, thanks to its naval, and iron and steel industries, and its commercial, banking, and cultural activity. There is, at this period, among the citizens of Bilbao a craving and an earnest wish to succeed and steadily advance towards a better future for all, a sort of empathy that unfortunately will be shattered with advent of the Civil War of 1936.

The exhibition represents and conceptualizes different moments in the history of Bilbao through largescale paintings that portray, among other scenes, the commercial ships in the river and the terraces given to leisure, the life of the bourgeoisie and the village folk, the rowers, the struggle and death at sea, sporting heroes, the daily tasks in a fishing port or the festivities in a Biscayan anteiglesia (village district).


In the exhibition’s introductory space, the visitor delves into 19th century Bilbao through large photographs; this area also contextualizes the figure of Bilbao-born sculptor Paco Durrio, creator of one of the most important public art sculptures of 20th century Spain: Monument to Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga. Located in front of the Bilbao’s Museum of Fine Arts, this sculpture dedicated to a composer does not depict his figure, but rather symbolizes his work and premature death. Durrio played an important role in the history of art for, on the one hand, he was Paul Gauguin’s executor, who entrusted him with all his  pictorial work before undertaking what would be his last trip to Polynesia in 1895 and, on the other, passed Gauguin’s baton of innovation to a young Pablo Picasso who had just landed in Paris in 1901, and to whom Durrio generously lent his studio so that the latter could make his first sculptural pieces.

First Gallery

This space holds a selection of works by Adolfo Guiard, Ignacio Zuloaga, Anselmo Guinea, Manuel Losada, and José Arrue that display the various panoramic views that comprise the new economic, social, and urban landscape of Bilbao at the end of the 19th century. 

The River at Axpe and On the Terrace, painted by Adolfo Guiard in 1886, present visions of ships anchored on the river and the sea from the terrace of a spa open onto the outer port, while Dawn, by Ignacio Zuloaga, The Valkyries, by Manuel Losada, and The Fountain of Health, by Anselmo Guinea, portray the enlightened bourgeoisie through various members of the Kurding Club, a club created in 1894, officially called “El Escritorio” (The Desk). The characters painted in these works are young Bilbao businessmen who happened to be music lovers, and who commissioned these painters—their schoolmates—recently returned from Paris, a number of murals to decorate the club’s walls. These young men play a key role in the creation of musical institutions in Bilbao, which are still in existence, such as the Philharmonic Society, the Biscay Music Academy (forerunner of the Conservatory), or the Symphony Orchestra, and also in the new industrial and banking fabric. With a lithe and modern style, the murals of the Kurding Club capture the leisure-like atmosphere of Bilbao in quotidian scenes, such as that of the church of San Nicolás in the Arenal at dawn, or the rural scene with village folk and bertsolaris (Basque minstrels) in a mountain setting by Zubiaurre.

Second Gallery

The paintings exhibited in this room bring sea and mountain scenes face to face. Despite the geographical proximity between the two, the fishing villages and rural hamlets use very different color codes, which can be appreciated in the distinctive chromatic range, linearity, and proportion of the painting of ships and farmhouses, for example. 

The sea is a recurring theme in the paintings of Bilbao at the turn of the century, which most artists invoke in an effort to reproduce its color and reflect its vital importance for the town’s commerce and culture. Examples of both cases are Ramón Zubiaurre’s The Basque Sailor Shanti Andía, The Bold, who stares out onto the horizon in the middle of the gale, or the triptych Lyricism and Religion by Gustavo de Maeztu, which captures the people’s shock towards death upon the arrival of some fishermen to dry land.

As far as the rural world is concerned, the paintings reflect scenes that go from the villager who gathers the harvest in Adolfo Guiard’s Harvest, in which the green of the fields is transformed into ochers and yellows, to the life of cattle and festivities of Francisco Iturrino’s paintings, such as The Picadors or Country Scene, two contrasting examples of Post-Impressionism and Fauve painting which these artists learned in Paris and introduced in Spain. The space closes with Aurelio Arteta’s War Triptych and Agustín Ibarrola’s Totem, which depicts the villager’s tools, the tools of life in the farmhouse, as if they were sculptures.

Third Gallery 

The paintings in the third gallery make up an ethnographic vision of folklore, in which the artists document, among other aspects, the symbolism of dance. Thus, visitors will discover the costumbrist painting of Manuel Losada Don Terencio and Chango, The Txistulari (traditional flutist), the dance in the anteiglesias (village districts) in Aurelio Arteta’s The Pilgrimage Festival 1, or Jesús Olasagasti’s autumn scene of the Apple Harvest. Different aspects of the pilgrimages and religious festivals are also on display, one in a neighborhood of Bermeo, with the sea on the horizon, and yet another in Arrancudiaga with the rocks in the background, in the unique works of José Arrue. 

The room is completed with José María de Ucelay’s Souletin Dances, a painting that provides an encyclopedic vision of one of the oldest dances in the Basque Country, the Masquerade in Zuberoa, a dance that brings together the entire town and dates back to the domestication of horses.


As part of the Didaktika project, sponsored by BBK, the Museum conceives special activities that complement the exhibitions.  Introductory Talk to the Exhibition Bilbao and Painting (January 27)  Kosme de Barañano, curator of the exhibition, reveals, in this talk, keys to the exhibition, as a prelude to the opening. This activity will also be broadcast in streaming.

Shared Reflections

Unique visits led by professionals from the Museum’s Curatorial and Education areas, who offer different
points of view on the contents of the new exhibitions.

  • Curatorial Vision (February 10): Petra Joos, Museum curator, will tour the exhibition’s main works.
    • Key Concepts (February 17): Luz Maguregui, Education Coordinator, will talk with participants
    regarding the works’ general and didactic aspects.
    * Sponsored by Fundación Vizcaína Aguirre.

Creative Session: Paco Durrio, Goldsmith. Modernism and the Avant-garde (March 4)
Introductory workshop to jewelry design, taught by designer Matxalen Krug, who combines experience
with a relaxed and laid-back learning. Architectural Tour of Ricardo Bastida and Aurelio Arteta’s Bilbao. Connections to the Exhibition (April 17 and May 1) Walking tour of the city starting from the Museum’s esplanade, led by the architect Borja Vildosola, who, moreover, will share with the participants details of the installation work and design, as well as the exhibition’s works.


The exhibition catalogue, by Kosme de Barañano, presents an extensive journey that addresses numerous
social, economic, or political aspects of Bilbao’s development, as well as a detailed analysis of the thirtyodd painting scenes that comprise the exhibition, which allow the reader to “delve into our city’s history”
and see […] “history as a continuum that brings us closer to the Bilbao of 1800 and suggests how to discern
the future”.

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