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One to Watch: Federico Beltrán Masses

Luxury London introduces an artist that really should be on your radar

What's so interesting? When CNN reports that Kim Kardashian’s app makes upwards of £700,000 per day, it’s pretty clear that the economic power of celebrity has reached an unprecedented level.

But whilst the scale of the financial rewards for celebrity have increased, the level of influence is comparable with an earlier era, when the all-new technology of the silver screen created the first ever global stars, replacing a time when the world’s most recognisable faces were royalty.

Spanish artist Federico Beltrán Masses is, like his Jazz Age contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald, a unique recorder of the handover in influence from monarchs to movie stars, and, like Fitzgerald, brings a dark psychological insight into the effects of this influence on its new bearers. The works that brought him to prominence in the Barcelona of the 1910s are strikingly contemporary to our eyes – almost unimaginably daring in the restricted, highly religious society of Spain at this time.

In Mirabella (1914), a young woman reclines on a sofa, her bobbed hair and smart turquoise shoes according with her direct, self-possessed gaze, but startlingly at odds with her total nakedness. But it was another painting, La Maja Marquesa (1915), that set Beltrán Masses on a course for stardom. The painting of the famously lesbian, very aristocratic Marquesa naked but for a mantilla, the traditional Spanish headdress particularly associated with piety, and flanked by two fully dressed women, resulted in the painting being removed from an exhibition and the artist leaving for Paris.

In Paris, Beltrán Masses joined other expatriates, including the young Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, in the vibrant Parisian art scene.

Rapidly building a career as a portraitist, the young artist painted at least three kings and one pope. But it was a friendship with the actor Rudolph Valentino that began the ascent of his American career – and which contained within it the seeds of his decline. A solo show of his work in a little known Palm Beach gallery sold out for the then staggering sum of £110,000, triggering a flurry of commissions from society figures – Mrs J.P. Morgan, Mrs Guggenheim and William Randolph Hearst amongst them – and prompting an invitation from Rudolph Valentino to visit him in Hollywood.

Valentino and Beltrán Masses became firm friends, and the actor hosted a star-studded opening for the artist where he met and became friends with, among others, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford. His friendships with the new royalty endured, with Beltrán Masses painting a disturbing image of Fairbanks and Crawford in Venice in Pasión (1932) during a trip the stars had been ordered on (by Louis B Meyer no less) to save their ailing marriage. Fairbanks’s world famous face is hidden in Crawford’s neck, while her head is thrown back, as uncomfortably twisted as the supposed romance of Venice at night, the ancient city blankly threatening.

Beltrán Masses’ fame was extraordinary. The dancer Martha Graham named a dance after him – Portrait-Beltrán-Masses – at her first public performance in New York in 1926, a piece which is still performed by her company under the title The Gypsy Dance, and his distinctive blue palette made the term ‘Beltrán Blue’ common currency in art circles.

But if all this Jazz Age glamour adds a Great Gatsby tinge to the artist’s life, there are other, bleaker parallels with the life of Fitzgerald.

While in his youth, Beltrán Masses dazzled Madrid, Paris and Hollywood with his uncompromising, sexually-charged paintings. Success had encouraged him to manage his own career, and when his eyesight began to fail in 1930, there was no expert gallerist in the wings to ensure his reputation retained its lustre.

Back in Paris and cut off from international art markets by the war, Beltrán Masses’s income declined, and he moved to a much smaller home where he gave painting lessons to make ends meet. With his eyesight failing and his health worsening he went to Barcelona for treatment, but died on the 4th October 1949, aged just 64. Changing fashions and his own mismanagement meant that his reputation had fallen into near-complete oblivion.

In recent years, Federico Beltrán Masses’s legacy has been reassessed, and five major museum exhibitions have been held in Spanish national galleries since 2007. His paintings can be found in major museum collections, including the Musée de l’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou; the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid; the Civic Museum in Ciudad Real; Casa Lis in Salamanca; and the Cuban National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana.

A new survey of his work by London gallery Stair Sainty brings together a number of his most charged works and runs until 24 March.

Federico Beltrán Masses Under The Stars, 10th February – 24th March, Stair Sainty, 38 Dover Street, London, W1S