The Bold and the Beautiful

Although the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC) sit beside one another upon the same soil in Parque Forestal, they are miles apart in terms of the roots they rose from and the fruit they bear. The dichotomy goes beyond Old vs. New. These are two distinct ways of experiencing art in the same space in Santiago.

Where spray paint cannot reach, the MAC remains untouched
Where spray paint cannot reach, the MAC remains untouched

There are a plethora of kinship terms that could be used to describe the relationship between the two art galleries that share the Palacio de Bellas Artes building in Parque Forestal. Non-identical twins is the first to spring to mind, where the Museo de Bellas Artes has golden ringlets and gets good grades, and the MAC has piercings and gets in trouble. Born at different times and belonging to different families, the two galleries are united not by history but happenstantial geography.

The Museo de Bellas Artes was born and built out of the need to bring the art scene across the sea from Europe to Latin America. This task was entrusted to French-Chilean architect José Emile Jéquier, who oversaw and undertook the transatlantic transfer of European architecture, art and aesthetics to Chile.

El Greco, Remdrandt and other great masters feature on the exterior walls of Bellas Artes
El Greco, Remdrandt and other great masters feature on the exterior walls of Bellas Artes

To select an emblematic example, the building's façade pays homage to artists of historical renown through a series of glittering, golden mosaics depicting and dedicated to the old masters. Although there may not be a Rembrandt in the museum itself, the portrait of the Renaissance artist on the exterior serves as a visual link to the continent where everything glittered.

The MAC on the other hand, whilst only meters away, is a world apart from The Gallery Next Door. The museum, which sprung forth from an impetus to showcase contemporary art in Chile, first opened in 1946 in Quinta Normal and opened a second site at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in 1974. But despite being housed in art nouveau architecture, the MAC features more video art than bronze busts and has little to do with Rembrandt, the Renaissance or Rococo plastering.

Photo courtesy Museo de Arte Contemporáneo
Photo courtesy Museo de Arte Contemporáneo

There is something also to be said of the far more casual atmosphere of the MAC, where visitors comfortably point and prod at artworks, whereas at a recent exhibit launch at the Museo de Bellas Artes, visitors were strictly forbidden from taking their glasses of wine into any of the exhibition rooms.

Tourists take photos outside Bellas Artes; art students take photos inside the MAC. The first has a bookshop; the second has a café. The former is Pre; the latter is Post. To comment on the fact that the Bellas Artes logo is square whilst the MAC emblem is circular might be to clutch at a convenient straw, and these differences might initially seem minute, but they represent not only a focus on distinct eras of art, but of two entirely distinct approaches to art.

Photo courtesy Vamos al museo vamosalmuseo.cl
Photo courtesy Vamos al museo vamosalmuseo.cl

Nothing makes this more manifest than the contrast between the exteriors of the two galleries. I have been to copious contemporary art galleries around the world. I have also been to Berlin. Yet never before have I seen the pristine, pillared edifice of an art gallery, contemporary as it might be, as peppered with pigment as the MAC was earlier this year.

The content sprayed upon the building varied, from small doodles to political statements, but what the graffiti read or depicted was dwarfed by the sheer fact that it was there at all. This meant firstly, that somebody dared to spray paint upon a public cultural institution and secondly, that these unsolicited messages and mementos were allowed to remain on the building for extended periods of time, despite the efforts of the museum's director.

The graffiti that often covers the front of the MAC has been an issue of great contention. Some think it suits the gallery's aesthetic, others consider it vandalism. One visitor to the gallery told of how dismayed he was at this "defacing" of the building and expressed with exasperation that "if we begin to consider this sort of damage as art, then soon enough anything can be called art." One of the recent messages along the front stairs read, "I didn't know what to write so I wrote this."

This calls into question the responses of the public, both Chilean and international, towards the works in the MAC itself. The sculptures that fill the central hall of Bellas Artes, which render swathes of fabric and lithe bodies in plaster and marble, are easily classed as art. However, many find 'Art', when in the form of a single photograph illuminated on a lightbox, or a line drawing with magnifying glasses on either side of it, a harder pill to swallow.

Regardless of your degree of appreciation for the exhibits, and contrary to the customary distance and discipline enforced in art galleries, the MAC lets you lay your hands on its works and on its walls, to look closer and get closer.

Past the shattered windows and used mattresses along the side of the MAC, Bellas Artes is another story. The board walls that surrounded the recent renovation project were laced with barbed wire and the white sheet covering any unsightly scaffolding sported delicate line drawings and collage cut-outs of historic paintings. The message was clear- this is a building to look at, not to make your mark on. The 'street art' was pre-painted and great lengths were taken in order to keep the museum true to its name and offer an aesthetic appearance, even whilst workers in fluorescent overalls abseiled down the building, in an arguably un-Bella fashion.

Photo courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Photo courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

The MAC constantly seeks to push the limits of what qualifies as art, inviting interaction with both the building and its works. The Bellas Artes sets, states and sticks to the standards of the museum as a space for preservation and observation.

The two galleries, connected by a mere 10-meter passage, are adjacent to one another not by way of comparison or contest, but rather to offer visitors a 2-for-1 deal when exploring the art scene of Santiago through two different understandings of art.

Graffiti lined the steps of the MAC's Art Deco architecture
Graffiti lined the steps of the MAC's Art Deco architecture

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Editor's note: The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA), Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC), Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI) and the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral (GAM) have recently come together to form an alliance called "Barrio Arte" (Art Neighborhood), with the goal of establishing the area as an artistic and cultural hub through collaboration and joint activities. The launch event will take place Thursday, November 30, in front of the Mavi at noon. And if you're disappointed about not catching the graffiti adorning the MAC, just give it a few weeks.

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Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes:
José Miguel de la Barra 650
Santiago, Chile
+56 (2) 2499 1600
http://www.mnba.cl
Metro Bellas Artes

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo
Ismael Valdés Vergara 506 (the Quinta Normal site is located at Av. Matucana 464)
Santiago, Chile
+56 (2) 2977 1741
http://www.mac.uchile.cl
Metro Bellas Artes

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