“She is a painter from the seventies that we have rescued.” And the director of the Reina Sofía Museum introduced Isabel Oliver (Valencia, 1946), the “reborn” painter to the Minister of Culture. Then, Miquel Iceta continued his march to the side of Manolo Borja-Villel while he showed him the new tour and reading of the collections that the center inaugurated last Friday. And there Isabel stayed, taking pictures of herself in the crowded room where her painting “Happy Meeting” (1970-1973) and her installation “De Profession, Your Work” hangs. She was happy and content that at 75 years of age, already retired as a professor of drawing at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Valencia, her work is appreciated and valued. She has spent four decades without stopping painting in her small studio in Valencia, she has not had recognition in museums or public presence, she is absent in art books and has been ignored by the market. How has this blindness and this “rescue” been possible?
“At first I believed that I was not serious, that it must be a mistake,” recalls Isabel Oliver of that call that changed her life in 2015. It was the call of the real rescue: it was the TATE Modern in London, the institution of modern art most important in the UK and most influential in Europe. Isabel had no work in Spanish museums, none had been interested in her work and she had hardly sold to collectors. It didn’t even have a gallery owner and it still doesn’t. “Because I don’t understand myself with them. I don’t like them telling me what to do because that is for sale or do this to me in blue because they have asked me that way. I am not the right person,” explains the artist.
The TATE call was as real as the international pop art exhibition they were organizing: “The World Goes Pop”, mounted between September 2015 and January 2016. Through 160 works, Jessica Morgan and Flavia Frigeri showed the essences of the international movement, from Latin America to Asia, from Europe to the Middle East, in the sixties and seventies. The two curators stood in Isabel’s small studio in Valencia to see who she was and what she had done. They had come this far on the bounce and were so impressed with his work that they took five of his paintings to hang in the exhibition. “It was the first time those guys had come out of my studio,” Oliver recalls. The exhibition had a great impact and even the museums of contemporary Spanish art found out that they had ignored the work of Isabel Oliver.
Discrimination in purchases
Then the Spanish museums “rescued” the artist who had been working with Equipo Crónica in their workshops, collaborating with them and, of course, without going to the art history manuals. Calls from London gave way to calls from Madrid and Valencia. The Reina Sofía Museum bought “Happy Meeting” from him in 2017 for 40,000 euros. That year the center acquired work from 34 artists, 22 were signed by men and 12 by women, representing 35% of purchases. It was the closest figure to an egalitarian policy since 2013. In that five-year period, under the direction of Borja-Villel, the museum bought work by 55 living artists compared to 11 Spanish artists (16.6%). Management is struggling to stop betting on the man.
“Of course, if I had been a man, my career would have been much easier. We girls have had to show much more than men to make room for ourselves. Society would not have been so cruel to me, from the family environment to the rest. Remember that Furthermore, we were in the midst of a dictatorship, with machismo and patriarchy that you couldn’t even move, “Oliver recalls. “I consider myself a hidden, rejected and belittled artist.” The IVAM offered her half of what the Reina Sofía paid her, Oliver says, and she sold them some. “Others I have refused to sell them, because they are worth more than what they wanted to pay for them,” he says without a hint of doubt.
“Motherhood has always penalized us. They have even told me, directly, that I was of childbearing age and that I was going to start having children and that then my priorities would change. They did not give me the option to give my opinion. they saw taking care of children and leaving painting to dedicate myself to their upbringing. And they did not see it profitable. The gallery owners and also the businessmen told me so. Well, they keep saying, “says Isabel Oliver. She has been the mother of a son and a daughter, has maintained a career, but in her case there was an added problem: what she painted. “Who wanted to hang feminist paintings in 1970?”, He asks so that we do not answer. “The only thing they did was annoy. If they had been a bit political, but not feminist, as in Equipo Crónica, not so bad.”
Liberate the woman
In the seventies he sold “absolutely nothing.” The first works he placed were “pretty” pop landscapes, with powerful colors, meticulous realization. “And I got bored doing them right away.” As she could not find buyers to support her career, she took a position to be a professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts, guarantee herself an income and continue painting. Now he is at full capacity and works in several series at the same time. But it must stop because it has run out of space. The shop is crammed with unsold work and he can’t afford to rent another. “I have sold few things, few. I have not made a living from that. I am not a commercial painter, because they are not decorative. Nor do I paint to be liked.”
One of those series in which part of Titian’s works is involved: he uses those mythological paintings to draw attention to the treatment of women and “question how they want us and how they want us to be”. In these versions of Oliver, the women are either missing or depicted escaping rape. They even jump out of the frame, as Elena herself does before Zeus. The “Abduction of the Sabine Women” by Rubens has yet to be resolved. “I have to do something to free them,” he mutters. “I am struck by the use made of the female body in the history of painting, always naked. As if they were vases, they are only for male enjoyment”, a new shot against blindness.
From the seventies is the painting that can now be seen on the fourth floor of the Reina Sofía. In “Happy Meeting” a group of very happy ladies appears, regardless of what is happening beyond their small bourgeois bubble. The little room has no walls and on the other side you can see the Dalí desert. Who knows if because of the unknown to them or as a metaphor for the vital desert of these gray women, who at fifty and with raised children seem to have run out of motivation. “They exaggerate their happiness because they live oblivious to everything that is not themselves,” says the artist. This feminist plot worked on in the series “La mujer” -where they are the protagonists, but not the heroines- was not attended by his generation companions. Isabel Oliver was unique in this perspective that was immediately ignored. His constant fight against rejection began with his studies when he informed his parents that he would study Fine Arts. They refused because it was a “very strange” place, where there were only “naked people”. They did not see a career with a future, they saw “an outrage”.
It took forty years for a cultural institution to recognize its role. There were art historians like Isabel Tejeda who pointed out her as a significant exponent of pop art, but a historian claiming an artist was not going to fit into a system that excludes them either. Without male sponsorship, Isabel Oliver has been exhausted by inequality in her working and creative life. He says that it is an endless battle: “Because you have to be aware of things that should not interrupt you. Your head is somewhere else, not in your work. It is tremendous. They do not let you pass and you have to break through.” Good thing she has been “rescued”.