A Girl with Shawlc. 1910
Oil on canvas
100 x 45 cm
© Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza en préstamo gratuito al Museo Carmen Thyssen Málaga
Wrapped in a silk shawl embroidered with vivid colours, a girl turns towards the spectator, hands on hips in a genuinely traditional Spanish gesture. Standing by a wall adorned with unembroidered fringed shawls, the young girl sports a tortoiseshell comb and pink carnations in her hair – adornments typical of the more popular type of clothing worn by Sevillian women at the turn of the 20th century.
Since the late 19th century, many painters had been drawn by the artistic potential of the mantón de Manila or embroidered silk shawl, and it is not surprising that Bilbao should turn that garment into the absolute centre of this picture. It was consistent with both his own aesthetic interests and those of the market, as compositions like this were always a great commercial success. The Carmen Thyssen Málaga Collection holds this and one other exceptional painting of that kind, together forming the two most expressive examples of Gonzalo Bilbao's known work. The inclusion of this extraordinary garment – covered as it is with floral embroidery of brilliant colours painted by Bilbao with immense flexibility and enriching the shifting contrasts of the blue fabric that bears them – draws the attention to the rest of the composition and transmits the précieux and decorative interest of the painting as a whole.
The figure's position is identical to that in a sanguine which the artist would seem to have made as a study for a similar composition with the same model as that in this canvas. According to an inscription on the drawing, the girl was called Amparo Fernández and, in addition to her telephone number and address, is categorised in brackets as "very good", no doubt alluding to her posing skills. Indeed, both the model's pose and the elongated, almost life-like format were used several times by the painter, which makes it easier to link images like this one (executed with few variations) to his mature production. But unlike that drawing, the model's shoulders and arms in the painting in the Carmen Thyssen Málaga Collection are covered by a modest white blouse, thus eliminating all the sensuality present in the drawing on paper and focusing interest in the canvas even more closely on the striking shawl. In this picture Bilbao's rather prim attitude, typical of much of his work, led him to tone down one of the main attractions of flamenco dancer iconography – that of its purely carnal nature. The eagerness of girls like the one in the painting to show their charms (which the painter did not play down in the model's pose or the look in her eyes) was captured here in a way very different from that of other artists who were interested in these girls and endowed their arms and shoulders with an indulgently sensuous air, full of provocation and desire. Always concerned about displaying an apparently purer image of the figures in the hackneyed pictures of this kind – an approach which made him famous for helping to eradicate the negative image of the cigarette girls at the Seville Tobacco Factory – Bilbao concentrated all the suggestiveness both in the model's apparently coy pose as she turns to glance at the spectator and in her sensuous face. That complex position allowed Bilbao, moreover, to truly exhibit his more mature art by accentuating the chiaroscuro of the arm and face to hint at the girl's sharply defined figure beneath the material covering her body.
Carlos G. Navarro