Raymond Mason

Barcelona Tram

1953, cast 1968

Not on display

Raymond Mason 1922–2010
Object: 780 × 1250 × 250 mm
Purchased 1983

Display caption

This work depicts a tram stop outside the Estacion di Francia railway station in Barcelona. It was Mason's first exercise in high relief and he wrote that he was inspired by 'the strong sun and the opulent, sculptural forms of the people ... The almost ritualistic arrival of the trams before the solemn, sunlit grandeur of the station was irrestible ... there was an attempt to suggest that the people depicted were being carried away to their destiny and I even placed the window-bars before the driver in the form of a cross'.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T03678 Barcelona Tram 1953

Bronze relief 30 3/4 × 49 1/4 × 9 3/4 (780 × 1250 × 250)
Inscribed on lower front edge at extreme 1. with foundry mark ‘A. BRUNI FUSE. ROMA’; towards 1. [in artist's hand] ‘Barcelona’; towards r. [in artist's hand] ‘Raymond Mason 1953 3/8’.
Purchased from Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Prov: The artist; Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1968
Exh: Raymond Mason, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, October–November 1968 (2, as ‘Barcelona Street Car’, the plaster repr.); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945–1985, Tate Gallery, February–April 1986 (works not numbered)
Lit: [David Sylvester], ‘A new sculptor’, in ‘Mr. Moore's New Bronzes’, The Times, 15 February 1954; David Sylvester, ‘Two Exhibitions of Sculpture’, The Listener 15 November 1956, p.795; Michael Peppiatt, introduction to Raymond Mason, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, 1982, pp.5–11; Raymond Mason, ‘responses by Raymond Mason to questions by Michael Peppiatt’, ibid., pp.12–16 (the plaster repr. p.24); Helen Lessore, ‘Raymond Mason’, in A Partial Testament, 1986, pp.168–83 (the plaster repr. p.170)
Repr: The plaster, in Raymond Mason, exhibition catalogue, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1985, p.87 and photograph by Douglas Glass c. 1955 (mistakenly captioned as 1953) of the artist with the plaster, p.146

In a letter of 6 April 1986 (from which all quotations in this entry are taken except where stated otherwise) the artist wrote:

If I have to talk about the ‘Barcelona Tram’ I must begin by saying that it is a subject seen in Spain by an Englishman, sculpted in France and cast into bronze in Italy.

By my second trip to Barcelona in 1952 I had already returned to figuration and had begun my first low-reliefs. However when I began to draw the Catalan scene, the strong sun and the opulent, sculptural forms of the people, particularly the women, literally impelled the idiom of high-relief upon me. The almost ritualistic arrival of the trams before the solemn, sunlit grandeur of the Estacion di Francia railway station was irresistible. My personnages stood as little statues until the tramcar came-and then away. In the tram itself a handsome group of people sat at the glass-less windows like spectators in theatre boxes.

It has been said that one can detect an influence of Piero della Francesca in this work but this is erroneous. Piero became of interest for me when I encountered Balthus and his paintings and this was only in 1955. The echo comes more likely from de Chirico, as David Sylvester had detected in relation to an earlier sculpture in his Times article of 1954. Statues and the somnambulism of great Mediterranean cities.

But I thought I was dealing with reality at its strongest. This sculpture was my first high-relief and I just made a box and put into it all that had caught my eye. The spread-out and a certain frontality of the figures are the beginning of my detachment from the art of Giacometti.

At the same time there was an attempt to suggest that the people depicted were being carried away to their destiny and I even placed the window-bars before the driver in the form of a cross.

When Mason began work on the plaster he had still never had a studio of his own. He ‘began it in the studio of Joseph Erhardy, rue de Verneuil, Paris and completed it in the top-room flat of the Paris-Match photographer [Tony Saulnier], rue Jacob, Paris ... I only entered into possession of the 60 rue Monsieur le Prince studio in middle 1953 when the sculpture had just been completed.’ The Tate has a photograph of Mason working on the plaster in rue Jacob in early 1953. The first display of any example of ‘Barcelona Tram’ was of the plaster, in Mason's first one-man exhibition, at the Beaux-Arts Gallery, London, February–March 1954. The first showing of a bronze cast was in Mason's exhibition at the Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris, May 1965. At the time of writing, six of the intended eight bronze casts of ‘Barcelona Tram’ have been made. The Tate's cast was made in 1968.

All the reproductions of the plaster cited above are of the artist's preferred photograph of it, by Tony Saulnier. Mason prefers that photographs of the work (bronzes included) should be taken, like Saulnier's, by daylight without flash and that (as in the Tate's photograph) the principal view should be from the angle and height adopted by Saulnier.

Mason first visited Barcelona in 1950 to work on a portrait bust in terracotta. He felt immediate enthusiasm for the city but did not become interested in the subject of the Tate's work until his second long stay there in 1952. Mason's exhibition at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris in 1985 included two related ink drawings both titled ‘Le Tramway de Barcelone’. One of these (3, repr., coll. John Lessore) is one of two ‘Barcelona Tram’ drawings in London private collections drawn in 1953, not from observation. It shows tram and tram-stop from approximately the same angle as in the Tate's relief but with different figures and background. It represents the tram-stop at the port, as does the other drawing in the 1985 exhibition (2, not repr., coll. the artist), which was made in 1952 from observation and shows two trams in the middle distance with trees (two of them palms) and shipping in the background. The Tate has a photograph of this work, as well as photocopies of two further ‘Barcelona Tram’ drawings of 1952 (private collection, New York) which are among several which Mason made from observation in front of the Estacion di Francia (which forms the background to the scene in ‘Barcelona Tram’) with the intention of making the sculpture.

‘Barcelona Tram’ was the first work in which Mason dealt with a group of figures. He cites a remark of André Malraux's which he recalls as ‘Low relief and high relief permit the representation of people who are not in contact with one another and do not know each other, as compared with sculpture in the round which supposes that the protagonists are in direct contact or know each other.’ But Mason explains:

I must underline that at no time was I trying to develop the mode of relief or the high-relief or any other form of sculpture and I have to this day never gone out of my way to examine the reliefs of Italy which abound nor, for instance, the calvaries of Brittany which seem to have reference to my later crowds. It was simply because I wanted to encompass a whole scene which obliged me initially to adopt the relief form and when my figures developed in form I had to mount the walls of the frame to semi-enclose the scene. This tendency culminated in the ‘Departure of Fruit and Vegetables ...’ [1969–71] after which the frame became extraneous to the sculpture and was abandoned.

In an interview with Richard Cork broadcast on Radio 3 on 25 April 1985, Mason observed that it was not until rather later than ‘Barcelona Tram’ that figures in his sculpture came to be more united to each other. In his letter of 6 April 1986 he added:

When my subject ceased to be uniquely the street-scene, when my passers-by started to assume their new role as members of humanity, then naturally the decor of the buildings, which linked them together, disappeared and only the uniting of the figures one to another could make up the sculptural mass. But by then the union of people was itself a theme.

In answer to a question about the prevalence of trams and cars in his work of the 1950s, Mason replied:

I cannot see how an artist who concerns himself with the great subject - the world which moves around him - can avoid treating what you call modern forms of transport. Thus cars, which appear in the 1953 ‘Place St. Germain-des-Prés’, ‘Place de l'Opéra’ 1956, ‘La Rue’ 1964, and buses, ‘Boulevard St. Germain’ 58', ‘Carrefour de l'Odéon’ 58–59' and the ‘Place de l'Opéra’. [All these works are reproduced in the catalogues of Mason's retrospectives at the Serpentine Gallery in 1982 and at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris in 1985]. There were no longer any trams in Paris on my arrival after the war. All these conveyances placed people on different levels from that of the street and added interest to the specifically human element. Of course trams and buses were a major part of my childhood in Birmingham as was the motor-car since my father was a pioneer motorist.

Probably the tram has a link with the later polychrome compositions where the figures, although numerous, are isolated one from another. The link with the ‘Carrefour’ is not, of course, the tram since, as I have said, the ‘Carrefour’ and the ‘Place de l'Opéra’ vehicles are the platformed buses of that period. ‘Le plate-forme de l'omnibus parisien - haut lieu de la civilisation’ Jean-Paul Sartre. Rather it is what you detected so exactly as being the opposition of spread-out and frontality and a sharp counter-axis which disappears into the distance, described in the ‘Barcelona Tram’ by a mere diminution of size and in the ‘Carrefour’ with greater emphasis by the grouping of all the windows and doors of the Boulevard St. Germain into a multiplication of fine stigmats. With the intention, as you correctly say, of pulling the spectator's eye straight in.

The compiler asked about the interest in ‘Barcelona Tram’ shown by Picasso, Bacon and Balthus. Mason replied:

Since you ask me pointedly to speak on the matter, it is true that this single work, the ‘Barcelona Tram’, was responsible for my three contacts with three famous artists. At the age of 31 in 1953 I was personally unknown.

Picasso, I went to see on the beach of Golfe Juan, in the summer of 1954. I had already met him, and, recovering from a peritonitis operation in the south of France, I hoped he could introduce me to a ceramist in Vallauris where I would be able to do terracottas which were all my strength could allow. Showing him photographs of my work as it stood to date, the only work of any consequence was the ‘Tram’ done the year before. Naturally the subject of Barcelona was enough to interest him in the work and he praised it highly, saying that it wasn't compilation art but something personal. Following which, as I have related elsewhere, he added that I was an English artist and, seeing my admittedly crestfallen face, he continued by saying that he admired English art deeply and proceeded to name all our important artists from Hogarth onwards ... After which he called over - all this had taken place at the lunch to which he had kindly invited me - a famous French sculptor to look at this photograph of the Tram. ‘Not bad,’ said the friend, ‘but it's not sculpture.’ ‘And that's exactly why I like it,’ retorted Picasso, ‘because sculpture-sculpture gives me the shits.’ To cap it all he proposed me an introduction to his dealer Kahnweiler, which I never used.

Francis Bacon asked to meet me on seeing the ‘B.T.’ at my first exhibition at Helen Lessore's. So I got Helen to arrange a dinner-party for us both and David Sylvester and in effect, my friendship with Francis dates from then.

I met Balthus one evening at Carmen Baron's [flat in Paris] sometime in spring 1955. Late at night he walked me home and as the conversation continued, I walked him back to his place. No less English in his habits than me, Balthus then accompanied me a second time to my studio and it was then, in the early hours of the morning, that he saw my ‘Barcelona Tram’ and ‘the Idyll’, now destroyed [repr. Mason retrospective catalogue, Paris, 1985, fig.25]. He approved of them enough to return the following day to examine them afresh. We were friends from then on.

About the same time the great poster artist and stage designer A.M. Cassandre fell in love with the ‘Tram’ to the point where a well-wisher bought the original plaster from me and gave it as a gift to Cassandre. He kept it a nominal year and then returned it to my studio so that I could put it into bronze.

And finally I will mention that at the time of my 1954 show at the Beaux Arts Gallery, my father-in-law of the time wanted to have it put into bronze in order to present it to the Tate. I refused this proposition deeming that it wasn't in that way that I wanted to enter the Tate. I felt also, and doubtless correctly, that the Tate would have, in 1954, refused the offer.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986


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