Tuesday, 18 August 2009


17/8/09, Royal Academy

The National Galleries of Scotland old master blockbuster. Goya, El Greco, Velasquez, Zurbaran as represented in British collections, plus any number of British artists from the 18th century onwards and their responses to Spain.

A rag-bag, but a stimulating one. Goya's etchings of the horrors of war next to his portrait of the Duke of Wellington (and the preliminary sketch, in which the poor old duke looks absolutely shattered). Two version of the Maid of Saragossa (she fired the gun at the siege when her gunner husband was killed): in Goya's she is faceless, in silhouette, emblematic of defiant Spain; in David Wilkie's she is beautiful, fiery, the picture overwhelmed with unnecessary detail. Like many of the Brits' paintings of Spain it was, if not sentimental, then deeply self-indulgent.

The Brits loved Spain, painting endless bullfights and gypsies and funerals and exotic costumes and bustling streets. There was a striking big unfinished picture of boys playing at bullfighting by John Phillip. (There was a self-portrait in one picture, Phillip in Victorian suit and hat and fine moustache, sketching some gypsies: he was one of those painters whose preliminary sketches are so much more convincing than his finished oils.)

David Roberts was head and shoulders the finest British artist of the 19th century to visit Spain. The exhibition contained three crackers: his watercolour of the interior of Seville's cathedral, breathtakingly detailed and atmospheric; an oil of the Giralda in Seville; and an oil of a huge double staircase in Burgos cathedral, disappearing into the gloom, which S said looked positively three-dimensional.

There were several Zurbarans: an altar piece which could have been by anybody; and four examples from a set of 12 paintings of Joseph and his sons, lifesize, now (for some reason) in the collection of the Lord Bishop of Durham. The figures are all dressed in some exotic hybrid Mediterranean/Cossack/Arab garb, richly decorated with extraordinary detail and with all sorts of frills and furbelows: figures from a timeless fantasy world.

The El Grecos were wonderful, especially the woman in a fur wrap whose image is on the exhibition poster. Can this really be the same painter who produced the Tears of St Peter on the wall next to it (hands clasped, head tilted, looking up to heaven)? Or those great religious pictures full of reds and blues and whites and sharp folds, angular figures, which are so extraordinary in Toledo, a 20th century artist working 500 years ahead of his time?

Then there was a room full of British copies of Velasquez (presumably to make up for only having two minor examples of the real thing, plus one copy and one work by a pupil, in the exhibition). Least said about most of these the better with the excpetion of Millais's Souvenir of Velasquez, a picture of a girl reminiscent of V's Meninas, with a profusion of blonde hair, a very rich dress, bright pinky-red sleeves and unbelievably thick paint.

Lots of pictures of the Alhambra, including decoration from a mid-Victorian pattern-book by someone called Owen Jones (never heard of him, but very influential, apparently) derived from the Alhambra's decorations. David Muirhead Bone pictures of Granada in the 1920s and 30s especially detailed and colourful.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the Brits came for the bullfights etc (see above) but also discovered the Spanish light. There was a whole room full of the most glorious colour. Someone called Arthur Melville in particular produced watercolours full of deep saturated colour, especially the blue of water.

Finally, a rather disappointing room devoted to British artists and the Civil War, with some Picassos, some Edward Burras (overblown) and a Wyndham Lewis.

No comments:

Post a Comment