Spanish Art

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Spanish Art

(COURIER: Try to use some or all of these notes in connection with the group's visit to the Prado.)

Spanish art is old: it goes back to about 15,000 B.C., when primitive tribes men scratched paintings onto walls of caves. Yet since that time, it has had an intermittent existence; Spanish painting, for example, didn't reach its maturity until the 17th century. At the same time, Spanish art has always been a melting pot, like Spanish culture. The Romans, the Moors, and the Italians have all contributed to it, yet the greatest Spanish artists have managed to incorporate these strands into a genius, a style of their own.

Altamira Cave Drawings  We don't know anything about the people who did them, except that they were geniuses. The caves (up on the northern coast of Spain) have roofs and walls covered with pictures of bulls, horses , boar, deer, and lions, mainly in red and black colors. The colors are so fresh they could have been painted yesterday. The paintings show amazing powers of observation: details we moderns wouldn't even notice if we tried to do the same thing. E.g. flexed muscles, suggestions of movement, tensed nostrils, etc. The drawings show action and rhythm. At the same time, there's an abstract, modern look to the pictures: sometimes only bare outlines. Yet with a few bold lines, the primitive painters suggested all that was necessary to convey dramatic movement.

Greeks and Romans  The Greeks established colonies along the coast, and didn't penetrate far inland. Yet remains of their art works can be found; the most perfect example is a sculptured head known as the "Lady of Elche" (it was found in the city of Elche), which you can see in the Prado.

The Romans colonized all of Spain, and their influence was more lasting. The Roman historian Pliny says that the Romans built 829 cities in Spain. Not much Roman painting has survived, but a lot of Roman architecture has: Segovia's aqueduct, with its 128 arches, made of stones fitted perfectly together; or the city gates of Toledo.

The Moors  A whole new style of art entered Spain in 711 with the Moors, who brought Arab culture and art with them. The Moors did little to develop painting and sculpture, because of Mohammed's ban on reproducing the human body ("Thou shalt not make any graven images..."). So they confined their painting and sculpture to decoration: but how dazzling it was! They were geniuses in carving precious stones, alabaster, and in plating iron with gold and silver. Superb examples of this are the mosque in Cordoba (the Mezquita) and, of course, the Alhambra in Granada. Ceramic tilework was perfected by the Moors: e.g. the Alcazar in Seville. Modern tile-workers haven't been able to duplicate the intricacy of design achieved by Moorish craftsmen. Ceilings were another Moorish specialty: elaborately carved wood, often inlaid with mother-of-pearl (example: Alhambra).

The interesting thing about Moorish art was its continuing influence on Spain, even after the Christian reconquest. Ceramic tiles, wrought-iron, and mosaics made up of tiny stones can be seen in countless houses, especially in Andalusia. A humble example of Moorish architecture and decoration can be seen in Madrid's bullring, built in the 1920's.

Medieval Architecture  Spain's cathedrals are of two styles: the earliest are in the Romanesque style, which spread all over Europe in the 11th-12th centuries. They're characterized by rounded arches, heavy columns, and a rather squat, massive appearance. Spain's later cathedrals are in the pure Gothic style: Columns are more slender, there are large windows, flying buttresses, and pointed instead of rounded arches. Examples: cathedrals of Segovia and Toledo. In the 15th century, the Gothic style was modified, and this new style was called "flamboyant," because that's exactly what it was. All sorts of intricate carving was done on stone walls, with stone filigree in the windows, and (inside) carved choirstalls and elaborate ironwork. (You'll see such ironwork inside the cathedrals of Segovia and Toledo: wrought-iron screens, actually fences, running around the Choir.)

Mudejar Architecture  The increasing contact between Christians and Moors during the reconquest yielded a kind of hybrid architectural style. The name comes from Mudejares, which is what those Moors were called who lived in areas of Spain re-Christianized, but who continued to practice Islam. ("Moriscos" is another name given them.) Since most Christian people of talent were off warring against the remaining Moors, industry, art, and craftsmanship were left largely to the Mudejares. In buildings, this style involves the use of brick and plaster instead of stone, and intricate decoration on the inside. In the Madrid area, the two most outstanding examples are the Alcazar in Segovia (especially inside: the outside is stone) and the Transito synagogue in Toledo (built by Mudejar craftsmen for the Jewish community). The synagogue's ceiling is pure Moorish: larchwood inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Plateresque Architecture  This is the name given to Renaissance architecture in Spain. The style originated at the end of the 15th century, largely under Italian influence. Its character is an extreme opulence of decoration, with dazzling facades that suggested the image of a "silver plate" to viewers, hence the name. The much-photographed facade of the University of Salamanca is probably the best example; others: the chapel in El Escorial and the cathedral in Granada.

The 17th Century  This is the "golden age" of Spanish painting. And here too we find Spanish artists incorporating foreign influences, mainly from Italy, where several of Spain's art geniuses of the 17th century studied. The major figures are Ribera, Murillo, El Greco, and Velazquez.

Ribera  The founder of the "Spanish School" of the 17th century. He studied art in Naples, Italy, absorbing the style then in fashion there, and brought it back to Spain. But nothing enters Spain without being affected by the Spanish character. Whereas most Italian painters at the time were painting fleshy nudes or portraits of noblemen, Ribera specialized in pictures of gruesome executions and martyrdoms. Spanish asceticism and fanaticism blends with bright colors and realism in Ribera's work. An outstanding example in the Prado is Ribera's Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. The Roman executioners are shown lifting St. Bartholomew's body to the stake, where he is about to be flayed alive. The scene is realistic: the haggard look on Bartholomew's face, his sunken chest, limp limbs. A far cry indeed from the saints-and-halos of medieval art.

Murillo  Like Ribera, Murillo was influenced by Italian styles, but his major trait was pure Spanish: religious idealism. Murillo was the painter of Madonnas — some of the loveliest, dreamiest in the history of art. Being from Seville, he patterned his Madonnas after the Andalusian beauties he saw around him. But what he did with them! No real-life beauty is as idealized, as romanticized as Murillo's Madonnas, which you'll see in the Prado (they're all grouped together in the same room). The Madonna is invariably shown ascending up to heaven on a whole carpet of cherubs, surrounded by clouds and sunbeams. Her face shows a mystical gaze which puts her out of human reach. His Immaculate Conception is probably the finest example; it was painted at a time when the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was being debated in the schools and the streets (mass demonstrations), and this painting shows where Murillo stood on the issue: pro.

El Greco  1n 1576, Dominico Theotocopoulous came to Toledo from Venice, where he had been studying painting with Titian. He was born on Crete, which was then under the influence of Byzantine art, and his work combined traits of both Byzantine and Venetian painting. But he was still his own man, and seldom in the history of art has a man invented so radically unique a style as Theotocopoulous, whom the people of Toledo called "El Greco," the Greek. He remained in Toledo for the rest of his life, and his greatest painting, Burial of the Count of Orgaz, is in the Church of Santo Tome in Toledo (you'll see it on your visit). Many of his contemporaries considered him hard-working but incompetent — a "grind" rather than a genius. One of them said: "Who would believe that El Greco took his painting in hand many times and retouched them?.. I call this working hard for a poor result." How different is our impression today! His paintings have an unreal, mystical quality that takes them out of the mainstream of 17th-century art. The figures are longer-than-life: almost stick-figure-like, and the shapes are sharp and geometrical. There are a few bright colors, but mostly everything is in shades of gray. Some critics have speculated that El Greco must have had a visual defect — that he actually saw things that way. Who knows? If it was, it wasn't the worst defect to have, if this is what you could do with it.

Velazquez  This is Spain's most beloved painter — a statue of him stands in front of the Prado, and his greatest works are exhibited inside. Velazquez was a court painter working in Madrid, and many of his works are royal portraits. Before his court appointment, he had painted ordinary people in his native Seville: water carriers, beggars eating from clay bowls, cooks in dirty kitchens, street urchins, and scrawny dogs. He captured these figures with fleshy realism and candid-camera accuracy. When criticized for not "idealizing" his subjects, he replied: "I would rather be the first in this coarse subject matter than the second in nicety." Later, after his Court appointment, he had the best of both: he ranked indeed first, but now nicety was his subject matter. He went on painting with the same realism, and was the first painter in Spain to paint a female nude, the Rokeby Venus. Though he lacks a certain imagination, his strength was his superb craftsmanship: few painters can handle light and shade as well.

Las Meninas (Maids of Honor) is his greatest work, occupying a separate room in the Prado. The painting shows the young Infanta (princess) surrounded by maids; all the figures are real-life personalities from the court of Philip IV. Subtleties abound: there is a reflection of Philip IV and his wife in a mirror; a painting by Rubens hangs on the wall; Velazquez himself stands behind his huge canvas (the painter shows himself painting this scene). The picture is a triumph of perspective: the reflections and angles really "work." It's a convincing picture of Spanish court life and atmosphere.

Surrender of Breda  This is another masterpiece, showing the surrender of the Dutch city of Breda to the victorious Spanish army. The two generals (the triumphant one and the defeated one) have a look of chivalry on their faces. The defeated Dutch general seems to say: "I fought as well as I could; here is the key to the city — you've earned it." The Spanish general pats him on the shoulder, as if to respond: "Indeed you fought well; now take heart, we victors shall act as gentlemen and be merciful." This painting shows us the essence of Spanish gallantry, here captured in a single moment, a single act. The picture is the visual equivalent of Don Quixote.

Goya  Francisco Goya was Spain's first artist to look around at his country, and to "tell it like it is" in his paintings. At the time, Spain was wracked by wars, widespread poverty, a feeling of hopelessness, oppression under Napoleon's Troops, and several outright massacres. His sketches of writhing and twisted forms, hollow faces, bony arms, and acts of brutality still overwhelm the viewer. The painting, Third of May (1808), in the Prado, is the most famous example of this. It probably records an actual scene — the shooting of Spanish civilians by Napoleon's soldiers.

You'd expect Goya to have been a social outcast — a Bohemian, beatnik artist living from hand to mouth. Not so! He was lionized by Spanish society; the more he "gave it to them," the better they seemed to like it. Many noblemen commissioned him to paint their portraits. He did so — and showed them as freaks, with distorted features. His commissions grew. Or perhaps his patrons didn't notice what he was saying about them. In the Prado, look at his painting, Family of Charles IV. It's supposed to represent the King of Spain and his family. But so silly do the figures look that the painting has been nicknamed, "The grocer and his family, after having won the Grand Lottery."

The Mayas  These are two of his most famous paintings. The "Nude Maya" (Maya Desnuda) is probably the most famous nude painting in art history. In the same room with it is a clothed version of the same figure, the "Clothed Maya". Speculation has it that the nude version used to be hidden behind the clothed version in the same picture frame, and that the lady was the Duchess of Alba, with whom Goya was infatuated. How he managed to get a noblewoman to pose this way (in Spain!) is only one more of the many mysteries surrounding this work.

Goya's "Mad Period"  You'll see these chilling pictures in the Prado as well. The artist was in his 70's, living in retirement in Madrid. He had gone stone deaf, and it seemed to him that people without their voices became absurd and grotesque, and this is how he painted them. The painting, Saturn, for example, shows the god of Time and Old Age devouring his sons: Goya put it in his dining room! As you walk among these paintings in the Prado, you'll see the figures getting weirder and weirder, as though Goya had painted them in an insane asylum.

Goya eventually left France, and lived in Bordeaux, France until he died at the age of 82. Even during this final period of his life, he produced over 60 etches and watercolors, and four bullfight pictures.


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