Spanish painting at el Gugg
Post #958 • February 20, 2007, 3:15 PM • 57 Comments
New York City — Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History assembles Spain's heavyweights into a substantial exhibition that groups works nonchronologically by theme. Any show with Velázquez and Goya in it in such quantities will compensate your visit, of course, although in this case, they injured other artists on display, to the detriment of the whole presentation.
My estimation of Picasso, especially, took a drubbing. Picasso riffed on paintings by Velázquez and Goya, and the show paired a few examples. This provided an interesting glimpse into the mind of Picasso, but I mostly saw Cubist worry there. We don't normally think of Picasso as tentative, but that's how these homages looked - apologetic in their playfulness, and in some areas of unfinished execution, seemingly given up for lost. One can imagine why - a flayed sheep head and ribs rendered with astonishing realism and gravitas by Goya makes Picasso's take on the same theme look like a poor cartoon. Goya even makes Zurbarán look a bit wooden. Picasso, in his presence, might as well have painted with his elbows. To be fair, these were not prime Picassos; I think a few analytical Cubist still lifes circa 1911 would not have wilted so readily next to Zurbarán's realist ones. (Dalí only ever looks more like a talented illustrator with poor taste, and around Goya, one questions the talent.)
The thematic organization served its purpose, but arranging this show chronologically would have exposed a wide temporal gap between the death of Goya in 1828 and the birth of Picasso in 1881, causing the presentation to leap from Romanticism to Cubism in an odd manner. That gap could have been effectively filled by Joaquin Sorolla or Fortuny y Marsal. Actually, Díaz de la Peña would have been perfect if he qualifies as Spanish. But to paraphrase a recent secretary of state, you go to the show with the objects you have. Within those limits, the Guggenheim makes the case for Spanish painting as a cohesive tradition, the influence of Catholicism on its early part and of Paris on its later part notwithstanding.
I'll look closer at some of the jewels in later posts. Velázquez in particular comes off as a miracle. Like Rembrandt, he holds a place in my mind reserved for sublimity, but my mental image doesn't record how mind-blowingly good his best works are. This reason alone makes the Guggenheim show worth attending. The imperfections fade in the glory.