From the Archive: Lines from Worship to Despair

This piece, published in The Melbourne Review in 2013, reviewed the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain.


Lines from Worship to Despair

Coming on the heels of 2012’s masterpieces from Madrid’s Museo del Prado that graced the Queensland Art Gallery, this selection of Spanish prints and drawings from the British Museum on show at the Art Gallery of NSW continues a run in which Australian audiences are being spoilt by the offerings from Spain’s particularly rich, always generous and sometimes eccentric heritage.

So dominant is the figure of Goya, so colossal is his presence in the history of Spanish art, that his name alone can denote an entire epoch: from Renaissance to Goya charts a period which begins with the Christian reconquest of Muslim Spain; encompasses the Spanish Golden Age of the seventeenth century and Hapsburg reigns of Philips II – IV and Charles II, the transition to the Bourbon monarchy, and ends in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This was above all the age of Napoleon, continuing the steady decline of Spanish political power within Europe and the fragmentation of its colonial empire – a process of collapse that had begun as early as the reign of Philip IV when imperial overreach began to take effect, as history shows it always will.

The earliest years here are scarcely represented; a few engravings and woodcuts – mostly anonymous – that predate the revolution in drawing and material techniques that were to be imported from northern Europe and Italy during the reign of Philip II. Added to this, there was the difficulty of fragile drawings surviving circumstances not amenable to preservation; the drawing was not yet considered of value in and of itself. Yet while those early prints speak of a clearly Renaissance worldview and mode of representation, the world has been entirely reconfigured three and a half centuries later; the exhibition ends with the emotional and physical exhaustion of a depleted and battle-weary empire, with Goya’s reverberating themes of humiliation, poverty, disease and occupation, an all-pervading despondency that settled on Spain and was not to lift until the remarkable ‘generation of 1898’ nearly a century later.

Overlooked, cast into shadow by the glittering sun of Spanish classical painting, the tradition of drawings and prints serves as a guiding path through the mechanics of how many of those masterpieces in oil were created – these are experiments by which form and composition took shape, and the marginalia in which notes are made on everything from religious practice and rules, to authorship, to daily gossip. The steps of draughtsmanship are fascinating – we see surprisingly undeveloped, almost clumsy sketches by Ribera, for example, beside some of the genius’ finest works; we see also how themes were developed over careers – see Vicente Carducho or Eugenio Cajés (or Goya) – across epochs (Renaissance, Golden Age and Napoleonic eras) or via geographic region. So, conveniently, the artworks are represented not just by chronology but to reveal regional schools: we have the great Madrid court artists, the Andalusian masters (Pacheco, Herrera, Zurbarán, Alonso Cano, Murillo, Valdés Leal) and samples of the tradition as developed in the vibrant Mediterranean port city of Valencia, through lesser known masters such as Pedro Orrente, Juan de Juanes or Juan Antonio Conchillos.

It also throws a fascinating light on those painters whom history has cast into second rank perhaps because they dedicated more time on drawings – Vicente Carducho for example – than on oils, or whose drawings have for one historical whim or another survived in greater quantity. The most notable near-absence is that of Diego Velázquez, so dominant in the court of Philip IV. It seems inexplicable that Velázquez could have created some of his masterpieces – Las Hilanderas or The Surrender of Breda – without drawing, yet barely any preliminary studies survive, nor does X-Ray technology reveal any significant degree of preparatory underdrawing.

Another of the strongest lessons coming through this collection is the role Italian artists had in shaping the Spanish creative endeavour of the time; Naples was for much of this era ruled as a Spanish viceroy, and the traffic of commerce and artists between the two kingdoms was constant. Many Italians were contracted to furbish the Royal Monastery of El Escorial, on the outskirts of Madrid, as it became one of Europe’s most astonishing repositories of archival material and artistic treasures, a centre of creativity and of living history.

These insights alone are worth the entry. But the drawings were soon to be more than just a proving ground, a kind of notepad for the working out of the main event later to be executed in oil. There are many prints or drawings here that cannot be linked to paintings, and countless too that stand alone as exquisite masterpieces, such as Ribera’s red chalk images of suffering saints. By the time the art of printmaking had developed fully during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the stage was set for Goya to arrive, producing the towering sets of social commentary that were his Caprichos and Disasters of War, works that combine clarity of message and depth of vision with messages of wonder and horror, and that take the form of artistic representation so much further than they had been taken before – into the realm of the suffering existence of the common man and woman. As with the glimpses afforded through the 2012 Museo del Prado exhibition, here at first hand are examples of a quantum leap in the conscious awareness and depiction of universal human suffering.

The artworks here inevitably describe a version of social history. They are one window into a society that for all its close connections to Italy and its northern European royal lineage and territorial annexations, nevertheless began to develop more and more apart from central European social and political modes of thoughts and governance; Spain turned its back on principal elements of the enlightenment, enacted the Inquisition and remained wedded to a deeply conservative and mystical Catholicism. Folklore played a huge role in this isolation – the festive or ludic is almost always a kind of partner-in-folly to the temperate austerity of the Church. From worship to hysteria, hilarity and despair, the idea of celebration, whether dressed in the bright rags of the drunken street or the sobriety of clerical robes, is never far from the surface of Spanish life.

Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain at the Art Gallery of NSW.


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