Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Right: Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

Portrait of Marie-Th�rese Walter with a Garland, 1937

Oil and pencil on canvas, 61 x 46 cm

Private collection

Picasso © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo by Beatrice Hatala

While I’m a great admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, I’ve never been a great fan of his Guggenheim Museum as a space to look at art. Nor have I always been enthusiastic about that institution’s programming which so often seems to default automatically to the puffed-up blockbuster.

So when the great Wright way muscled up its current exhibition: “Spanish Painting From El Greco to Picasso”, my first thought was: “uh-oh, Heeere’s Spain!" – and up the spiral we trudge to the sound of faintly playing flamenco guitars.

I was wrong. The show’s curator, Carmen Gimenez has avoided the standard blockbuster formula of presenting a gauntlet of masterpieces reverently arrayed by period. Instead, she manages to appeal with apparent modesty, despite the impressive docket of geniuses on hand. She does this by organizing the exhibition’s 135 paintings into fifteen thematic groupings. It doesn’t really matter what these groupings are, but the organizing principle provides an excuse to see a rich variety of paintings from different periods juxtaposed to one another. In one memorable example, three small portrait heads are exhibited together; the first by El Greco, the second by Picasso, and the last by Velasquez. The juxtaposition results in the consideration of these artists from different periods as compatriots. They become unstuck in time; aligned as peers rather than as representatives of their respective eras, becoming champions of their discipline, and creating the illusion of a contemporaneous Spanish painters’ "super-group". It allows one to see El Greco, Velasquez, Goya and Picasso, all playing inspired solos on stage together at once.

This curatorial re-mix is given depth by the number and quality of the examples shown. It allows for cross readings and comparisons normally unavailable to viewers of chronologically arranged exhibitions. I couldn’t help feeling as if one could compare the artists’ passions by comparing their works.

El Greco revels in the noble, modest fragility of his sitter’s inner, spiritual lives. Despite being the farthest away from us in time, he retains a remarkably contemporaneous tone, an uncertainty that rings familiar.

Velasquez prefers the beautiful surfaces of common, if staggeringly beautiful people. His royal commissions never have the same passionate strength of his portraits of commoners.

Goya just likes people; common, un-common, beautiful, ugly, introspective, or superficial, he just can’t stop making pictures of them – in spite of, or perhaps because of their foibles. Clever and fast on his feet, he’s a fox in the henhouse of Spanish art.

Picasso, the youngest, revels in, well, reveling. He has some of the same energy and wit as Goya, but he’s more hermetic, spending time and energy in the studio, instead of getting out and about. He has a great time playing with his cultural patrimony, while never straying very far away from it. But in the end, his energetic innovations seem a shade self-conscious and self-serving in this company.

There are a number of other deeply satisfying works here.

Francisco de Zurbarán’s dark monk contemplating a skull he holds as if it were a chalice into which all human vanity might be poured.

Even Salvatore Dali shows what he was capable of when he not only uncorks the showbiz surrealism of his imagination, but also the cogent rigor of his intellect and the surety of his craft.

There are other artists as well, many who were unknown to me. But each seems considered, contributing to the occasionally revelatory quality of the viewing – transforming that vertiginous trudge up the Guggenheim’s ramp into a pleasant, thoughtful stroll surrounded by charm, intelligence, passion, and humor.

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