Weeping glass tears

Spanish baroque sculpture and painting are fused in a gripping exhibition, writes Gauvin Alexander Bailey.






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Publication: Apollo
Author: Bailey, Gauvin Alexander
Date published: January 1, 2010

The Grand Tour, that crucible of British taste, cast Spain aside in its quest for the idealised classical and renaissance aesthetics of Italy. Although the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars gave British collectors - notably the Duke of Wellington - an appreciation of Spanish painters such as Velazquez, Zurbarán and Ribera, Spanish masters of painting's sister medium did not enjoy the same recognition. British collectors liked their sculpture clean, white and marble.

Heir to a late-medieval tradition of hyperrealism and polychromy, Spanish sculpture suffered from the 'Black Legend', the Protestant stereotype of a Spain mired in absolutism, the Inquisition and superstition. Unlike their idealised Italian or French counterparts, Spanish sculptures were meant to look like us. Unsettlingly mimetic images of wood, gesso and paint, they combined matt flesh tones with cloth garments, glass eyes and tears, ivory teeth, real hair eyelashes, and nauseating wounds of painted cork. They were destined to trigger the Protestant anti-idolatry reflex, and in the Englishspeaking world Spain's Golden Age sculptors were banished to an art-historical footnote.

One of the revelations of this first exhibition in the ?? to combine Spanish baroque sculpture and painting - aside from the transcendent artistry of such sculptors as Juan Martínez Montańés and Juan de Mesa -is the close interaction that existed between the media. Painters of the status of Zurbarán or Francisco Pacheco painted sculptures that were themselves a group effort, involving specialists from carpenters to gilders. The collaborative nature of Spanish religious art extended much further, to the often gargantuan altarpieces, or retablos, and wall decoration into which these sculptures and paintings originally fitted. Indeed, the absence of even partial retablos or relief panels - another fundamental product of Golden Age sculptors -is the only shortcoming in this otherwise spectacularly conceived exhibition.

The Sacred Made Real' is one of the most subde works of curatorship I have seen in a decade. Like a giant sacro monte it leads us on a mystical pilgrimage, its ever-shifting views inviting sculptures, paintings and visitors into a mystical conversatone. Objects are soothingly human, yet appallingly mutilated. Warm, sensual skin is pierced with gruesome gashes, crystalline tears accompany gobs of blood, and subde facial expressions - like the trembling lips on Martinez's St Bruno, who is on the verge of tears - provoke sorrow and empathy. The greatest shocker of all is the eye-level, gasping Head of JoIm /he Bap/is/ by Juan dc Mesa, its excruciatingly realistic slicedthrough neck enough to put you off osso buceo for months. Some works, like Alonso Cano 's The Vision of St Bernard of Clairvaux (Fig. 3) - the saint drinks a jet of the Virgin's milk that squirts across the room from the altarpiece he is venerating - are simply bizarre. Whatever our tastes or religious convictions, it is impossible to react with dispassion to this sensory overload.

Our first glance is down a darkened enfilade at the monumental Christ on the Cross by Zurbarán - the stark lighting teases it out of the darkness - flanked by a pair of near life-size sculptures: Martinez's Christ on the Cross and a full-length Ecce Homo by Gregorio Fernández. From our vantage point it is nearly impossible to tell sculpture from painting. Similar pairings create even more sensational illusions, as when Martinez's St Bruno,in his white Carthusian cowl, has apparendy stepped out of an adjacent Zurbarán painting of his confrčres gathering under the Madonna's cloak In the opposite corner a Martinez St Francis Borgia sweeps out of a canvas of the same subject by Alonso Cano to join his companion and pendant, St Ignatius of Loyola. Elsewhere, sculptures and paintings contemplate each other across space, as with Pedro de Mena's Virgin of Sorrows, who grieves at her dead son - the spectacularly gruesome Dead Christby Fernández (Fig. 1) - across the penultimate gallery, or Fernandez's Ecce Homo, who is shown his fate in Martinez's Crucifixion on the opposite wall.

The lighting is particularly effective. Combining piercing spot-lighting with areas of murky darkness against walls of deep grey, the galleries create the sensation that we have stepped into a baroque painting, and as we walk about we cast the same shadows as our sculpted companions. The golden light enhances this spiritual atmosphere, softening the gore so that such works as Fernandez's Dead Christiook like a mystical vision instead of an autopsy.

Optical illusion - is it life or art, sculpture or painting? -is one of the main points of the exhibition. It is fitting that the show begins with a pair of paintings by Velazquez and Zurbarán that wryly challenge the renaissance conceit of the paragone, the debate over whether sculpture or painting was the superior medium, based on the techniques each used to depict reality. Velazquez's portrait of Martinez shows the sculptor carving a drawing - it is a portrait bust of Philip rv but is depicted as a few calligraphic strokes on a bare canvas -while in a Zurbarán painting, St Luke Contemplating the Crucifixion, the patron saint of painting with his palette in hand contemplates a volumetric crucifix - a sculpture in paint. Pushing this medium-bending theme further, these paintings flank a trio of Crucifixions, all boldly three-dimensional and casting deep shadows. Yet only one, by Juan de Mesa, is actually a sculpture.

With so many stars in this show - including rare and wonderful loans from lesser-known Spanish museums such as the Museo Nacional Colegio de S Gregorio, Valladolid - I am hard-pressed to name favourites. Fernandez's Ecce Homo is certainly one because of the ways it demonstrates the affinities and fundamental differences between the Spanish and Italian idioms. The statue's observant musculature and balanced classical pose recall Michelangelo's Risen Christ, yet the slender, feminine body, balletic hands and deferential tilt of the head give it a vulnerability that confronts us with the mortality of the flesh.

The most ravishing sculpture in the exhibition is Pedro de Mena's Mary Magdalene meditating on the Crucifixion (Fig. 2). A far cry from Donatello 's shrivelled husk, Mena's Magdalene provokes decidedly profane sensations through the suppleness of her skin, the sensuous line of her thigh and buttocks, and her luxurious cascade of hair. Her left foot rivals that of Bernini's St Teresa as the most erotic in baroque religious sculpture. But there is also defencelessness in her nakedness, as if she has suddenly stepped out of the shower in her bath towel, and the harsh texture of her hermit's garb and the way her exaggerated frown disfigures her brow brings us back to reality with a stern warning against the sins of the flesh.

One of the reasons this ingenious dialogue between painting, sculpture and viewer works is that the curator, Xavier Bray, has kept labelling and didactics to a minimum, judiciously placing descriptive commentary in a litde booklet that is appropriately reminiscent of a devotional chapbook. The accompanying catalogue also contains a wealth of information on artistic collaboration and how these sculptures were made. But the art is allowed to speak for itself, a breath of fresh air in this age of teachy accompanying texts, noisy background sounds and intrusive video clips. For the first time in years I saw visitors looking at the art first, and the ones not plugged into audio guides approached the objects with the hushed tones of the devout.

Author affiliation:

Gauvin Alexander Bailey is professor of renaissance and baroque art at the University of Aberdeen.

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