Reading between the Lines
A PRIVILEGED VIEW INTO THE HISTORY OF SPANISH ART
BY PENELOPE HUNTER-STIEBEL
Works on paper are seldom seen in the original. The vulnerable sheets are kept in museum storage drawers or collectors’ albums to protect them from the ravages of exposure to light. The exhibition Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain, from the famed collections of the British Museum, goes behind the brilliance of Spanish paintings to provide a rare glimpse into the graphics that are a vital but little-known aspect of Spanish art. The New Mexico Museum of Art is the last and only American venue for this landmark show.The British Museum is one of the world’s greatest repositories of graphic art. Founded in 1753, the museum represents the collective scholarship of generations of leading specialists as it expanded to cover fields from antiquity to ethnology. The depth and range of its holdings of European drawings and prints are legendary.
Historically, drawings made by Spanish artists were regarded by the artists themselves simply as working tools preparatory to paintings, or as visual records of compositions for subsequent use by assistants or students. They were not valued, collected, and preserved as independent works of art. Few survived heavy studio use, leading to the assumption by art historians that, unlike their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe, Spanish artists simply did not draw.
British art collectors of the Victorian era were among the first to take an interest in the relatively few surviving sheets by Spanish masters. Most of the examples in the British Museum were donated by these prescient connoisseurs or purchased by the museum at that time. The museum’s comprehensive representation of Francisco de Goya’s achievements in printmaking, however, came about more recently, thanks to Tomás Harris. An artist and famed World War II MI5 double agent, Harris was a passionate collector and scholar of Goya prints. In 1962 he was invited by the British Museum to curate an exhibition drawn from his own collection. The museum subsequently acquired the more than 700 sheets Harris had amassed, including early proofs produced by Goya, decades earlier than their publication for sale.
Until recently the museum’s Spanish drawings lay buried in its storage and overlooked in favor of the works of Italian, French, and Dutch artists favored by modern art historians — overlooked, that is, until the current exhibition, organized by British Museum curator Mark McDonald, who has mined this rich vein to assemble a presentation of Spanish art as never seen before. Here on sheets hundreds of years old we see drawings that reveal artists’ initial ideas and creative struggles along with prints that published their successes. All of Spain’s most famous artists are represented: Diego Velázquez, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Francisco de Zurbarán, José (Jusepe) de Ribera, and of course Goya, along with a host of others, less familiar but often equally compelling.
But what do we actually see as we come face to face with these rare works of art that are enjoying this brief moment in the light? Here are just a few examples of the 132 works in the exhibition.
Assumption of the Virgin, ca. 1555 – 1561 by Alonso Berruguete (1486 – 1561) Ink and wash heightened with white over black chalk 1895,0915.866.An eerie figure with muscular limbs looms out of the shade of an oval as the androgynous gray face recedes into the shadows of a cowl that seems to belong as much to a monk as a Madonna. Only the angel heads tucked in around the figure and the impossibly small foot couched in a cloud relieve the intensity of this vision and tell us that this is the Assumption of the Virgin. Where have we seen such Amazonian figures? The same place that Alonso Berruguete did — in the works of Michelangelo that so impressed the twenty-year-old Berruguete when he left Spain, and the tutelage of his artist father, to study in Rome and Florence. You can imagine this sheet as preparatory to either a painting or a sculpture. Like Michelangelo, Berruguete did both, but the final product is not known. We can well suppose that neither would have had the sexual ambiguity of this intimate study, which the artist never meant to be exhibited, never imagining that it might find a very different audience over 300 years later.
Design for an Altarpiece in a Chapel, ca. 1650 – 1660 by Sebastián de Herrera Barnuevo (1619 – 1671) Ink over black chalk with colored washes 1993,0724.2.Whoever first said that clients were impossible might have been an architect trying to get a commission for decorating a church in seventeenth-century Madrid. Herrera Barnuevo was a triple threat — painter, sculptor, and architect — but he was in a tough market. The Catholic Church endorsed the decision of the court to establish its permanent base in Madrid by renovating and embellishing its churches. In the ensuing competition for commissions, Herrera Barnuevo’s strong graphic skills gave him an enormous advantage.
In this sheet the candidate puts his best foot forward in the detailing of architectural ornament, the selling point for the chapel wall the altarpiece was to grace. He let an assistant fill in the spaces he had boldly defined with dinky indications of saintly figures. He even indicated in color the kind of marble that could be used to enrich the effect.
Traditionally an architect seeking such an important commission would prepare a design with different right and left sides to suggest options to the client. How many differences can you spot in the details between right and left? I found over a dozen. But wait. There were more. The right side has a second sheet pasted over the original set of options. Clearly two was not enough, and the beleaguered architect had to come up with a third set. We will never know if Herrera Barnuevo finally won the commission, since precious few of his realized works survive. But this rare drawing bears witness to the rigors of making a go of it in the art business in seventeenth-century Spain.
Equestrian Portrait of Don Juan of Austria, 1648 by José (Jusepe) de Ribera (1591 – 1652) Etching 1862,0712.533.We might dismiss the formulaic elegance of this equestrian subject as an obligatory potboiler of little interest demanded by a local prince, since it seems at first glance no more than a reproduction to disseminate the image of a large painting (now in the Museo del Prado) commissioned from the artist in the last years of his career. It is certainly far from our expectations of Ribera, the master of cruel agonies. His dark canvases came to characterize Baroque painting in Naples, a kingdom in Italy ruled by the Spanish where the artist fled to escape creditors in his native Valencia. His tortured bodies are amply represented in this exhibition with images of flayed saints and a particularly brutal red-chalk rendering of Christ Beaten by a Tormentor.
But not so fast. This print has quite a story to tell. What seems to be a dandified princeling is Don Juan of Austria (1629 – 1679), the illegitimate son of Philip IV and an actress. The king’s only recognized bastard, he became a popular hero advancing the military and diplomatic interests of the Spanish Empire throughout continental Europe. The teenage Don Juan arrived in Naples with a fleet of galleons to put down a local rebellion against Spanish rule in 1647.
As part of the ruling Spanish class, Ribera’s sympathies were with Don Juan. In fact, the artist and his family had taken refuge in the viceregal palace during the uprising. While Ribera’s painting simply glorifies the prince astride his rearing horse high on a bluff above the Bay of Naples, the print is much more specific. In the distance Spanish warships approach the port, whose buildings and streets are clearly recognizable. Presaging present-day uprisings in Egypt and China, the hub of the Neapolitan revolt was the square indicated on the extreme right. Most tellingly, McDonald has noted that the horse’s left hoof is positioned to fall directly on the square, symbolizing Don Juan’s effective suppression of the insurrection.
The Dwarf Miguelito, ca. 1680 – 83 by Francisco Rizi (1614 – 1685) Black chalk with touches of red chalk 1850,0713.6.This straight-on record of the appearance of a significant personage dressed in the height of French fashion makes no plea for sympathy like the portraits of dwarves painted by Velázquez some two decades earlier. Short he may be, but this man Miguelito is clearly no court jester, and his resolute expression indicates that he is ready to take on any contenders for his privileged position.
Dwarves were an essential part of the Spanish court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries before they were expelled in 1700 with all other “entertainers” as part of the reforms of Philip V, the first king of the new Bourbon dynasty. Considered both monsters and marvels of God’s creation, they were given responsibilities as important as the care of royal children. Their frequent appearance with the royal family served to illustrate the contrast between the “perfection” of the latter and their own deformities, something to appreciate if you were a member of the inbred Hapsburg line, which produced the spindly, long-faced Charles II.
Rizi was an accomplished master of architectural painting who knew well the ins and outs of survival at court, having been named painter to the King Philip IV in 1656, only to fall from favor but return to the court of Charles II during the painter’s last years. His study of Miguelito had been attributed to Velázquez until the figure in exactly these garments and pose was noted in Rizi’s masterpiece, a panoramic (9 by 14+ feet) painting of the Inquisition’s most spectacular auto de fe, in 1680. The dwarf’s presence had little to do with his religious beliefs, but everything to do with his status, positioned within arm’s reach of the king, in this trial that was staged for ranks of assembled dignitaries of church and state filling Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.
Plate 43 from Los Caprichos: The Sleep of Reason, 1797 – 1798 by Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828) Etching and aquatint 1975,1025.124.This self-portrait of the artist records the point of his midlife crisis. Recovered from a long illness to find himself permanently deaf, he turned away from colorful tapestry designs and court portraits to create masterpieces of social criticism and the dark imagery of depression. Here he pictures himself head down in despair or sleep, surrounded by creatures of the night. Their symbolism would have been readily understood at the time: bats representing ignorance; cats, witchcraft; owls, folly (note the one on the right who offers the artist a stick of chalk); and a lynx who can see in the dark. All these creatures stare not at the artist but directly out at us, the viewers, as if to draw us into their world of shadows.
No image in the history of art has inspired more and different readings than this etching. Goya himself provided conflicting interpretations. He initially intended the image to be the frontispiece of a series of drawings and etchings of social satire titled Los Caprichos (follies). His inscription on the preparatory drawing (now in the Prado) translates as “Universal Idiom Drawn and Engraved by Fco. de Goya in the year 1797, The Author Dreaming.” The author’s intent is to banish commonly held harmful beliefs and with this work of Caprichos to perpetuate the solid testimony of truth. In the final etching he introduced the definitive title, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, and an early print bears the caption that translates, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters, united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” The exhibition offers several examples from the Caprichos illustrating how Goya combined imagination and reason to create nightmarish imagery condemning the ills of Spanish society. Horrors real and imagined would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1812by Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828) Red chalk over black chalk and graphite 1862,0712.185.Goya’s prints of The Disasters of War are among the most devastating depictions of the collateral damages of warfare. This exhibition includes images of the victims: mutilated bodies of soldiers, corpses of innocents, and terrified peasants in flight. Yet just as haunting is Goya’s portrait study of the victor, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. This soldier / statesman led the British troops in six years of incessant battles, chasing Napoleon’s forces from the Iberian Peninsula from a first landing in Portugal in 1808 to the final victory in 1814. Wellington posed for Goya in Madrid in 1812, shortly after a decisive victory at Salamanca. But what Goya shows us is not a victor flushed with triumph but an exhausted, hollow-cheeked man whose wide, sorrowful eyes have witnessed the same horrors as Goya and more.
Goya used the drawing as the basis for quickly painting over the head in a traditional equestrian portrait (now in Apsley House, London) he had done of a previous leader (Prime Minister Godoy or even, possibly, Joseph Bonaparte) as well as for a more highly worked portrait (now in the National Gallery, London) where Wellington is decked out in a dress uniform. Adding the multitude of medals and honors bestowed by Spain and Britain, shifting the slouched posture to an upright military stance, and subtly changing the regard to one of proud command, Goya created the desired impression of a military hero. The truth of the war-weary soldier is recorded on this sheet, which Goya hid away, only to be discovered by his grandson, folded in among the master’s etchings.
For Having Jewish Ancestry, ca. 1808 – 14by Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828) Brush drawing in brown ink and wash 1862,0712.187.This drawing comes from the collection known as the Inquisition Album, in which Goya depicted the sufferings of victims of the powerful quasi-judicial institution. In an intensely inked sketch, the artist delineates a line of prisoners wearing the tall cone hat on which their crimes were written and the sleeveless coat with the large St. Andrew’s cross that identified them as accused by the Inquisition. Accompanied by a guard and a member of the clergy, they are being marched from their jail to hear their sentence. The leader’s head is bowed and his fists clenched in anguish: conviction is inevitable. In Goya’s own hand we learn the nature of their crime: “For being of Jewish ancestry.”
Over the centuries since the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, Jews had been included among the nonbelievers targeted by the Inquisition, allowing the state to confiscate their wealth. Although Napoleon issued an edict suppressing the Inquisition when he took Madrid in 1808, supported by the Constitution of 1813, the clergy resisted, and heresy remained a crime. When Ferdinand VII was returned to the throne as an absolute monarch, he revived the Inquisition, and it was only in 1834 that his widow, Maria Christina, accomplished the definitive abolition of the heinous institution.
The subject was near and dear to Goya, who had avoided the Inquisition only through the intercession of highly placed supporters. He left Spain in 1824 to escape the reactionary policies of the Restoration monarchy and spent his last years in Bordeaux, a city with a long-established Sephardic community, which became a haven for liberal Spanish refugees.
The Old Man on a Swing, ca. 1827 – 1828, by Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828) Etching and aquatint 1975,1025.48. The personage in the etching Old Man on a Swing bears a resemblance to Goya himself as portrayed by Vicente López y Portaña in a formal portrait painted in 1826 (now in the Prado), but instead of the grumpy painter dressed to the nines, clasping his brush and palette and staring belligerently out at us, we see a senior citizen who seems to be joyously celebrating the liberation of second childhood. A preparatory drawing (in the collection of the Hispanic Society, New York) shows a shorter, gnomelike figure, much like others that Goya called “locos” (lunatics), in clothing so tattered that his bottom is bared. His is a fiendish grin as he swings through a void to more daring heights. Here, however, the likeness to Goya himself is more pronounced, and the expression is one of sheer delight as he kicks his bare feet in the air, swinging free of nebulous monsters lurking in a surrounding darkness. This is one of the artist’s last works. Goya died on April 16, 1828, finally relinquished by his demons.
Penelope Hunter-Stiebel is an independent curator living in Santa Fe. She began her curatorial career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she worked on the historical collection of decorative arts and developed the field of modern and contemporary design. She went on to become a principal of the New York gallery Rosenberg & Stiebel, then spent a decade as curator of European art at the Portland Art Museum, Oregon, building the collection of Old Master paintings and organizing international exhibitions from Russia, Germany, Holland, Italy, and France.