From El Greco to Goya (The Wallace Collection)

IMG_20171007_155905.jpgPortrait of Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés by Francisco Goya (my wonky photo).

Oopsie — should have read that review in a bit more detail, rather than just going “El Greco?! Goya?! COUNT ME IN!” Then I might have realised beforehand that the exhibition at The Wallace Collection contains only one work by the former, and two by the latter; the other room is made up of a mixed bag of contemporary Spanish art also collected by the Bowes family. Still, it’s very much worth a visit just for the headliners, not least as entry to the Wallace is free (and while you’re there you can see one of the most impressive collections of medieval armour in the country…and a load of stuff looted from Lahore that probably shouldn’t be in this country…).

I love El Greco’s strange, lanky people and the deep, dramatic black shadows he uses. The example in this exhibition, a version of a scene he painted a number of times, is not my favourite, and looks somewhat like Terry Jones in a way I just can’t shake, but it was still a treat to see it close up. St Peter’s big, wet eyes are proto-Manga, exaggerated orbs that deny the viewer’s gaze with determination; I imagine that when hung higher up, the perspective works very effectively, but at eye-level it’s a bit disorienting. It’s still interesting to see, a detail that changes depending on where you stand in relation to the painting.

The background, also seen closer than the artist maybe intended, is a gorgeous expressionistic swirl over Peter’s right shoulder. Cloud-shapes nudge up against the landscape in matching greys and blues, and a hunched figure floats in front, face obscured. The green of grass in the background and ivy in the foreground brackets St Peter along the same diagonal as the dark outcrop of rock under which he prays, emphasising the pale line of his arms, which cut across on the horizontal. His arms are where the detail lies, as well as all the tension in St Peter’s body: veins bulge and forearm muscles swell as Peter’s clasped hands press against one another. A lot of it’s a bit odd if you focus too closely only on one area, but as a coherent whole it’s a masterful composition, bringing together colour, shape and line to draw the viewer’s eyes precisely how the artist intends.

The Goyas opposite are less imposing: one is a small, sepia study of prisoners, the other a portrait of the artist’s friend, a man who sought the reform of Spanish prisons: Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés. This is my favourite in the small exhibition. The sitter looks distracted, ready to sit up and leave the painting at any time, but momentarily arrested by some question from the artist. There’s a phrase on his lips and a frown of concentration lingers; his upper lip could do with a closer shave; his eyes seem to be caught on their journey from middle-distance to meet ours. To borrow from Garrow’s Law, he appears to have the rouged fury of righteousness in his cheeks. Around all that humanity in the face, his hair wisps away into grey smudges, his collar is a perfunctory, structural scrawl, and the red of his jacket simply offsets the colour in his cheeks. Portraiture at its finest.

Next to him are the prisoners whose conditions he campaigned to improve. This unassuming little piece is meant to look like a causal study, but it works in opposition to Meléndez Valdéz or St Peter: where the detail of those catches your eye first, and the sketchiness of some areas is only noticed later, the painting of the prisoners soon reveals itself to be very un-sketch-like indeed. The composition is meticulous, with the gathering of shackled men framed in the prison tunnels by a blazing white arch of light. Up close you can see that much of this white was painted on last, thick and dry, ensuring it dominates your first impressions. From it, your eye drops to the men: casually placed in the haze of the background, but more carefully posed at the front, down to one man who lies with his feet up on a set of stocks, a shackle at his neck and ankles, and a scrap of cloth artfully draped over his crotch. It’s as awkward a posture as the others hold: if he positioned himself like that for comfort, it can’t have been comfortable for very long. Another leans against a wall; one bends forward slightly, both caught in positions you wouldn’t want to hold; but the central figure twists in the most uncomfortable way, depicted mid-hobble, his balance in doubt as he tries to move his tightly bound feet.

Interior of a Prison, 1793–4 by Francisco Goya (also my wonky photo).

I’d never normally describe myself as a fan of brown paintings, but Goya’s browns are rich and warm, earthy and alive. You can see the layers of his working and the very conscious way he chooses to portray his subjects. Like Meléndez Valdéz’s gaze, caught mid-rove, or the prisoners in their stress positions, Goya’s paintings made me feel stuck between accepting the accuracy of what he showed, and double-guessing the expert manipulation of scene and light that he uses. Reality and realism hand in hand.

After those three, the rest didn’t do as much for me. It was like going into Dublin’s Caravaggio room in reverse; there you can build up to the masterpiece, nodding at various bold pretenders until you get to the genius itself (The Taking of the Christ is one of my favourite paintings, and all Caravaggios I’ve seen have been unearthly in person — though I’ve not been to the National Gallery in Dublin for a few years now) [honest, really I’m usually much more of a fan of fin de siècle stuff with colours and personal angst, but I do make exceptions]. In this case, after the show-stoppers, there were a couple of, to my eye, fairly perfunctory fruit bowls. There was a documentary on the history of still-life that convinced me of the merit of the genre, and reminded me of the few examples I do like, but generally, while I admire the skill involved, I don’t want to spend much time looking at them. The same was true here, plus there was something about the perspective of the bowls and baskets that made me feel queasy, as though the artist was trying to have his cake fruit and eat it.

In the next room there were a couple of good fits with the El Greco and Goyas: I liked the surreally levitating St Anthony and the mysterious monk with convent in hand (though something about his shoulder seemed awry under his heavy hood). I didn’t much care for the vast dollop of pink, cheruby gauze that was someone’s idea of the Immaculate Conception, and the best thing about the show’s other large painting was learning that archangels sometimes go on road-trips and advise people to cure blindness with fish. Apparently it’s from the Apocrypha; no wonder it sounds so much fun. The death of St Andrew fitted artistically with the idea of El Greco, with its sinewy, stretched body and dramatic lights and darks, but there’s little secular pleasure to be had in the image of Andrew’s crucifixion, unlike St Peter’s tearful repentance. A nice surprise in this room was, however, a portrait of St Eustochium: a woman who helped Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin, and whose portrait used to hang in a monastery (not a convent). I don’t remember much about the painting itself, but I was impressed by its size and original place of hanging, almost enough to forget my bitterness at never having heard of this woman who played a key role in the Church’s history. To be fair though, even through ten+ years of medieval studies, I have always fiercely resisted learning anything about the Church, so it may not be the misogynistic sweeping-under-a-rug of female history I’d automatically assume…


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