April 1, 2011 by chcater
Our visit to the Prado was mesmerizing, a museum of masterpieces from the greatest painters in Western art. The quality of the collection was overwhelming and prolific, an experience very distinct from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Albeit a much smaller space, the Prado was less concerned with hoarding every piece of art it could get ahold of, but rather, spoke to the iconic visions of the baroque and classical styles, reflecting a culture still reverent to antiquity and the history of art in its own country. Indeed, it was King Phillip IV who celebrated and collected art, which is understand through his strong relationship with the master Diego Velazquez. This value of art in the Spanish royal identity, along with art’s role as an implement of religious morality and ideas, shaped a distinct image for me as a viewer at the Prado. Gone were the hall ways crammed with ancient and obscure statuary of antiquity. There was no American wing, no need to capture art from all and every distant culture. It was another type of conquering, an attitude that expressed its dominance through the support of the best of its own country and continent, the masterpieces of Europe. Unlike the Met’s crowded nether halls of displayed storage, works still shown to the public through aisles of glass cases, the Prado was refined through every entryway in a modern veneration of a history of artistic excellence.
above: Visible Storage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, below: Hallway at the Prado Museum in Madrid
But as I went downstairs to look at the more recent works of Francisco de Goya, I passed through a smaller gallery space with smaller works of Spanish impressionism, scenes of light out in nature and on a less monumental scale, devoid of human figures and portraits. Many scenes depicted water, or harbors bathed in washes of warm or colorful light. There was work from painters I had never heard of before, work considerably more understated in presentation than the work already shown, a more intimate portrait of Spanish art, and by extension, Spanish life. It was not a myriad of religious and military paintings that bedecked the rest of the museum, nor a space devoted solely to antiquity or war or God. The walls depicted quiet moments of a landscape. This absence of works like these was striking, because it reflects and suggests the role of war and religion in the formation of Spanish identity, the latter of which still very prevalent in spite of the lack of attendance of religious services. The history of Spain is steeped in the fight for land on the basis of its spiritual potency, its role as a domain of religious subjugation and property, territory to be won for a specific God. The presence of so many minarets converted into bell towers, from the Alhambra in Granada to the impressive tower in the Cathedral in Seville, all emphasize the lands role not traditionally as a place for contemplation and the enjoyment of the individual, but literal and physical grounds of dominion, property of God and those denizens who complied with the church.
Naked Boys on the Beach by Joaquin Sorolla de Bastida, 1910
One of the larger works by Sorolla astounded me. It depicted, somewhere between realism, impressionism, abstraction and swirling colors of tan, mauve, puce, pinks and yellows and flashes of light, two boys laying in the boundary of the shore of a beach, bodies slick with sea, unconquered bodies devoid of religious morality or the worries of war. The work was secular and separate from the darkness and seriousness of the rooms to come, a respite from the horrors of war and the propriety of institutional hegemony. This painting represents a move away from the implementation of religion, a move out of the dark conquerings of the medieval period and the country, a new dawn and age at the turn of the century.
Visions of spain – 14 works which Sorolla painted for the Hispanic Society of America, on loan to the Prado in 2009 for a special exhibit on Sorolla, featuring 101 works, including some from their own collection, but many on loan from collections from around the world. The exhibition was meant to underscore Sorolla as the last great master of his time, and one admittedly very distinctly Spanish, integral in the forming of the Spanish cultural identity, but also in the rendering and depiction of instantly Spanish subjects. Themes of ocean and light – the importance of the shore and the ocean in Spanish artistic consciousness, and how this is reflected today as we examine situations of immigration along the border – the ocean as both an artistic and creative launching point of study but also a critical topographical space, both a starting and ending point in the journey of the immigrant, and in movement of ethnic groups in and around the Iberian peninsula in the formation of Spain as a country, and in the shaping of its national identity.
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