Still Life

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Aside from Velázquez, Goya and El Greco...

When visitors come to the Prado for the first time (or the second or third), they invariably come to see The Greats: Velázquez, El Greco, Goya etc...No doubt good choices. There are few things as artistically uplifting or enlightening, or timeless  as standing in front of pieces like Velázquez´ Las Hilanderas: looking at that dingy workshop, you can smell that stale air and imagine the bodily odors from the women working busily. Or his Cristo de San Plácido: you  gawk at that pale white Torso glistening with sweat, so gracefully limp and dead. You begin to appreciate the Sevillian´s great understanding of anatomy and wonder how easy he makes it look and how difficult it really is. "Cockroach" is the word that always comes to my mind--because that´s what I feel like next to him.
El Greco´s unique use of colour is also something that the visitor walks away with. I remember copying an El Greco once in the museum and breaking my head over what his procedure might have been because I saw neither rhyme nor reason in his use of colour and yet everything made sense.
Of course the other Spanish giants of The Golden Age are all up there calling out to us from the past, quietly teaching us all how we should do it.
But today I wanted to focus on the "lesser known" Spanish greats from the 19th century. On two painters and a sculptor in particular. There was a whole generation of such artists from the 1830s to the 1920s and perhaps this could be the first of several posts dedicated to these figures in art history. They are all products of a great classical academic tradition which has now been having  it´s own renaissance in the present day ateliers that adhere to the same academic tenets and methods of teaching.

José Casado del Alisal (1832-1886)
Francisco Pradilla (1848-1921)
Josep Llimona (1864-1934)

 La Campana de Huesca (1880, Jose Casado del Alisal)
 Few paintings have achieved the drama and visual impact that this canvas slaps you in the face with when you encounter it in front of you. Its enormous dimensions (356cms x 474 cms or 11 1/2 ft x 15 1/2 ft) and the scene that is represented allow the canvas to impose itself on you and hold your attention for sometime. In a nutshell, the story it represents is the 12th C event in history when the then king of Aragon, Ramiro II, upon learning of a conspiracy against him by some of his vassals, decides to teach them a lesson and decapitate 15 of them and arrange their heads in a circle with the head of their leader hanging from a rope in the center of the circle thus forming a sort of bell (hence the title Camapana de Huesca) that was supposed to "ring throughout Aragon as a warning to other possible traitors" and show off this macabre display of crude dictatorship to the other vassals that had been invited to the castle.
Overlooking the obvious gore, one can focus on the mastery of execution -- from composition to the handling of colour and the treatment of surface texture to expression in both facial and bodily gesture. Breathtaking attention to his rendering of fabric, metal and granite...


 Doña Juana la Loca (1877, Francsico Pradilla)

Painted when he was 29 years old, living in Rome as a student subsidized by the Spanish Academy. This piece was his third submission to the Academy as part of the terms of subsidy required that the artist paint a certain number of paintings of a certain size in return for the allowance that was awarded as part of the "scholarship". Also of enormous dimensions (340 cms x 500 cms or 11 ft. x 16 ft.) like the Camapana de Huesca, Pradilla´s painting focuses on the demented 16th C queen of Spain, Juana, daughter of Isabel and Fernando and mother to the future Carlos I. She is jealously and obsessively guarding the coffin of her recently departed husband King Philip the Handsome as it makes  its way to its final resting place in Granada. Another example of supreme mastery of the narrative apart from the captivating naturalist style that Pradilla (as well as his contemporaries) was known for. This is a piece that involves more than the sense of sight as it also makes the viewer aware of the smell of the smoke rising from the embers; the feel of the cold, December wind blowing across the empty expanse of land; and you can even hear the awkward silence being kept by the entourage as they grow bored by the whole trip forced on them by their mad Queen. Up close, the surface quality of the paint and the masterful painterly brushstrokes are right up there with the rest of the Giants of the Prado.

Desconsuelo (c. 1907. Josep Llimona)

I must admit I am not too familiar with this sculptor´s biography or his career. But there is really  no need for words when confronted with something as eloquent and poignant as this marble piece. An exquisite handling of the feminine form, the sensuous, perfect figure is able to transmit an overwhelming feeling of grief and loss without showing the viewer what can only be assumed to be an equally perfect, beautiful countenance ravished by sadness.

1 comment:

  1. Could not have been said better, very well chosen words...lovely piece.