The Discovery of Spain - The National Gallery
- Liz Shannon
- 13 July 2009
This article is from 2009.
Everyone from the Old Masters to iconic cubists are celebrated in The Discovery of Spain. Liz Shannon talks to the organiser of this major exhibition and hears of a rich and often surprising art history of that nation
After tantalising visitors with idyllic views of Turner’s Italy in their last major exhibition, the National Galleries have turned their attention to Spain for their new Festival show. Rather than concentrating upon the work of a single artist, the exhibition will guide visitors through from the Peninsular War to the Civil War, presenting an astonishing range of work from Spanish Old Masters to Picasso displayed alongside pieces by British artists inspired by Spain’s vibrant ‘otherness’.
Christopher Baker, deputy director at the National Gallery of Scotland and organiser of The Discovery of Spain, sat down to tell us more. ‘It’s a very ambitious exhibition that tells a rich and complex story of how British artists and collectors became fascinated with Spain. Now people know the country very well but just a century back, it was unknown territory. To undertake a tour of Spain was very adventurous and exotic in terms of the art, landscape, architecture and customs that you would have encountered. We aim to capture some of that thrill of discovery with this exhibition.’
Spain was certainly an unknown quantity for many before Britain’s engagement in the Napoleonic Wars. ‘Spain was regarded with suspicion until the wars opened it up,’ Baker notes. ‘Britain had had hundreds of years of military and diplomatic engagement with the country, but little else. Spain was seen as self-contained and very different compared to the rest of Europe.’
Visitors will have the chance to see great works from this period including Goya’s notoriously harrowing print series Disasters of War, which is still thought-provoking viewing today, along with his painting of ‘The Duke of Wellington’. Goya’s depiction of such a very British subject may be surprising, but in fact makes perfect historical sense. ‘The period of the Napoleonic Wars was the first time that Spain and Britain found themselves on the same side,’ explains Baker. ‘France had invaded Spain, and Britain came along as the great liberators. This was many Britons’ first experience of Spain at first hand and it kick-started an interest in the country and its history.’
Spain’s appeal to British artists and travellers, as well as to the general populace, was manifold, but one major attraction was its sense of Eastern exoticism. ‘Spain was seen as exotic due to its Moorish culture; it was the only part of Europe with Islamic heritage. Moorish Spain caused considerable excitement in Northern Europe.’ Although the Moors had been expelled from the country in 1492, the remains of Spain’s Islamic past enabled travellers to ostensibly experience ‘the East’ while remaining in Europe. While Italy remained part of the conventional educational route, particularly for artists, Spain’s ‘exotic’ architecture, landscape and customs made it a new site of artistic pilgrimage.
An inevitable result of this newfound interest in all things Spanish was an increase in people wishing to visit the country, including artists such as David Roberts and David Wilkie, who required information to make travel possible. Baker notes an important development that helped to open Spain up to artists and encouraged other travellers. ‘Nowadays, if you go into a bookshop there is a huge selection of travel literature, but in the 1830s there was very little to guide you. After this period you see travel literature beginning to be developed. Richard Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain was one of the great publishing sensations of the 19th century.’
With such literature in hand, artists went to Spain with a view to creating works for the British market. Artists would work up drawings and small-scale watercolours that they had executed in Spain into engravings for the mass market. Or they would create big exhibition pieces like Wilkie’s ‘The Defence of Saragossa’, that would be shown at the Royal Academy in Edinburgh or London. ‘This work tapped into a genuine, broadly-based British interest in the exotic and the splendour of Spanish culture,’ says Baker. ‘It was unlike anything north of the Pyrenees.’
This interest means that Scottish artists and collectors play a key role in the exhibition. ‘Spain heavily influenced the work of John Phillip, who was from Aberdeen. It transformed his work in the 1850s and 60s, to the extent that he became known as “Spanish Phillip”. The country also affected Arthur Melville, one of the Glasgow Boys, who discovered Spain in a new way.’ Phillip’s studies of Spanish life were so well regarded that his ‘La Gloria: A Spanish Wake’ was the most expensive painting ever bought by the National Gallery of Scotland when it was purchased in 1897.
Scottish collectors also played a significant role in the development of the British love affair with Spanish art. Numerous works had been looted by the French, and as these collections broke up, Spanish paintings became available to other collectors. ‘The Great Room in the Academy Building will be filled with Old Master Spanish paintings from collections such as that of William Stirling-Maxwell,’ says Baker. ‘It will include his wonderful ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’ by El Greco, as well as works by Velázquez and Murillo, all from British collections.’
The exhibition will highlight the cult of Velázquez – now regarded as perhaps the greatest of all Spanish painters – and the artists that took a serious interest in him in the second half of the 19th century. But as Baker notes, ‘in the 20th century a different aesthetic came into play: Melville, Bomberg and Carrington were able to travel through Spain in the early 20th century. The infrastructure had improved and they were able to look at things, such as the bullfight and wild landscapes, that are off the beaten track. Their works exhibit a fantastic explosion of colour, reflecting the land, heat and sunshine of the south.’
Having begun with one period of conflict, the exhibition closes with another. ‘The Civil War marked a new, and different, extraordinary engagement with Spain,’ notes Baker. ‘Picasso’s “Guernica” toured around Britain to raise awareness of the conflict and his painting “Weeping Woman”, which we’ve borrowed from the Tate, travelled alongside the larger work. We are showing the painting alongside British responses to the war by Wyndham Lewis, Edward Burra and Henry Moore, which form a dramatic contrast to Picasso’s work. There is a big gap between Britain looking at Spain and Spain looking at its own art and life.’ Featuring over 130 paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints and photographs, The Discovery of Spain contains a huge range of material. As Baker acknowledges, ‘the subject is vast; we couldn’t tell it all so we have divided up into manageable chapters. Some of the material will be familiar, but people will also be able to make discoveries of their own.’
To enrich these discoveries, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue and impressive programme of events, including lectures by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Richard Cork and Gabriele Finaldi of the Prado. Scottish artist Alison Watt will also speak, having completed a residency at the National Gallery in London, which resulted in a series of works based upon a painting by Zurbarán. For those of an even more scholarly disposition, October sees a high-profile international conference featuring renowned international speakers. Forget the Auld Alliance; this year could witness Scotland becoming a nation of Hispanophiles.
The Discovery of Spain, National Gallery Complex, The Mound, 0131 624 6200, until 11 Oct, £8 (£6).