The Discovery of Spain
Fascinating and beautiful exhibition of British and Spanish art demands a good, long look
This article is from 2009.
Besides proffering a coloured selection of chapters from an intriguing art historical narrative, this major exhibition presents some seriously affecting works of art. Didacticism aside, simply gazing at these terrifically moving paintings – Goyas, El Grecos, Zurburans, Morillos, Velázquez’ and Picassos – affords great pleasure.
Framed by the Peninsula War of the early 19th century, and the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, the exhibition examines Britain’s burgeoning interest in Spanish art and culture. From the outset, the industrious gallery texts proclaim that the selection attends not only to the artistic attitudes of the nations, but wider issues of foreign perception, Eastern exoticism, and political notions of ‘otherness’. Rightly enough, a nuanced series of comparisons, thematic groupings, and considered acknowledgements of British perspectives, provoke such considerations.
Goya’s notorious ‘Disasters of War’ etchings open the exhibition. Visceral and graphic reactions against Napoleon, they remain to be considered among the greatest of anti-war works. In contrast, the works of British artist David Wilkie evince his seduction by the heroism of the war. Avoiding contrivance, such comparisons are generally kept to a minimum. The final room, however, presents a lucid examination of both British and Spanish reactions to the Spanish Civil War. While this historical framework supports and strengthens the selection of these works, it does not overshadow their autonomy. There is plenty to be gained from this complex historical narrative, but I suggest that you start at the exhibition’s end, ignore the words, cut straight to its heart, and take a good, long look at the paintings.
National Galleries Complex, The Mound, 624 6200, until 11 Oct, £8 (£6).