For a visitor to the Museo del Prado in Madrid one moment stays fixed in the memory: entering the central gallery to be confronted by Diego Velasquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas (1665). The most dramatic way of approaching the painting is to see it framed by a doorway from the other side of the room. There is always a huddle of viewers, but never the crowd scene that attends the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.
Ask artists which painting they revere most in the world, and Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour) is the most likely choice. The work has been recognised for its quality and originality from the beginning, but during the nineteenth century it became an object of veneration for painters from all over the world – from Edouard Manet to John Singer Sargent to Tom Roberts. This was the time when the reputation of Spanish art rose steeply; when the Prado became a Mecca for aspiring artists, and Velasquez was the most universally admired of old masters.
One aspect of Las Meninas that impresses itself upon viewers is the way it resembles a snapshot of the court at the precise moment the King and Queen have entered the room. The immediacy of this scene gives the work an extraordinary sense of modernity. That incipient modernity is one of the surprising themes of: Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces fromthe Prado, at the Queensland Art Gallery, which reveals the shared identity of paintings that stretch over three-and-a-half centuries.
There may be museums with larger collections and bigger attendances, but for many people the Prado is the greatest art gallery in the world. It stands out because of the exceptional quality of individual works. In the words of Deputy Director, Gabriele Finaldi, “it is the dwelling place of great painters.”
The Prado’s collection was founded on the holdings of the Spanish monarchs, the most prodigious art collectors in Europe during the sixteenth century. This era, known as the Golden Age of Spanish Painting, saw the importation of many works by masters such as Titian and Rubens, who were idolised by Phillip II and Philip IV respectively.
Until recently the Prado was not prepared to put together travelling exhibitions from their permanent collection. To see many of the greatest paintings by Spanish artists such as Velasquez, Goya, Ribera, Zurbarán and El Greco, as well as iconic pieces by European giants such as Titian and Rubens, one simply had to go to Madrid. This is the reason Portrait of Spain, which includes works by all the artists listed above, promises to be a landmark exhibition in this country.
We will not be seeing Las meninas in Brisbane, but 65 of the hundred works in this show were still hanging at the Prado during April. By Australian standards this is a very high percentage for a travelling museum survey. The selection is the work of Javier Portus, Head of the Department of Spanish Painting up to 1700, who has devised a show that will tell the stories of Spanish painting and Spanish identity from 1550-1900.
The exhibition is divided into three historical sections and smaller sub-categories that explore different aspects of the topic. Portus has allowed himself the freedom to leave one of most important pictures, Velasquez’s Mars (c.1641), to the very last room, illustrating the way Spanish artists at the end of the 19th century drew valuable inspiration from the art of the 1600s. It will share this final room with the Picasso’s La Belle Hollandaise (1905) from the QAG collection, and less familiar works such as Eduardo Rosales Gallinas, Female nude after bathing (1901), considered one of Spain’s finest and most innovative nudes.
This arrangement closes a circle, bringing us back to the portraits in the first room, which include Velasquez’s image of the dwarf, Francisco Lezcano (c. 1640), and his Philip IV in hunting garb (c. 1635), which usually hangs alongside Las meninas. It is fitting that these works are drawn from the Court, because the history of art in Spain is completely bound up with the story of Royal patronage. Where kings such as Philip II and Philip IV led, the courtiers and nobility swiftly followed.
Although some of the greatest Spanish paintings are mythological scenes, genre scenes and still life; the overwhelming majority are devoted to portraiture and religious subjects.
The Spanish kings were militant Catholics, defenders of the faith against the incursions of the Reformation. This meant that religious imagery tends to dominate the output of those painters who relied on the Church and its office-bearers to dispense many of the most important commissions. In this show we can watch the way the austere, orthodox imagery of artists such as Alonso Cano and Valdés Leal, gives way to the more humanistic style of artists such as Murillo, as the struggle with the Protestants becomes less pressing.
Well into the 1700s the monarchs and nobles tended to import still life, history and subject paintings from Italy or the Netherlands, but Spanish artists made an entirely original contribution to the still life genre, one of the most fascinating sections of this display.
The last part of Portrait of Spain is dominated by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, whose prints and paintings began by recording the faces of the grandees and the bucolic life of the peasants, but ended as searing depictions of war and madness. In the contradictions of Goya’s art, and the extreme nature of his vision, one sees the constant struggle between darkness and light that characterises the history of this proud, cruel, glorious nation.
Five key works:
Antonio de Pereda y Salgado: The Rescue of Genoa Second only to Velasquez’s The Surrender of Breda (1634-35), as an epic celebration of Spanish military glory, this was Pereda’s attempt to dazzle his royal patrons. The psychology of the scene is dignified and subtle, the paint applied with the skill of a miniaturist.
Diego Velasquez: Philip IV in hunting garb (c. 1635) One of Velasquez’s most brilliant portraits of this homely king, who was arguably the greatest of all royal connoisseurs of art. In this image of Philip IV as a hunter we are meant to see the monarch as the armed defender of his realm.
Francisco de Zurbarán: Martyrdom of St. James (c.1639) A work that reveals Zurbarán’s characteristic mastery of light and shadow in an austere, geometric composition. Note the exchange of glances between the doomed St. James and the dog, a departure from the no-frills approach usually demanded by ecclesiastic patrons.
Bartolomé Estaban Murillo: The Immaculate Conception of Aranjuez (1670-80) This painting, which celebrates the Vatican’s decision to declare the Virgin’s conception to be without sin, has all the sweetness that made Murillo a supreme artist for the Victorians. Yet that same delicate touch has seen his reputation plummet in the modern era.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes: The Pottery Vendor (1778-79) A woman speeds by in her carriage, sealed off from the busy market on all sides. In this suggestive image, Goya shows the unbridgeable gap that separates the nobility from the commoners in an age when the spread of the Enlightenment was throwing everything into question. Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, July 21 – November 04, 2012