Illustrious artists such as Velásquez, Zurbarán, Ribera, Tiepolo and Goya are advertised on a sign at the entrance to Renaissance to Goya at the Art Gallery of NSW. Unfortunately they are hidden in a long roll call of names that will be largely unknown to the general public. Not many Australian art lovers are hanging out to see works on paper by artists such as Tibaldi, Herrerra Barnuevo, Camarón and Bayeu, to mention only a selection.
It doesn’t require a marketing genius to know that in cases such as this, less is more. It’s a poor strategy to hide your major drawcards in a thicket of also-rans.
In terms of the exhibition itself, the list provides an accurate summary of the experience that awaits the viewer: a small sprinkling of masterworks buried within a very large, disparate collection of brown-tinted prints and drawings.
This is not to disparage the abilities of the lesser-known artists, who are all exceptional draughtsmen. The problem is the evenness of the show, the lack of drama and visual excitement. I know it may seem ridiculous to accuse Goya of a lack of drama, but in his case many of the images are so familiar that never a year goes by without another opportunity to see them in a museum or even a commercial gallery. Almost every major art institution in Australia has an extensive collection of these prints. Only three years ago, Rex Irwin was showing – and selling – a complete set of the Disasters of War. Last year Goya’s etchings were included in Portrait of Spain, the Queensland Art Gallery’s touring show of works from the Prado.
The Prado exhibition featured roughly 100 works, and was criticised in some circles for being too big. Renaissance to Goya features 150 works, all roughly the same size, in a very restricted variety of media. This places severe demands on all but the most dedicated viewers. In this country we tend to genuflect when confronted with the slightest trifles by the old masters, but at the risk of sounding like a barbarian I’m obliged to say this is a very dull show.
The collection was originally put together for an exhibition at the British Museum in September last year. The curator, Mark P. McDonald (no relation), is a renowned expert in the field and has written a scholarly book that serves as the catalogue. It’s not exactly the most riveting read in the bookshop, but that’s not the point of such studies, which provide a compendium of our current state of knowledge on a subject.
If there’s room for criticism it is because the exhibition seems to be a companion to the book, rather than vice versa. There is not the smallest pretence that Renaissance to Goya was ever intended as a touring show. The name of the AGNSW appears nowhere in the catalogue, implying that Sydney is an afterthought – perhaps an expedient way of filling a gap in a program that new director, Michael Brand, has yet to put his stamp upon.
Despite his obvious expertise, one can feel justifiably disappointed in the way McDonald discusses many of the works in this show. I remember seeing Zurbáran’s Head of a Monk (c.1635-55) in a 1996 British Museum exhibition of Old Master Drawings from the collection of John Malcolm of Poltalloch (1803-93), who made his fortune from cattle stations in South Australia.
The Zurbáran drawing held its own alongside works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Watteau, Dürer, Parmigianino, Botticelli and Rubens. The monk’s closed eyes make the picture less of a portrait and more of a study in spiritual introspection. The cowl frames the face like a halo, with the contours of the skull visible beneath the skin. There are intimations of mortality, but it is essentially an image of prayer. The face is illuminated by an inner glow that is metaphysical in inspiration; an impression beautifully conveyed by Zurbáran’s technique with chalk, pen and ink.
In the book this work is bitten off in a single sentence, even though it is the stand-out image in the show, used on the cover of the catalogue and the publicity posters. This is the difference between art history and art criticism: the mere accretion of facts is useful, but often fails to tell us anything we really want to know. What viewers desire most fervently is some insight, some understanding of what gives a work its special force and attraction.
While one can appreciate the skill and significance of the many architectural drawings in this exhibition, they are dreary to look at when we can’t see the actual buildings. This principal may be extended even further, encompassing the gap between an artist’s drawings and their finished paintings. McDonald tells us that most of the surviving drawings by Spanish old masters are preparatory studies for larger works. Seeing only the drawing is like reading the preamble to a story then closing the book.
Even if one had never heard of Velásquez, it would be possible to guess he was a great artist on the basis of his small representation in this show. A detailed drawing of an Auto de Fé of 1632 is merely “attributed” to him. The only certainty is a small sheet called Studies of Rearing Horse and Horseman (c.1625-35). This sketch is so deft and casual it stands out in this company. As opposed to the painstaking creations of his peers, Velásquez seems to have taken a less laborious approach to drawing. It was enough to jot down an idea, then get on with the painting.
This is hinted at, although not proven, by the relative scarcity of surviving drawings from his hand. The intuitive evidence may be found in these horse studies, which feel wonderfully solid and confident, even though they are no more than rapid notations with a stick of chalk. If one could compare the drawing to one of Velásquez’s equestrian portraits, it would reveal much about how a master puts the meat on the bones, so to speak.
In the case of Murillo (1618-82), the drawings reveal a very different figure to the slick, sentimental painter who dazzled the connoisseurs of the 19th century and leaves us cold today. The excessive sweetness of Murillo’s paintings could never be anticipated from his vigorous pen and ink drawing of The Archangel Michael (c.1655-60), although that feeling is prominent in a coloured chalk sketch of Saint Francis of Paola (c.1665-70). Overall, he is revealed as an amazingly versatile draughtsman, capable of many different moods and techniques. This sets him apart from older peers, such as Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), whose precise drawing style varied little from one work to the next.
It’s easier to make such comparisons from the book rather than the show, because works on paper may be better studied in a print-room or library, one at a time, instead of being clustered together on gallery walls. With so many repetitive themes the works tend to run together in one’s mind, meaning that any unusual subject stands out in the most vivid fashion. Look, for instance, at Francisco Risi’s delicate portrait of The Dwarf ‘Lusillo’ (c.1680-83), where the elaborate dress and dignified demeanour of the subject belies the novelty status of his role at court.
Another eye-catching image is The True Portrait of a She Ant-bear (anteater) (1776), a print made after a painting attributed to Goya. It appeals to us in a very similar way that it must have appealed to audiences in the 18th century, as an exotic creature from a distant land. Any aesthetic qualities are of secondary interest.
The last part of the exhibition belongs almost entirely to Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), and it feels like a hard-earned reward for having persevered with so many less engaging items. Goya is one of the great iconoclasts in world art, whose images have burned themselves into the modern consciousness. There are a few unusual pictures in this selection such as his red chalk portrait of a haunted Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1812), but most of these pieces are dark classics. The Sleep of Reason (c. 1797-98), from the series, Los Caprichos, with its bats and owls descending on the sleeper, is as iconic as any print ever made.
For specialists, the central importance of this show is that it gathers together a body of work that establishes the importance of drawing in Spanish art history. An earlier view held that Spanish artists did not attach much significance to drawing because of their tempestuous Iberian temperaments. Nowadays, we are less inclined to explain everything by ethnic stereotypes, and more prepared to believe that factors such as the Spanish workshop system, and the prolonged absence of a central teaching academy meant that drawings were rarely preserved. It’s one of the abiding paradoxes of art exhibitions that mediocrity creates bulk. Had there been greater riches from which to choose, Renaissance to Goya may have emerged as a smaller, more compelling show.
Renaissance to Goya: Prints and drawings from Spain, Art Gallery of NSW, August 31 – November 24, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 21, 2013