My third visit to London this term, primarily to visit the 17th century Spanish exhibition, The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700.
Well, for those people who were put off by the overtly religious nature of this exhibition and decided to stay at home worshipping a very different kind of God, Sky TV/free view, all I can say is that it's your loss. It's all the more your loss as this array of paintings and sculpture is never likely to be assembled again.
The title of this piece was suggested by Peter Hammill's song about baroque religion, The Lie: Bernini's Saint Theresa; "the silent corner haunts my shadow prayers" intones Peter. I don't think he would have liked this exhibition as at the end of his song he rejects all the trappings of Catholic religion, sweeping out of church in a swirl of organ and screams. "Shadow" and "prayers" seems appropriate here though since its curator, Xavier Bray, has set up the array of lights to create interesting shadows. One thing that strikes you straight away about the exhibition is the way it's lit. Bray has thought long and hard about how he could maximise the effect that this sacred art could have on both a believing and secular public. Only five or six rooms, but each one an installation in itself that communicates a theme or an experience guaranteed to make you contemplate, and more importantly, think about your own relationship with religion and sacred art. The NG exhibition environment plays a major role in this effect: it encourages introspection in the dark. This shadowplay comes about because with sculpture we're dealing with solid objects projected into space rather than the flatness of the painted surface. That was a bonus for Bray: it allowed him to emulate the atmosphere of a baroque church where images of Christ and his saints are glimpsed through the gloom rather than presented in the unforgiving clarity of bright exhibition lighting. This is one of the most tenebrous exhibitions I've ever visited. They tried to do a similar thing in the Late Caravaggio show in 2005, but it wasn't half as atmospheric- or indeed eerie- as this.
Room 1 gently introduces us to one of the prevailing themes in this exhibition: the interaction of painting and sculpture. Confronted by the very first painting- a portrait of Juan Martinez Montañés the sculptor- by Velasquez, we're shown in one single work the theme of the "sculptural painter." This idea will be revisited, with greater emphasis, as we progress through the show. The next important painting- in this section, IMHO, is the truly unique Crucifixion with a Figure at the foot of the Cross, by Zurbaran. I've written on this before, so no need to follow up on that. Suffice to say that despite what Bray says in the catalogue, I don't buy the idea that this is St Luke; it's more likely to be a self-portrait, as Zurbaran tended to place himself- in symbolic form- within the pictorial space. Here he made that symbolic transfer in human form.
Near the exit to this room is a large statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception- possibly by Montañés and an unknown polychrome sculptor- which possesses a sad grace all of its own. Graceful is the word I'd use to describe Velasquez's Immaculate Conception, on the wall next to it. It's only when you pay attention to the beautiful, girlish features that you understand how Velasquez's religious art is less rooted in the sacred and more the mores of everyday Spanish life. Within this society the nun's veil shimmers into the worldly mantilla; realism winks at religion who tries to avert her gaze. It also offers the chance to study the facture of the master up close and personal- it's hung lower down than usual- especially the impasto of the white clouds, the naturalistic equivalent of the children that lift the Virgin up into heaven in more rococo versions, like Murillo's. In passing, it should be mentioned that most of the Velasquez represented here isn't his best, especially The Flagellated Christ contemplated by the Christian soul in the next room. This work edges more towards the sentimentality of Murillo; I'm sure that this picture would have found favour with a Victorian audience in love with the child and guardian angel theme.
On entering the largest room in this show where a life-size sculpture of Christ by Montañés is complemented by Zurbaran's painted version, the effect is startling, Zurbaran's Christ on the Cross might be seen as the centrepiece of this religious assembly, but it really has serious competition in the form of Montañés's crucifix which looks down on its painted and human companions. It elicited the remark "It's beautiful" from a visitor, but I wonder if she was right. In early modern Europe, debates raged about the presentation of Christ: should his skin be shown as pure, sleek as marble; or should the violence of his harsh treatment be mapped out on the bloody geography of his body for all to see? Walk across the room and look at the back of Gregorio Fernández's statue, encased in glass, of Christ the Ecce Homo. His muscular back is streaked with bloody smears of paint; the paragone takes on a brutal and harrowing aspect. This visitor failed to register similar violent deposits on the Montañés- the blood lines there are not as numerous, but they're definitely visible. But equally important is the inclusion of a painting by Ribalta, a Spanish artist who worked in Naples. His Vision of St Bernard of Clairvaux is stunning in its appropriateness, a sober riposte to Alfonso Cano's heated Lactation of St Bernard hanging in the first room. Here, the Virgin squirts her milk from her teat into the open mouth of St Bernard, an image that the Counter-Reformation was uncomfortable with, as were my students when I showed them a slide of it a couple of weeks ago. It's tempting in a post-Freudian world, to muse on the psychosexual motivation underpinning this legend, but far better to return to Ribalta. I doubt if his Vision of St Bernard, for the rest of its gallery life, will ever find such a perfect home again. Its utility is that it not only demonstrates the debate about the "Spanish paragone"- the contrast between/unification of painting and sculpture- but also penetrates to the core of this exhibition: perfecting the illusion that wooden effigies and painted figures can approximate beings in the real world. What's depicted in Ribalta's painting is a statue of Christ on the cross coming to life and grasping the saint who swoons with ecstasy as his eyes shut tight, the better to intensify the vision he is experiencing.
I'd call Ribalta's picture a concrete metaphor for the principle of the actualisation of inanimate matter into living tissue. Is it a Pygmalion effect? I guess so, although that myth is not only pagan but a foundational metaphor for the love of art rather than transmission of theological ideas. Within the Pygmalion legend we cannot distinguish between truth and fantasy, such is the power of art to deceive and undercut the reality principle. But the art in this exhibition is not marking out a strict divide between reality and illusion; it is concerned with the interim; how these wooden, painted sculptures are suspended between the cold of the tomb and the breath of life. Looking at Montañés's two statues of St Ignatius Loyola and St Francis Borgia, guarding the exit like two sentinels, I fantasised about them moving their heads, coming down off their pedestals in order to convert we heretics to the inflexible edicts of the Counter-reformation. Instead they remain frozen like Pedro de Mena's statue of Mary Magdalene peering intently at a crucifix that she holds in her hand. Here is another interesting theme developing: the silent interaction between the religious figures and the objects they hold. Pedro de Mena's Mary Magdalene stares fixedly at the crucifix which could almost function as a mirror, an attribute of vanitas to remind the penitential saint of the life of sin she's left behind, an ambivalence here? On the other hand there is no ambiguity in Velasquez's painted grim Mother Superior, Jerónima de la Fuente gripping her crucifix whilst glaring at the viewer- you could imagine her using it to deal a hefty blow to a wayward sinner.
Not everything works in this exhibition, at least to my critical and over-trained eye. The room that thematises the Dead Christ relies on a cluster of unimpressive works whose amalgamation merely accentuates their defects rather than strengths. The half-length of the Virgin of Sorrows looks faintly absurd, embedded in a cabinet, she veers dangerously close to kitsch; the statue of a dead Christ relining on pillow and crumpled drapery brings to mind the image of someone lying on an airbed which is slowly losing air; the inclusion of another Neapolitan painter's- Ribera- Lamentation of Christ, while thematically consistent, seems stylistically at odds with the exhibition as a whole. I suspect that the Ribera – which is conveniently owned by the NG-, may have been a last minute substitute for other art that could/would not be loaned. Still, none of this matters. You could quite happily avoid this room and your visit to the exhibition would not be marred in the slightest.
The curators of this exhibition have set aside a darker room with benches, which given the atmosphere of church in this exhibition, could almost be mistaken for pews. Here *is* a silent corner; a place for reflecting not only on this exhibition but the place of art and religion in the world of today. I thought about an article I wrote a few years back, the lineaments of a projected book on postmodernism and religion which didn't evolve into a something more substantial. Exhibitions like this do speak to our own times, a point proved by a renaissance exhibition of 2001 which became a site of grieving after the paradigmatic calamities of 9/11. That catastrophe burned religion and violence far more into the cathode ray tubes of our brains than any reading of the horrors of torture and martyrdom in the history books, or indeed the weals on the afflicted body of Fermández's Ecco Homo. This scepticism born of a saturated media landscape goes some way towards explaining the patchy attendance of the Sacred Made Real. Also, don't forget this exhibition appears at a time when Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion is riding high in the bestseller lists. But Jean Francois-Lyotard, the master builder of postmodernism, conceded that with the disappearance of God advocated by theorists has paradoxically come a return to faith, or at least the application of certain theological ideas to philosophical issues. That rings true with this exhibition: Zurbaran's picture of St Francis seems to me to have the gravity of a philosophical statement; whilist his Christ on the Cross surely could be viewed in purely existentialist terms.
Xavier Bray deserves the highest commendation for this highly unique exhibition; he may very well be made St Xavier, or the equivalent of canonization in the art world. This is surely destined to become a flagship exhibition for the NG's policy of moving away from blockbusters toward events more narrowcast and difficult. Good! You only have to look back to the 1980s when Spanish shows were on such soft subjects as collecting Spanish art in Britain** to see how far Spanish art has come at the N.G.
**Having escaped the London rain I found myself deep in the bowels of a bookshop on the Charring Cross road. I acquired a catalogue of a 1981 NG exhibition El Greco to Goya: The Taste for Spanish Paintings in Britain and Ireland. This was under the late Michael Levey's tenure. Though excellent on its own terms, hardly as specialized or challenging as the current show. How times change.