The Write Stuff: On Bosch, Travel, and Virtual Ink

Having been warned by the museum itself to do so in advance, I recently purchased my tickets for the opening of The Prado’s upcoming show, “Bosch: The Fifth Centenary Exhibition”. From the website:

To mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch, the Prado is holding the most comprehensive exhibition ever organised on this Dutch artist. In addition to the works by the artist in the Museum’s collection the exhibition includes exceptional loans, among them The Triptych of the Temptations of Saint Anthony from the Museo de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, as well as paintings lent by leading institutions such as the Albertina and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Gallery, Washington, the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the Polo Museale del Veneto, Venice.

It is a given that if you ever happen to find yourself in Madrid, as I will be at the end of this month, you must go to The Prado. Even though I would have gone anyway, their hosting a major retrospective on one of my favorite artists is a significant bonus. Naturally, I plan to write a review of the exhibition for publication, but the question of what else, if anything, I will be publishing during my time in Spain remains a bit up in the air.

Part of the joy of going away on vacation is that you vacate the premises, physically and mentally. Home and the workplace are left behind for a period of time, so that you can have new experiences, clear your head a bit, and allow amorphous ideas the opportunity to begin taking shape. For me, having time off can be a period of welcome inactivity, but it can also be an opportunity for more scribbling – something which I have less time to do now than previously. It amazes me that for so many years I was able to churn out a blog post of 1,000 words or more, five days a week; I certainly couldn’t do that now.

At this point I don’t want to make any promises. Perhaps I will do a travelogue of each day’s adventures, or perhaps you will hardly hear a peep out of me, other than the de rigueur Instagramming of meals and cocktails. More likely the result will be somewhere in between.

Watch this space, gentle reader.

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Bosch's accurate prediction of the horrors of air travel in the 21st century

Goya and the Spanish Love of Hate

Today is the birthday of the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), and it gives me the opportunity to draw the attention of my readers to a rather nightmarish but deeply affecting work from his brush. Two men wielding cudgels are rushing at each other in a landscape, about to beat each other’s brains in. Are they fighting over a woman? Was there some insult, or act of theft? No one knows. And yet it is quite possibly the best representation, in a single image, of the history of Spain presently in existence.

Though older by a generation, in both sympathy and in a wider European context Goya can be viewed as a kindred spirit to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Both men lived through incredibly tumultuous times, from the downfall of the Ancien Régime to the Napoleonic Wars and the unsettled politics which followed. Both were passionate, tortured geniuses whose work, as they aged and as their respective maladies overtook them – including shared deafness – distanced them more and more from the frothy, light-hearted places from which each of them began.

Goya should not properly be considered an Old Master painter, though I have seen him erroneously included in such lists on numerous occasions. As I have written about previously, the designation “Old Master” is, admittedly, to some extent dependent on an arbitrary cut-off date of 1800. Artists like Goya and J.M. W. Turner, whose work straddled the turn of the 19th century, are often segregated by more sensitive minds into a category known as the “Romantic” painters. This leaves us with a critical problem however, since much of the Rococo art which Goya himself produced early in his career, such as in his cartoons for the Royal Tapestries in Madrid, is an echo of the work of artists a generation older than he who are definitely Old Masters, such as Tiepolo.

But it is not on this lighter work that today’s spotlight falls, but rather a picture from Goya’s so-called “Black Paintings”. Painted between 1819 and 1823, these works are the ravings, in paint, of a very troubled mind. By this time Goya had already been exploring the violent and the macabre for some years, though his earlier efforts pale in comparison to these later nightmares.

In 1793 Goya went deaf following a lengthy, serious illness, and the painter whose wit and connections had made him a popular society figure – in part due to his alleged affair with the Duchess of Alba – started to turn in on himself and away from the world. He began to produce strange little paintings aside from his commissioned work, and published etchings of nightmarish scenes criticizing the follies of contemporary society, in a series known as the “Caprices”. These were followed by the “Disasters of War”, in which Goya chronicled the death and destruction wrought by Napoleon and the Peninsular Campaigns in both paint and engraving.

Yet by comparison the subsequent “Black Paintings” overwhelm these earlier works, not only because they are, nearly a century before the tortured explorations of the psyche by Symbolist and Expressionist painters such as Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele, astoundingly innovative, but also because they were private. Goya’s “Caprices” and “Disasters of War” were created for public consumption; the “Black Paintings” were not. The 14 images, some of them quite enormous, were painted directly onto the plaster walls of his house in Madrid. They were never exhibited to the public during his time there, and Goya fled to France in 1823, leaving them unfinished.

Of course there was no intent to “finish” them, per se, because they were not meant to be shown. They are, in paint, the thoughts of a man who has done and suffered much, and is haunted by what he as seen. In its way Goya’s bizarre home decorating project reminds me of a similar project by one of my Catalan ancestors, the last direct male heir in his line, who spent his declining years in the 16th century carving his name followed by the words, “a sinner”, into the walls of the now-ruined castle in which his family had lived since the days of Charlemagne.

Although today each of the “Black Paintings” has a name, so far as we know Goya himself never titled these works. The sobriquets that have subsequently been assigned to them over the course of time by art historians or the Prado Museum, where they are now housed, try to give them descriptions so that we can understand them better. Yet if Goya had been working in the 20th century or today, like many modern and contemporary artists I suspect he would not have found it necessary to actually give names to his work: the choice of “Untitled” by an artist, whether directly or through a refusal to name his piece, is a deliberately enigmatic act.

The fresco of two men about to brain each other – variously titled “A Fight to the Death with Clubs”, “Duel with Cudgels”, etc., – is one of these legendary “Black Paintings”. There is a universal aspect to it in Goya’s recognition of man’s tendency, since the time of Cain and Abel, toward violence against our brother, despite our intellect and ability to reason. From all he had seen and experienced, Goya recognized that the line between civilization and savagery is a very fine line indeed. Greed, lust, anger, and all of the other deadly sins which have accompanied us since Adam and Eve decided to play Johnny Appleseed can cause us to do unspeakable things to one another. Yet on a more personal level, this work is affecting for anyone who knows the history of Spain.

Spain can be categorized in part as an historic construct based on geographic limitations. There has existed a politically united Spain for only just over 500 years, with some interruptions, and during those centuries the peoples who inhabit the Iberian Peninsula, from Basques and Catalans to Galicians and Castilians, have been fairly constant in going about fighting with each other. On top of this, there is a never-ending battle between rich and poor, Catholic and anti-clerical, intellectual and philistine, that has led to a recognition of blood and violence as a permanent aspect of the culture. It is folly for contemporary Spain, as more and more people seek to ban bullfighting, to think that the bloodlust so much a part of the country’s character has disappeared merely because everyone now has televisions and microwave ovens.

For this reason Goya’s painting is a far more powerful mirror of the horror that is often the experience of Spain than is Picasso’s more famous “Guernica”, which seems to be the de rigeur image chosen for the dust jacket of any contemporary work on Spanish history published over the last 30 years or so. Picasso condemns the horrors of violence, yes, but his condemnation is one-sided: it is the forces of General Franco who are doing the killing, and the Leftists who are doing the dying. It is a painting which is completely unbalanced in its representation not only of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, but also in its understanding of the Spanish psyche.

What Picasso’s masterpiece fails to show, and where Goya’s is immeasurably more successful, is a reality which Spain does not like to admit but which is inherent to understanding Spain as a whole: Spaniards hate one another, equally, regardless of what side they happen to be on in an argument. They are not a gentle, loving people with one another nor, as a result, are they particularly good at organizing themselves into a nation. Insult and put-down is a skill practiced and honed from a Spanish child’s earliest days, and the class structure, while not as grossly apparent as in Britain, still informs how people treat one another in ways which in the U.S. would seem almost unimaginable. The history of Spain since 1492 is not one of a peaceful, prosperous people united by a common language and culture, but one of unabashed and often violent tribalism which has never really gone away, but merely taken on different forms.

It is in this deceptively simple yet deeply profound painting that we get a glimpse of the true character of Spain, whatever Spain actually is outside of demarcations on a map. Beyond the vibrant spectacle of flamenco dancing, glorious octopus-predicted soccer victories, and PBS’ José Andrés happily pretending that he knows how to cook, there is a very dark nature to the Spanish character which Goya understood and appreciated better than any other Spanish painter before or since. In this single image he encapsulates everything that you need to know about Spain, and he does so unflinchingly, which in itself is a supremely Spanish thing to do.

“A Fight to the Death with Clubs” by Francisco de Goya (c. 1820-1823)
Prado Museum, Madrid

Yet Another New Old Master Discovery

The Spanish press is reporting this morning about a potentially exciting find in the world of Old Master paintings which, if proven, will not only constitute an important discovery for the understanding of one of the greatest of all Old Master artists, but also demonstrate yet again how the use of the expert eye in tandem with increasingly sophisticated technological research in the field of art history is expanding the depth and breadth of our knowledge of Western art. Buried in the basement of the Yale University Art Gallery since sometime in the 1920’s, “The Education of the Virgin” is a scarred, forlorn canvas originally attributed to an unknown 17th century painter of the Seville school. It was donated to Yale as part of a collection amassed by a American shipping family that did business in Spain at the turn of the previous century.

The painting shows the Virgin Mary as a little girl, flanked by her mother St. Anne to her left, and her father St. Joachim to her right. St. Anne holds a book on her lap, and is pointing to a line in the text while guiding her daughter’s finger along the same line. The Virgin Mary, a beautiful little girl in a pink dress, stares out sweetly at the viewer who has seemingly interrupted the domestic scene. St. Joachim is leaning into the picture and is saying something to his wife; St. Anne appears to be listening intently and has momentarily stopped giving the reading lesson.

Some of the painting has been cut down at the top and bottom and at the side during its sad history, for truncated portions of at least two figures believed to be angels appear in the background. Genre details surround the figures, including elements which, as presented in the piece, themselves form what in Spanish art of this period is called a “bodegón”, or still life of things such as food and household items. There is even what looks to be a sleeping puppy at the foot of the side table.

In an article to be published next week in the print edition of Ars Magazine, John Marciari Ph.D., Curator of Italian and Spanish Painting and Head of Provenance Research at the San Diego Museum of Art and previously a curator at Yale, has concluded that this unloved canvas of circa 1615-1617 is in fact by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez. In a preview of the print article, Dr. Marciani notes that the combination of the appearance and style of the picture, as well as a technical analysis of the paints and the canvas itself, can only point to Velázquez as the painting’s author.

If Dr. Marciari is proved correct, this could be the earliest known painting by Velázquez, who was born in 1599; at the time of the estimated execution of this work he would have been between 16 and 18 years old. While this may seem incredibly early, Velázquez was in fact extremely precocious, not unlike other gifted young artists such as Raphael or Mozart. It is known that at the age of 12 he left his one-year apprenticeship with Seville artist Francisco de Herrera, and took up an apprenticeship in the workshop of the man who would later become his father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco. When he was 19, he married Pacheco’s daughter and subsequently left his native Seville for Madrid.

Pacheco’s style had a profound influence on the young Velázquez, and the works he began to generate during his earliest period tended to two types: genre scenes, and religious pictures which often appeared to be genre scenes. One of Velázquez’ earliest known canvases, “The Luncheon” of circa 1617, which is presently in the Hermitage, is of particular interest in the analysis of the possible new discovery. If we examine the figure leaning in from the left side of the picture, there is a striking similarity to the figure of St. Joachim in the Yale painting. We can also look at the circa 1618 canvas “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, now in the National Gallery London, which is a combination of genre picture and religious scene, noting the head and hand of the old woman (who is directing the servant girl on how to make a good Spanish ali-oli in the mortar and pestle), and comparing her to the Yale figure of St. Anne.

The Prado Museum, which houses the most important collection of Velázquez’ paintings in the world, has so far not commented on Dr. Marciari’s identification of the painting. However, a number of art experts both within Spain and internationally are recommending that the painting, which as described above is in a rather sorry state, be sent to Madrid for further technical analysis and investigation. Understandably, Yale is not going to undertake the expensive and painstaking process of restoration of the canvas if it cannot be definitively attributed to Velázquez. Naturally, any developments on this will be passed along to you, gentle reader.

Detail of “The Education of the Virgin” c. 1615-1617,
which may be a newly rediscovered painting by Velázquez.