A Macabre New Vision of Spain

Just once in a while an exhibition comes along that profoundly changes the way a certain type or era of art is perceived. The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700 at the National Gallery is one such exhibition. The period covered is that of the Spanish Golden Age — the age of El Greco, Velázquez, Zurbarán and Murillo. These names are so illustrious that it is easy to forget that they lived and worked in a country that was quite unlike any other in Europe and that their artistic traditions were every bit as idiosyncratic. What this exhibition does, using a mere 16 paintings and 16 sculptures, is redefine the Spanishness of Spanish art.

It does so by putting a vital but almost unconsidered strain of its art — the polychrome wooden sculptures that are to be found in so many of Spain’s religious buildings — alongside the work of its leading painters. All of a sudden, a country that seemed to have no real sculptural tradition is shown to have a rich and distinctive one and, because the sculptors and painters worked hand in hand, the pictures we thought we knew are suddenly endowed with an entirely new provenance. 

The Council of Trent (1545-63), which reaffirmed Catholicism in the face of the Protestant threat, led, in Spain in particular, to a burgeoning of religious orders and consequently a surge in demand for religious imagery to service them. Counter-Reformation art was an expression of the new purified faith. It stressed the spiritual rather than the sensual and aimed to inspire devotion in its viewers and personal communication with God. 

The response of Spain’s artists, whether working in two dimensions or three, was identical. They developed a powerful, stark realism, which was displayed to charged and often brutal effect in crucifixions, depositions and martyrdoms: the new corporeality was ideally suited to bodies in extremis. The reason their work was so similar was that they had shared origins. Most significant painters, including Velázquez, worked on polychrome statues as part of their training. Indeed, guild regulations stipulated that the sculptors themselves were not allowed to paint the works they carved. Applying the flesh tones — the encarnación, literally the incarnation — that brought the statues to life (or rather death) was entrusted to the painters alone. 

The results of this collaboration were sculptures that appear so real that the sacred feels palpable. They put the worshipper almost into the presence of the crucified Christ or St Francis in Ecstasy. The techniques adopted to increase this illusion included using glass eyes, eyelashes made from real hair, ivory teeth, horn fingernails and blood fashioned from cork-tree bark. The paints used varied from the glossy to the matt depending on the flesh tone required. And the act of painting itself was an expression of faith: if it wasn’t well done how could the painted figure work as it was meant to and transmit the viewer into the realm of the holy?

It is clear looking at Velázquez’s Virgin in his Immaculate Conception alongside the statue of the same subject carved by Juan Martínez Montañés, the premier sculptor of his day, or Zurbarán’s Crucifixion alongside Montañés’s version, that it was the painters who were the disciples, emulating the drama, three-dimensionality and tangible presence of the statues. By placing the two mediums side by side it becomes clear why the paintings are so stark and indeed so sculptural while the statues themselves take on the attributes of great paintings in the round. It is an extraordinary transformation.

The sculptures are so alien to anyone with an Anglican sensibility that they are profoundly uncomfortable to look at. They show a faith of suffering which, combined with the life-size hyper-reality of the figures, can — as in Juan de Mesa’s severed head of John the Baptist — cross over into the macabre. The very flatness of painting keeps this at one safe remove but with the presence of the third dimension it becomes creepily insistent. Nevertheless, with a little fortitude on the viewer’s side, these haunting works are, albeit in a way their makers never intended, truly revelatory.

A very different show with sculpture at its heart is Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill at the Royal Academy. It brings together three artists who, for 10 years before the First World War, proved that British art could be every bit as radical as anything Paris could offer. Unlike the ascetic spirituality of Montañés et al, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Eric Gill (despite his Catholicism) sought to create an equally physical but more visceral art. They took their inspiration from what Gaudier termed “the barbaric peoples of the earth”, that is, Africa, Polynesia and India rather than Greece, and produced pieces that throbbed with primitive energy and primal forms. 

Although there are few stylistic similarities between the three men’s work, they are linked by a shared interest in virility and fertility. Sex was a motivating force for all of them — in life as well as in art. While Epstein and Gill had too much of it (in Gill’s case, of the wrong sort too-incest and bestiality), poor Gaudier, the most original of the three, hardly had any before his death in the trenches aged 23. These though were men who lived and worked intensely, funnelling urges and instincts into stone. Such is the energy of their work that it is almost accompanied by a tribal drum beat.

The pieces on display include both drawings and sculptures and come in a remarkable variety of guises — from Futurism and Vorticism to medievalism and primitivism. And where the Spaniards at the National Gallery emphatically state that “God is here”, the wild things proclaim an equally insistent “Man is here”.

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