Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Time, Truth and History – El Greco to Picasso

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street
New York City
212 423 3500

November 17, 2006 to March 28, 2007

Diego Velázquez (left) Francisco Pacheco, c1619–22, oil on canvas, 40 x 36 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Diego Velázquez, Francisco Pacheco, c1619–22, oil on canvas, 40 x 36 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Pablo Picasso Portrait of Jaime Sabartés 1939, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 38 cm. Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Gift of Jaime Sabartés, 1960
Pablo Picasso Portrait of Jaime Sabartés 1939, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 38 cm. Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Gift of Jaime Sabartés, 1960

What to think of yet another in the procession of general surveys the Guggenheim has served up?  In 2000, the late, great Robert Rosenblum presented the 1900 show as an expansive index that mirrored our own pluralistic, institutionalized, post avant-garde era.   The current exhibition, of Spanish painting from El Greco to Picasso, includes a magnificent array of  paintings and again puts the onus on us, by questioning how historical painting is currently viewed.  Can we truly accept a portrait of the artist as a ravenous, time-traveling marauder who steals and cannibalizes the immediate and distant past in an attempt to break new ground?  In 2004 the Guggenheim answered affirmatively in the smaller-scaled, less ambitious exhibition, Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition, which charted Mapplethorpe’s course as he pillaged classical sources depicting the sexually objectified male nude.

This time, Guggenheim curator Carmen Gimenez unfurls Time, Truth and History –  El Greco to Picasso, a theme-based show positing that the historical avant-garde, as exemplified by Picasso and Gris, was fueled by Spanish painting and cultural memory from as far back as the 16th century. And that cubism is, as Gertrude Stein quipped, Spanish.  The same claim is made for surrealism here.

While Gimenez’ thematic strategy does project continuity of subject matter, such as still-life or women, throughout centuries of Spanish painting, it doesn’t support the idea of an inherent Spanishness in Modernism.  And although the nationalist agenda is a stretch, the exhibition is a refreshing and bracing challenge to the notion that the contemporary epoch of the last 100 or so years sprung from Picasso’s head in an immaculately conceived rupture with the past. The usual suspects and heirs exemplar from Barr’s and Berenson’s cannons are trotted out and extolled, but this time they not only kiss and make up but have a roll in the hay.  We are treated to a celebratory mix of painting that reveals 350 years of swirling influences, and the sheer enormity of the presentation allows for other conversations, about foreign influence and formal innovation, to happen between the paintings.

The advertisements in the subway for the show offer an introduction.  The copy reads “El Greco to Picasso,” beneath which are two portraits, presumably one by each artist.  The Picasso looks like a Picasso –  a man’s bespectacled head, sporting a ruff collar, twists in a cubo-surreal tug-of-war.  Juxtaposed is an exquisitely observed portrait of a man in a sumptuous ruff collar.  But contrary to the headline, the image is not in fact by El Greco, but by Velazquez.  This thwarted expectation underscores the curator’s unfortunate preference for thematic rather than formal comparison.  Happily, El Greco painted a ruff collar too, albeit a less flamboyant – and less photogenic – one, in his Portrait of a Man (1600), which is installed in the exhibition with the other two portraits. And the conversation here is clearly between El Greco and Picasso — decidedly two-way and thoroughly modern, although the traditionally buttery Velazquez can listen in.

Establishing an unadulterated Spanish line of painterly influence is ultimately compromised by the looming presence of the Italians.  By Caravaggio’s death in 1618, Velazquez had fully embraced the Lombard’s use of dramatic snapshot naturalism and concentrated detail set in a dark vacuum of space. Velazquez’s superb Peasants at the Table (1619) exhibits all these qualities.  Caravaggio’s influence was so pervasive that as late as (1660) even Murillo, who was known for his fondness for Raphael’s classical idealism, was employing the new naturalism in Four Figures On A Step.

Ribera, perhaps Caravaggio’s greatest admirer, had a particularly ravenous appetite for cannibalizing Italian sources.   In Apollo and Marsyas (1637), Ribera directly borrows from Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul in the treatment of Marsyas in the lower half of the painting.  And Marsyas’ facial expression is influenced by the Bamboccianti school in Rome of the 1620’s. Yet in the upper half of the painting, the rich color and loose paint handling of the sky, background figures and flowing drapery of Apollo, is an homage to late Titian.  It is a breathtaking combination of opposing influences. Yet somehow Ribera makes it all work beautifully.

Despite the overwhelming Italian influence on the major Spanish masters, some lesser known painters expressed a more distinctly Spanish aesthetic.  It is here that this remarkably expansive exhibition taps the intrinsic power of Spanish painting, the power to evoke with deafening silence a heightened psychological state of existential quietude and foreboding.   Spain’s long-term political and cultural isolation spawned a reflective, insulated environment that drove Spanish still-life painters to develop their own darkened stage-set.  Amazingly, the stark, reductive space and dramatically lit volumes associated with Caravaggio were concurrently used by the marvelous Spanish still-life painter Juan Sanchez Cotan as early as 1602.  It was Cotan, with his hard-boiled observation and simplified compositions, who deflected the influence of Dutch still life’s over-abundance.  Cotan’s paintings, along with those of his brilliant follower Juan Van Der Hamen, are installed here with Gris and Picasso. But the hyper-real bent of 17th century Spanish still life was part of a different trajectory from that of Cubism’s inter-planar agitation. Eschewing the use of overlap, Cotan often staged his objects like overdetermined ducks in a row, and to great effect.  Most of the museum goers prefer to hover around Cotan’s and Hamen’s glistening gems rather than the more demanding examples by Picasso or Gris.  The Spanish preference for spare, evocative still life finds expression in Salvator Dali’s precisely defined bread-basket table settings and blood-and-sand landscapes, the final and decidedly uncubist destination of Cotan’s trajectory.

The unnerving yet magical stage-set of 17th century Spanish still life may have affected Francisco de Zubaran as well. The small atrium off the Guggenheims lower ramp is filled with Zubaran’s haunting paintings and has never looked quite this good.  Interestingly, Zubaran, the master of the aura-drenched lone figure, could not breathe a sense of interpersonal dynamics into his figural groups.  Instead they remain isolated, and psychologically dissociated from each other as if they are objects inhabiting the strictly compartmentalized, separately ordered world of Spanish still life. (Zubaran’s own still lifes were entirely indebted to Cotan.) One example where this tendency toward alienation works to great advantage is in the sense of foreboding between Jesus and Mary in his House of Nazareth (1644), of which there is an equally splendid second version in Cleveland.

The bold expressions of individual Spanish genius from Las Meninas to Guernica are astonishing.  And Zubaran, with his unique vision, reductive impulse and expressive power, is still greatly underrated.  Zubaran’s remarkable use of white hadn’t been approached until Robert Ryman’s assessment in the late twentieth century.  And in the midst of continued national isolation, Goya emerges, presaging symbolism, expressionism, and late Guston , and surpasses every European painter in  penetrating  the human condition.  Manet certainly thought so when he modeled The Execution of Maximillian (1869) on Goya’s  The Third of May (1814).  And it is Manet who perfectly exemplifies the roving art-historical eye.  By single-handedly resurrecting El Greco and touting him along with Velazquez and Goya as a magnificent triumvirate, Manet changed the way we look at art history.  When Manet brazenly stole the figural group from Raimondi’s TheJudgment of Paris (1520), and inverted the identities of the flagrantly sexualized male nude and modestly poised female, for his seminal modern work Luncheon on the Grass some 350 years later, he showed how a modern artist could re-evaluate painting tradition, charting the way for Picasso and Matisse.  In the wake of Manet’s and Picasso’s connections with historicism it should not be startling how much Lucian Freud’s Leigh Bowery and Fernando Botero’s figures owe to Juan Carreno’s excellent full length portraits of “La Monstrua” (1680) in the Freaks section of the exhibition.  Carreno’s monumental sense of proportion, framing and scale are remarkably contemporary.

In spite of the specific themes and domestic schools of Spanish painting emphasized by the curators, international cross pollination of style within historical movements has a messy life of its own.  Ribera, though born in Spain, lived all his adult life in Naples and adopted Caravaggio’s practice of using live models.  And what of El Greco, born in Greece and active in both Spain and Italy?  His greatest influence is undoubtedly Tintoretto, whose compression of figure and ground, use of elongation and diaphanously sketchy painting technique can at times appear agitated to the point of seeming unfinished.  Of course this is something Tintoretto, El Greco, Cezanne and Picasso all have in common.  Does that make Cubism Italian?  Aren’t El Greco’s figures in Vision of St. John , on loan here from the Met, and Lacoon, at the National Gallery, the template for Matisse’sDance and Cezanne’s bathers?  Surely many of Cezanne’s paintings satisfy the defined criteria of analytical cubism.  Does the fact that Picasso spent the vast majority of his life and all his innovative years outside of Spain determine his artistic nationality? If not, El Greco is Greek.