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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Spanish Painting

View of Toledo, 1596-1600, El Greco
When we painters think of the Renaissance today, our minds conjure up work by the Italian masters of course, and if we think a little harder, perhaps we move a little further north to the Germans, where Durer springs to mind. It would seem that the whole sixteenth century in art revolved around this north-south bipolar axis. Seldom do we hear much about French Renaissance art or English Renaissance art or Spanish Renaissance art  Basically there's a good reason for this. The fact is, there wasn't very much of it to the West while the East was still dominated by the Turks and Muslim calligraphic art. In the West we do find some notable Renaissance literature and music but insofar as painting was concerned, in Spain for example, it was mostly imported talent and it had to wait until the seventeenth century when El Greco hit town (Toledo, above, right) for Renaissance progress in painting to be felt.

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, 1639,
Jusepe di Ribera
Yet, in general, El Greco's spiritual mysticism had little impact on Spanish art. In the early seventeenth century, that which we've come to know as truly "Spanish" painting came from the South. You're thinking, AHA, Velasquez, right?  Well, yes, but actually, two earlier painters, in a sense, paved the road for him. One was Jusepe de Ribera, the other Francisco de Zurbaran. Both were born in the 1590s and were somewhat older than Velasquez. Ribera studied in Italy and was the direct conduit for Mannerism and especially the style of Caravaggio's painting influence to be felt in Spain. His Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (left), painted in 1639, is a good example. The painting is a painfully grotesque image of the saint strung up and being flayed alive. The composition and lighting is Baroque, not Renaissance, though there is a "down and dirty" quality that goes beyond even the well-known "peasant" look of Caravaggio.

Apparition of St. Peter Nolasco, 1629,
Francisco de Zurbaran
Zurbaran was homegrown Spanish talent. He never studied in Italy and his work lacks the grittiness of Caravaggio. His Apparition of Saint Peter Nolasco (right), painted in 1629 would appear to be a strong influence for Velazquez's best work, not to mention that of his fellow Spaniard, Salvador Dali some three hundred years later. There is very much a surreal quality to the handling of the robes of the kneeling saint as he confronts the vision St. Peter, crucified upside down, glowing before him, casting an ethereal light upon his figure in the painting. Although Velasquez studied in Italy, it was not from the Renaissance he got his stylistic influences, but from the Mannerists, and his contemporaries, Baroque artists such as Titian and Rubens. However it was Zurbaran and Ribera from whence came the peculiarly "Spanish" flavor that came to make Velasquez the greatest painter Spain ever produced...well, until Picasso.

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