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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Juan de Valdes Leal

Juan de Valdes Leal
Maybe I should save this for October but I couldn't resist. How many of you like the Macabre? If you have a teenager in your house, especially those of the male variety, you have no doubt got a taste of their taste for such Halloweenish paraphernalia. Music CD covers are full of it (like my choice of words?) When I taught, back a few years ago (late 1980s), I swore if I had to look at one more skull I'd start pulling out my hair, which may explain to some degree my little bald spot. The infatuation with such things now may have tapered off somewhat, but one of these days, it'll come back. It always does. Back in the 1600s, there was a similar fascination with this sort of thing. Art historians have given it the cutesy name, "Vanitas." The Dutch painted them quite a lot, modest still-lifes depicting the wealth and riches of life juxtaposed with the temporal things like food and flowers demonstrating the fleeting nature of the "vanities" of life. The Dutch weren't the only ones who had a preoccupation with the fleeting nature of life, and more pointedly, the instantaneous qualities of death. The Spanish did to. In fact, they wallowed in it, making Dutch vanitas paintings look like get well cards compared to the grisly horrors the Spanish conjured up.

Allegory of Death, 1670-72, Juan de Valdes leal
The chief conjure-upper of what might be called "black art" was a man by the name of Juan de Valdes Leal.  He was born in Seville, in 1622 where he received his art training and fell into place amid what has come to be known as the Seville School. The hallmark of the Seville School is extreme realism. Some 250 years later Pablo Picasso was to come out of this school, which may tell you a lot about the nature of some of Picasso's work. Valdes Leal's work first showed up in Cordoba in 1647 bearing the influence of Francisco de Herrera the Elder, who was probably his instructor. Today, if you go to the Hospital de la Santa Caridad in Seville, you will see Valdes Leal's two most famous paintings. Both seem to have been painted about the same time.  The "best," if you can call it that, is his Allegory of Death (above). The other, Finis Gloriae Mundi (below) is less powerful a piece of work, pushing the genre somewhat past the macabre into the downright degenerate.

Finis Gloriae Mundi, 1672, Juan de Valdes Leal
Allegory of Death (1670-72) depicts a skeletal grim reaper, coffin tucked under one arm, scythe in one hand, snuffing out the flame of a candle with the other set of mandibular bones.  Engraved over the candle are the words "In Ictu Oculi" (In the twinkling of an eye) referring to the suddenness of death.  Arrayed below is a gloriously colorful still-life in studied disarray, the grim reaper's feet resting upon a globe and a suit of armor while books, robes, priestly vestments, the papal triple tiara, ecclesiastical staff, jewelry, and swords--all the remnants of temporal power--cascade out of the painting in an ignoble clutter. Finis Gloriae Mundi features two corpses in the final stages of decay, one a priest lying in a coffin, the other a knight, his head resting on a treasure chest. From above, a hand descends holding scales, one side bearing a pig and goat (gluttony and lust) the other shows a sacred heart and scourge, the symbols of contrition. The one side has the word "Nimas" (nothing more needed for damnation) while the other side bears the engraved word "Nimenos" (nothing less will lead to salvation). This art goes beyond admonishment into what we would today call "scare tactics." But keep in mind, less than twenty years before the black plague had devastated Seville. The citizenry knew well the face of death. One has to wonder, though, about the placement of such horror in a hospital (okay it was a place of death), but beyond that, what effect such art had then and, more importantly, has now on patients of that facility.

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