Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Journey to the Soul of Spanish Painting ; at the Guggenheim, an Innovative Exhibition Sheds New Light on the Legacy of Spain's Masters

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Journey to the Soul of Spanish Painting ; at the Guggenheim, an Innovative Exhibition Sheds New Light on the Legacy of Spain's Masters

Article excerpt

As an exhibition of five centuries of Spanish painting unfurls up the ramps of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, you can almost hear castanets clacking and shouts of "Ole!" "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History" (through March 28, 2007) is like time-traveling through the length, breadth, and depth of Spain.

The 140 paintings panoramically present the three "F's" of Spanish culture: faith, family, and food. But the true glory of the show, where it achieves that flamenco quality of duende - a spark that transcends mere skill - is in the portraits. Gasp-inducing masterpieces freeze you in your tracks again and again, leaving one rooted in front of supremely animated portraits by the likes of El Greco, Velasquez, Zurbaran, and Goya. And not just a paltry few. There are 12 paintings by Velasquez, 11 by Zurbaran, 22 by Goya, and 35 Picassos.

Yet the exhibition "is not about masterpieces," says Carmen Gimenez, one of the show's two curators. "It's about ideas." She and her fellow curator Francisco Calvo Serraller, former director of Madrid's Prado Museum, intend nothing less than to rewrite the history of art. To stimulate new insights, they arrange the paintings not chronologically, but in groupings by content and genre, such as landscape, still lifes, and portraits.

According to the conventional view, avant-garde movements such as Cubism and Surrealism made a complete break with past art. By mixing paintings on similar subjects from the 16th to 20th centuries, the curators stress continuity rather than disjunction.

The installation, Mr. Serraller says, "challenges the viewer to see how a theme is interpreted by artists of different centuries. When we confronted paintings on the same subject from five different centuries, it was a big revelation to see the cross-dialogue between the past and avant-garde artists."

Call it a dialectical dialogue, since 20th-century painters such as Picasso, Miro, and Dali radically transformed the Old Masters from Spain's Golden Age of painting (the period from El Greco to Goya). Certainly the modern masters, who painted in exile (mostly in Paris), were early imprinted with the sights and smells of Spain.

"Modern art," says Serraller, "would not exist without the Prado." At the famed museum, these artists studied the art of their predecessors from the royal collections.

Certainly, too, Picasso and Dali paid homage to the greats of the Spanish past such as Velasquez, whom they both emulated and reinterpreted in a spirit of rivalry and tribute. Miro's debt is less evident, but his economy - maximum impact through minimal means - and his constant allusions to Spanish flora and fauna show the shared aesthetic and cultural heritage. (Juan Gris comes off as a weak stepbrother in this roundup of superstars, although his Cubist still lifes have the crisp geometric emphasis and flatness of early Spanish still lifes. …

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