Sunday, September 7, 2008

El Greco to Velazquez at the Nasher

The Nasher Museum at Duke University is home to a unique show of the artistic taste and acumen of Spain at the time of Philip III via the inventory of his favorite the Duke of Lerma. This period of history was vital for Spanish art and literature. The first image to grab my attention was El Greco's "The Vision of St. John." The painting depicts scenes from Revelation where those worthy of heaven are raised and clothed. It has an exaggerated composition with St. John himself in the foreground reacting to the scene behind him and looking to heaven. The figural arrangement of this painting (and all of El Greco's work to me) is amazingly modern. The standing and floating figures are not unlike a Cezanne line drawing from centuries later. The paint treatment, brush strokes and perspectives are way ahead of their time in all the El Greco images I saw. El Greco's crucifixion image of Christ is detailed lovely and dark. Its small scale meant for a private devotional space yet the image itself is deep with texture and landscape.

The volume and intensity of Religious works in the show is a testament to the power and influence of the Catholic Church and the cultural reinforcement of the teachings and values of it. This kind of art could viscerally inspire and demand adherence to doctrine.

The first Velazquez I encountered was his Immaculate Conception in all its beauty and apparent celebration of the divine in the mortal. The image of Mary is that of a non-idealized young woman beautifully executed. Her ordinariness makes her extraordinary. She is standing on a full moon in front of the sun surrounded by clouds. The tonalities in this image are soft and somber. None of the drama of color portrayed in the other similar images. To me this image was made to inspire contemplation of the divine mystery on a more human scale. Another Velazquez that telegraphs a story is his portrait of Luis de Gongora y Argote. The suprisingly modern image shows the embittered face of a cynical and lost poet. Someone who has been worn by the machinations the Spanish court.

One of the few other images that stuck with me that were not by these two masters was Vicente Carducho's "The Stigmatization of Saint Francis", Showing St. Francis himself literally being drawn to Christ in a surreal scene. The figure of St. Francis flying to a crucified Christ on a winged crucifix. The idea of a personal relationship with Christ might be the intent here or showing the rapture of St. Francis in his attraction to God in Christ. There is something in this painting that invokes for me the work of Fra Angelico some 200 years earlier.

There is a room full of still life paintings and a large display of pottery and glassware from the period along with Royal portraiture all well curated and displayed for the public.

1 comment:

Page Randolph said...

I too love staring at "Immaculate Conception" by Velazquez--her chubby cheeks, her little overbite. So lifelike, especially compared to the flat-faced Virgin Mary figures in two other paintings nearby in the gallery.