Looking into the Future: Temporary Exhibits at the Prado

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Before I left Madrid I wanted to see the Temporary Exhibit at the Prado titled: El Greco and Modern Painting. I have never spent much time studying the artist and was looking forward to learning more about his career and influencies on subsequent generations; however, the actual goal of the exhibition was to display how his art affected modern artists, without covering what his art meant in his own period. 

I will start today with basics of El Greco, actually called Domenicos Theotocopoulos, which was a mouthful for most Spaniards, and therefore, called by his Greek nationality. Already a master painter in 1567, he traveled to Venice where he came into contact with Titian, learning and dominating his style of painting, which placed the importance on color and form of the figures. Throughout the next decade he traveled throughout Italy, settling in Rome until 1577. Interestingly, he seems to have had several moments in his career where he fell from favor of a famous patron: the first occurrence occurred in Rome by the Cardinal Alejandro Farnesi and then later in 1584 for his depiction of the Martyr of Saint Maurice by Philip II[1]. There was clearly something immensely attractive about his work that helped him receive their initial favor at the same time caused him to be ultimately rejected. I believe that here lies the crux to later generations love for his work, which was lacking in today’s exhibit.

Instead the works of El Greco stand alone, stranding from their own personal history and context to serve as mere models. For instance, in the program the Chronology does not start with El Greco, but rather in 1830 when the Infante Sebastián Gabriel de Borbón acquired the Assumption of the Virgin. By starting the chronology over 200 years later than the actual production of the works, displays the aims behind this exhibit.

 Aside from those critiques, the exhibit well facilitated comparisons between El Greco and all of the modern artists from Picasso to Schiele to Pollock, who each in turn re-interpreted his paintings. Broken down into movements, the each room discussed a different movement’s interpretation of El Greco by placing one of his works on a central wall around which all of the subsequent works were placed allowing the spectator to easily compare the different versions. Some of the main themes included portraiture, landscape views of Toledo, bright colors, and the placement of bodies throughout the composition. For instance, the Surrealist movement particularly focused on his distributions of landscape and figures, which they believed referenced dreamlike qualities. According to this exhibition, each major movement of art throughout the twentieth century was able to find specific inspiration in Theotocopoulos’s images. Therefore, I am left with the question, what was it about El Greco that made is art so readily available to the 20th Century, but not his own?

While at the Prado I ventured upstairs to see the other temporal exhibit titled Masks by Alberto Schommer (1928). This exhibition differs in size and scale from the other, occupying only one long hallway.

On the left hand side of the room are all black and white photographs portraying the modern Spanish intellectuals (1980s). Each figure sits in front of a black background, which causes the faintest details to stand out, such as stray gray/white hairs. A peculiar detail found in each portrait is that they eyes have been blacked out, or hidden through the shadows. The result is a shell of the figure, which is at known for the genius of his/her thoughts and his/her removal from the creative world by the lack of a visible soul. To give an idea of such images, I have included the photo from the official webpage below.

Rafael Alberti, writer. Photographic print on baryta coated paper, 40 x 30 cm. 1985 © Alberto Schommer, VEGAP, Madrid, 2014  From https://www.museodelprado.es/en/exhibitions/exhibitions/at-the-museum/mascaras-de-alberto-schommer

Rafael Alberti, writer. Photographic print on baryta coated paper, 40 x 30 cm. 1985 © Alberto Schommer, VEGAP, Madrid, 2014
From https://www.museodelprado.es/en/exhibitions/exhibitions/at-the-museum/mascaras-de-alberto-schommer

 On the opposite wall, these photographs are contrasted by the 17th and 18th century paintings that commemorated Spanish masters, replicating the Hall of Ambassadors present in any Spanish vice-regal palace. In these palaces one wall presented all of the Viceroys in order, and opposite them were the portraits of the monarchs, visually demonstrating the source of their power in the colonies. For me, this format of hanging the works, epitomized this visual chain of power, by placing the contemporary figures alongside those from the past, whose traditions and styles they inherited. These painted portraits were mainly self-portraits by painters such as Goya and Velázquez. They differed not only in their choice of medium, but also in the sense that each attempted to capture the soul and essence of the sitter; instead of objectifying the sitter by turning his face into a mask. Since Alberto Schommer himself is renown Spanish Artist, it would be interesting to see if he subjected himself to such a self-portrait. 

Personally, I preferred the intimacy and juxtaposition of this exhibit to that of El Greco. However, I was greatly impressed by the insistence on demonstrating visually the contrasts between the different artists. Now with a good dose of art in my system, I am ready for tomorrow’s travels to the States. 

 

[1] All of the biographical notes about El Greco have been taken from the Prado Encyclopedia accessed here.  

 

 

 

 

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