Portrait of Spain

The Veil of St Veronica, El Greco, 1586-95

I didn’t think I’d ever get to see a Velazquez or an El Greco without leaving Australia. Neither did the lady in the line next to me.

Apparently European galleries are willing and even keen to lend us their masterpieces due to the enormous audiences we attract to our galleries in Australia (3.6 million, more than a quarter of the population visited an art gallery last year [ABS]).

Could there be two more different cultures than Spain and Australia? Maybe, but I can’t see it. Mariano Rojoy, Prime Minister of Spain, tries to make a case in the catalogue for us both being ‘frontier lands’ – whatever that means.

Yet all of us with European heritage share a common ancestral terror, deep in our DNA. Hundreds of tribes battling for peace and a patch of country to call our own, roiling around Europe for a couple of centuries after the collapse and withdrawal of Rome in 410AD. For the sake of our lives and families, we clustered behind the strongest and most dominant males who offered some protection and leadership. These became our first Kings. Their majesty guaranteed our security.

In Spain it was the tribe called Visigoth that primarily settled the Iberian peninsula, and their tradition of kingship underwent many permutations before culminating in the Hapsburg line by the time we meet them in this exhibition, Portrait of Spain, Masterpieces from the Prado, which spans the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, until the 19C.

These paintings are characterised by the gloom of power coveted, and tradition enslaved to the service of man. In the hands of a master like Velazquez this is lifted into the realm of the universal. We can see ourselves in his Phillips and Isabellas – a phenomenon not lost on the show’s designers, as we are offered the opportunity to digitally superimpose our own faces into the works and email ourselves the results.

The main artistic influences in this era of Spanish art are the Venetian tradition as personified by Titian. This means robust colour palettes across the entire spectrum, and paint applied directly to canvas with no under-painting, which translates into an emotionality well-liked by the Catholic Baroque tradition. At this time the church is attempting to turn back the work of the Reformation and re-capture hearts and souls in a period also known as the counter-reformation. The Council of Trent laid down specific guidelines to be followed in religious art, beginning in 1545.

El Greco (the Greek) did not conform to these precepts and was rejected by Phillip IV as a religious painter. Consequently his work has a range far beyond that of the other painters in the show. For me, ironically, a connection to god and the holy is most evident in his dark, intense and yet reverent paintings. Even when he gets it wrong he gets it very, very right. The face of Christ looks fearful in Salgado, doubtful in Cano, slightly resentful in Titian, dead in Escalante, yet transcendent in El Greco’s shroud.

A gorgeous exhibition, well worth the trip. Even the catalogue is a lively read, for those who like such things.

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