Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain

It’s just drawings innit?  Someone could say.  Well yes, yes it is drawings.  But not just drawings, Spanish Drawings! Ole!  Well ok it’s not just drawings by Spanish artists, but drawings from within Spain, from the mid sixteenth century to the Early nineteenth century.

It says in the article in the British Museum magazine, by Mark McDonald, that Spanish prints and drawings are little known outside Spain.  Not any more.  March into the British Museum, resist the urge to look up and take in the much vaunted but not vaulted roof, glide up the steps round the Reading Room, past the mummys and through Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt, slaloming between frazzled tourists standing in a museum-fatigue induced daze and sweep up the steps into room 90 – Prints and Drawings.

The exhibition spills into the outer room, and right in front of you, probably the fist image you will see, is my favourite, Head of a Monk by Francisco de Zubaran (c1635-55).  It is the only drawing thought to be by Zubaran himself.  He captures the head in a dramatic light, highlighting three dimensions and imparting a sense of inner spirituality.  The closed eyes and mouth giving the monk a deep reflective gravity that captivated me as I wondered what the monk was thinking, of course he may not have actually been real, in which case that would not have been a lot.

The building of the Escorial, the final resting place of the Hapsburg dynasty, on the orders of Phillip II caused Madrid to grow (it was Phillip’s new Capital) and brought in print makers.  Pedro Perret, a Flemish artist rolled up in 1583 and made twelve engravings of the Escorial from the drawings of it’s architect Juan de Herrera.  Included are the Tabernacle of the Holy Sacremant and Section Through Middle of the Escorial Basilica On The North South Axis.l  In all the twelve are considered ‘the most technically complete and accomplished architectural prints of the sixteenth Century”

In The Assumption of the Virgin, Alonso Berruguete’s pen strokes resemble the effect of a wood carving.  After working in Rome and Florence Berruguete learnt how important drawing was for planning and preparing works.

Standing out in Red wash and ink, Francisco Camilo’s The Rest of the Holy Family and the Flight into Egypt (1650-70, it was a long flight) is incredibly detailed, the wash effect beautifully rendering the fabric of the robes, and was unlike anything else seen in Madrid at the time.  Eugenio Cajes took Hendrick Gultzeus’s engraving of The Circumcision of Christ (1594) and picked out only the elements he wanted and re-arranged them in his own composition in 1600-15, cleverly demonstrating that prints were important during the 1600’s as they were used as a starting point for drawings and paintings.

However it didn’t always seem to work out well, this planning and then painting, as demonstrated in my profressional (for professional read clueless) opinion.  Ahimelec giving to David the Sword of Goliath (c1711) was the final design for a sacristy painting by Antonio Palomino.  Sadly the incredible detail of the drawing seems lost in the final painting in it’s dull browns and reds.

The drawings were not just being admired, discussed or blithely ignored either.  An old man, with his crutch resting on the arm rest beside him, was quietly sketching The Dwarf Lusillo (1680) by Francisco Rizi.  I will not comment on which was better, but the artist was unconcerned with the flow of Spanish print and drawing devotees flowing around him.

Over in Andalucia, in 1660, Murillo, the greatest competitor of Zurburan (he of the monks head fame) and Francisco Herrera the younger established an academy for drawing, which ran for 14 years.
Francisco Pacheco embodied a slightly distinct Sevillian tradition, in his Saint Matthew and the Angel (1632) there are clear precise outlines with a brown wash in a carefully rendered character study where the angel has the face of a young girl.  A Saint tied to a tree (1626) scribbled in red chalk is detailed and life like, the twisted body kept all in proportion is my favourite of Jose de Ribera.

And so we come to Goya, one of the best known Spanish artists.  His etching the Blind Guitarist (1778) is a study for a tapestry that had to be modified because the weavers found it impossible to interpret.  The collection ends with Goya’s series of etchings called the Disparates, done with Aquatint.  They are dream like and nocturnal, Folly of Fear showing a giant death like figure looming over fallen people, while Figures Dancing in a Circle is, unsurprisingly, figures dancing in a circle.  Men and women cavorting against a dark background like a ball in an insane asylum.

I can honestly say this post is much less enjoyable than the exhibition itself (which is free, that must have sold it) but I can also say that it’s not just drawings innit.

The exhibition is on until the 6th of January, link is here

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