Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"From El Greco to Picasso," the Spanish art exhibition at the Guggenheim, was organized according to subjects: religious portraits, still life (or bodegón, ‘things from the pantry”), landscapes, childhood, secular portraits. This thematic organization facilitated the comparison of different artistic approaches and the tracing of artistic influence. It became strikingly clear, for example, how much Picasso owed to his Spanish predecessors, notably Goya in the still life paintings, for his subjects, his vision and his innovation.

I particularly liked “Still Life with Cardoon and Parsnips,” painted in 1604 by Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1621). The cardoon was painted with such close attention to detail. The fibrous threads along each segment of the vegetable were short spikes nearer the base, hairs further along the segment, and then feathers near the tip. The segments were delicately ridged, their mottled texture conveyed by the brushstrokes. The curve of the cardoon was continued dramatically by a parsnip that extended itself into the black background, giving the illusion of perspective to the composition. Cardoon and parsnips rested on a window ledge that provided an internal frame. The painting was extraordinary. I can't find the image on the net, and so here's another Cotan (the cardoon is in the bottom left corner).

The other painting that held me a long time was “The Streetwalkers,” painted between 1915-17 by Jose Gutierrez Solana (1886-1945). In the foreground, a group of five women, waiting for custom, depicted the lifecycle of a prostitute. The youngest, with a defiant look in her face, bared her bosom with confidence. The older the streetwalker, the more covered up she was. The oldest, all covered up in black clothes, bent her head. On the left of the painting, in the middle ground, was another group of women solicited by two men. The men looked ordinary: they were not predators nor exploiters; they were buying a service, as they would in a gas station. Behind this group rose a tenement building. Its windows were dabs of dirty beige. The whole back alley scene spoke of sordidness, but strangely without condescension or outrage. A darkness, unrelieved by a rectangle of late sun on the street, and one on the side of the tenement, pervaded the side street in which these men and women found themselves.

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