From El Greco to Picasso” is the latest art spectacle staged by the Guggenheim Museum. Like its predecessors, such as “Africa,” “Brazil,” “China,” and “Russia,” the exhibit is both bombastic and irresistible. It contributes little to art history but has a rumbly atmosphere of immense scale as it drifts across time and space on the Guggenheim’s cosmic spiral. Its grandiosity would surely impress Don Quixote himself: Its full title is “Spanish Painting From El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth and History.” (Those last words, borrowed from Goya’s painting of that name, will make you high on hot air.) Not surprisingly, it has a weighty catalogue, which acknowledges bigwigs, politicos, and, not least, a king.
There are people—and I’m one—who will accept any Faustian bargain in order to see great Spanish paintings. The best-known artists from the old days are here, among them Velázquez, Goya, Zurbarán, Ribera, and Murillo. So are the biggest names in modernist Spanish painting, notably Picasso, Miró, Dalí, and Gris. The loans worked out by the curators Carmen Giménez and Francisco Calvo Serraller are remarkable. To name just three: Zurbarán’s large Saint Hugh in the Refectory has come from Seville, Velázquez’s early Peasants at the Table from Budapest, and Miró’s The Table (Still Life With Rabbit) from a private collection. The actual exhibit is not presented chronologically but is organized around fifteen themes, such as “Ladies,” “Crucifixions,” “Monks,” “Weeping Women,” “Knights and Ghosts,” “Nudes,” “Childhood.” In the bays, old-master and modern works are often juxtaposed: Next to Goya’s still life of a slaughtered sheep, for example, are two similar Picassos. The point is to create a sense of what remains eternally Spanish.
In that regard, the thematic clusters are interesting but not always illuminating. Picasso regularly called upon Spanish culture—especially Velázquez—but that’s a commonplace. Is there really an important, particularly Spanish connection between that Goya sheep’s head and Picasso’s depictions? European art is filled with images of animals killed for the table. What one really wants to see next to the transcendent Goya (the animal’s still gaze may bring tears to your own eyes) is not two okay Picassos but a great Soutine. The tension between public position and private reality, between surface and soul—a great theme in Spanish portraiture—is well brought out in the exhibit. But that particular subject is also important in much European art, as are “Virgins and Mothers,” another of the show’s themes. And while the Spanish during the Counter-Reformation emphasized anti-classical values, the related values that emerged in modern Spain also developed for reasons that have little to do with old Spain. What’s Spanish is less a matter of subject, perhaps, than of mood. A certain darkness closing in. A rich darkness, always at hand.
Exhibitions often have unintended impacts. I found the difference between modern and old master—and between now and then—more vivid than the similarities. It’s surreal to see large Baroque paintings in the Guggenheim, designed to exhibit fiercely “nonobjective” art. You wouldn’t want to see them hang here forever, but the imaginative disruption that occurs is powerful—and telling about our time. Zurbarán’s cloistered monks, set in Frank Lloyd Wright’s light-filled space, create an implacable sense of metaphysical distance. The crucifixions look stripped from the church. Velázquez’s peasants, talking over rough bread, seem unintelligible on the museum’s ramp—eloquently so. The ecstatic upward reach of El Greco is strangely at home: visionary art in a visionary building.
The way the show skims and skips across time and genre has a contemporary pace. It’s something like channel-surfing as you move from one bay to the next, a quick and fragmentary experience that nonetheless gives you a pleasant illusion of mastery and control. The most powerful moment of surreal disruption occurs at the very outset of the exhibit, near the bottom of the ramp, where the curators have hung Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei. The painting depicts a lamb, legs trussed, patiently awaiting the knife. A great work of religious art, this lamb of God, placed among browsers under the Guggenheim sky, looks as naked, exposed, and vulnerable as anything I’ve ever seen. It stopped me dead.