Spanish Lessons

Sketches of Spain: Manet's Mademoiselle Victorine in the Costume of an Espada (1862).Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

During the spanish campaigns (1808–14), the French—with incalculable cupidity and exquisite taste—procured Spain’s patrimony. Hundreds of superb paintings by Zurbarán, Murillo, Goya, El Greco, and Ribera made their way to Paris. Over the next half-century, historical circumstances forced the French to return many of them. But some remained in France, and the overall impact of this Spanish flood upon French culture was enormous. As the Spanish art permeated France, modern-minded Parisians were seeking an alternative to the stale conventions of their own day, particularly those derived from the idealism of Italian Renaissance art. Not only did the Spanish school provide them with a new standard to rally around, but it also contained a wide range of stimulating moods and ideas that could be adapted to contemporary aspirations. The Galerie Espagnole at the Louvre—which contained hundreds of works in its heyday—became a birthplace of the modern.

The handsome exhibition Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting, conceived by Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Gary Tinterow, is a provocative examination of this essential inspiration. The show includes nearly 240 paintings and works on paper created over several centuries. The quality of the Spanish old-master paintings on loan (130 are on view) is astounding: more than a dozen works by Velázquez, including several from Spain; some great Zurbaráns, among them the magisterial Saint Francis in Meditation; a large collection of Goyas; and some of the best Riberas and Murillos. On the French side, Manet is represented by more than 30 pictures. Works by Delacroix, Courbet, Millet, and Degas, among others, are also on display. The curators have additionally included pictures by Americans who studied in France and participated in the vogue for Spanish art, notably Eakins, Sargent, and Whistler. Even if the theme were not interesting, the opportunity to see so much glorious art is enough to make the show memorable.

The most obvious gift of the Spaniards to the young French modernists was a bracing faith in ordinary reality. Velázquez did not paint only kings. He also portrayed, without condescension, dwarves and jesters. When he did paint a king, moreover, he did not unduly idealize him. In the hands of Velázquez, the existence of a jester could have the same physical—and metaphysical—scale as that of an aristocrat. Ribera and Goya also honored the truth of the street, and Goya, in particular, refused to flatter the great.

“Manet/Velázquez,” as its title suggests, puts a particular emphasis upon Édouard Manet, the French artist who resolutely brought the air of modern Parisian reality into contemporary art. During the 1860s—that germinal decade —Manet made a series of full-length pictures, such as the famous Spanish Singer, that conveyed the freshness of the moment rather than the stillness of eternity. “Raphael Replaced” is how Tinterow describes the challenging move in French art away from the academic model.

But the French did more than celebrate the pungent reality of Spanish art. They also relished its brushy, painterly effects.  (There is a reality of the brush, not just of the subject.) The Spanish did not typically aspire to a polished veneer; they liked the feel of the hand in the making of the image. As the French turned their back upon the glassy mirror of the ideal, they made increasing use of similar painterly effects. It is one of the paradoxes of Spanish influence that it could inspire not only a rough-and-tumble appreciation of reality but also an art-for-art’s-sake aestheticism. Manet, the most elegant of artists, delighted in the play of the brush—in delicious impasto and whispery gradations of black. The subtle palette of Whistler is impossible to imagine without the great example of Velázquez. So are the luscious surfaces of Sargent. In fact, Spain seems to have provided modern painters with whatever was needed to challenge the past and recast the present. If the Spaniards could offer both the slap of reality and a delicate caress of the brush, for example, they could also promise artists a lush, otherworldly escape. What could be more exotic to a Parisian dreaming in a café than a bullfight south of the border? What could be more personal than the wild-eyed nightmares of Goya or more intense than the mystical concentration of Zurbarán?

“One paradox of Spanish influence is that it could inspire not only a rough-and-tumble appreciation of reality but also an art-for-art’s-sake aestheticism.”

Inevitably, the juxtapositions in “Manet/Velázquez” are not entirely fair. The curators must exhibit art that clearly demonstrates the relationship between the two schools—which often means showing the modern work that is most derivative of the Spanish example. As a result, the moderns sometimes come across as talented students at the master’s knee. As the point man for modernism, Manet suffers the most. A secular artist like Manet cannot paint a monk with the intensity of Zurbarán’s Saint Francis. And Manet’s homage to Velázquez—which includes some great paintings—inevitably pales before the truly Olympian genius of the Spaniard. (Manet would hold his own if his more independent work were exhibited.) But any such inherent unfairness takes nothing away from the fascinations of this exhibit. Like the “Matisse Picasso” show at MoMA QNS, “Manet/Velázquez” encourages viewers to look at familiar art in a fresh way, free from the intrusive grandiosity of the contemporary retrospective. Indeed, “Manet/ Velázquez” should inspire viewers to consider questions that transcend the particulars of art history. If the Spanish and French works have many similarities, their differences are no less interesting. What changes in modern painting? What distinguishes the modern world from the Spaniards? Consider, for example, what Henry James said of a show of Whistler’s paintings: “The mildest judgment I have heard pronounced upon them is that they are like ‘ghosts of Velázquezes.’ ”

There are self-made artists who seem to stand apart from history. One of the greatest is the Swiss visionary Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930), now the subject of an exhibition of more than 100 works in the new building of the American Folk Art Museum on 53rd Street. Wölfli, who spent most of his adult life in a psychiatric hospital near Bern, is a particular kind of modern hero. While alienated from the larger world, he seems entirely in tune with himself, able to move at will between dreams and reality. The Surrealists revered him. So did the painter Dubuffet.

Wölfli created an extraordinarily dense cosmos. His seething, five-part work St. Adolph-Giant-Creation was made up of 45 large volumes and sixteen notebooks—a total of 25,000 pages that included 1,620 drawings and 1,640 collages. They contain a fictional autobiography, a plan for a new world order, and sections that are a kind of rhapsodic visual song. On one large sheet, Wölfli—an operatic artist—might include faces, scribbled messages, elaborate ornamental patterns, musical compositions, and figurative scenes. He liked to snip images from contemporary magazines, seizing that vernacular imagery for his own world. His handwriting is unforgettable. It resembles musical notation; the dots have the rat-a-tat of a man sending code. No space on his paper is left empty or alone. The surface seems to move everywhere and at once. Wölfli is both inexhaustible and exhausting—every second must be an epiphany.

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Spanish Lessons