Exhibition On Screen: Goya – Visions of Flesh and Blood

The restrained vibrato of strings with a Spanish twang accompanies the mysterious steps of stockinged legs before the figure of Goya appears and his voice is heard, reflecting on poetry and art – then with a triumphant crescendo the title unfurls on screen.  This is the wonderfully cinematic introduction to ‘Goya – Visions of Flesh and Blood’, a feature length film presented by Exhibition On Screen.  Pioneers of exhibition films for cinema, Exhibition On Screen was the brainchild of Phil Grabsky, director and producer at Seventh Art Productions; beginning a few years ago with ‘Leonardo’, he works with Arts Alliance Ltd to bring these films to cinemas around the country.  The idea works both as a means for those with limited mobility to see the exhibition on a scale and quality almost equivalent to first hand, while also acting as an extension and enrichment to a gallery visit.

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We begin in the National Gallery, with the institution’s director Gabriele Finaldi standing within the exhibition of ‘Goya: The Portraits’.  Then the exhibition’s curator, Xavier Bray, begins our tour with an introduction to the artist at the beginning of his career as a portraitist, ‘crude’ and almost too direct; meanwhile art historian Juliet Wilson-Bareau draws our attention to the incredible interaction between the artist and sitter that Goya captures and which makes such a powerful impact.  The camera pans in on the faces with the their dark eyes, alive and transfixing the us as if we were the artist behind the canvas.  Only recently has the development of technology allowed such material to be reproduced to such a high quality on a cinematic scale – every detail is astonishingly clear, the brushstrokes almost tactile.

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Then we are swept off to the landscapes of Aragon and Saragossa, immersed in the heat and colour of Spain while a brief biography of Goya’s early life is narrated.  At each stage of his career we gain access to the surroundings that the artist would have inhabited: the Royal Palace in Madrid (above left) where Goya was official court painter to Charles IV, the country house Goya bought in his later years.

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The film also allows us to see Goya’s letters (including those to his childhood friend Martin Zapater – full of scurrilous sketches, descriptions of food, his dogs, his finances and court intrigues) and his wonderful Italian sketchbook (above, c.1771) which is stored at the Prado in Madrid, as is the family portrait of Charles IV, forbidden to travel (below right), and which gives a fascinating insight into the working methods of Goya, the freedom of style and independent nature of this self-taught artist.  unnamed-4And, when it comes to his large-scale public commissions, such as his altarpiece for the chapel of San Bernardino de Siena in the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande, we are taken into the building itself where the camera glides over the architecture, showing off the grandeur and scale of the building and the accomplishment of Goya’s painting in its intended context (below left).

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Later in the film we are shown behind the scenes in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC – where a conservator, Joanna Dunn, talks about her work on the Portrait of Dona Teresa Sureda (below) – and into the studios of contemporary portraitists. Dryden Goodwin talks about the technical process of drawing, combining the humanity and physicality of his subjects, while Nicola Phillips, a ‘court painter’ of the 21st century having painted Princes William and Harry, talks of the relationship between artist and sitter, and of her admiration for Goya’s ‘extraordinary psychological grasp of personality’ and ‘extreme attentiveness to body language’.

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Frequently we return to the National Gallery, back to the curator and art historians, to the paintings themselves; the personalities are revealed, their costumes unpicked, the technical approach deconstructed so that each comes alive.  Letizia Treves, curator of Spanish Paintings at the National Gallery, describes Goya as a ‘truthful’ or ‘naturalistic’ painter rather than ‘realistic’, an artist who finds the essence of a sitter’s character, imbuing his portraits with an immediacy and humanity, and through his own depth of interaction putting himself into the portraits.  The idea of portraiture at this time in Spain was to be an equivalent to the real person; thus Wellington looks gaunt and tired, as if just this minute retired from the field at Waterloo (below); Don Andres del Peral, the court gilder and a colleague of Goya’s,  looks out with eyes that are piercingly alive, in the process of turning to us in conversation.

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The film combines the best of the TV documentary tradition with the drama of the cinema experience – as director David Bickerstaff has emphasised, the film is an ‘emotional journey’, costume drama, history, biopic, and certainly very different to the more analytical progress one makes through a gallery.

‘Goya – Visions of Flesh and Blood’ will be released in cinemas nationwide from 1st December 2015. For more information visit www.exhibitiononscreen.com.

Goya: The Portraits

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There is something quintessentially Spanish about Goya’s portraits.  But perhaps that is because what we have come to see as Spanish in art has been irrevocably shaped by his pictures.  Like his predecessor Velazquez, Goya chronicled a critical period in Spain’s history – the Napoleonic invasion and the Peninsular War illustrated in all their horror in his famous ‘Black Paintings’ – and at the National Gallery we can now appreciate the characters involved whom he brings so vividly to life.

dona_maria_teresa_de_vallabriga_y_rozasGoya painted royalty and aristocracy, ministers and diplomats – but these are not the staid formal likenesses of previous generations.  A large and arresting group portrait dominates the first room of the exhibition and introduces a tone of intrigue and bravado tempered by a light-hearted wit.  ‘The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon’ (above, 1783-4) shows the younger brother of the King of Spain at a table with his wife as she has her hair dressed, other members of their household crowding around and the artist himself in the foreground shadows, his back to us as he paints the scene.  The Infante had been forced to marry in an effort to halt his overzealous Goya-X7161_432promiscuity, and banished from court; Goya stayed with his household over several summers, also painting simple but beautiful bust-length portraits of the couple (‘Maria Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas’, 1783, above right). In the group portrait the eyes of all the participants focus somewhere different, each has his or her own secret agenda – especially the two figures to the far right, one grinning out at us, the other skulking furtively behind, hand reaching into a pocket…  In one concise set-piece Goya speaks volumes about the intricate network of relations in the exiled court, the outward theatricality hiding layers of scurrilous gossip and subterfuge.

DP287624Next door there is a tender family portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their children (above left, 1788).  Perhaps influenced by the Enlightenment neo-classicism of David in France, Goya leaves the background empty; the figures are grouped in natural poses, the Duke leaning in in frozen movement, the children playful and the small dogs refusing to stay still – an appropriately avant-garde approach to depicting one of Spain’s most enlightened families.  Nearby there is a portrait of a small child in a splendid red suit and silver sash (‘Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga’, 1788, right) with his pet magpie on a string, looking out at us with cherubic innocence while behind him three crouching cats look on their intended prey with greed.  There is a lively comedy to the picture that enhances what is already an affecting portrait.

goya_220Then we meet some of the personalities of the new post-French Revolutionary administration – along with the artist himself, in the small ‘Self-Portrait before an Easel’ (left, 1792-5).  Light streams in behind him, perhaps symbolic of the Enlightenment thinking embodied by the surrounding characters.  There is Ferdinand Guillemardet, the French ambassador in an extravagant swagger portrait, wearing the uniform of the Directoire; there is Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a writer and reformist politician, his quiet intellect symbolised by the statue b-m-26of Minerva (below left, 1798), and Francisco de Saavedra, the Minister of Finance and man of action, painted with correspondingly rapid strokes; and there is the ruddy-cheeked poet, politician and lawyer Juan Antonio Melendez Valdes, whose highbrow, critical, moral intellect is incisively captured in this portrait (right, 1797).

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The Duchess of Alba is a highlight (below right, 1797); with her haughty expression outlined by thick black brows and the extravagant black lace mantilla she epitomises both Spanish tradition and feminine power.  She points imperiously at the ground where an inscription reads ‘Solo Goya’, a proud indication of status by the artist that also reminds us of the extensive estates that the widowed Duchess owned – and her fiery temper.

802D3006-F479-9B08-51678DB5B2A0803CAs well as his famous Black Paintings and Disasters of War etchings Goya also painted portraits of many of the protaganists in the upheavals of the early 19th century.  Charles IV was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Ferdinand VII in 1808, whom Goya paints with barely repressed irony almost smothered by the weight of his regal regalia, his short stature and stubborn expression eerily similar to that of Napoleon in Imperial guise.  He was a narrow-minded reactionary, power-hungry and unenlightened, and probably did not sense the subtle subversion latent within his brazenly propagandist portrait (left, 1814-15).  Goya-X7219_432Goya also painted General Guye (below right, 1810), Governor of Seville under Joseph Bonaparte, who had been placed on the Spanish throne by Napoleon in 1808, and the Duke of Wellington, who led allied troops to recapture Spain and restore Ferdinand to the throne.dam-images-resources-2007-04-thaw-resl03_thaw

In the next room are portraits of Goya’s friends and fellow artists; though no more or less incisive, the intimacy of these is in stark contrast to the preceding galleries.  The most striking are those of Andres del Francisco-De-Goya-D.-Juan-de-Villanueva-SPeral (below right, c.1798), the master gilder at court, who in turning his face towards us reveals its droop – the effects possibly of a stroke; and Juan de Villanueva (left, 1800-5), architect of the Prado, who is caught in mid-speech, endowing the portrait with a lively warmth and immediacy.

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The centrepiece of the final room is the ‘Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta’ (below, 1820) in which the aging artist is propped up in bed by his doctor who offers him a cure; in an inscription underneath Goya gives thanks to Arrieta for saving his life.  It is curiously old-fashioned, the text and the subject lending the religious air of a medieval manuscript or fresco.  The painting is hung to face the exit, so that one can see it simultaneously with the group portrait of the Infante’s court hanging to face the entrance; it makes a joyous and satisfying conclusion, the two masterpieces representing youth and age, spirited ambition and disillusionment – and how far those pre-revolutionary days of 1783 must have seemed in 1820.

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British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

Felicity Ashbee 1937 lithoThe First World War is rightly seen as engendering some of the greatest and most avant-garde art and poetry of the twentieth century.  But Pallant House has chosen to highlight another conflict that – without any official impetus – spurred a significant cross-section of British artists to create striking and progressive work.  The Spanish Civil War brought political developments in Europe to a head in 1936-9, and was seen by most as a testing ground for the newly powerful ideologies of Fascism and Communism.  This exhibitBrangwyn_SpainReliefPoster_loion brilliantly illustrates the response of British artists to this threat – whether overtly political or more philosophical, actively propagandist or contemplative – in a wide range of media that gives an immediacy to their work.

Moreover, many are relatively unknown artists whom it is a pleasure to discover more than holding their own amongst famous names such as Henry Moore.  Felicity Ashbee, for instance, whose hard-hitting posters urging aid for the Spanish people (above left) were deemed too much for London Transport passengers.  Frank Brangwyn’s design (above right) appears Felicia Brownedated in comparison, its Madonna-like central figure at odds with the Republican cause he promotes (Brangwyn was a Catholic, yet in Spain the church had sided with Franco’s Nationalists, while the Republican anarchists were accused of atrocities against religious buildings and clergy).  And Felicia Browne, the only British woman to fight in the war and the first to be killed in August 1936, is represented by sketches of Spanish peasant women (left, 1936) which were exhibited posthumously in London to raise money for the cause she had died for.

Clive Branson is another name that is new to me, and on purely aesthetic terms his naive proto-‘kitchen sink’ style does not appeal.  However, in this context his paintings illustrate the political passions aroused by the Spanish cause.  Branson, a staunch communist who fought with the International Brigade in Spain, saw the conflict as part of a wider struggle for worker’s rights, and pictures such as ‘Demonstration in Battersea’ (below, 1939) or ‘Selling the “Daily Worker” outside Projectile Engineering Works’ (1937) link the immediate cause of unity against Fascism in support of the Spanish Republic with the unity of workers against capitalism (the pertinence of the Projectile factory in the latter painting being that the workers are building the bombs that will be used to destroy them).

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From Realism to Surrealism… The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War coincided with the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, and though the movement was ostensibly concerned with depicting the subconscious and the dreamlike, many who showed at that exhibition were to engage – perhaps obliquely – with the unfolding tragedy in Spain.  edward-burra-medusa-for-websiteThe room is dominated by two large scale paintings: Edward Burra’s ‘Medusa’ (left, 1938) and S.W. Hayter’s ‘Paysage Anthopophage’ (below, 1938).  Burra’s mythological monster stands amid a ravaged landscape of ancient ruins with a cloak of dead bodies slung over one shoulder; it is a chilling and deeply unsettling image that conveys all the sense of dread that Burra had experienced briefly in Spain in early 1936.  Hayter’s painting is more metaphorical, drawing parallels with ‘The Siege of Numantia’ by the Romans in 133BC (recounted in a play by Cervantes).  Despite the bright abstract shapes, there is an impression of searing heat and the sinuous bodies sprawled on the arid ground stand out in tragic finality.

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A collage by Roland Penrose seems less relevant, though perhaps draws attention to the crucial part the artist himself played  in both the surrealist movement and in focusing public attention on the plight of Spain by enabling Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ to be shown in London.  Andre Masson and John Banting both contribute surreal satires on the morally ambiguous role of the Catholic church in the war.  It wasn’t just through painting, however, that the surrealists took made their views known; photographs and ephemera recount their political declarations and show Penrose and others wearing Neville Chamberlain masks designed by the sculptor F.E. McWilliam on the May Day march of 1938, in protest at Britain’s non-intervention policy.

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F.E. McWilliam is also represented by ‘Spanish Head’ (right, 1938-9), its features reduced to a single piercing eye and a scream that from the bared teeth seems to resonate upwards into space and time.  This makes an arresting companion piece to Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ in the next room; Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) was and is seen as the seminal artistic response to the Spanish Civil War and ‘Weeping Woman’ is a continuation of this theme, an image of universal suffering.  Roland Penrose, having organised the exhibition of ‘Guernica’ in London, bought the painting and both these images had a significant impact on British artists both politically and stylistically.

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‘Guernica’ depicted the impact of the first full scale aerial bombing of civilians, and this now loomed as a potential threat to any city that came into conflict with Fascism.  Walter Nessler’s powerful ‘Premonition’ (left, 1937) sums up the attitude that prevailed post-1937, its ominous red light outlining a shadowy urban landscape of ruins culminating in a gas mask keeping watch over the distant pinnacles of St. Paul’s and the National Gallery.  Merlyn Evans’s brooding tableaux of abstracted mechanical figures in metallic colours embody the same sense of an inhuman threat.

John Armstrong - RevelationsIn contrast, John Armstrong’s tempera paintings in bright pastel colours evoke a sense of pathos; still and silent in the blazing sunlight, they depict the empty ruins of Spanish homes, wallpaper torn, fireplaces cold and abandoned, as in ‘Revelations’ (right, 1938).

The V&A, in an unusually controversial move, chose this moment to exhibit Goya’s series of prints ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’; depicting the horrors of the Peninsular War in 1807-1814 this was considered a direct parallel to the current conflict, a comparison to which a number of artists responded.

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Of these, the two artists shown alongside a selection of Goya prints were interestingly either pro-Nationalist or ambivalent.  Wyndham Lewis began painting ‘The Surrender of Barcelona’ (left, 1934-7) before the civil war broke out; he described it as a 14th century scene, with the frieze of soldiers in the foreground believed to refer to Velazquez’s ‘Surrender of Breda’ (1635), but pertinently he changed the title from ‘Siege’ to ‘Surrender’ as Barcelona, long the stronghold of the Republicans, finally fell to Franco’s forces in 1939.

burra_thewatcher 1937Meanwhile, Edward Burra’s ‘The Watcher’ (right, 1937) depicts a sinister hooded and cloaked figure facing another with his back to us holding a two-pronged scythe amid a landscape of imposing ruin.  Burra is sometimes described as pro-Franco but was in fact apolitical, deeply affected by the burning of churches he had witnessed in Spain.  His paintings of this period reflect his horror of the violence and suffering inflicted by both sides, their ambiguous and theatrical historicising enabling the artist to distance himself from the situation.

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The final room considers the plight of those affected by the violence – the prisoners and refugees.  Henry Moore’s sculpture ‘Helmet’ is accompanied by his designs for a poster (‘Spanish Prisoner’, left, 1939) that was in the end abandoned as world war erupted in 1939.  Ursula McCannell, hailed as a ‘child prodigy’ when she first had her work exhibited aged thirteen, had visited Spain early in 1936 and back in Britain painted stark, almost biblical, images of emaciated Spanish refugees in the style of El Greco or Picasso’s Blue Period (‘Family of Beggars’, below right, 1939).mccannell_familyofbeggars 1939

Clive Branson was himself a prisoner of war in Spain, and produced both small oils of the landscape he could see from the camp, and touching pencil portraits of his fellow prisoners (below). Back in Britain, a ship full of Spanish children arrived on the south coast in 1937 where they were put up in hostels. Edith Tudor-Hart photographed them at play or happily peeling vegetables; they might as easily be scenes of an annual scout camp, but in the context it was a poignant message that Britain had finally intervened to help in some way improve (or perhaps save) the lives of these children.

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Among all these various pictures and sculptures are documents and artefacts, propaganda posters and banners, which give a rounded view of the efforts of British artists in all fields to raise awareness and support the cause of the Spanish people.  Beyond this multifaceted history, the appeal of the exhibition lies in the unusual and fascinating mixture of artists brought together by their involvement with Spain, artistic hierarchy put in second place to passion and spirit.

The later response to the Spanish Civil War, including artists such as RB Kitaj in the 1960s, I felt irrelevant and uninteresting; however, I was thrilled to find a room in the permanent collection dedicated to Spanish paintings – mainly of the same period though not related to the war – by artists such as David Bomberg, Walter Nessler, John Banting, William Nicholson and Muirhead Bone.  This made a stunning accompaniment to the show and a tribute to a beautiful, if betimes ravaged, country.