The Frick Collection has been focusing on the art of Spain of late, with two complimentary exhibitions, “The King at War: Velázquez’s Portrait of Philip IV” and “The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya.” These shows bring together some of the most important names from Spain’s grand lineage of painters. In a two part article, OMNP contributor Victoria Romeo takes a look at two tightly focused shows that imbue life into some old classics.
In the Frick’s lower galleries, the tradition of Spanish art continues with “The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya,” the first exhibition of Spanish drawings ever to be held in New York. The first gallery in this two-room show features 17th and 18th century works by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), Vicente Carducho (c. 1576–1638), Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614–1685), Mariano Salvador Maella (1739–1819) and Francisco Bayeu (1734–1795).
These artists represent the range of accomplishments among Spanish draftsmen in preparing studies for commissions or for their own use. Grouped together in the first room, visitors are invited to compare and contrast their talents and subject matter. Their work sets the stage for the second room, devoted solely to Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828). His drawings are by turns joyful, pathetic, grotesque, lewd, sorrowful and witty, displaying the myriad themes in his oeuvre.
Goya is undoubtedly the most famous of the artists in this show, and for just reason. Yet for the first time, visitors are offered a precedent for the innovations in Goya’s drawings. Works in the first gallery attest to the originality of Spanish artists in their choice of subject matter. Whereas French and Italian artists of the period focused heavily on classical subject matter, the Spanish took other liberties, and the fantastical and grotesque were frequently depicted.
For example, Jusepe de Ribera’s “Head of a Man with Little Figures on His Head” (c. 1630, see image #1), is an unusual and inexplicable image of four tiny nude men scaling the head of the unidentified man shown in profile. What a wonderfully weird image to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Spanish school and provide a precedent for the equally, if not more bizarre images in Goya’s work.
Among the studies of anatomy, religious images and fantastical creatures, one curious addition of a contemporary scene stands apart. “An Auto-da-fé” (c. 1660, see image #2), attributed to Sebastian de Herrera Barnuevo is the only known 17th century drawing depicting the closing ceremony of an Inquisition trial. Here, we see the platform constructed for this purpose with the accused, wearing cone hats, at the left in front of their judgers. A large crowd of onlookers surrounds the central activity.
The gallows standing in the center of the composition sets an ominous tone over the drawing. This unusual glimpse into contemporary life is both fascinating and disturbing. Historical accounts of the gruesome and cruel nature of the Spanish Inquisition in history texts are rarely accompanied by images. You almost worry about Barnuevo’s safety, for fear of his own retribution if caught depicting such events.
The second gallery features twenty-two sheets by Goya for which visitors are now adequately prepared to appreciate more fully after viewing the work of his Spanish predecessors. They follow a long history of preoccupation with images of torture and unsavory circumstances.
Within such a context, perhaps the most unusual image in this gallery is “Mirth” (c. 1816-1820) in which Goya depicts two figures, an old man and woman floating freely and happily in space. Their expressions, along with the castanets in the man’s hands, convey a titular feeling. One cannot help but smile at this image and feel a bit relieved that Goya had some joy to share.
For Ribera and Goya, drawing served as the backbone for the majority of their commissions, and as a creative outlet, allowing for the informal and personal exploration of imagined fantasies. Their methods provide an interesting contrast to some of the works of their predecessors, like the accompanying exhibition of the restored portrait of Philip the IV upstairs. Velázquez rarely drafted preparatory studies and preferred to do all of his work directly in oil on the canvas. While some might disagree, these type of portraits convey a sense of the sitter’s psychology, and we learn very little about the artist himself.
Goya and Ribera, on the other hand give us a look into their twisted imaginations. These glimpses into the artist’s personality often can be more compelling than one restricted by an official royal commission. Centuries removed, it is the unfiltered creative mind that we feel closest to today.