Spanish Masters in Quebec - Part I

An exhibition at the MNBAQ

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Photo: Collection Pérez Simón / Fundación JAPS, Mexico © Photo : Studio Sébert Photographes

El Greco, Head of Christ, c1600

The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec has made a hit once again with the presentation of a selection of works by Spanish masters from the collection of Pérez Simón.  A hit because it is a unique opportunity for people in Quebec City to encounter works, unknown for the most part, of notorious artists like El Greco, Murillo, Ribera, Goya, Dali, Gris, Miró and, of course, Picasso of whom we have already seen a formidable display of ceramics.  A hit also because the general public gets to learn and appreciate works that are less familiar to them, such as those of the Spanish luminist painter, Joaquin Sorolla.   Once again, the curators chose to display the works from a thematic point of view yet, within the major themes, it is possible to see how the vision, as well as the pictorial language, has evolved. The year 1492, the year Columbus discovered America, marks the end of what has been called the Reconquista, the long period during which Christian Spaniards sought to drive out the Muslims.  Queen Isabelle and her husband Ferdinand II, the most Catholic monarch, then ruled this country that acted as the strongest advocate of Catholicism.  With that in mind, we can understand the control that ecclesiastical and monarchic powers had over the arts.  A profusion of altar pieces were thus commissioned, and a remarkable one by XVI century artist Antonio Vasquez is featured in the exhibit. Yet, what seems to be the most precious work in the show (displayed behind protective glass) is a small Head of Christ by a major figure of Spanish art, El Greco (Domenicos Theotocopoulos was his real name), a XVI century artist known for his individualist yet subjective portraits of the elite but also for his deeply emotional religious art.  This small painting is said to have been made around 1600.  Yet, it looks like a study for a larger work, possibly The Disrobing of Christ of 1577-1579, his first Spanish commission. Even if it were not the case, in this little painting El Greco illustrates well how, in his religious paintings, he has been able to translate the physical into incandescent spirituality. Mystic spirituality later made way for a certain pitiful naturalism evident in images of saints and martyrs with contrasting plays of light and shadow. This is a style in which excelled an artist like Jusepe Ribera as we can see in his Head of John the Baptist of c1646 and his Saint Jerome of 1652, both painted in the then Spanish occupied territory of Naples, Italy.  This surely accounts for the influence of Italian chiaroscuro painter Caravaggio. Of the same period, there was the art of Murillo, very oriented toward evocative images of Spain the kind that his Adolescent John the Baptist (1660-1665) could be associated with yet in which we find a gracious Madonna such as the one on display in the exhibition. His Crucifixion, also on display, is remarkable. Because of the importance of the monarchy, portraiture was also an important genre in Spanish art. Several examples are offered in the exhibition, one of which is a superb portrait of Doña Marie Theresa de Vallabriga y Rozas by Francisco Goya, the notorious court painter (first painter to the king in 1799) before disbelief in the power of reason and justice brought him to create images of inhuman cruelty, guided only, as a Romantic painter, by his own inner light. To be continued