The Spanish Golden Age of earthy realism

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

John Berger, the iconoclastic author of the seminal text on viewing art “Ways of Seeing,” wrote of Spain’s foremost art museum, “The Prado in Madrid is a unique meeting place. The galleries are like streets, crowded with the living (visitors) and the dead (the painted).”

Why the Prado in particular? Berger’s view was a response to Diego Velazquez’s paintings of beggar philosophers, Spanish nobles and court fools, and the immediacy with which they communicate their humanity. More than hyperrealistic and detailed brushwork, Velazquez does this by sowing doubt in the viewer’s mind about the boundary between reality and representation.

The most revered of Velazquez’s paintings, in this respect, is “Las Meninas,” the outrageously clever group portrait of members of the Spanish court and a “photobomb” appearance by the artist. However, the boundary of the Prado’s walls are too robust for that extraordinary image to have made it into the touring exhibition “Velazquez and the Celebration of Painting: The Golden Age in the Museo del Prado,” which is now showing at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.

The selection of 61 paintings and nine manuscripts that viewers can see, selected by the Prado’s senior curator of Spanish painting up to 1700, Javier Portus, nevertheless gives an impressive overview of Spanish and other European artists’ output and concerns when the Spanish Habsburgs were the world’s preeminent power.

If there is any greatness in this exhibition, and the bar is set, of course, by the 199-year-old Prado itself, it’s not due to a portrayal of pomp and circumstance, but of promoting an intimate and sympathetic communication of humanity. Velazquez’s much-praised 1638 painting of Mars, the Roman god of war, which does appear in the exhibition, is a canonical expression of this. Despite the mythological title, Velazquez presents us with a fleshy, bored middle-aged model with props. The subject’s general lack of godliness makes the painter’s gaze a piercing superpower.

The melodramatic and strangely pathetic painting “Colossal Male Head,” attributed to Vicente Carducho, also in the show, at nearly 2½ meters tall, also subverts itself; the scale and presence of the anonymous man’s face undercut by a quizzical look of something like stupidity.

Religious paintings in the exhibition do not celebrate the power and the glory of the church so much as explore the authority of vision. This proposition is set early on in the exhibition with Jose Garcia Hidalgo’s “God the Father Painting the Immaculate Conception” and Francisco de Zurbaran’s “The Crucified Christ with a Painter,” both of which present the practice of painting as a sacred act.

In the last section, Velazquez’s subdued “The Adoration of the Magi” presents the characters of the nativity in a realistic and earthly way, while in Alonso Cano’s “The Dead Christ held by an Angel,” the son of God is just a cadaver. The oddly dispassionate and uninvolved face of the angel acts as a proxy for us, the observers of the scene who cannot occupy the same space as the divine.

Unlike the bright corridors of the Prado, this exhibition has been designed with sections of deep color, enhancing the sensation that we are in personal communion with individuals who once lived, rather than icons of culture. As an event to mark the 150th anniversary of Spanish-Japanese diplomatic relations, in the country that once showed Spain the door and spent the next 200 years in a carefully guarded state of self-protection, this emphasis on the human, and not the glory of the “Siglo de Oro” (the Spanish Golden Age) is obviously a good way to go. If it leaves us wanting more and having to go to Spain to get it, all the better.

“Velazquez and The Celebration of Painting: The Golden Age in the Museo Del Prado” at The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, runs until May 27; ¥1,600. For more information, visit www.nmwa.go.jp.