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Spanish Line At Courtauld More Siesta Than Fiesta

03-12-2011
 
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‘The Spanish Line: Drawings from Ribera to Picasso’ seeks to rehabilitate a much-maligned and ill-defined school of draughtsmanship, but ultimately disappoints

Charting a development from piety to pigsties, the Courtauld's exhibition of Spanish drawings is the first of its kind in London. The culmination of a four year research project, the works are drawn from the gallery’s own collection, with many never before exhibited. As the exhibition acknowledges, ‘Spanish School’ was often used as a catch-all term by collectors for works of dubious quality or origin, and it aims to counter this prejudice in the light of new research. But how far does it succeed?

Unfortunately the majority of Old Masters on display do little to thwart the idea – a tribute less to the character of the Spanish Line, than to its unsuccessful imitation of the Italian. Some, however, demand closer attention, such as Juan de Juanes' study of Saint Stephen taken to his martyrdom. The only Spanish Renaissance drawing exhibited to be associated with a known painting, it offers the opportunity to see an idea worked through from conception to finished composition. Intriguing annotations also include a total of the number of heads, hands and feet (for calculating payment), a recipe for artists’ materials, and a small optical diagram for measuring the width of a river.

It’s a shame that Goya is so poorly represented; as one of the greatest draughtsmen of any nationality, one would have expected him to be keeping the Spanish end up.  There is, however, only one page from his album of Witches and Old Women, and, seen in isolation, it is hard to appreciate the scope of his powers. The Eugenio Lucas y Padilla drawing next to it (an acknowledged imitation) goes further to demonstrate the startling and dramatic tonal handling of ink we would usually associate with the master. A recurring adjective in the exhibition notes seems to be ‘enigmatic’, epitomized in Jusepe de Ribera’s Old man tied to a tree, and a figure resting. What is he doing there? Is the figure his oppressor? His liberator? Or an unrelated figure? Yet such questions would seem unimportant, or at least uninspiring, were it not for the quality of Ribera’s draughtsmanship.

A mixed bag overall, there are nevertheless some treats that justify a visit. In this category are some dramatic brush drawings by Francisco de Herrera the Younger, of an angel leading a child.  The expressive and eccentric brushwork evokes the painterly style more often associated with the Spaniards, and points to their potential for individual expression, as opposed to the heavy Italian influence of the earlier works. Picasso's sketch of pigs done for Gertrude Stein (they were apparently her particular favourite), is another highlight. Faithfully observed (yet undeniably intuitive) each shape is built up, rubbed away, almost sculpted on the page. If this is a true testament to the acme of the Spanish Line, his brilliant crouching nude - the entire bounding line between arm, stomach and knee missing, left for the viewer to fill in - shows its transcendence.

Ultimately the exhibition may be more siesta than fiesta, but, while it may not rehabilitate the much-maligned 'Spanish School', it is nonetheless interesting to chart its progress, and throws up some gems along the way. Words: Isabel Seligman © 2011 ArtLyst

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