In my opinion, the painting of the Spanish Baroque has been consistently misunderstood because of the use as currency of a series of beliefs which were minted at the beginning of the century by the reaction to Romantic painting, mostly in England.You will have to wait till my book on Diego Velazquez is published to see what I mean but let me say, for the time being, that the exhibition that is currently taking place at the Fondazzione Ferrara Arte, in Ferrara and the Bozar, Palais de Beaux Arts in Brussels and which has been jointly organised and curated by Ignacio Cano not only misses the most important aspects of why Zurbaran is so great but also insists on making the same mistakes over and over again. At this point, something must be said.
As expected, the show aims to reassert Zurbaran’s role as a pivotal figure of the Spanish Baroque and a major exponent of the poetic spirituality and religious fervour of the Counter-Reformation. It also addresses the fact that, despite his undeniable talent, he has never been as popular or well known as his contemporaries Velazquez and Murillo. To go even further, the curator of the show states that Zurbaran influenced Manet, Picasso, Dali and Morandi. To be perfectly honest, the reference to Morandi shocks me and I think it has to with the composition and distribution of objects and Zurbaran’s ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose (1630) at the National Gallery in London. That association is aesthetic and puerile so I even refuse to refer to it. But, nevertheless, let’s unpack a little bit.
The reason why Zurbaran has never been as famous as Velazquez is simple. He had the bad luck to be the latter’s contemporary. In spite of this, they worked together not once but many times and Velazquez, who was not a very supportive colleague in general had a soft spot for the Sevillian. For example, when Velazquez was in charge of the decoration of the Hall of Realms at the Buen Retiro Palace, he asked Zurbaran to paint his series of the Labours of Hercules. That was supposed to be an immense honour. Regarding Bartolome Murillo’s success, it has to do with the aesthetics favoured by Romanticism and firstly Rococo which are, of course, very much intertwined with the advent of the Bourbon court in Spain and it is a matter of fashion more than artistic quality. Having said that, the three of them share one thing that one can see in Zurbaran’s religious images with astounding clarity and it is an acknowledgement of the paradoxical nature of life and faith.
Having relapsed in my addiction a week ago, I started to ‘religiously’ go to daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings and what I am learning to love is how aware recovering addicts are of that paradoxical nature of life. Good and evil seem to be so close that scares us and that is why we must share our adventures in that ting and yang quest. Nothing is really black and white and death (in the shape of temptation or evil) are round the corner and present itself tied to happiness and what we understand us, ‘being normal’. This is probably the main reason I was shocked when Andrew Graham Dixon in his BBC series ‘The Art of Spain’ kept insisting that Zurbaran’s were images of black and whiteness and extremes. It seemed as if Graham Dixon felt the need to justify his own beliefs about the Inquisition (which by the way, are influenced by the English Black Legend) than having a serious look at the images that he had in front of him. He took as an example the light in his Saint Francis in Prayer at the National Gallery of London as an example of a composition that is cutting the whole pictorial space into two triangles and where there is no space for intermediate spaces. That for him was an example of polarisation. Personally, I would compare St Francis with an astronaut because he is actually inhabiting sacramental times. He is in prayer, not here, not there but There. What we are seeing is St Francis and the world his mind is projecting around him and God is allowing him to experience but it is not an easy path, very much like recovery from an addiction. It is a very dangerous path and those who have read the dark nights of St John of the Cross or Saint Theresa of Avila will understand what i am talking about. He is not praying in the prairie, that for sure. That painting is about blackness and its many hues and this is totally different from a simple ‘sin-holiness’ sort of dialectic. When an addict faces the NA Twelve Steps, he becomes Saint Francis and the air gets thinner and thinner in the exploration of one’s own soul.
The problem with the way Spanish painting has been appreciated and alarmingly with the way the Ferrara and Brussells shows are curated is that they visually equates spiritual ‘darkness’ to Caravaggio’s realism. In this sense, the always uninformed ‘The Art Newspaper’ says: ‘His (Zurbaran’s) greatness lies in the evolution of his work. His dark and austere aesthetic developed rich and luminous shades of colour and his compositions became more light and spacious, a result of the influence of his Italian mannerist peers, especially Caravaggio. Zurbaran’s skilled use of chiaroscuro earned him the name ‘El Caravaggio Español”, but the similarities are there’. Can Cano and The Art Newspaper tell me where did Zurbaran saw Caravaggio’s work if he never left Spain? Don’t they realise that while Caravaggio brings heaven to our world, Zurbaran does exactly the opposite in order to make his subject risk everything? His monacal expeditions are like walks on the surface of the moon. The air is static and unreal. The symmetry of the skull is emblematic and appears as the reverse of the hidden face of the Saint. Death is a necessary part of life in order to live it. The art establishment should remove Caravaggio from the history of Spanish painting because it raises much more questions than answers.
By contrast, Zurbaran’s paintings are about the devil inside, about temptation. When one less expects it death can come. They are images of empathy and about the dangers of trying to get too close to God. Yesterday, I met Liam in the Notting Hill NA meeting and he was a newbie like me. He had relapsed two days ago and you could see it in the way he was shaking. I am terrified myself having relapsed a week ago but there was a moment that our eyes met and his were tearing. I invited to come with me to the meeting today and walk from my place there. He is a builder and we would have never engage at such a profound level. I would not change the life that those teary eyes gave me for anything in the world. I guess Zurbaran is saying that. In order to go there, you have to connect as a human being and with all its dangers. These are not images of Vatican bureaucracy. These are images of faith. Real faith. That is why, I honestly think that the Ferrara and the Brussels’ shows are short of a disaster. Just a thought.