Saturday, December 09, 2006

Spanish Painting: Time, Truth and History

One of my favorite games in looking at visual art is to find unexpected, seemingly anachronistic touches in different periods of art. I like when 17th-century art reveals a bit of the abstract, subtly foreshadows the distortion and change that would come in Modernism. And I like Modern art that looks back, paying homage to the more strictly representational work of the past. I like to remind myself that there was a broad spectrum of activity surrounding each piece in the art-history canon that you see in textbooks. I like knowing that what we think of the creative modern mind sometimes wasn't actually invented in the 20th century, that crazy and probing people have expressed themselves throughout time, regardless of their contemporary mores. The Guggenheim's latest survey of Spanish art ("From El Greco to Picasso"), on display now through March inside the cocoon that Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark building has become with all the scaffolding outside, offers a good opportunity for this kind of thinking. NYSun writer Lance Esplund noticed the same thing on one of the paintings that stood out to me for being a little different: "In Juan Carreño de Miranda's 'Inés de Zúñiga, Countess of Monterrey' (c.1660–70), the figure's broad hoopskirts and corseted, funneled waist suggest not a human form but, rather, a tiered wedding cake or a passing ocean liner." The layout of the Gugg's famous ramp allows for very transparent pairings and groupings of paintings new and old, often showing how much respect Picasso had for his forebears, or at least knowledge of and willingness to engage the older works, to update them, to recrop them and refocus them, and to make them more primitive in some ways, too. We also spent a lot of time in front of the tiny, fuzzy painting that gives the exhibit its name. Unlike many allegorical paintings, it took a while to figure out which nude figure represented which intangible. And even after we went through several permutations, the question still seemed to remain open. Oh, and last but not least, we couldn't help noticing that three of the paintings looked an awful lot like present-day celebrities. If you go, look for Julianne Moore, Peter Dinklage and Robin Williams as Osric (sort of) in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. Seriously!

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