“Spain has produced some of the most startling and original art ever created… the art we need to know about, because it holds the key to understanding all of Europe and its culture,” says Andrew Graham-Dixon at the start of his three-programme, thousand-year journey for BBC Four, The Art of Spain, which begins tonight. En route from southern, Moorish Spain via the “golden age” of the court in Madrid to the modernists and surrealists of the north, he encounters the zeal of both believers and non-believers: his own passionately pursued mission is to make Spain more prominent on a wider cultural map.
While Italy has always occupied pride of place in western art history, he argues that the Spanish experience has played a central role in making us who we are – and for Spanish read, in substantial part, Arabic and Islamic. It’s a story of territorial and political conflicts, as well as religious. But it’s also a story of how, having looked into the abyss, people can hope for better times.
The scars of the civil war of 1936 to 1939 survive in memory, landscape and works such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica; even that vision of a horrific air raid has a dignity that enables it to avoid total bleakness. The greatest single act of violence, evident to us now from the emergence of Spain as a nation, is the one frozen in architecture when a 16th-century Catholic nave was imposed on the Mezquita, the great mosque of Córdoba, started in 784. Yet as the emperor Charles V ruefully acknowledged, it was the older building’s seemingly endless forest of arches, expressing a much more democratic, non-hierarchical conception of the relationship between a worshipper and his god, that came out the winner.
When the invading Moors – the Arabs and Berbers of north Africa – took Córdoba in 711, they made it into one of the great cities of the world. In the congenial environment of Andalusia they created a culture that could also encompass the other two peoples “of the book”, Christians and Jews, with a rare degree of enlightenment. They made every aspect of life – eating, drinking, bathing – into a work of art, and had a deep commitment to learning.
Their grasp of mathematics overflowed spectacularly into the intricate patterns that filled every inch of their most splendid buildings. The motivation was religious – to avoid the representation of God or living beings – and the combination of ornate decoration with water-filled gardens at the Alhambra palace in Granada came close to creating the illusion that paradise, the garden that awaits the righteous, can be made on Earth.
So when Spanish Christians began making inroads into the Moorish territories, they were still happy to retain what had become the dominant style in such buildings as the castle-palace, the Alcázar, in Seville. Its tile work, as Graham-Dixon puts it, forms “almost hallucinogenic patterns”.
The Reconquest, completed in 1492, was accompanied by a particularly fervent form of Catholicism. Philip II, king from 1556, sought to unite his people through piety, giving them art that would invite them to prayer through the presentation of unmistakably clear stories. This fusion of religion and power found architectural expression through the magnificently austere palace-monastery of El Escorial. Meanwhile, in Toledo, El Greco produced paintings of a much more mystical character than appealed to the king.