“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.
To Graham-Dixon, everything is more intense in the art of Spain, “as if the volume’s been turned up”. In the self-imposed trials of St Teresa of Avila, he finds an extreme form of performance art, conducted in the cause of love, charity and poverty; after her death, she contributed to art objects of a particularly mystical and morbid kind through the encasing of her body parts in reliquaries. There is more austerity to be found at the monastery of Guadalupe, where Francisco de Zurbarán’s cycle of paintings of St Jerome and the monks of his Hieronymite order captures the ideal of piety with almost minimalist simplicity.
Towards the middle of the 17th century, Spain’s power was beginning to seep away. Philip IV took solace in art, above all that of his court painter Diego Velázquez, now free to add the immensely sympathetic depiction of working people in simple settings to his duties of royal portraiture. The religious imperative had faded, and an utterly secular artistic view of the world emerged.
By the time of the Napoleonic wars at the start of the 19th century, Francisco Goya was taking art into uncharted doubt with his “black” paintings and Disasters of War prints. It took until the beginning of the next century for Antoni Gaudí to find renewed cause for hope, expressed through the natural curves of Park Güell and the Pedrera apartment block in Barcelona. His incomplete Sagrada Família shows how tied he was to the Catholic past, but was looking entirely to the art of the future, and his most celebrated admirer was Pablo Picasso.
In Graham-Dixon’s view, Picasso never lost his attachment to a profoundly superstitious way of looking at the world; even in the ostensibly rational approach of cubism, subjects seem to shimmer and hover as if in a vision, like the Moorish sculpture that has the effect of turning stone into lace. Take, too, the sexual energy of his work, and he re-enchants the landscape of the modern world. Joan Miró creates a paradise of dreams and fantasies, and Salvador Dalí’s best, early work conveys a compelling sense of the mysterious, made more intense by the fear of death – again, an echo of a much older and deeper yearning for contact with God. Thereafter, Luis Buñuel took up the godless exploration of fantasy in film, and Graham-Dixon turns finally to the sculptural architecture of Santiago Calatrava for a harmonious contemporary resolution of different elements in the troubled story of Spain’s artistic soul, in the Bodegas Ysios winery building in the Basque country.
The key element that television adds to the buildings and works of art is landscape – and indeed skyscape – as Graham-Dixon provides glimpses of buildings and paintings far beyond the best-known centres. Though he makes his own sympathies and enthusiasms clear, finally he lets the art speak for itself: after all, in the words of the marquis of the conquest, a descendant of Francisco Pizarro, who used the riches of the Incas of Peru to fund the outlandish 16th-century film-set architecture of Trujillo: “In every story there’s light and shade.”
Originally Posted: Spanish Renaissance