A journey to the soul of Spanish painting

At the Guggenheim, an innovative exhibition sheds new light on the legacy of Spain's masters.

As an exhibition of five centuries of Spanish painting unfurls up the ramps of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, you can almost hear castanets clacking and shouts of "!!iexcl!!Olé!" "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History" (through March 28, 2007) is like time-traveling through the length, breadth, and depth of Spain.

The 140 paintings panoramically present the three "F's" of Spanish culture: faith, family, and food. But the true glory of the show, where it achieves that flamenco quality of duende – a spark that transcends mere skill – is in the portraits. Gasp-inducing masterpieces freeze you in your tracks again and again, leaving one rooted in front of supremely animated portraits by the likes of El Greco, Velásquez, Zurbarán, and Goya. And not just a paltry few. There are 12 paintings by Velásquez, 11 by Zurbarán, 22 by Goya, and 35 Picassos.

Yet the exhibition "is not about masterpieces," says Carmen Giménez, one of the show's two curators. "It's about ideas." She and her fellow curator Francisco Calvo Serraller, former director of Madrid's Prado Museum, intend nothing less than to rewrite the history of art. To stimulate new insights, they arrange the paintings not chronologically, but in groupings by content and genre, such as landscape, still lifes, and portraits.

According to the conventional view, avant-garde movements such as Cubism and Surrealism made a complete break with past art. By mixing paintings on similar subjects from the 16th to 20th centuries, the curators stress continuity rather than disjunction.

The installation, Mr. Serraller says, "challenges the viewer to see how a theme is interpreted by artists of different centuries. When we confronted paintings on the same subject from five different centuries, it was a big revelation to see the cross-dialogue between the past and avant-garde artists."

Call it a dialectical dialogue, since 20th-century painters such as Picasso, Miró, and Dalí radically transformed the Old Masters from Spain's Golden Age of painting (the period from El Greco to Goya). Certainly the modern masters, who painted in exile (mostly in Paris), were early imprinted with the sights and smells of Spain.

"Modern art," says Serraller, "would not exist without the Prado." At the famed museum, these artists studied the art of their predecessors from the royal collections.

Certainly, too, Picasso and Dalí paid homage to the greats of the Spanish past such as Velásquez, whom they both emulated and reinterpreted in a spirit of rivalry and tribute. Miró's debt is less evident, but his economy – maximum impact through minimal means – and his constant allusions to Spanish flora and fauna show the shared aesthetic and cultural heritage. (Juan Gris comes off as a weak stepbrother in this roundup of superstars, although his Cubist still lifes have the crisp geometric emphasis and flatness of early Spanish still lifes.)

An art-history jest describes two prevailing types of aesthetic: German, which is alleged to be superficially deep, full of Sturm und Drang; and French, said to be deeply superficial – all about style, gaiety, and sophistication (think of the frivolous froth of Fragonard).

To coin another quip, you could say Spanish art is seriously emotional. The examples from 500 years evince common traits: passion, intensity, austerity, concentrated focus, elimination of detail, torsion of figures, religiosity that borders on fanaticism. In a word, soul.

Spain, isolated from Europe from the 17th century until the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, went its own way in art. While the rest of Europe explored neoclassicism, humanism, and rationality, Spain was deeply skeptical.

Humanity, under the iron hand of the Counter-Reformation, was seen as frail and corruptible. Spanish portraits present the individual realistically, warts and all, rather than idealized. "A paradox at the heart of Spanish painting from El Greco to Goya," Serraller says, is "that it is modern because it looks backward."

There is an affinity between old-fashioned and modern art in the juxtaposition of Velásquez's "The Needlewoman" (c. 1640-50) with Picasso's "Woman Ironing" (1904). The expressive poses and intensity of both converse across the centuries. This painting from Picasso's Blue Period owes much to El Greco's elongated, angular figures as well.

Spanish Golden Age art, in its mysticism, rejection of classicism, and naturalism, was so out of step with the rest of European art that it seemed to be a jolt of freshness to modern masters. Of course, they had to flee Spain before they could let their imaginations run riot with native traditions.

Modern Spain's futuristic bridges, opera houses, and museums by native son Santiago Calatrava coexist with red-tile-roofed stucco monasteries. Past and present constantly jostle each other, seeming to spring from entirely different roots. Yet Calatrava's bone-white airport in Bilbao brings to mind a dove's wings, a traditional Spanish motif. Similarly, displaying portraits of women spanning 500 years in the intimate alcoves of the Guggenheim drives home the formal and cultural connections of Spanish identity, along with its twists and turns.

The impeccable credentials of the exhibition's curators, who are leading scholars and connoisseurs of Spanish art, and their six-year effort organizing this show have resulted in unprecedented loans. It's a dazzling array of important works, as dense and delicious as churros and chocolate.

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