Sketches of Spain at Edinburgh's National Galleries

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

Huge reproductions of paintings by El Greco, Picasso and Murillo, in mocked-up antique Spanish frames, hang on the outside walls of the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. The sun and rain beat down on them. El Greco's Lady in a Fur Wrap looks bemused; Picasso's Weeping Woman is at the end of her tether. When you've already seen some of the best things in the gallery's new exhibition, The Discovery of Spain, larger than life on the Edinburgh streets, why would you pay £8 to go inside?

This show is intended as the highlight of the National Galleries of Scotland's summer programme. The exhibition's most significant Spanish works are usually dispersed in public UK collections. Bringing them together in a single show might be appealing, but it is a bit thin as an idea (and no museum was likely to deplete itself of all its Spanish masterpieces). The gallery's solution has been to include British artists who travelled or worked in Spain in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, or who were in some way influenced by Spanish art, or for whom some picturesque, exotic Spanishness provided inspiration.

There are those like Sir David Wilkie, who painted heroic, exhausted guerrillas taking noble stands against the French in the Peninsular war. His 1829 The Defence of Saragossa is an awful piece of hokum. I almost expected to find Sean Bean in there, doing something muscular; the painting dies on the wall next to Goya's Disasters of War etchings. Goya saw the war at first hand, however many liberties he took in his images. The woman putting the match to Wilkie's cannon is the same "Spanish maid" who appears in one of Goya's etchings.

Goya's preparatory drawing of the Duke of Wellington, in red chalk and pencil, has more life in it than the painting he then made from it. The Iron Duke stares back, lips parted, with a vitality that is more human than heroic; his alert English face condenses out of the dusty chalk. Goya captures something of the mysterious confrontation between the artist and his subject, between one man and another.

Sir Thomas Lawrence and John Singer Sargent both adopted a kind of buttery, flashy paint-handling that derives from Velázquez and his followers, but without Velázquez's sense of power in reserve, his range and descriptive originality. The life-size version of a section of Velázquez's Las Meninas in this exhibition is a copy by John Phillip, painted in the 1850s. Phillip was infatuated with Spain, and went on to paint a stereotyped land where smiling señoritas serve contrabandistas in dodgy bars, and old crones give the artist the evil eye.

Better artists than Phillip fell in love with Spain in the 19th century. The best, of course, was Edouard Manet, who ditched his more overtly Spanish subjects following his only trip to Madrid, in 1865, a visit that sobered his view of the country and its art. While the British adored Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (for qualities they regarded as Italian), Manet preferred Velázquez, Goya's Duchess of Alba and El Greco's portraits. Manet was a tougher artist than any British painter of his time, and extremely good exhibitions about his relationship to Spanish art have been seen in Paris, New York and Madrid in recent years. Shows such as this cannot compare. While we have no 19th-century artist equal in stature to Manet, or indeed to Goya, it would be instructive to see some of Goya's full-length portraits against those of Gainsborough – especially the wonderful Mary, Countess Howe from Kenwood House in Hampstead, London. The poet Lorca had interesting things to say both about the severe tonalities of Velázquez, and Gainsborough's delicate pinks and greys.

But The Discovery of Spain seems uncertain as to what its theme really is. The show has two subtitles: Goya to Picasso, and British artists and Collectors, 1800-1930s. Picasso's Weeping Woman may be beside herself about the Spanish civil war, but she might well weep at some of the company she has been asked to keep here, including touristic watercolours of bullfights by Joseph Crawhall and Arthur Melville, blind Gypsy musicians by John Singer Sargent, and a gooey girl by Millais, dressed in some sort of syrupy emulation of Velázquez...

comments powered by Disqus