The Discovery of Spain at the National Gallery of Scotland, review

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I hate Edinburgh. Loathe it. Whatever the time of year, no city centre in Europe – not even Amsterdam’s – is anything like as sordid, but during the festival, which starts this week, it turns into my idea of hell-on-earth. From the instant you step off the train at Waverley station, the awfulness of the place hits you between the eyes: the teeth-clenching whine of bagpipes played for a surging tide of moronic tourists; the aggressive young beggars and organised gangs of down-and-outs assailing you at every corner; the no-talent street performers, the grubby outdoor cafes, the noise, the dirt, the bad hotels, and the awful food.

This year, a month-long strike by sanitation workers has added yet another reason to avoid Edinburgh at all costs: garbage. There are mounds of it piled up in the streets and silting up the gutters, blowing in your face and whipping at your heels. Everywhere you look you see plastic bin bags gnawed by rats or split open by seagulls, their foul contents spilling out over pavements and onto streets already rendered impassable by the ubiquitous road works. How the Daily Telegraph’s music, dance and theatre critics can hold out for three weeks in this mini-Srebrenica I can’t imagine.

But if you must go, can’t keep away from the Festival or have the misfortune to live there, you can find temporary refuge from the rat population in the National Gallery of Scotland’s intermittently terrific summer exhibition, The Discovery of Spain. Though it suffers – even more than most shows at the NGS – from the difficult layout of the temporary exhibition galleries, the quality and ambition of some of the loans override its shortcomings.

The show starts with the British presence in Spain during the Peninsular War, when Wellington’s troops joined forces with the Spanish to drive out Napoleon’s army. Coming right to the point, Goya’s famous 1812 portrait of Wellington from the National Gallery hangs alongside the less well known but even more penetrating drawing for it lent by the British Museum.

Under Goya’s searching gaze, the man we usually think of as unflappably self-confident looks almost fearful, his deep-set eyes wide open but unfocused, as though haunted by something he can see but we can’t. What this might be is suggested by a selection of horrifying images from Goya’s Disasters of War hung on an adjacent wall. Among them, the etching What Courage! shows a woman stepping over the bodies of her dead countrymen to light the fuse of a cannon pointed at the French during the siege of Saragossa.

Two decades later, the great Scottish artist David Wilkie painted the same heroic moment in his boldly painted Defence of Saragossa. With muscular heroes led by an indefatigable beauty standing together as one to repel the French invader, and a huddle of desperate defenders about to send their scribbled plea for reinforcements by carrier pigeon, this giddy historical nonsense is wildly over the top – but in a good way, like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

I was mesmerised, too, by Goya’s head-and-shoulders portrait of Don Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés (1797), where the artist subtly modulates light and dark to surround the poet with space and atmosphere, then with delicate flicks of his brush summons up the rosy flush of broken veins on his friend’s nose and cheeks, the stubble on the right side of his face (but not on the left, indicating that he shaved that morning, but carelessly), and the uncombed tufts of grey hair falling over his ear. Only when you’ve taken all this in do you at last see the look of inexpressible suffering in the red-rimmed eyes of a man battered by fortune, defeated by life...

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