By Alison Smith
I love the sense of calm I always get when I enter the courtyard of The Hermitage in Amsterdam. It’s as though the bustle and rush of the canals outside suddenly switch off and you can hear the birds sing. The same sense of calm pervades the Hermitage building. I was there last Saturday, too early for tourism to ruin the peace, and just in time for an early lunch with my Zine colleague, Dave Thomas, followed by a leisurely wander around the exhibition of The Spanish Masters, which is currently showing until 29th May 2016.
There was a choral concert going on somewhere in the building as we kept getting a waft of sweet voices as we ate lunch. The Hermitage has a lovely café where even the self-service section serves decent food. Despite most tables being full, there was an air of calm and the low buzz of polite conversation, which makes you feel like you should also chat in hushed, civilised tones. Not the place for a raucous, boozy lunch, but that wasn’t what we had in mind, so we tucked into freshly made sandwiches and tried not to slurp our soup too loudly.
Onwards to the exhibition, and I was curious to see how it would be presented as the information booklet mentioned Spanish artists mostly from The Golden Age, with a smattering of Picasso via Goya. Quite a span of time to cover then.
The introductory rooms build up the picture of a Spain moving away from Moorish influences in a religious sense but shows how art continued to reflect the highly elaborate and intricate patterns seen on Moorish architecture and interior design. There is a lovely painting, typical of El Greco, of two long-faced apostles, which is worth a look.
Onward to the Great Hall and the main part of the exhibition concentrates on the Golden Age and the period in Spanish art history where to be noticed by the royal court you had to paint religious themes and the more pain, suffering and piety shown on the faces of the saints, the better. This part of the exhibition hall is divided into the four major schools that emerged at that time, each with at least one Master at the helm; Murillo and Zurbaràn in Seville, Ribalta in Valencia, Pereda in Madrid, and Giordano and Ribera in Naples (Yes, these were the days when Naples was considered to be part of Spain)
Compared to the paintings in the introductory section, it was interesting to see how art moved away from the static, frieze-like depictions of religious morality to more realistic, rounded portrayals of human anatomy, albeit still fixed in religious fervour. Then along came Velàzquez, whose paintings and influence makes up the fifth part of the main hall exhibition. Velàzquez is shown to be the maverick painter, the rebel who chose to paint real people in their everyday lives and break away from the religious themes. He paints the guys at the local bar, wrinkles and all. I love a good maverick story and the art world is full of them. Painters who refused to conform to the order of the day. Velàzquez’s faces aren’t marble-like creations of impossible beauty but careworn workers faces with lines on their skin and blemishes and imperfections.
Upstairs and the time moves on quickly. We cut to Goya, albeit briefly, and the exhibition has some of his interesting and best political etchings. He is known for his depiction of violent scenes and the etchings on show “Los desastres de la guerra” (The disasters of war) record the horrors of the Napoleonic War and leave you under no illusions as to his opinion of the savage cruelty which took place. There is one Goya painting, a rather sad but beautiful portrait of an actress who died shortly after he finished the painting. Being a big fan of Goya, I was a bit disappointed not to find more examples of his work.
From Goya we pass on to more romantic paintings with traditional Spanish subject matter. Matadors in elaborate, brightly coloured costumes and Spanish ladies in traditional lace. Not much flow here but an interesting introduction of colour and light techniques and obvious influences from other artists such as Ingres and Toulouse Lautrec. It points out that the artists were international travellers who were influenced by what was developing in the art world of foreign salons. Brush strokes become bolder and the style more abstract.
The exhibition ends with Picasso, a true Spanish Master, though the collection on show isn’t his best work. It gives a taste, which is how I would describe the exhibition. It’s a taste of Spanish art through the ages. For more detail, I’d have to direct you to Madrid…or the Hermitage in St Petersburg, which apparently has more Spanish art outside of Spain than any other country.
Entrance is € 17,50 for adults and € 2,50 with a Museumkaart. Your ticket also gives you a free audio tour, an optional music tour and entrance to the Portrait Gallery of the Dutch Golden Age which is running concurrently. Not bad value for money and The Hermitage is always a joy to visit.
The exhibition features masterpieces such as The Apostles Peter and Paul (1587–92) by El Greco, Velázquez’s Portrait of the Count Duke of Olivares (c. 1638), Murillo’s Immaculate Conception (c. 1680) and Goya’s Portrait of the Actress Antonia Zárate (1810–11), in addition to paintings by their pupils and later painters, up and including Picasso. Together they tell the story of the rise and glory of Spanish art in the Golden Age, which would continue to influence art into modern times.