Arts & Culture

Art review: rare Spanish drawings at Meadows Museum

The Meadows Museum is gearing up for its 50th anniversary celebration in 2015 by taking visitors on an ever-increasing thrill ride, beginning slowly, with an exhibition of drawings.

These works by Spanish masters are the equivalent of peeking into choreography workshops, or eavesdropping on a composer composing. They are rarely complete compositions made for exhibition.

More often they are the experimentations of an artist, which can be of interest to other artists and academics but are a tough sell on their own merits. They are usually little more than exercises in problem solving for a canvas to come.

The current exhibition, “The Spanish Gesture: Drawings From Murillo to Goya in the Hamburger Kunsthalle,” is filled with exercises by some of Spain’s most talented artists. The artworks date to the 16th-19th centuries, with an emphasis on those from the 17th century and the school of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

The most splendid works by a single artist are those from 18-century painter Francisco de Goya. He is given a gallery all his own as the exhibition’s finale.

The 86 drawings on display from a collection of 210 are from Hamburg, Germany’s Hamburger Kunsthalle, whose first director bought the collection from a London collector and antiques dealer in 1891. Because few people in the art world looked to Hamburg for Spanish drawings, this collection languished in obscurity for decades.

A 1734 fire in the royal residence in Madrid destroyed many Spanish artworks, and few previous to this date are in existence. So this collection in Hamburg is a rarity and, until recently, a well-kept secret.

They have been removed from anonymity by independent art historian Jens Hoffmann-Samland, who organized the show and contributed significantly to the catalog. The drawings are on a two-stop tour: first, Dallas and the Meadows, and then on to Spain and the Prado.

Many of the artists included in this collection are known to be of the Academia de Murillo , founded by Murillo, Spain’s great 17th-century painter, in 1660. The earliest drawings are dated before the academy was formed and exhibit a strong Italian influence.

The bulk of the collection was produced during Murillo’s time and includes the work of Herrera the Younger, Juan de Valdés Leal and drawings by artists unknown. Which is just as well, as the drawings by Murillo and the mutli-hypenate Alonso Cano, who was an architect, sculptor and painter, are the best of this lot, and their contemporaries suffer in comparison.

Cano’s drawing for the altar of St. Catherine (1648-52) shows the saint surrounded by a choice of two architectural frames, and the detailing is exquisite. This was a preparatory work for an altarpiece that stood near a side entrance of the church of San Miguel in Madrid that burned in 1790.

Murillo’s black pencil drawing of The Assumption of the Virgin is considered one of the best remaining examples for his expressive use of quick pencil lines and animated washes that indicate a roiling mass of chubby cherubs whose round forms morph into clouds that culminate in the form of the Virgin.

It is similar to Murillo’s paintings on the subject, but there are enough incongruities between this drawing and several paintings that direct correlation is problematic.

The last gallery, though, is the payoff for visiting the Meadows, as here are the drawings by Goya, specifically ones made after paintings by Diego Velázquez. In the 1770s there was a call to Spanish artists to produce engravings of the paintings in the royal collection. This would financially benefit the artists and bring attention to the little-seen works within the royal palaces.

Goya, who at the time was working for the royal tapestry factory, saw this as an opportunity for self-promotion. He chose many of Velázquez’s portraits to reproduce and in a manner that made Velázquez seem contemporary. This series from the late 1700s launched Goya’s career.

Two Goya drawings from 1814 are preparatory works to his 33-print series “La Tauromaquia” (Bullfighting) and show how far he progressed as an artist from his days copying Velázquez.

These drawings show the bull winning against outrageous odds. Horses are gored and lie writhing on the ground, picadors take shelter behind the fallen horses. The action is intense and the horrors of the senseless violence are similar to his series “The Disasters of War.”

This is an appetizer serving of Goya. The complete first-edition series of “La Tauromaquia” and “Los Desastres de la Guerra” (The Disasters of War) will be on exhibit this fall as the countdown to the Meadows’ 50th anniversary ratchets up.

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