Friday, December 29, 2006

Art Review : Velazquez - National Gallery (29/12/06)

The National Gallery's Spring and Autumn Blockbuster exhibitions have become a staple feature of British cultural life - Vermeer, Rembrandt, Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio all seem to tumble one after the other, each one vying with the others for the critics' superlatives. And rightly so - the National Gallery's exhibitions curators should be congratulated on the extraordinary array of masterpieces they have enticed to these shores.

Not least this time round as Velazquez gets the full treatment - short of tempting the Prado to part with Las Meninas (which isn't going to happen) it is difficult to think of a finer, more balanced selection of Velazquez' oeuvre, highlighting in detail his development as an artist and the variety of his work. Surprisingly, the National Gallery is home to more of Velazquez' work than anywhere other than the Prado, partly due to the thanks of the Spanish nation to the Duke of Wellington for ridding Spain of Napoleonic troops. This, plus some generous loans from the Prado, has allowed such an exceptional collection to be brought together.

It is extraordinary to think that "An Old Woman Cooking Eggs" was painted by a 19-year old. The draughtsmanship is exquisite, the coalescing egg white in the frying pan extraordinary. The only hint at the inexperience of the artist is the spatial arrangement of the characters - the boy appears to be on a slightly different plane to the old woman, he is not fully integrated with the picture as a whole. Yet the cooking implements are certainly recognisable, and it is one of the joys of this exhibition that one can recognise the same implements reappear from picture to picture in Velazquez' early bodegones. The same boy reappears as well in "The Water-Seller of Seville", a slightly later work. It is rightly described as the high-point of Velazquez' early work, the rendition of the light glinting in the glass of water and the wetness on the surface of the pitcher being nothing short of remarkable.

With such an extraordinary talent, it is only natural that Velazquez gets invited to the Spanish court under the protection of the chief minister, fellow-native of Seville Gaspar de Guzman, Count-Duke of Olivares, and it is as a painter of the Spanish court of Philip IV that Velazquez spent the rest of his life, barring two trips to Italy. Like many great artists, his style becomes looser with age as his confidence in his understanding of how the eye relates to the paint develops. When one looks at "Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver", it is only when you examine up close that you realise that his richly-patterned suit is decorated with the loosest of floral motifs. However, compare that with "Infanta Maria Teresa" and you will see the most delicate lacework and satin ribboning described in a few bold strokes of the brush. The result is, of course, exquisite.

Court portraiture is not always the most spontaneous of genres, but Velazquez transcends through sheer virtuosity. His paintings of the Royal children are both beautiful and moving, as these little dolls, largely doomed through their Habsburg genetic inheritance, are displayed in their finery for the international marriage market. You can sense the fragility of the Infante Felipe Prospero, or of Baltasar Carlos on horseback as he executes an improbable levade. The final portrait of Philip IV, painted in 1656-7, makes no secret of the sorrows of Philip's reign in the pain and weariness of his eyes.

And in addition to the court paintings, there are Velazquez' religious and mythic paintings largely influenced by his trips to Italy. Visitors to the National Gallery are familiar with the callipygian charms of the Rokeby Venus, but not so with Mars with handlebar moustache, oversized helmet and sagging flesh - a ridiculous warmonger - or with a priggish Apollo informing Vulcan - eyes flashing fire - that his wife has been caught in flagrante.

All in all, an extraordinary exhibition, supplemented by a superb audioguide and informative and well-written catalogue. The only challenge for the National Gallery now is to somehow try to beat it.

No comments: