El Siglo de Oro - Velazquez, El Greco and mucho more at El Gemäldegalerie Berlin (¡olé!)

(Berlin.) Another day at Gemäldegalerie, and they work hard to maintain their reputation of being the most annoying art venue in Berlin. Everything’s there that might spoil your visit to a museum: Having followed the orders to deposit your bag at the wardrobe, having filled your pockets with notebook, pen, replacement ink, pack of paper handkerchiefs, briefcase and phablet (for photos, you don’t know yet...), and feeling rather uncomfortable for the suggestive bump all this stuff creates in your trousers - most unsuitable for this particular exhibition in fact -, you mount the staircase to reach the entrance of the show, but the paramilitary guards are not happy: “Sure you want to keep this? ‘Tis warm inside...”, pointing at your zip hoodie.

For a moment we hesitated, should we strip naked? Not that anybody would want to see that; maybe Gemäldegalerie should consider hosting a show in darkness. (That’s an idea somebody else actually had; only with clothes, though you never know - more on this shortly!) We almost wished we’d brought an explosive belt. Later, when bending forward to contemplate a painting in detail, we were reprimanded again: “But you will stay behind that line, will you?!” Every couple of minutes we heard them yelling at another  v̶i̶c̶t̶i̶m̶ v̶i̶s̶i̶t̶o̶r̶ annoying customer: “No photos, please!”; we wondered how many get disappeared daily. And why? Because they are greedy bastards who want to sell a maximum of catalogues and postcards, that’s why. If any artworks are in public domain and no copyright applicable, free to photograph for everyone, then it’s Old Masters paintings. It all adds up to an experience comparable to how you would imagine an Eastern German museum; if they had any museums over there, of which we’re not certain.

 

A pity we need to return to Gemäldegalerie frequently, for they do host excellent exhibitions. The latest, El Siglo de Oro - “The Golden Age”, focuses on 17th Century Spain. A timeline recalls (ok: acquaints us with) the era’s main events between the deaths of King Phillip II in 1598 and Charles II in 1700, a map shows the Spanish colonial Empire, and texts tell of troubled times when art, wars and pestilence thrived alike. The history lesson is rather extensive, but we have time. Finally, the show starts with a Duarte crucifix and the first oil paintings. They set the example of what to expect: Wooden sculptures and images of almost unmatched realism. The show takes you on a tour to the birth of Baroque in different epicentres from Castile to Valencia, then continues with masterpiece upon masterpiece.

 

Spanish baroque painting was influenced by the Dutch, the then Spanish Netherlands should one rainy day (it always rains in Belgium) become Belgium. Rubens spent some time at the Spanish court, furnishing a former watchtower for Phil Segundo. His influence shows, but so does Rembrandt’s in the individuality, the true-to-character-ness, of people and scenes depicted. Baroque is often identified with exaggeration, a theatricality bordering on the ridiculous, but this seems far from the truth here. If anything, Spanish paintings of the 17th Century are lifelike, vital and vivacious. Fancy some namedropping? Here you go: Francisco Pacheco, Antonio Saavedra, Francisco de Zubarán, José/Juseppe Ribera, Francisco Herrera, etc. Apparently, if your name only was Francisco, you had a fairly good chance of starting a career in art... 

One “unknown painter” cannot quite keep up with the masters, but Gemäldegalerie hopes you won’t notice, hiding him between two Antonio de Pugas. Here and there, a book’s mixed in, Cervantes and more in Spanish or historic German translations.

El Siglo de Oro is subtitled The Velázquez Era; we prefer El Greco any day (except the day you present us with a Velázquez, of course), but to each his own. El G. is different, less of a mirror to the world, he elevated reality in a rather unique way. Together with some others he stands for a different Baroque, a visual precursor of Moreau-ish Symbolism. Still, you have to admire both styles. 

 

And what did they paint? Religion, mostly. But also landscapes, portraits, still-lives and celebrities. Diego VelázquezDon Gaspar de Guzmán on horseback (sometimes attributed to Juan Bautista Martínez del Masco; or to a collaboration of both) seems fit to jump from the canvas any instant. Everyone portrayed just looks “true”, you’d think you know them from real life. Master of the Amsterdam Still Life is a funny name for a painter, but his Kitchen Scene has much humour to it also. And who’s this pretty little girl? Oh, ok, it’s King Charles II by Juan Carreño de Miranda, well, nice hair. Next to him Queen Maria Anna of Austria in nun’s habit, painted by Claudio Coello. And more, many more, paintings.

To mention the only possible doubts about this show: The colours shine so much, sometimes you ask yourself at what point it would be ok to declare a work restored to death. There’s no patina, these artefacts of a dead culture appear like fresh from the studio. But you get used to it quickly, so much that the background in a Holy St. Jerome by the magnificent Francisco Ribalta positively annoys you – does it have to be this dark? Perhaps they lacked time to finish the makeup.

 

Sculptures are no less impressive, Alonzo Cano’s bust of St John of God looks as real as any film prop, which is the more impressive when you realise how it was done. Polychromated (that’s “painted”) wood and glass is all they used, Greg Nicotero’s ancestors had neither fiberglass resin nor foam latex at hand. The same goes for a life-size group with cross once presented at the Valladolid Calvary Games, a procession comparable to the Rio carnival with its Samba school carriages (had to bring in the Olympics at some point). As a today’s person you might initially think of oversized Kinder Surprise toys or garden gnomes. But the details are astonishing, and again: it’s nothing but wood carving. Talking about film: Spanish Baroque gets as gory as any Zombie flick, this is Christianity Mel Gibson style. Gregorio FernándezDead Christ lies frozen in suffering, you would not be surprized to see the blood still oozing out. The bloody “highlight” however is not a sculpture but a painting, a Martyrdom of St Jakobus the Elder by Pedro Orrente with brain parts dripping from a smashed skull. 

There are limits. Violence is fine, but no nudity. Even the dog in Gregorio van der Hamen y Leon’s Still Life with Dog looks anatomically bizarre to put it gently. After all, this was the Age of the Jesuits, the Catholic Taliban, and the Tribunal of the Holy Office.

 

Two sculptures of Ignacio de Loyola from Juan Martínez Montañés and Francisco Pacheco respectively, both dated 1624, show different aspects of the churchman's character. One handles the crucifix like a dagger, or an axe, a hammer to crush a nail into a skull and smash all unbelievers, the other contemplates his pensively. Comparably, St Nikolaus of Tlentini Penitent as sculpted by Juan de Mesa, while whipping his back holds the cross like a mirror. (After close inspection we concluded, the whip is not carved, and much less historic, but of replaced cotton).

Finally some drawings, preparatory and not, and then it’s all over, and you sneak back through the rooms to take one more tour of the Golden Age (but don’t get caught, most probably this is “verboten”!). 

Muy bien, muchachos y chicas de las Gemäldegaleria! (We apologize for this, and for that title too, non hablo espanol. And please do tell us if we forgot one accent or another in a name!) As usual, we did not buy anything in the shop, not even the nut bar in El Siglo del Oro packing - a first to see in any exhibition, and a missed sponsoring opportunity: Why a nut bar, why not a ... Siglo de Oreo? (Yes, we know, we’re marketing geniuses).

 

El Siglo de Oro – The Velazquez Era, 1 July-30 October 2016, Gemäldegalerie Berlin

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