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Renaissance to Goya: Prints and drawings from Spain

Head of a monk, 1625-64, Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664). Drawing, 277 x 196 mm. Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum.

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled Renaissance to Goya: Prints and drawings from Spain will be on display at the British Museum from September 20, 2012 to January 5, 2013.

This exhibition, drawn from the British Museum collection, brings together for the first time important prints and drawings by Spanish and other European artists who were working in Spain from the mid-sixteenth to the nineteenth century.

Through exhibiting these works, many of which have never before been on display, the exhibition will provide new insights into the visual culture and history of Spain, a country renowned for its painting and architecture, but not so well known for its graphic arts in comparison to its European counterparts, Italy and France.

Outside of Spain, the British Museum has one of the best collections of Spanish drawings from the seventeenth century, a period often considered to be the ‘Golden Age’ of Spanish arts and literature.

All of the most important artists are represented by key works in this display; Diego Velázquez and Alonso Cano in Madrid, Bartolomé Murillo and Francisco Zurbáran in Seville and Jusepe de Ribera in Spanish Naples. Francisco de Goya, who is universally regarded as one of the most important and compelling graphic artists of the period, is represented through the Museum’s remarkable collection of his prints and drawings.

The lack of study and appreciation of Spanish prints and drawings is partly due to the misapprehension that Spanish artists did not draw, an attitude that has since been revised through further research on the subject.

The reasons for these assumptions are complex, but can perhaps be rooted in the confiscation of Church possessions that took place in the nineteenth century, and subsequent dispersal of collections of Spanish art. The exhibition will consider the reasons behind this misapprehension and demonstrate the distinctive character of art in Spain during this period.

The exhibition begins exploring the mid-sixteenth century with the building of Philip II’s monastery of the Escorial near Madrid that drew a large number of foreign artists, mainly Italian. The internationalism of Spain in the sixteenth century is key to understanding the nature of the work made at this time.

The first part of the exhibition will be devoted to the foreign artists who worked in Spain, such as the Italians Pellegrino Tibaldi and Federico Zuccaro. The engravings made by the Flemish printmaker Pedro Perret in Madrid depicting the Escorial are among the most remarkable architectural prints from the sixteenth century.

However, whilst foreign influence may be unmistakable, artistic groups in Spain maintained their own traditions, and the process by which the Spanish absorbed the work of foreign artists is a complex one.

By the seventeeth century, each region of Spain was operating as an independent artistic ‘centre’, resulting in artistic practice being more segregated than the smaller countries of France or Italy. The exhibition is arranged into regions: Madrid and Granada; Seville and Córdoba; and Valencia/Naples, in order to highlight the differences.

The last part of the exhibition will be devoted to Goya and his contemporaries, including the Tiepolo family who arrived in Madrid in the 1760s and whose etchings revolutionised printmaking in Madrid.

The selection of Goya’s work that will feature will demonstrate the huge range of his graphic ability and the subjects that absorbed him. Much has been written of Goya’s ‘lone genius’ but this exhibition will explore how his art should be seen in the context of the unprecedented scientific, social and artistic developments that were taking place in Spain and the rest of Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Examples of his Tauromaquin series can be seen in the exhibition, a collection of aquatint etchings of bullfighting subjects, which portrayed some of the most famous bullfighters of the day. In this series Goya has completely mastered the aquatint technique, achieving remarkable theatrical effects through the contrasting light and dark.

Proofs from Goya’s Disasters of War print series will also be on display, demonstrating his reaction to Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and the horror that followed.

It is through Goya and his contemporaries that we can see first-hand how the work they were producing helped to propel Spain to become an artistically dominant force, whilst changing the artistic landscape of Spain forever.

An accompanying catalogue has been published by the British Museum Press. Written by Mark McDonald, the curator of Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain, it is a beautiful and comprehensive volume that examines for the first time the rich history of more than four hundred years of drawing and printmaking in Spain.

Priced £25 (paperback) and £45 (hardback), it is available from the British Museum Book Shop and online at britishmuseum.org.

Renaissance to Goya Gallery

Shakespeare: staging the world continues at the British Museum until November 25, 2012.

Also at the British Museum until September 30, 2012, is The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG