The Spanish Line: Drawings from Ribera to Picasso

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The Spanish Line: Drawings from Ribera to Picasso
© The Courtauld Gallery, London
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Cantar y Bailar [Singing and Dancing], c, 1819-20

The Courtauld has one of the largest collections of Spanish drawings outside Spain itself, with the impressive selection here ranging from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Spanish art in the seventeenth century, through Goya’s close, observationalist approach, all the way up to Picasso at his most lyrical and neoclassical.

All of which, though, raises some fundamental questions: does it really make sense to talk about an all-encompassing ‘tradition of Spanish draughtsmanship’, as the exhibition rather blithely assumes? Was there ever a national school as distinct from broader Renaissance or Catholic contexts? Or, alternatively, is the very notion of Spanish drawing as a specific category a largely retrospective creation, a product of nineteenth-century nationalism and capitalism – particularly after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, which resulted in such drawings suddenly appearing on the French and British markets? Probably a mixture of both, I’d guess – but it’s these sorts of interesting, nuanced debates that unfortunately go begging in this, admittedly small, one-room exhibition.

The actual drawings, on the other hand, are frequently engrossing. Pieces are arranged roughly chronologically – although actually it makes more sense to think of them in terms of their function, the vast majority not being ‘finished’ works in any sense. Some are intricately worked composition images, often squared up for transfer to canvas – the Counter-Reformation sanctity of Carducho’s skeletal ‘St. Jerome’, for instance – while others are more experimental study sheets – generally copies of classical sculptures and Renaissance masterworks, as well as life models. Probably most suited to modern tastes, though, is the idea of drawing as sketch, as record of an artist’s initial, internal vision – the best example being the astonishingly dynamic, fluid depictions of angels by Francisco de Herrera the Younger, which, though they date from the later 1600s, look more like some sort of cubo-futurist reverie.

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