NEW YORK—Visitors to the Morgan’s new exhibit Visions and Nightmares will walk into the cube of a room that is the Clare and Eddy Thaw Gallery and wonder how four centuries of Spanish drawings could possibly be done justice in such a small space. They can’t. But according to the show’s curator Edward Payne, the exhibit represents the beginning of the museum’s research into little-explored and little-collected Spanish drawings.
“It’s our first time venturing into this area,” Payne said. “I hope this culminates in a catalogue raisonné somewhere down the line.”
Most people, when they think of Spanish drawings, have a passing familiarity with Francisco Goya (1746–1828) but know very little of the artists who came before or after him.
Part of Payne’s aim with this exhibit is to offer viewers broader exposure to the religious works of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618–1682) and the dark imagination of José de Ribera (1591–1652), as well as Eugenio Lucas, (1817–1870), a Goya imitator who scholars are beginning to look at as an artist in his own right.
In the exhibit we see preparatory drawings for altar paintings, including a couple that reflect interpretations of Catholicism that may be unique to the Spanish. The first is Murillo’s “Virgin of the Immaculate Conception” in which the Virgin stands on a crescent moon, a symbol of the idea that she was kept free of original sin. This was a popular image in Spanish Catholicism.
Another popular image was the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is interpreted as a representation of the Woman of the Apocalypse, a figure in a procession float design by Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1627–1685).
A standout artist is Ribera, whose fascination with martyrs and saints being skinned alive finds its way into “Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew,” 1649, and “Marsyas Bound to a Tree,” circa 1630s. Both are painful-to-view drawings that show a surprising amount of artistic restraint considering the subject matter. One can’t help but wonder what sort of worldview informed Ribera’s work.
An Ongoing Exploration
Spanish drawings have not been as well preserved as Italian, French, or Dutch ones, according to Payne.
“There wasn’t a tradition of collecting drawings—they weren’t valued as works of art but rather seen for their preparatory function,” he said. “They were handed around in the workshops and often discarded. It wasn’t until the 19th century that they were collected seriously by non-Spanish collectors.”
The exhibit features only 20 sheets and a few items from the museum’s music and manuscripts departments. Payne’s other goal is to show off the Morgan’s small but important Spanish holdings.
Rather than pore over available Spanish drawings for years before presenting a thematically tight show, curators decided to present a survey of the museum’s holdings.
The result is an often-puzzling sampling of art from a particular geography and time—the works themselves are superb, but the exhibit draws forth more burning questions about their context than it answers. Though the show’s title alludes to the Spanish Inquisition, war, and religious tension that informed Spanish art, very little is said directly about these important events as they relate to specific artists.
The Morgan, particularly its drawings and prints department, has often chosen to hold such exhibits, as in the recently closed exhibit of 18th century Venetian drawings. That exhibit was similarly loose in conception while serving its purpose of getting viewers’ feet wet in the Republic of Venice (review here).
Visitors to Visions and Nightmares will have to work a bit harder to draw any meaningful conclusions about Spanish drawings, but the Morgan invites them to join the curators in exploring the subject—talks, lectures, and study sessions will be held throughout the duration of the exhibit.
Visions and Nightmares: Four Centuries of Spanish Drawings
Jan. 17–May 11
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Ave.