A Spain Diary – Day 1: The Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla

On holiday in Cádiz. Flew out yesterday, and I’ll try to keep this blog updated throughout.

The trip was a little contended; a 3am wake-up call, a glitch in the taxi system, late arrival at a busy Gatwick, and on getting to Sevilla Santa-Justa station at 10:15am, the discovery that all trains to Cádiz were fully booked for the day.

There is a sort of failure of moral hazard at play here – Renfe reimburse all of the ticket fee if you cancel well before the planned trip (I think 3hrs?) and 70% if you cancel up to five minutes beforehand.

What this means is that people will book in advance, even if they’re only thinking of going, and of course this is what I myself should have done. The other thing it means is that if you keep refreshing the site, tickets come up as people cancel. And indeed I managed to get one for four o’clock.

What this meant was that I had time to kill in Sevilla: it is by such trials that God tests his truest servants.

I went to the Museo de Bella Artes, as it was a little too early to hit the bar, and I subscribe to the Kingsley Amis view that the purpose of cultural trips on holiday is to postpone and then enjoyable enable the point where you can have a drink and relax.

The museum turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected, you pleb? did i hear you say.

I have a limited tolerance for museums and art galleries. That is to say spending time on two or three pictures, or three rooms in an exhibition is about my limit.

BUT, well…It’s free on a Friday, and its tiled, cool courtyards are lovely.

a courtyard in seville, with moorish tiles, and green palms and orange trees, and a colonnade round the outside

These courtyards on the Moorish model always bring to mind the opening to Averroës’ Search by Borges:

He wrote with slow assurance, from right to left; the shaping of syllogisms and linking together of vast paragraphs did not keep him from feeling, like a sense of wonderful well-being, the cool, deep house around him. In the depths of the siesta, loving turtledoves purred throatily, one to another; from some invisible courtyard came the murmur of a fountain; something in the flesh of Averroës, whose ancestors had come from the deserts of Arabia, was grateful for the steadfast presence of the water. Below lay the gardens of flowers and of foodstuffs; below that ran the bustling Guadalquivir; beyond the river spread the beloved city of Córdoba, as bright as Baghdad or Cairo, like a complex and delicate instrument; and, encircling Córdoba (this, Averroës could feel too), extending to the very frontier, stretched the land of Spain, where there were not a great many things, yet where each thing seemed to exist materially and eternally.

And it turns out who’d have thought it that there were several very fine things in the gallery.

An Annunciation from Alejo Fernandez was the thing that caught my eye, with its combination of highly structured foreground, finely featured expressions of the protagonists, the devil-may-care presentation of a very literally realised symbolism (the typical lilies, the babe being spat out on golden beams by god), the typical cinquecento richness of the background (cliffs, water, bathers), as so often almost more fascinating to the imagination than the depiction of the central matter.

Two extraordinary paintings either side of a doorway: a Cranach Calvary and an El Greco portrait.

The Calvary is absolutely filthy. Look at it, the sheer exuberance of depiction and imagination, delight in the execution of it all. Obviously the thief on the right’s face stands out – certainly someone he’d seen about, in the local drinking establishment. I’m not sure i’ve seen the flow of a picture quite so influenced by a pot belly hanging over a crucified slouch on the right, and the starved, racked rib cage on the right, around the v of Christ’s crucified torso, wonderfully bound together by the rampant line of the loincloths. That’s not even touching the fashion choices of the rider and hte look in the horse’s eye. What a painting.

The El Greco is apparently a portrait of his son, but along with the vivid character of the eyes and face, the looseness of the brushstrokes feels entirely modern, and causes you to hold your breath at the execution. It can be hard to feel the immediacy of a painting in a gallery, after many others, but this is a painting that holds you in the moment, captivated, tense with wonder.

One the themes I want to explore while I’m here is the highly complex and paradoxical notion of the grotesque. There’s a very fine head of an old man by Velázquez, where the eyes seem almost sightless yet compelling nonetheless. But it was the magnificent portrait of don Cristóbal Suárez de Ribera that held me, so that I walked away and came back to it twice. What an honour it must have been to be painted by the greatest painter of the age who, like Proust, would fix you in a way that not another person in history might ever do, so that it must have been like being seen by one blessed by God – as you are, as it were. The privilege of being presented with superb execution yet without apparent flattery. This I think is achieved by the use of the grotesque, as almost a cognitive illusion of realism, because damaging to our view of ourselves, but I will need to write more later, after a visit to the Prado.

I am reminded of the line – and I can’t remember where it’s from, is it Céline? – that should we see each other as we see ourselves in the mirror we should all be murderers.

I have come to the general realisation that I do not and will never love the baroque, at least in its blousier expressions. I should say, I will never love the baroque other than its most decayed and outlandish forms (Magnasco for instance), but that of course is one definition of the baroque, and the decayed and outlandish are never far from the centre of it.

Here, I was rather breezily swinging by the larger paintings – Zubarán’s Christ is understandably famous and striking, yet it is also dull – before getting absolutely floored by a recently acquired Murillo – a portrayal of Santa Catalina, but clearly of an extraordinary contemporary woman

Her eyes perceive almost immediately innermost workings of your soul, unfathomable even to you. The ironic, knowing, but mainly enigmatic smile, tells you what she thinks of those workings. The cloth is rich and magnificent, the lace at the bodice disarming, the sword alludes to something swashbuckling, and that literate, articulate hand – who said hands are the hardest part of a portrait? my god. Anyway, she can and would destroy me. Extraordinary painting.

Then just round the corner another Murillo, a pietà, the most striking element of which are Mary’s eyes, red raw with grief, and the flow of her imploring gesture at the heavens down to Christ’s dead body. So good he repeated the image in a portrait of ‘Dolorosa’ upstairs.

Elsewhere Juan de Valdés Leal’s Feast at Cana and other paintings show how the decay of the baroque contained in it the orientalism that would be a major part of romanticism and its own decayed fin-de-siecle forms.

Gutierrez’s Sack of Troy is rather spectacular thanks in the main to the way the wooden horse looms so menacingly in the middle ground of the conflagration.

A set of seasons by Barrera contain all manner of fruit, fish and butchered animals, so rich they seem on the verge of bursting, with the final winter scene with its intestines, bloody meat and sausages forming a very good accompaniment to the book I’m reading, Rafael Chirbes’ On the Edge where the butchery and hunting of animals is regularly used to explore, highly equivocally, the low existential and moral status of people, and specifically their status in post-crash Spain.

It is interesting to compare to Solenoid, which I’ve paused reading until winter and will cover later maybe, but which sets up a metaphysical system out of flesh, bone, parasites, and the sloughing of skin. A recent chartbook by Adam Tooze (I’m trying to catch up with his production – it takes an entire holiday to do so), showcased the work of Renzo Vespignani, and this work in particular is reminiscent of the industrial hinterland of Bucharest in which the narrator teaches.

The final thing in the gallery I wanted to note was this extraordinary painting by Fernando Tirado Cardona, Emboscada Mora, which looks like it could have come out of Time magazine in the ‘70s, but is in fact from 1880.

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After this extremely rewarding visit, I popped over the road to Bar Barrabas, and had one of the best examples of the local speciality, salmorejo, i think i’ve had, and a couple of glasses of verdejo. Afterwards I felt extraordinarily restored (does he mean ‘slightly pissed’?) – as always, the best restaurant experiences provide that ‘restoration’ that is in the name, but is not solely about replenishing hunger but also the spirit.

a glass of white wine, and some sunglsses on a bar overlooking a sunlit plaza

a glass of creamy looking, cool tomato and garlic soup, with small hard boiled eggstwo large anchoves on two slices of bread

Later, after finally reaching Cádiz, I had a beautifully refreshing swim, some tortillitas de camarones and an early night with a deep sleep.

This morning, I woke to the tragic news of an earthquake near Marrakech, just across the straits.

Author: diasyrmus

A melancholy emblem of parish cruelty.

2 thoughts on “A Spain Diary – Day 1: The Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla”

  1. “What an honour it must have been to be painted by the greatest painter of the age who, like Proust, would fix you in a way that not another person in history might ever do, so that it must have been like being seen by one blessed by God – as you are, as it were. The privilege of being presented with superb execution yet without apparent flattery.”

    That makes me think of George Saunders (in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain) talking about a Chekhov character:

    “I feel about Olenka the way I think God might. I know so much about her. Nothing has been hidden from me. It’s rare, in the real world, that I get to know someone so completely…. And look at that: the more I know about her, the less inclined I feel to pass a too-harsh or premature judgment. Some essential mercy in me has been switched on. What God has going for Him that we don’t is infinite information. Maybe that’s why He’s able to, supposedly, love us so much.”

    ¡Buen viaje!

    1. That’s a lovely quote and definitely what I was trying to get at. ‘Nothing has been hidden from me’ is at the bottom of it. It’s interesting explanation for why people would want to be portrayed so unmercifully, as it might be described. Infinite insight brings infinite mercy.

      Set against this, it was said of Proust that people begged him to portray them, with his shrewd, satiric eye, yet did not recognise themselves in the unmerciful, unflattering portraits he produced.

      And thank you!

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