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Feb 2010 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

You may consider today’s artistic celebrities – whether in film or installation art – to be the masters of warts-and-all realism, but their early-seventeenth-century Spanish ancestors have the edge. ‘The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600-1700’, at the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, suggests the link between high art and religion left no holds barred in terms of blood and pain in order to evoke compassion and spiritual identity. To see this at work, look no further than the religious artists of the Spanish Golden Age.
The exhibition includes masterpieces by Diego Velazquez and Francisco de Zurbaran plus works by Gregorio Fernandez, whose Spanish polychrome wooden sculptures were so horrifically lifelike that they could shock and stimulate their viewers into intense religious fervour. It was a highly popular technique with many seventeenth-century artists, including Pedro de Mena and Juan Martínez Montañés.

And just as a twenty-first-century Damian Hurst or Mel Gibson will not shrink from shock-horror subject matter, Fernandez’s polychromatic sculpture shows a bloodied corpse whose eyes and mouth are open to reveal the torture of crucifixion and his neck splayed at an acute and unnatural angle. To achieve this synthesis of anguished realism, Spanish sculptors even used glass eyes and tears, ivory teeth and human hair. Ribera’s painting The Lamentation over the Dead Christ also shuns the bloodless, spiritualised transformation of much crucifixion art, to show the pallid body of a man who has just been crucified. The exhibition also explores the links between polychrome sculpture and painting.
From the religious to the profane. You may prefer the NG’s representation of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. ‘The Hoerengracht’ is a walk-through evocation of Amsterdam’s sex city created in Berlin by American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz, with particular reference to the Gallery’s own collection of seventeenth-century Dutch masters. You can feel you are in the narrow streets with lit windows from which the semi-nude models ply their trade. It is designed as an exposé of the ugliest aspects of society and is said to have inspired contemporary artists like Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, Mike Nelson and Damien Hirst.
Jacqueline Crofton displays her prolific and increasingly diverse output in her seasonal show at Hampstead’s Jiq Jaq Gallery. From her poignant, intimate nude pastels, she moves to a collection of abstract and semi-abstract paintings in soft yet brilliant blue, mauve, fuschia and tangerine. There is always a romantic strength in Crofton’s work no matter which creative avenue she explores.
Husband-and-wife team Althea McNish and John Weiss celebrated a busy decade in the arts. Described as Britain’s most distinguished black textile designer, McNish’s brilliant floral designs were featured in the Trade and Empire: Remembering Slavery exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery and in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, where she created eight patterns for the Hull traders. Jewellery designer John Weiss completed a silver scroll and crown and a pair of scroll finials for the Bristol and West Progressive Jewish Congregation. He also exhibited jewellery at the Barbican Centre.
 

Gloria Tessler

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