Zurbarán: Master of Spain’s Golden Age, Bozar, Brussels – review

It took Wellington’s triumph in the Peninsular war to spark a northern European craze for the work of Francisco de Zurbarán. With the exception of Murillo, Spanish artists were little known outside the Iberian peninsula until Napoleonic forces began carting quantities of looted canvases back to France. The influx of art from what was being called Spain’s Golden Age greatly impressed Britain, but had an even greater effect on 19th-century French culture (not least in the work of Manet) and it was the 17th-century religious painter Zurbarán – rather than his friend Velázquez – who was seen as its brightest star. In 1838, when King Louis-Philippe I opened his Spanish Gallery at the Louvre with some 400 paintings, no fewer than 180 carried attributions to Zurbarán – most of them incorrect, but the scale of the misattribution merely testifies to the height of his reputation.

Cut to the 20th century and, relative to the sophisticated secularism of Velázquez, the appeal of what the poet Gautier had hymned as Zurbarán’s “divine vertigo”, “drunken piety” and “feverish clarity” fell away. Only towards the end of the century was a new enthusiasm kindled, this time focusing on less queasily Catholic aspects of Zurbarán’s work. Now the Bozar arts centre in Brussels is presenting the first dedicated Zurbarán show to be seen in northern Europe for 26 years, posing the question of whether the newly emphasised qualities in this highly distinctive painter counterbalance or complement the religiosity that still overhangs his work.

Working for the most part in Seville, Zurbarán exploited from the start of his career the thriving market in didactic Counter-Reformation art, and was able to set up a busy studio. A series of works were soon in production for wealthy religious houses depicting moments from the lives of saints. They drew on the example of Caravaggio in their use of light and darkness, but with an unusual clarity of vision, especially in the sculptural handling of drapery.

This Caravaggism – learned second-hand for, unlike Velázquez, Zurbarán did not go to Italy – was very popular with his customers. He employed it dramatically in portraits of St Francis in which the cowled friar stands in a profoundly dark space, his face shadowed but with a fierce sidelight etching the folds of his habit. Even more finely rendered are the robes of the white friars Zurbarán painted. St Serapion hanging from roped wrists is one of his greatest works, with an almost fanatically precise concern for the martyr’s white habit. This fixation on white cloth is seen again – in a way I can only describe as weird – in Zurbarán’s crucifixions, in which the artist seems to have entered a competition to give Christ the brightest and most elegantly draped loincloth ever painted.

A consistent thread in Zurbarán’s religious composition is the emphasis on three distinct orders of existence within each canvas: heaven and the divine at the top; humans in the middle; and the world of nature (roses, fruits, goldfinches) or of manufactured things (books, jugs, cups, plates, clothing) at the bottom. In such works, Zurbarán’s vision of heaven tends to monotony: a hazily golden space populated by the winged and gauzy heads of cherubim, sending down rays of apricot light through gaps in the cloud. As for his humans, they occasionally do achieve the kind of smooth but convincing beauty you see in a Raphael or a Leonardo, as for example in a couple of saints – actually archangels but conceptually human. There is a very beautiful Gabriel from the early 1630s, and an armed Michael painted almost two decades later. But his people more typically tend towards the wooden, and sometimes (as in the case of “The Immaculate Conception as a Child”) the pudding-faced.

But if Zurbarán, unusually in a great artist, does not seem to have been much bothered with faces (there’s only one secular portrait in this show), he was very careful to attend to the parts of his work that he did care about – and those came from the third order of reality: the props for the main action, the attributes, the things. Clothing again dominates his full-length studies of female saints, many made for export to Latin America; but in these cases the highly patterned fabrics give a happily down-to-earth richness compared with the austerity of Zurbarán’s friars in their habits, which the 19th century thought so fine.

As for his mundane objects, they are extraordinary. In the book held by “Fray Jerónimo Pérez”, in the delicate porcelain bowl of flowers standing on a pewter dish in “The Child Virgin Asleep”, in the variety of objects in “The House in Nazareth”, in the handbell, books, seal and inkwell on the table in “St Bruno’s Visit to Pope Urban II”, and again and again throughout the show, we see still-life of the highest quality eclipsing the rest of the painting. It is to these details that contemporary sensibilities most strongly respond.

Zurbarán’s compulsion to get across the essential thingness of things also led him to make a handful of small works that are among the most striking pure still-life paintings in art history, two of which are at Bozar (the greatest, “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose”, has not travelled from its home at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California). These objects – flowers, fruit, pottery, pewter – set up on a shelf against a dark, empty background, lit from the side and in glowing sensitive colours, are modest, minimalist, ordinary things, and yet they positively radiate what the scholastic philosophers called their quiddity. The nearest equivalents in art can be found in Chardin, a wholly secular artist. Zurbarán’s bodegónes, however, are objects of meditation and the fact that he saw them in a religious light is attested by one of the most memorable of them: an ordinary lamb laid on a board and trussed for slaughter. Zurbarán painted this with exquisite realistic care, and then chose the title “Agnus Dei”.

Continues to May 25, bozar.be

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