Winding around the Guggenheim’s famous spiral for the next few months is a long, marvellous parade of Spanish masterpieces by Velázquez, Goya, El Greco, Picasso and Dalí. The gallery has assembled a rich array of great paintings – 35 by Picasso, 21 by Goya – plus 15 loans from the Prado alone. These are backed up by fascinating pictures from Miró, Gris, Zurbarán, Ribera and Murillo, plus unexpected discoveries such as Alonso Coello or Juan Sánchez Cotán, neither artist ever seen in the US before.

The culmination of a decade of work by curators Carmen Giménez of the Guggenheim and Calvo Serraller, former director of the Prado, 140 paintings, 65 from Spain itself, tell the story of five dramatic centuries of Spanish art. Unlike conventional chronological surveys, the narrative is presented in 15 subject chapters under headings such as “Childhood”, “Nudes”, “Portrait”, and the singularly dark “Weeping Women”, “The Fallen”, “Knights and Ghosts” and “Monks”.

Some of these mini-themes make more sense than others – but it scarcely matters. The pictures themselves are of such quality and come in such profusion that one is thrilled to see Goya’s proudly defiant “Duchess of Alba” from 1797 near Picasso’s haughty “Woman in Blue”, painted in Madrid in 1901,
while Picasso’s robust “Maternity” of 1921 and Dalí’s 1949 “Madonna of Port Lligat” hang besides Zurbarán and Murillo’s tender Virgins from some 300 years earlier.

Giménez points out that political isolation until Franco’s fall a quarter of a century ago kept Spain in a sort of cultural bubble. “Spain suffered from that – but isolation also helped Spain keep its rich identity,” she says.

That Spain is different comes across clearly here. There are traditional themes – the bullfight being an obvious one – but also a palpable national ethos of fervent mysticism, fear and intrigue expressed in a dark palette
of rich blacks and gold set against rigorous greys and luminous creams, as though the nation’s strong shadows and dark church interiors had influenced the country’s artists through the centuries.

These themes date from the 16th and 17th centuries, when a religious impulse set the tone of what is now regarded as the golden age of Spanish painting, when the domination of the Catholic church as powerful patron and guardian of morality guaranteed devotional imagery in most works of art. The after-effects lasted well into the 20th century, even in works by members of the exiled avant garde such as Picasso and Gris.

The intensity of the country’s devotion to the Virgin Mary plays a substantial role in its
art. It is exemplified here by a series of “Weeping Women”, whose soulful laments in the work of Ribera, Murillo and others are outdone by Picasso’s devastated, sobbing, shrieking women, culminating in “Guernica” ’s stylised, anguished mother from 1937.

So perhaps it is inevitable that the show’s bookends are equally theatrical, pious and iconic. It opens with a mesmeric sacrificial lamb by Zurbarán, trussed up, meek and mild, the Lamb of God, its woolly coat painted with loving realist detail. Yet if you start the long descent from the end, as I did, a greater sacrifice in the form of the crucifixion greets you. Ribera’s traditional, solitary, crepuscular Christ is juxtaposed with Goya’s “Jesus in the Olive Orchard”, three wild 1932 Picasso representations of death and desperation and a blasphemous Surrealist image by Dalí.

This concluding part of the show includes some rather
far-fetched analogies, notably
in “The Fallen” (victims of
alcohol and sex, the latter by Dalí). A concluding group of “Flyers” turns out to be angels, pervasive in early times as divine messengers, later anything sporting wings, such as Picasso’s “Swimmer”.

More convincing as a thematic group that draws on influences across the generations is “Ladies”, where Spanish male ambivalence to women as dual sources of passion and peril is manifest in many remarkable and sumptuous pictures. Not least among these are Coello’s shy but seductive “Ana of Austria” (1570), Goya’s arrogant “Duchess of Alba”, complete
with mantilla, and Picasso’s youthful “Marie-Therese with a Garland” which echoes Goya’s flower-crowned “Duchess of Abrantes” of a century earlier. This section expands to include domestic scenes, notably Velázquez’s “Peasants at Table” from Budapest.

Velázquez features too in the section on childhood. Until the 18th century, the subject was of little interest to society, and
the portraits that exist are purely formal ones. But Velázquez broke free of this rigid approach and his portraits of the ill-fated offspring of Phillip IV – the Infanta Margarita and Prince Baltasar Carlos, seen here at the age of
10 with sweet pageboy haircut – are remarkably sympathetic yet unaffected. Goya took things
further with his natural scenes
of innocent play – boys as soldiers, banging a drum, riding a ram – all probably sketched
from life, with his small sons as models.

The dark side of life rears its head in a predilection for images of freaks, fools, buffoons, dwarfs and the obese, all beloved of the royal court. As painted by Velázquez, they attain a certain dignity. Goya played on their grotesque absurdity in his depiction of bestial fantasies and nightmares, while Picasso’s “monsters” are wickedly, crudely humorous. These works are
far from comfortable to look at – but there can be no doubting
the comprehensiveness and fascination of this richly revealing exhibition.

‘Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History’, at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, till March 28. Tel +1 212 423 3500

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