Spanish Art History In a Nutshell
From paella to Picasso, bullfighting to Basque country, the history and culture of Spain may conjure easy associations. But, as the former seat of the vast Habsburg Empire, long the site of tumultuous political conditions and colonial histories, and home of literary greats Cervantes and Garcia Lorca, Spain is heir to a rich and complex past. Its visual art offerings are no exception; the extraordinary Upper Paleolithic cave paintings at Altamira in northern Spain are considered some of the oldest known artworks; and, take a spin around any one of Madrid’s trifecta of world-class arts institutions known as the “Golden Triangle of Art”—Reina Sofia (the home of Picasso’s Guernica, no less), El Prado, and, Thyssen Bornemisza Museum—and you’ll find yourself eyeball-deep in Spain’s fascinating cultural history.
Dubbed “el Greco” (the Greek) in Spain, Domenikos Theotokopoulos is considered the preeminent figure of the Spanish Renaissance and way ahead of his time, having rejected naturalism in favor of a more conceptual approach to representation and a spiritually expressive use of paint. In View of Toledo, he depicts the Spanish town that was his home for almost 40 years, under the shadow of a tempestuous sky that recalls Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
The most famous artist in early modern Spanish art history, the name behind one of Spain’s national treasures, Las Meninas, and a virtuoso painter of the human form and landscapes alike, Velázquez served as a court painter for Philip IV—a vigorous patron of the arts and supporter of Velázquez—who appears here in Portrait of Philip IV of Spain around the year 1638. Velázquez’s skilful modeling of light and shadow and atmospheric compositions drew the admiration of the influential Impressionist painter Manet.
Once a draughtsman of lighthearted etchings and cartoons, Francisco Jose de Goya was deeply affected by the atrocities he witnessed the Spanish suffer at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte’s invading troops in 1808. He was moved to address the brutality of war, resulting in his “Disasters of War” series, a collection of etchings and aquatints that depicted dismembered limbs and individuals wracked with famine, imagery that was shocking and disturbing for 19th-century sensibilities.
A global household name about whom little has been left unsaid, the extraordinarily prolific artist Pablo Picasso produced artwork that spanned Cubism, Surrealism, Neoclassicism, and Expressionism. With simplified, distorted forms and bold, flat colors, his painting La Rêve (The Dream) (1932), of his then-mistress, showcases the artist’s revolutionary approach to representing reality.
Interested in exploring the human psyche, Joan Miró produced painting, sculpture, and prints in his fantastical language of figurative signs and symbols. Miró painted the surreal landscape in Paysage (Paysage au coq) (Landscape, Landscape with Rooster) (1927) from memory, drawing on time spent in the Catalonian town of Montroig as a child, where his parents had a farm.
Heavily influenced by Freud’s writings on psychology, Salvador Dalí painted and drew strange, Surrealist compositions comprising subconscious desires and dreamscapes, such as in The Enigma of Desire, or My Mother, My Mother, My Mother (1929), whose title alludes to Freud’s concept of the Oedipus Complex.
Antoni Tàpies’s textured, sculptural wall works express the artist’s experience living through the Spanish Civil War under the regime of the brutal dictator Francisco Franco. Drawing inspiration from the surrounding urban landscape of graffitied and vandalized walls, Tàpies approached works such as Relieve negro perforado (1961) as records of shared histories engraved with people’s fears, desires, and discontents from social and political unrest.
One of Spain’s most celebrated sculptors, Eduardo Chillida produced monumental abstract forms in rusted metal and curvilinear and geometric shapes. The product of a long tradition of Spanish metalworkers and stone-carvers, Chillida was a hands-on craftsman with enormous respect for his material.
A Madrid-based artist and former representative for Spain at the Venice Biennale, Cristina Iglesias creates sensual, immersive environments and installations that suggest psychological spaces, caves, or labyrinths. Hollowed-out structures such as Sin título (Pared vegetal III) suggest refuges composed of organic materials.
Lara Almarcegui represented Spain at the 2013 Venice Biennale by turning the pavilion into a monumental heap of rubble, smashed roofing tiles, and bricks. Fascinated by urban transformation and dereliction, Almarcegui has produced “guides” to modern wastelands and urban ruins, evoking the rapid changes experienced by Spanish (and other European) cities today.