12 Jan 2010

What's in a severed head?

There’s under two weeks left in which to get to one of the most electrifying and under reported exhibitions in London.

The other night, as an erstwhile trustee of the place, I had the good fortune to be taken round the Sacred Made Real show at the National Gallery.

This is an institution with a tradition somewhat resistant to the three dimensional. But enter the Sainsbury Wing and you almost immediately assaulted by the bloody severed head of John the Baptist.

It lies horizontally with the throat pipe and main arteries exposed. Yet curiously it’s a thing of beauty – beauty in its carving and in the paint work of flesh tones and indeed its encrusted dried blood.

This is a show in which 16th and 17th century Spanish religious painting and sculpture are brought together in a form never attempted before. For the first time you understand the scale of the extraordinary industry that swept across Spain and her empire at the time.

There was ferocious demarcation between artist and sculptor. The sculptor did the carving, the painter did the paint work on the completed form. And still other painters used the “craven images” to inspire their painting. So that in one room Valazquez depicts the agony of Christ next to a sculpture it is hard to believe was not the very model for his work.

The juxtaposition of paintings and the three dimensional human form centred on the crucifixion of Christ is startling.

Priories and cathedrals across Spain have been raided for masterpieces that have never previously left their hiding places let alone Spain itself.

The show is an extraordinary testament to the scholarship of its curator Xavier Bray and of his diplomatic skills in wresting the pieces from reluctant prelates and abbots.

I cannot do justice here to what I saw and its effect. It is an intriguingly unreligious, but deeply aesthetic experience. I rate it a must-see exhibition. Don’t miss it! It ends on 24 January.

Interestingly, the National Gallery in Washington has successfully bid to show it there. And Spain, which originally had no interest in staging it, is now going to take it on from there. An exhibition hatched in London about Spanish art, eventually exported to both the USA and Spain itself – that we rate as a highly visible yet invisible British cultural export.



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