The plummy walls of the San Diego Museum of Art give the exhibition they surround, From El Greco to Dalí, a velvet jewel-case warmth. If the rooms were full of Goya’s ferocious Caprichos or Disasters of War, or Miró’s baleful work of the 1930s, or Picasso’s unforgiving restlessness, well, then, all that warmth would fast fly out the ventilation ducts. But it’s not that sort of show.
The pictures in From El Greco to Dalí, instructive, historically balanced, and occasionally exciting, belong to Pérez Simón, a Spanish-Mexican businessman born in Asturias who began collecting only 20 years ago, so the collection’s limitations have been determined by market availability. He has a great passion for the art of his homeland, however, and the things on view, while sampling a few familiar masters, fill lacunae in our knowledge of Spanish art. Mr. Simón has been especially acquisitive of works by another Valencia native, Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923), a painter virtually unknown here, and his general strategy has been to buy stuff that represents the progress of Spanish art from 15th-century panels to 17th-century Mannerist painting (critically shaped by Renaissance Italian art) up to the formal inventions of the 20th Century.
To judge by what’s on view, after Goya’s prolific, all-mastering expansiveness of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Spanish painting — compared to what was happening during the same period in the France of Impressionism and Symbolism — seemed to lose its nerve. It didn’t find new excitements until Picasso, the sculptor Julio González, and Miró came along. The late 19th Century in Spain looks a lot like the same period in Italy, when a group called the Macchiaioli (I’d loosely translate that as “daubers” or “mark makers:” “macchia” means stain, spot, mark) treated indigenous Italian subjects with sketchy, vaguely impressionistic technique. From El Greco to Dalí, like Macchiaioli painting, is top heavy with women and anecdote — women sewing, women milking cows, women gossiping at village fountains, and one swell duchess mounted on a horse (both costumed like parade floats).
The Spanish parallel to Macchiaioli painting was costumbrismo, which represented regionalist customs and scenes of daily life in a quickened but dense impasto. Sorolla made many pictures in the style, though he sometimes inflated the ethnographic intimacy of costumbrismo into the monumentality of Afternoon Sun, where countrymen use three pair of oxen to tow a fishing boat to shore. Even in the small oil study included in the exhibition, you can see how Sorolla relished stormy sea spray and ribbons of ocean current. Much of his output looks to me like a mash-up of Manet, Degas, Boudin, and Cassatt. He’s a deft and enthusiastic colorist who is easy on the eye and easy to like. You sigh with affection before his pictures, you don’t gasp with surprise or astonishment or drop-dead delight. He’s also an example of a historical turnabout: you see in his brushwork something of Manet’s inflammatory handling, though Manet was himself critically shaped by Velázquez, Ribera, and Goya.
Spanish painting sometimes feels like raw experience just barely mediated by an artist’s touch. I visited the Prado for the first time last year, and when I walked into the room containing Goya’s The Third of May 1808, I felt physically shoved around, first by its dimensions (106 x 137 inches), which no book reproduction had prepared me for, but mostly by the brutality and merciless candor of Goya’s depiction of the firing squad execution of rebels who resisted French occupation. (Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian comes straight out of Goya’s picture.) It reminded me that the most memorable pictures often entail misbehavior, whether in the use of formal resources or in the treatment of subject matter. That said, Goya also was a court painter who made elegant, telling portraits, one example of which — Doña María Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas — appears in the exhibition.
One of the finest things here is also one of the smallest, El Greco’s Head of Christ. The Greek effectively became a Spanish artist because he spent 30 years of his career shuttling between Toledo and Madrid. Born in Crete, El Greco began as an icon painter, and the head from Simón’s collection has the stark presence of icon art, kneaded by the devotional emotionalism El Greco absorbed from Tintoretto during his years in Italy and gently stretched by his own signature manner. His Redeemer stares heavenward with stunned, porcelain eyes, apparently yearning without hope.
Another great Mannerist painter, Jusepe de Ribera, reversing El Greco’s career trajectory, was born in Valencia province in 1591 but around 1608 left for Naples and made his life in Italy. He started as a Caravaggista, much indebted to the florid carnality and canted overhead light of Caravaggio. His 1648 Saint Jerome, however, shows off his individuated, free-standing manner. His hermit is so physically diminished that it’s hard to distinguish Jerome’s wrinkles and folds of flesh from body hair. His grubby, emaciated hands grasp close to his breast the traditional cross and skull. It’s a portrait of piety in extremis. Like El Greco’s Christ, Jerome looks yonder but without much expectation. Half his face gleams, the other half shrivels into darkness.
This show made me realize that I’ll never like Ribera’s near-contemporary Bartolomé Murillo. The misted contours of his saints and angels and putti and clouds and sheep and all the rest suggest the fluid harmonics of Andrea del Sarto, and, like him, he’s Spain’s equivalent to what Vasari called del Sarto, “the perfect painter.” For me, though, his perfection is soporific. And his most notable follower, Alonso Miguel de Tovar, carried on the tradition in The Divine Shepherdess, where a peaches-and-cream Virgin Mary cozies up to sheep with flowers in their mouths. Two of the bouncy beasts, jaws locked down on roses, stare suspiciously forward as if daring us to giggle.
The secular pictures in the exhibition carry interesting information. An anonymous bullfighting picture from the 1650s doesn’t look nearly as theatrical and organized as the corrida has come to live in our imagination. Groups of spectators, students, and soldiers are neatly squared off, and action is scattered about the ring — toreadors, picadors, a bull and wounded horse, random participants brandishing swords, picks, and capes, plus a gaggle of priests (to administer last rites). Even when it’s far from religious fervor and social bloodletting, Spanish painting carries a visceral surge. The fiery flower pictures of Bartolomé Pérez, for instance, are among the surprises in the exhibition. His razor-lipped tulip blooms look like instruments of predation, and the arrangements suggest the randy turbulence of the mythic figures painted on the urns.