I entered a room of the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville and time stopped. He stopped suddenly, without warning, canceling the state of mind that he had had up to that moment, the distraction of a morning’s work, until the purpose that had brought me to the museum, which was to see the Valdés Leal exhibition. I brought with me the modest happiness of finding myself that sunny December morning in Seville, and of having recreated myself in the square in front of the museum, with the fantastic fertility of a vegetation that seems to be from Lisbon, of a climate this temperate, with the degree light of humidity that gives that splendor to the trees, the ficus with the trunk of pachyderm, the vertiginous palm trees in the high air, the shimmering green of the tiny leaves of the jacarandas, the orange trees that look like trees of the earthly paradise painted by Fra Angelico . It was early and there was an early morning chill in the air. The cold was more intense and more humid in the patios of the old convent, which had not yet begun to warm the sun, the patios of myrtle and slender column arches that are between Florence and Nasrid Granada. The museum was for centuries a convent of Mercedarian friars, and in the courtyards and in some corridors a cold of bare tiles and monastic penance can still be sensed. Religious orders formed the main clientele of painters in the seventeenth century in Seville and in any Spanish city, all of them darkly occupied by blocks of convents, by churches with baroque altarpieces, blackened paintings of virgins and martyrdoms, stairways populated by beggars and crippled people. .
In Holland at the same time, painters portrayed calm and neat bourgeois interiors and jovial faces lit by good food and the prosperity of commerce. The repertoire of the painters of Seville included miracles, martyrdoms, mortifications, skulls, esparto garments, rough cloth of the habits of friars. Also the spiritual offal of the two endings that Valdés Leal painted for the entrance of the church in the Hospital de la Caridad, “the horrendous / opinion that everything belongs to the worm”, according to Borges’ verses. One of them, The end of the world’s glory it is now in the Fine Arts, and it is one of the best of the exhibition. In that very specific genre of Baroque “vanities”, Valdés Leal’s faculties, in my opinion limited, find their best expression: sooty blacks, the truculence of the brushstroke, the compositional complexity.
Valdés Leal was a specialist in altarpiece scenography, in ephemeral architecture, in polychrome carvings, with something of a theatrical producer and entrepreneur of a workshop trained to fulfill various commissions
Valme Muñoz Rubio, the museum’s director, complained sadly, and undoubtedly justly, about the limited resonance that large exhibitions that are not held in Madrid often have in Spain: “It is very difficult to get past Despeñaperros.” Valdés Leal is an uneven painter, often hasty, with a propensity for formal routines that would be favored by studio work and the thematic monotony of commissions. Does he ever have dazzling hits: a Sacrifice of Isaac dislocated in composition, in which the young man’s body recalls the drama of Caravaggio’s male nudes; and especially some drawings, of extraordinary expressive freedom, a Christ with the cross seen from the front and resolved with a few wavy lines, a portrait of a young man who looks with a stupor and a naturalness like a photo booth. Painting pictures is by no means the unique work of a painter at that time: Valdés Leal was a specialist in altarpiece scenography, ephemeral architecture, polychromy of carvings, with something of a theatrical producer and entrepreneur of a workshop trained to fulfill commissions various. The expressions and gestures of his figures seldom cease to be formulaic. The painting has that gloomy filling that Velázquez got rid of as soon as he left Seville, and even more so when he saw the light of Italy. Valdés Leal is that artist who promises and who remains bogged down in the thickness of his province.
Zurbarán also worked mainly for a desolate clerical clientele, and he also had a workshop that produced almost in series worthy mediocrities destined for the dust of the altarpieces and the gloomy rooms of the convents. But he was a much better painter than Valdés Leal, and when he commissioned the five senses he could achieve that supreme effect of painting, which is that of time stopped in an eternal instant: stopped inside the painting, but also in the gaze and in the viewer’s consciousness, in his physical presence.
I have left behind the extensive work of Valdés Leal, which has more of historical learning than aesthetic emotion, and when I was about to leave, because I was running out of this couple of hours of respite in the work day, I looked askance at a room and I was immediately drawn to it. It is then that time has stopped, opening a parenthesis in the course of the day, in the sequence of tasks and distractions. The impact is greater because I did not remember that this painting, Saint Hugo in the Carthusian refectory, was here. Now that I think about it, it’s probably the first time I’ve seen it in my life: seeing it in reality, not in reproductions, which give us a useful, and also misleading, familiarity.
Zurbarán’s immobile figures have that massive and yet weightless solemnity of Piero della Francesca. It is the immobility of time in the miracle that is recounted in the painting: Saint Bruno and his first six Carthusians are waking up from a dream that has lasted 45 days, and that came to them in the refectory when they were debating whether it would be lawful for them to eat meat. They open their eyes 45 days later and the answer is obvious to their eyes because the flesh has turned to ash. Saint Hugo, his servant, the seven monks, observe in wonder and awe the evidence of the miracle, but it gives the impression that what really amazes them, the truly miraculous, is the epiphany of the habits and the white tablecloths, of the gray the most delicate of the back wall, the ceramic jugs from Talavera, the brown crust bread, each bread as austere and as expressive as the face of a monk, each monk equal to the others in the monotony of habits and portrayed in its full human uniqueness. There are not many paintings like this: time stops on them because they never stop looking at them.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.