The Ecstasies of the Eye: A Second Look at “Del Greco al Goya.”

por: Enrique Olivares

The  Museo de Arte de Ponce has its own particular way of ushering spring. Instead of the gem-like brightness the trinitaria’s red and violet, the museum has given way to somber and celestial ochres and cochineal with their latest exhibition, “Del Greco al Goya: Obras maestros del Museo del Prado” (“From El Greco to Goya: Masterpieces of the Museo del Prado ”). As the title indicates, the exhibitions comprises 25 paintings generously lent by the Spanish cultural institution coursing over 200 years of painting history from the 16th century up to late 18th century, regaling the island crowd with both royal portraiture and biblical episodes.

Del Greco a Goya. (imagen tomada del perfil de Facebook del MAP)

Save for a selection of still lives, these two aesthetics are the dominating curatorial narratives. Though this dichotomy seems to dictate a strict split, it is but feigned binary for both styles blur the demarcation. Domenikos Theotokopoulos’ (alias El Greco) agonizing “San Sebastian,” with its fractured and eloganted corps, stretching heavenwards, despite its transcendental yearnings, can be studied as an exercise in portraiture while Velazquez’s “Retratos orantes de Felipe IV y Mariana de Austria” (“Philip IV in Prayer & Mariana de Austria, Queen of Spain, in Prayer”) translates the fervent Catholicism of scripture scenes into the royal context. The book-end artists of the exhibition, El Greco and Goya (his Ferdinand VII and Tadea Arias de Enríquez portraits are unsettling as much as they are captivating), as well as artists in between, provide a thorough presentation of Spain’s “Siglo de Oro,” as well as its devotion to the counter-reformation, but the preeminence of the namesakes, as well as the promotional “Storm und Drang,” might detract attention from non-Spanish tableaux and painters. It is perhaps these paintings, the ones the eye might at times omit, that need to be engaged most intensely for their sublimity and form.

As careless as the eye is, it can also be as rigorous as the gaze with which we approach art, and no better painting in the exhibition confirms the vitality of the optical engagement than Titian’s (Tiziano Vecellio)  “Salome.” If popular depictions of the femme fatale render her consumed in the decadence of the dance, Titian’s interpretation is that of balancing restraint.  Her gaze is not an invitation into the scene’s sensuousness but rather an interruption of it: her eyes look outside of the rapture her body is given to. The eroticism suggested by the theme (the low cut dress, her hair hung with jewels) is assuaged by its construction. It is not detail or the balanced earthy palette which entrances us, but her glance, one that distances the viewer from the scene; it is not what we see, but from where we see that consumes our aesthetic pleasures, and the confrontation between subject and art is exterior to its oils. In this sense, the painting is akin to an exercise in portraiture rather than a biblical episode in which we ballot our interpretation. John the Baptist’s head fades into shadows just as her flowing mantle, stripping the figure from its form, leaving an enduring gaze, meeting ours as violently as the saint’s fate.

Moving from the exchange of glances to the scrutiny of them, Peter Paul Rubens’ “La Sagrada Familia con Santa Ana” ( “The Holy Family with Saint Anne”) is as beautiful as it is difficult to study outside of its obvious theme. Though the Dutch master’s renowned supreme adroitness in color and form draws us in, it is near impossible to divert the gaze from the ardent Catholicism manifest in the scene. The child-god and goddess encase an economy which we cannot participate if only for strict adoration. While Byzantine and medieval dyad depicts the son looking up at the mother while she looks at us, working as a celestial intermediary between the divine and the human, the Ruben’s dyad is exclusive: his hand upon her ashen breast, her hand lifting the porcelain foot, only Saint Anne’s light caress suggests only small incorporation. If the hierarchy of grace is limited to the godly, it is Saint Joseph which provides the point of entry for the human. His gaze of unbending intensity reveals the basic phenomenological quality of existence, the ability to contemplate. Saint Joseph’s amazement is a response to the presence of the transcendental, not strictly in the sense of the divine, but in terms of the lofty and gorgeously sublime.

If truth, according to Plato, is irresistible, so is beauty. It is through the refinement of our optical abilities which allow us to fully approach, with a new found vigor and pleasure, that which arouses the deepest human yearnings and pleasures, not only art, but everything as well. Though beauty is not impossible to find, the Museo de Arte de Ponce and Museo del Prado have definitely made it more convenient for us.

“Del Greco a Goya” will run from March 25 to July 9. The Museo de Arte de Ponce is located in Las Americas Ave. and is open Wed-Mon. from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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