“I don’t like this,” a friend announced as she stood before one of Juan Sánchez Cotán’s early 17th-century still lives. “It makes the vegetables look sacred.”
At the Guggenheim’s current exhibit, “Time, Truth, and History: Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso,” whether the vegetables are sacred or secular is one of the central questions. The exhibit groups astonishingly powerful paintings by subject, so that each room or wall spans centuries — and, if the wall captions are to be believed, each room tells a simplistic story of Spanish art’s progress from reactionary Catholicism through social concerns to modern secularism. But the tendentious storyline can’t diminish the impact of the paintings themselves.
The show’s first and final images are symmetrical and perfectly chosen. Viewers begin at a realistic 17th-century Francisco de Zurbarán painting of a ram, its legs bound, humped on a black table. The scene might simply be part of the daily routine of the butcher shop, were it not for the painting’s title: Agnus Dei. And, after winding their way up the Guggenheim’s coils, viewers end in a small room entirely filled with Crucifixion scenes. The visceral, fleshy horror of the Gospel — God become man, tortured, killed, and eaten every day by His followers at Mass — both opens and closes the show.
Along the way, there are lovely paintings: De Zurbarán’s Saint Anthony Abbot, for example, with its ragged desert tree lacquered black against a pale, glowing sky. There are weird delights, like Salvador Dalí’s Imperial Violets, in which an enormous telephone receiver dominates an isolated rural landscape. There are monks, cannibals, prostitutes, and queens; there are clever juxtapositions of skulls and brainlike walnuts, and bullfights staged as elaborately as the Mass. The show is rambling and huge.
The section of still lives (the captions note that the Spanish term, bodegones or “cellar/pantry scenes,” is more domestic than poetic) moves from Sánchez Cotán to the Cubists. Sánchez Cotán painted his carrots, parsnips, and cardoons (pinkish-white vegetables that look like big, stiff tassels, or upswept hairdos) with sharp edges and rich colors, against dark backgrounds. The big vegetables dominate the paintings, seeming to pulse with hidden life. Their careful, ritualistic placement heightens the sense of religious drama. One imagines that these are the cardoons of the third day of Creation, which God looked upon and pronounced good. (It might be relevant that Sánchez Cotán was a Carthusian friar.) One painting, Juan van der Hamen’s Serving Table, displays grapes, peaches, a loaf of bread, a wine decanter, and other vessels, carefully arrayed on a white tablecloth so stiff and new that its creases still make sharp squares. It’s a humble, ordinary scene — and yet also reminiscent of the altar.
After the intensity of these images, in which the humblest objects seem suffused with the love of God, it’s unfair to Picasso to ask his newspaper-and-bottle scenes to compete. Some of the Picasso still lives depict skulls or sheep’s heads, and these are powerful because a human skull or a dead sheep is hard to ignore. But the objects are not placed as if they are important or sublime. Their colors are similar to the background colors, unlike the high-contrast 17th-century paintings. The Cubist paintings are attentive to light and the tricks of the eye; but it’s hard not to feel that vividness has been lost.
Other juxtapositions are even more strained. The room of portrayals of penitent saints and Our Lady of Sorrows also includes a Picasso portrait of a wailing woman. The Picasso is perhaps the most moving and rawest painting in the room. But in what sense is it a post-Christian painting of Our Lady, or a post-Magdalene? Why is it interesting that lots of painters painted unhappy women?
And how secular are the moderns, anyway? Treating Dali and Picasso as purely irreligious painters is overly reductive, as the Guggenheim’s own exhibit proves. The cool blue beauty of Dalí’s Madonna of Porto Lligat is mysterious and troubling (why is there a keyhole in the flesh of the baby Jesus?), but it’s also theologically astute: The tiny crosses whose shadows fence in the Mother and Child are the myrrh in the stable, the reminder of the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart. Dalí’s is one of the few paintings whose subjects could only be Mary and the Christ Child. The Bible often seems surreal, with its bushes that burn and talk, its water into wine, and its last-shall-be-first overturning of expectations. So it should be no surprise that Surrealism lends itself to striking iconography.
Picasso, too, is more complicated than he might appear. Most of his paintings at the Guggenheim do seem secular. But his Crucifixions, in the room at the end of the show, grope toward a deep religious sorrow and horrified awe. Gouts of black ink spill across the small canvases; the sky is darkened while Jesus dies. The figures are twisted out of recognition, tortured into inhuman abstraction. The Picassos are as painful — and as Christian, whether intentionally or not — as the huge 17th-century Crucifixion scenes that dominate the room.
Ending with the show’s least secular paintings demonstrates exceptional aesthetic judgment — regardless of the intended storyline. In the end, no one has escaped the Agnus Dei.