Murillo & Justino de Neve: The art of friendship
Dulwich Picture Gallery, 6 February - 19 May 2013
Murillo at the Wallace Collection, 6 February - 12 May 2013
|Self portrait. Note the hand resting on the frame-within-the-painting.|
From the National Gallery, London.
Devotion only partially redeems darkness, in a thorough London retrospective over two galleries.
Struggling free from a dark background, some light, illuminating at least one face. If the face is human, it typically has its eyes raised upwards; if divine, out towards us, or down to us, depending on how the painting is to be seen.
In any case, the expressions, whether human or divine, whether in a religious context or the context of official portraiture or rural poverty, are intelligent, searching, intense.
This is a wearying, sombre worldview, recognising the brutality of our existence without sentimentalising it, and usually attempting to depict earnest faith that something is worthwhile, in this case explicitly the Christian faith, specifically Roman Catholic faith in the Virgin Mary, haloed in cherubs.
Murillo was an important influence on painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though on the evidence of the Gainsborough (Dulwich) and Reynolds (Wallace) displayed as examples of this influence, he was strongly misread as depicting charming urchins, in a sense elevating rural poverty as epitomised at the end of the century by Wordsworth.
Apparently Ruskin too felt that Murillo celebrated the evils of poverty, but again that is a strong misreading (or misviewing). For Murillo, life is savagely hard, and the darkness is only mitigated by the light of the church, perhaps more accurately the Virgin.
For me, this is analogous to saying that the darkness cannot be mitigated, only endured, perhaps with the help of a robust character, as appears in the faces of the celebrated Dulwich beggars.
Dulwich have converted part of their ideal, secular temple space into an impression of a Seville church, the better to display the effects of some of Murillo's religious paintings, leading to a striking Immaculate Conception, in its original heavily baroque frame.
Baroque exuberance is not something to be found in these works, though. The style is more delicate, closer to rococo, as the eighteenth century indeed realised, but again, despite the use of terms like vaporous, smudged, and so on to describe the artist's style, these don't do justice to his bleak, intense vision, somehow conveyed without resorting to the usual dramatic effects and composition choices.
The Wallace Collection brings together four painting that were once displayed together and may have been composed as two complementary pairs. Only the depiction of Joseph being thrown into a well by his brothers is explicitly dramatic, but as you'd expect by now, this scene of shocking betrayal does not seem out of place opposite a vision of the Holy Family.
In the National Gallery's two great portraits, both in Dulwich at the moment, we get a clear idea of the artist. The formal portrait of his friend Justino de Neve conveys a sense of devotion and intelligence alongside wealth and power: we feel this is a man who knows what the world is like, and also knows that even good grooming won't be enough (contra the later decadents).
Murillo's self-portrait's trompe l'oeil suggests a man delighting in transfiguring truth through art - perhaps too much, as the contemporary Belgian printmaker may have been embarrassed by this effect and so removed it from his printed version.
A powerful artist, then, with a vision, but not one to excite pleasure nor one whose vision can move me.