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The Escape Artist: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and the Art of Other Worlds

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682) is a great artist. Sure, a lot of people have disliked him, and sure, he might have a knack for falling out of favour. Still, he keeps sneaking his way back into the canon of artists. To me, that’s saying something. And whatever you might think personally about his work, the fact that it keeps coming back into fashion surely means that Murillo captured something basic and appealing in his art.

So what did he do?

Just what is it that makes Murillo's art so different, so appealing?  Two Women at a Window. c. 1655/1660 oil on canvas, 125.1 x 104.5 cm, National Gallery of Art, DC

Just what is it that makes Murillo’s art so different, so appealing?
Two Women at a Window. c. 1655/1660
oil on canvas, 125.1 x 104.5 cm, National Gallery of Art, DC

First, let’s back up and have a quick look at his most recent comeback.

In the past few months in London Murillo’s work has popped up in several publications and galleries – most notably the Wallace Collection and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Though such popularity is unusual for recent history, it’s only a shade on how popular the artist was in his lifetime.

What do you think of his art so far?

You never know when a Murillo painting is going to pop out at you.  Old Woman and Boy, Oil on canvas, 146 x 106 cm Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

You never know when a Murillo painting is going to pop out at you.
Old Woman and Boy, Oil on canvas, 146 x 106 cm
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

It was the book, Murillo at Dulwich Picture Gallery, that got me thinking. The book is a slim, full colour volume about Dulwich’s permanent collection of the artist’s paintings. Following recent reevaluation, cleaning and restoration projects, the book explores the creation, reputation and care of the gallery’s Murillo’s.

Published by I.B. Taurus Press.

Published by I.B. Taurus Press.

Now, Murillo at Dulwich Picture Gallery, written by the Dulwich’s curator Dr Xavier Bray, is a gem. With clear, purposeful and intelligent writing, t’s easy to feel a connection to individual pieces’ presence at the gallery, and his fondness for them.

Acquired by the gallery’s founders in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, several important Murillos have resided in the collection for around 200 years. These include The Flower Girl (book cover, as shown above), The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (1660’s), and two images of beggar boys. Each is presented in brilliant full color in the text, often with details of the images. Bray thoughtfully explains and occasionally speculates on patronage, inspiration and reception of each.

Part of Dulwich's project has been cleaning and restoring works such as this, shown here in its pre-restoration condition. (Attr. to Murillo) The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, 1660's, oil on canvas, 37.2 x 29 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Part of Dulwich’s project has been cleaning and restoring works such as this, shown here in its pre-restoration condition. (Attr. to Murillo) The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, 1660’s, oil on canvas, 37.2 x 29 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery.

In the narrative, Bray emphasizes the artist’s identity as a Sevillian, his connection to the religious orders of his city, and his love for his family and his art. And he imagines connections and processes that informed Murillo’s paintings. For instance, could the Flower Girl actually be a portrait of Murillo’s daughter, who was a Dominican nun?

But the solidity of the research and the seriousness of the writing present a contrast to the art the book describes.

Murillo enjoyed and mainly produced images of sweetness, light and sentimentality. His paintings show street urchins but cleaned up and made playful. Images of religious fervor and the saints are not stern or full of God’s wrath. On the contrary, these images are meant to show forgiveness, love and grace that makes the figures in them transcendently beautiful. Essentially, his paintings want to show life, religion and fantasy with all the bad stuff stripped away.

Best friends. The Infant Saint John Playing with a Lamb, 1670-1680, Oil on canvas, 61 x 44 cm, The National Gallery of Ireland

Best friends. The Infant Saint John Playing with a Lamb, 1670-1680, Oil on canvas, 61 x 44 cm, The National Gallery of Ireland.

Such sweetness can be cloying. Take Invitation to a Game of Argolla, for instance.

What isn't wrong with this picture? c.1669 Oil on canvas, 165.2 x 110.5 cm, Dulwich.

What isn’t wrong with this picture? c.1669
Oil on canvas, 165.2 x 110.5 cm, Dulwich.

What strikes me first about this image is how much the boy on the floor looks like an old woman. Grinning is a hard thing to show in a painting in the best cases, but it’s shown to particularly ill effect here. The boy standing is equally ugly in his own way. If he’s as hungry as we’re meant to believe why is half of his snack hanging out of his mouth. The whole concept feels trite and contrived to me. It makes me want to raise my eyebrows and smirk. But at the same time I’m made wary by the fact that over the years this picture has been met with deep regard – 17th century Dutch tapestry makers made tapestries out of it, others designed wall paper using scene figures. Victorian printmakers reproduced it allowing it to be shown to mass audiences. I feel, uneasily, like I’m missing or not understanding the thing that makes other people like it.

The Childhood of the Virgin, The Prado

The Childhood of the Virgin, The Prado

During Murillo’s lifetime, he was widely popular. Then, and until the rise of Neoclassical painting, Murillo’s works were received with wild enthusiasm. Spanish rulers even put a stop to the sale of his paintings as French and British collectors scrambled to buy them and bring them home. Again in the 19th century, his popularity had another upswing with the rise of Victorian sentimentality. In the late 19th and early 20th century, however, he fell out of favor again. And now, after decades of being dismissed as weak and overly sentimental, Murillo’s making another comeback.

Lying on the ground has never been such a clean pursuit. Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda 1667-70 Oil on canvas, 237 x 261 cm, The National Gallery, London.

Lying on the ground has never been such a clean pursuit. Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda 1667-70
Oil on canvas, 237 x 261 cm, The National Gallery, London.

Why?

This time, it’s been suggested that it’s a matter of enlightenment. Perhaps museum-goers today are more accepting of a number of artistic styles. People today, too, are more sort of clinically interested in religion, than they were forty years ago.  Both those explanations sound fine, but I wonder if there isn’t something a little Avatar-ish about the whole thing as well.

Stick with me.

In 2009 when Avatar was released, some people dismissed it. Criticisms arose that the film was hopelessly derivative, lacking in depth and slightly silly. If extended flying-on-dragons scenes or similarities to the Pocahontas story didn’t do it, the unsubtle use of the mineral name “Unobtanium” did.

"Guys, what can we call something that's super hard to obtain?"

“Guys, what can we call something that’s super hard to obtain?”

But for other viewer’s, it was just what they wanted. It was the glittering, colorful world of Pandora, the planet where the story is based, that did it. In the future, the film suggests, the planet Earth has followed its current trajectory, becoming broken, corrupt and spent. Pandora is a transcendent paradise in comparison. Admiring viewers took to the concept. Some loved this place so intensely, in fact, that there were reports of viewers suffering “post Avatar depression,” in which they felt feelings of despair at having to remain on dreary old earth.

Pandora: way better than earth.

Pandora: way better than earth.

And I wonder if it’s not that sort of appreciation that’s got people going today with Murillo. Though to a lesser degree, of course. We’ve heard the Bible stories. We’re familiar with the trope of the roguish peasant boy, scraping by with a crust of bread and a smile. Nothing is shocking us about scenes of every day life. But it’s nice to see a beautiful world, sometimes.

The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities, 1675-82, oil on canvas, 293 x 207 cm, The National Gallery, London

The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities, 1675-82, oil on canvas, 293 x 207 cm, The National Gallery, London

When the images were painted they were promises of something better yet to come. 17th century Sevillian viewers didn’t suffer from “post-Murillo depression,” because they would have believed that they would maybe someday taste a bit of the sweetness in the images for themselves. In a way, it’s this longing for something different, some kind of escapism, that makes the artist popular. And binds the last upsurge of popularity, the one before that, and the one before that, to this one.

And making a comeback across time, space, culture? Well, that’s a great artist.

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3 thoughts on “The Escape Artist: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and the Art of Other Worlds

  1. Frances, I really admire the way you courageously critique Murillo in such an objectively fair way, AND through a modern lens, while nodding to the past, e.g., “…why is half of his snack hanging out of his mouth. The whole concept feels trite and contrived to me.” Some would think this smacks of hubris, but I agree with you–just because the OMs and painters of earlier times were masters doesn’t make them infallible. I think that the boy on the ground looks like a girl. And generally (not always), it is folly to paint teeth–the characters end up looking more and more grotesque the longer one looks at the painting. Hals comes to mind. Your suggestion of escapism, “the Avatar syndrome,” is an excellent one.

    All the best!

    • Hi Marsha – thanks so much! This is exactly the kind of tone and message I was trying to get across and I’m totally pleased that it worked! Sorry for the delay in my response – i was out of town for a little while – but I continue to appreciate your blog, and of course having such a great reader for myself! All the best – F

  2. Could not agree more with the above comment. A great post :). I think overall the non-religious Murillo paintings are a bit tacky, and the religious ones have been done better by many artists. Overall conclusion is I do not think I will ever suffer post-Murillo depression.

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