Sunday, 10 February 2013

Murillo Day

Picture: Guardian
Yesterday I went to the Murillo exhibitions at Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Wallace Collection.  Brian Sewell has written a great review; the comments below can be read as footnotes to Sewell.
The most disappointing aspect for me was the lighting.  Soane's magnificent daylit galleries have been blacked out, presumably to evoke the crepuscular light of a church.  Exhibition curator Xavier Bray also organised the outstanding exhibition of Spanish sculpture at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real, which was similarly spotlit.  That could be forgiven given the absence of natural light in the Sainsbury Wing exhibition space, and it worked well with the sculptures.  But the constant harsh glare of bright spotlights does not replicate the dim, variable light of a church.  On some paintings the spotlighting was distorting, such as the Penitent St. Peter where white highlights around the eye in particular stood out too strongly.
I was especially taken by The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome: The Dream of the Patrician and his Wife, pictured above.  The colour is fantastic.  However, the reds in particular seem to have suffered from harsh cleaning; even from a distance you can see a dramatic difference between the uniform colour of the tablecloth, and the shimmering impasto of the white cloth on top of it.  As a result, the tonal balance in the picture is upset; large areas of relatively undifferentiated red demand attention, whereas the lively subtlety of the colours in better preserved areas like the yellow seem to recede.  This picture also suffers from the harsh lighting at Dulwich; you have to stand to the right to view it.  From the left all you can see is reflected light.  The large lunettes are shown out of their grand gilt frames, and hung high.  This at least is effective; you can really appreciate how well these paintings function hung at a height.
Sewell criticised the catalogue for being too obscure - written for Burlington Magazine readers rather than the general public.  Even as an occasional Burlington Magazine reader, I was rather disappointed; it's a collection of academic essays rather than a catalogue.  It doesn't even include the exhibits drawn from the Dulwich collection's B-list of Murillo-ish paintings, which I thought instructive at least in the history of taste.
Dulwich Picture Gallery is a bit of a trek into the suburbs, but it always repays a visit. It's probably the best museum building in the UK, and the collection is fabulous.  At the moment part is off display to make way for Murillo, but there is still plenty to see.  A studio version of Titian's Venus and Adonis is on display following restoration - the first time I've seen it, and it's good in parts.  Poussin's remaining Sacrements are on loan from Belvoir Castle, and there are fine still lifes by Boschaert and Huysum on loan from an anonymous collection.  There are two damaged predella Saints by Raphael in the collection, and I noticed for the first time that the inscriptions on the frames give the wrong dates for Raphael (1483-1521 rather than 1520).  But failing to correct that historic error seems somehow more forgivable than the dreadful lighting in the Murillo show. 
The Wallace Collection has simultaneously mounted a small exhibition of Murillo based on its own collection.  The Wallace does these small exhibitions well, and the catalogue is superb.  Today's catalogues seem sometimes to be vehicles to boost the publications list on curators' CVs.  The Wallace's is designed for visitors - small, cheap, relevant (although calling the Bibliography 'further reading' seems inappropriate when seven of the ten publications are eighteenth or nineteenth century and two of the others are in Spanish!). 

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