Friday, 24 June 2011

Return of the Couch Potato

I was captivated by the Art Of Spain, a BBC documentary series consisting of 3 one-hour episodes and presented by the genial and erudite Andrew Graham-Dixon. The history of art in Italy always seems to take pride of place, what with the giants of the Renaissance, so it was a real treat to learn more about the genesis of art in Spain.

In the first episode, "The Moorish South", Andrew takes us right back to the art of Muslim and Christian Spain from 711 to 1492. The invading Moors, Arabs from North Africa, took Córdoba in 711 and they made it into one of the great cities of the world. Territorial and political, as well as religious conflicts shaped the history of Spanish art.

The second episode, "The Dark Heart", deals with 16th and 17th century art, while "The Mystical North" looks at art in northern Spain, from Goya to Picasso.

The series discusses all the usual suspects: El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, Miro, Dali, Picasso … the list goes on. But all of that, interesting though it is, is stuff I already knew. What really enthralled me was the wealth of fascinating information about the architecture of Spain, going right back to the Moors.

I was enthralled by the forest of arches and pillars in the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which was started in 784 and vandalised by Charles V in the 16th century by imposing a Catholic nave on it.

The Alhambra in Granada with its ornate decoration and water gardens: the stonework looks like lace. How did they do it, without power tools or computers?

The Alcázar Palace in Seville with the amazing tile work, which, as Graham-Dixon puts it, forms "almost hallucinogenic patterns"; the magnificent monastery/palace of El Escorial … there is nothing like these in the rest of Europe.

Another little-regarded aspect of art is the exquisite work of the goldsmiths who made the religious reliquaries which had their origin about the time of St Theresa of Avila's death in 1582. It was part of St Theresa's mystique that an angel appeared to her and pierced her heart with a spear. After her death, her heart was inspected for holes and encased in a bejewelled gold reliquary. On to a good thing, they encased various other bits of her in reliquaries and the game was on.

Our members who have visited the great cathedrals of Europe will have encountered the fingers, toes and thigh bones of various saints and bishops in magnificently decorated gold caskets. I myself have been privileged to see the casket containing the bones of the Three Wise Men in the cathedral in Cologne. Brought back from the Holy Land by Crusaders in the 12th century, I was told. Who am I to argue.

But back to the knowledgeable Andrew: he showed us the architecture of modern Spain: Gaudi's wonderful cathedral in Barcelona, still a work in progress, but then, Notre Dame took over 300 years to build, so it is too early to start tapping the foot and glancing at the Rolex. What I hadn't seen before, is a remarkable block of apartments in Barcelona, like a Disney fantasy. We also had a look at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed not by a Spaniard but by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry: does that count as Spanish architecture? Yes, I suppose it does, otherwise the Sydney Opera House would be Danish architecture, wouldn't it?

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