11 Jun, 2009

Shocking sculptures at the National Gallery

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

New exhibition will place devotional figures alongside the paintings they inspired

They may not be for the squeamish: hyper-realistic sculptures of devotional figures in their flayed and bloodied martyrdom. But if they shock, that’s because they are meant to.

The National Gallery announced today that it will mount the first major exhibition of what it regards as some of the most beautifully executed works of art ever: polychrome sculptures from the Spanish golden age, many of which have never left the churches, convents and monasteries for which they were made.

They will be displayed, for the first time, alongside religious paintings by artists such as Velázquez and Zurbarán in an attempt to explore a new art-historical theory: that these artists were directly influenced by the sculptures they saw.

The National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, conceded the show might not be an automatic crowd-pleaser. “There is an element of risk, but it would be a really terrible thing if people were putting on exhibitions that tried to avoid any sort of risk,” he said. “You’re saying there’s no real curiosity in the world – that all people want to see is what they’ve seen before.”

Penny, who took charge last year, added that the exhibition was exactly the kind of project he wanted to see at the National Gallery. He hopes that it will change the way paintings held in the gallery’s permanent collection are seen.

The show’s curator, Xavier Bray, has wanted to put it on for roughly 10 years, but had the tricky task of persuading the Spanish Catholic church to allow the sculptures to travel, some of them for the first time.

“On paper this looked like a wonderful show. In practice, it has been extraordinarily difficult, mainly because they are still used for devotional purposes,” he said.

The 14 sculptures are some of the very best produced in the 17th century. Because the church wanted to jolt people into accepting that, in its eyes, terribly real things happened to martyrs, they are unflinching in depicting the bloody reality of punishments and crucifixion.

Bray said the works were uncompromising in their realism. “It is to shock the senses and stir the soul. It creates an empathy with the viewer.”

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