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For the first time, the dark manifestations of the Spanish drawings held by the Morgan Library and Museum are seeing the gallery lights. Visions and Nightmares: Four Centuries of Spanish Drawings opened last month as the museum’s inaugural foray into the overlooked history of drawing in Spanish art.
“It was traditionally assumed that Spanish artists rarely drew,” the Morgan explains in its press release, “but recent research has demonstrated that drawing was, in fact, central to artistic practice in Spain.” The exhibition, despite its name that suggests a survey of epic proportions, gathers just over 20 works in the small Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery off the main atrium. With big names like Francisco Goya and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, as well as some names less trodden by art history, like Eugenio Lucas and Alonso Cano, the show argues for drawing as a significant part of the process for these artists, and a reflection in its own right of a tumultuous four centuries in Spain.
Given that the spread of the Catholic Church brought the brutality of the Inquisition, it shouldn’t be surprising that saintly specters and phantasmagoric gore make appearances throughout the drawings. From Eugenio Lucas’s murky depiction of the Grim Reaper pondering a book propped upon a kneeling man to Francisco Goya’s tormented woman pulled from her sleep to the back of a raging bull, unsettling visuals abound. Those aren’t even the afflictions of a more biblical nature, like Father Andrés being tortured in a preparatory drawing by Vicente Carducho (which was scrawled on by his patron, who asked that the poor soul be drawn larger and more central), and José de Ribera’s macabre depiction of the skinning alive of St. Bartholomew (skin flaying being something of a passion for the artist — a drawing by Ribera of the satyr Marsyas tied to a tree awaiting the same fate is also included). Curiously, though, the central part of the exhibition is taken up by some manuscripts and letters, and while the 1780 Don Quixote is beautiful, it seems like a missed opportunity for more exploration of the subject.
The Morgan holds almost 12,000 drawings in its collections, mostly from Europe before 1825. Spanish drawings make up only a small fraction, but through their presentation — which, by the nature of its broad historical scope is far from cohesive — you can still see the foundations of an argument for an increased focus on them. Sure, it’s the promise of eerie art that might get you in the door of a show called Visions and Nightmares, but it’s the surprising variety and execution of the art that’s likely to have the most lasting impact.
Visions and Nightmares: Four Centuries of Spanish Drawings continues at the Morgan Library and Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan) through May 11.