Aesthetic Overload

Murillo, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception

Valdes Leal, The Assumption of Mary

Valdes Leal (In Ictu Oculi)

Another great trip to Sevilla. We had beautiful weather and the visits went well. As always, I enjoyed the Fine Arts Museum tremendously. I never get tired of seeing their collection, which is truly outstanding in terms of Murillo, Zurbaran, and Valdes Leal. They even have a couple of Velazquez. The museum is housed in a former convent and the 'chapel', which is really very large, features, quite appropriately, the Murillos, including the giant Inmaculada where the main altar would be. The building was recently restored, and the cupola and ceilings are just spectacular. Leaving that space I was reminded of Stendhal's description of his aesthetic overload during a visit to Florence. He describes it in quite physical terms, as if he had suffered some kind of brief attack, between illness and ecstasy. Although my heart rate stayed perfectly within the normal range, I did feel something akin to an adrenaline rush as I admired Murillo's stunning canvases. Then Valdes Leal ruined it. It's impossible he wasn't familiar with Murillo's Inmaculadas, of which there are dozens. How could he, knowing the precedent, paint the ugliest Assumption I've ever seen? He must have had some kind of perverse streak in him. In his famous paintings in the Hospital de la Caridad, where he represents the Vanitas theme, his dark vision makes perfect sense. But to translate that to the Assumption is just goofy. Looking at Murillo's Virgin, I'm thinking, "Beam me up, Mary!", but Valdes Leal's Virgin is ugly and awkward, as are the dumb angels trying to push her up into a heaven that hardly looks inviting. They look like they're thinking Mary needs to go on a diet. And Jesus? He doesn't look too happy. (You can't see him in the reproduction above, but he's there, looking a little stern.) What's the deal? What kind of a son doesn't get happy seeing that his mother is about to visit? Oh, and it's not as if she were just dropping in from next door. Looking at his paintings, I get the feeling Valdes Leal just didn't like people. Why did he always choose ugly models? Murillo's models are invariably beautiful and he treats them with delicate generosity, always emphasizing their natural grace, a neat trick, since often Murillo is situating his Marys in decidedly unearthly spaces. But they are real people, usually young women, and sometimes mere adolescents. Murillo places heaven in the unique beauty of the female face. Zurbaran's Marys, on the other hand, while endearing, seem much less like living, breathing women. More beauty: after dinner Saturday night eleven students, Manolo and I went to see the contemporary guitarist Cañizares. It was part of Seville's big biennial flamenco festival, but it really wasn't flamenco. Maybe you could call it fusion. Doesn't matter, it was wonderful. He was joined by a second guitarist, a percussionist, and, briefly, a dancer who was very, very good.

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