The experience of seeing a famous painting in person can feel like a celebrity street sighting. You’re familiar with the image – the form, the content – you’ve seen it replicated dozens of times, printed on bulletins, pamphlets, and posters. When you finally encounter the actual painted object, there is a kind of initial disconnect.
Ascending the main staircase at the Meadows Museum, El Greco’s Pentecost greets you as you turn and enter the gallery. The bottom of the tall painting is just below eye level, forcing you to look up at it as you enter the gallery. Move closer and you see what reproductions can’t show: the texture of the brush strokes, the richness of the tones, a sense of movement – the upward thrust of the action which you can recognize in a reproduction, but which is all the more palpable when looking at the actual canvas.
The art story of the fall is the Meadows Museum’s unprecedented new partnership with the Madrid’s Prado Museum, and that partnership is responsible for bringing Pentecost to Dallas. In the exhibition, the painting is the centerpiece of a much wider-wielding show – four shows, in fact – that bring together art work spanning a time period that stretches more than five hundred years. Supporting The Prado at the Meadows: El Greco’s Pentecost in a New Context, are the exhibitions Sultans and Saints: Spain’s Confluence of Cultures, The Elusive El Greco, and Spanish Muse: A Contemporary Response. The distinction between the four shows is not very well defined in the exhibition space, which works to the Meadows’ favor. As you move through the upstairs rooms in the university museum, styles, subjects, and mediums change suddenly, yet all the work still somehow informs each other. If you were not aware the multiple exhibitions you might think it is one haphazard, if inspired hanging.
The dialogue between the pieces works to good effect. In one room with a half dozen portraits, John Currin’s Rippowam, 2006, (pictured at top) sets two lovers with eyes locked sharing glasses of wine against a pastoral backdrop similar to the Velásquez across the room, but the haze and colors in this image seem inspired by a fading photograph from the 1960s. Next to the other portraits from the 18th and 19th centuries in the room, the work raises questions about evolving notions of form, representation, modes of expression, and a changing sense of the authenticity of the human visage.
There’s another significant first offered by the Meadows Museum. In a little room tucked towards the back of the gallery, one of the photographs in Yinka Shonibare’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters series (Europe) is for the first time hung in the same room as the print by Goya that inspired it. The juxtaposition focuses the power of Shonibare’s project. The photographer renders the etched, black and white print with real characters, giving the scene a vibrancy and immediacy, both reemphasizing and subtly altering Goya’s original critique by re-contextualizing it within the polemic of colonialism.
El Greco’s painting is hung on its own wall towards the center of the museum’s central room. That gallery’s other walls contain painted works that precede the Pentecost by, at most, a few decades. The works, mostly altarpieces (as was Pentecost), depict scenes from the Bible or the lives of the saints, often ornamented in gold leaf, often drawing on the familiar iconography of medieval painting. Next to these almost-contemporary works, the significance of Pentecost is magnified. The painter’s fast, almost sketched brush strokes, his attention to motion and action, the balance and composition of the piece, the deep mood evoked by the purples and blacks in the painting, and the strong individualistic emotional focus communicated by each of the figures caught in the rapture of the Biblical scene – all these elements seem light-years from the other work in the room, as if the work had arrived from another planet offering a completely new approach to painting. Thanks to the Meadows, to see it, you don’t have to travel quite that far.
Image at top: John Currin (American, b. 1962), Rippowam, 2006 (detail), oil on canvas. © John Currin. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.