Granada’s Museo de Bellas Artes invites you to share in the city’s passionate history.
Madrid and Barcelona are (and always will be) the big names in the Spanish art world. With Madrid’s impressive Museo Nacional del Prado and the Gaudi takeover in every nook and cranny of Barcelona, these cities reign supreme in the peninsula. However, during my time living in Granada this summer, I stumbled upon the Fine Arts gallery; tucked away in the Palace of Carlos V, it is a Renaissance dream rather anachronistically plonked in the middle of the Moorish fortress of the Alhambra. Small, yet perfectly formed, El Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada demonstrates the role that Spanish artists have long played as interpreters of Spain’s, and especially Granada’s, enigmatic history.
The gallery is framed chronologically; you begin with the anatomically-perplexing early efforts of the Hispano-Flemish style and end with contemporary art that, being modern and perhaps a tad too avant-garde for my liking, has nothing to compare with what lies in the middle. The gallery centres in on the artistic role that the city of Granada has always played, and typical granaíno signifiers of religion, flamenco and beauty are rife throughout.
The spiritual home of Spain’s ‘Catholic Monarchs’, Fernando and Ysabel, self-proclaimed vanquishers of the Moors and pious instigators of the Inquisition, Granada’s Catholic resonances beam forth into a dark and gory image of the Medieval to Early Modern periods. You are immediately confronted with a life-size sculpture of a Cristo Yacente, surrounded by his mourning contemporaries, and the dark Tríptico del Gran Capitan whose detail covers the Passion as well as the day of judgement and thus would have undeniably reminded Granada’s audience of Christ’s sacrifice and their role as good Christians to emulate and revere him.
The exhibition then leads to more and more works by artists from Granada and we begin to see scenes drawn from the human as opposed to the divine. One of the most striking pieces is Mis amigos by José Maria López Mezquita, an enormous painting showing a line of friends standing side by side, each unique face full of character as they smoke their cigars; likewise Dos hermanas merits further attention, depicting two sisters who, despite looking fairly consumptive, have too been granted a vivid sense of personality by Mezquita and could equally be two young woman wandering around the Museo themselves.
In amongst the many depictions of Granada’s beautiful landscape, we do, however, find distress and hardship. The Muslims leaving Granada might be a sumptuous, Orientalist cornucopia of bells and tassels but in Salida de la familia de Boabdil the Muslims are weeping, hugging each other goodbye as they are exiled from what had become a homeland to an entire people. El velatorio too at first seems a rejoicing study on a flamenco dancer, surrounded by an avidly interested audience, until you look closer and see that the audience is not laughing but howling, and a woman on the floor is crying as her baby lies veiled in a cradle-sized coffin. In the winding movements of the dancer’s dress and the lonely, throbbing candle-flame, we see the twisted circle of life and death that adds a fantastically pagan and human touch to a gallery that otherwise sees pain as unanimous with faith.
What the gallery demonstrates to the viewer is the aching beauty of Spain. A rejoicing birth of Christ is followed by Mary, crying glass tears alone after the crucifixion; a posse of chain-smoking Spaniards from all walks of life, including a priest, comes after a scene of King Boabdil and his family being exiled from the last Islamic kingdom of Spain. After my time in Granada, I see all of these paintings as identifiers of what it means to be granaíno, where you feel you have come from and what you feel will remain long after you have gone. Granada’s endless juxtapositions make it an imperfect, somewhat unrefined landscpe for artists to draw their wildest inspirations from. This gallery is not to be missed.
N.B. To the consumer – The museum shop rather annoyingly has absolutely zero postcards of the artworks for sale, and when I asked a shop assistant to help me he simply pointed at a massive tome including some of the paintings and a dual English to Russian translation; needless to say this was not what I was after, and combined with the forbidden use of photography in the gallery I feel that the Alhambra has made a big marketing flaw in not making postcards. The most you can do, if you’re an aficionado of Spanish art, is to make sure to buy the guia breve before you go into the gallery as it offers far more information than the leaflet and has a few more of the images on display inside too.