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‘Sacred Made Real’

January 23, 2010

It was the last week of the ‘Sacred Made Real‘ exhibition and last Sunday, the boyfriend and I decided to skip the routine of weekend lazing and head to the National Gallery for a dose of high culture. It helped that it was an uncharacteristically beautiful winter day with ample doses of sunlight, a scarce resource this time of the year; we were in rather a sanguine mood when entering the exhibition.

We were pleasantly surprised to note that the free exhibition guide (yes, it’s online too!) presented a page of commentary for each piece on display and its history, which made for a great supplement to our audio guides, an accessory I consider essential for a wholesome experience at the gallery. The audio guide contained detailed commentary on over 75% of the pieces on display, and included additional material such as 20mins of music specifically composed  and orchestrated by Stephen Hough for this exhibition.

This was an exhibition with timed entrances, presumably for reasons of crowd control, and yet the rooms were chockablock full with people. Anymore, and the freestanding displays of Spanish multichromed sculptures would have people pressing right up to them!

What was striking to me from the moment I entered the exhibition was how familiar several of the Biblical images, especially those relating to The Passion, seemed to me. The images of the Crucifixion displayed in Spanish style were strongly reminiscent of what I saw in India, growing up under the influence of a Catholic Church which drew great inspiration from Spanish & Portuguese tradition. The hyper-realistic theme through that era of Spanish painting and sculpture is striking, especially in the lighting arrangement at the National Gallery – some of the sculptures proportioned to be life-sized seemed so real that I wanted to touch their outstretched arms.

The exhibition had the usual suspects – the Spanish masters, Velázquez (who, along with Delacroix & Gericault, is one of my favourite European artists) and Zurbarán – and also showcased gracefully the masters in sculptures who are not remembered often enough – Juan Martínez Montañés and Pedro de Mena, for example. The most memorable and shocking piece in the entire exhibition had to be the sculpture which meditated on death, ‘Dead Christ’ by Gregorio Fernández – the blue-ish tinge of the parted lips, the glassy eyes, the angular posture – it is a morbid fascination with death itself that draws the viewer to the sculpture.

The couple of hours we spent going through the 30 exhibit pieces thoroughly, listening to the accompanying music, appreciating the techniques (a separate room showed the painting and sculpting process in great detail) and watching some artists making sketches while standing in the gallery left us quite enervated. The violently real imagery in the paintings and sculpture of the time is emotionally exhausting to take it all in together. A latte and a Chelsea bun with raisins at the National Gallery cafe was a fitting finish to an exhibition which left us enriched spiritually, even as it depleted us emotionally.

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