Other Views: Black Spain
By Émile Verhaeren and Darío de Regoyos
A first edition of España negra (Black Spain) will be on show from July 17 to September 23 in gallery 20, devoted to the artworks of Darío de Regoyos. España negra was inspired by the travels of Belgian writer Émile Verhaeren and artist Darío de Regoyos, who explored the country together from 1888 to 1891. Verhaeren published his travelogue and meditations in four articles which, in 1899, Regoyos collected for publication, adding 21 drawings, 7 engravings in boxwood and 3 paintings.
The book follows their somewhat Bohemian travels around Spain, which begin in Guipúzcoa and end in El Escorial. As they travelled, poet and painter focused on the more outlandish features and the popular ancestral roots of the vast country that so fascinated the writers of the 98 Generation; a country of ruins, cemeteries, novilladas (bullfights with young bulls, apprentice toreros and little blood), and religious rites and processions, like the one portrayed in Regoyos painting Vendredi Saint en Castille (1904), where the weight of all that tradition makes a powerful contrast with the steam train passing overhead, a symbol of a hypothetical future of modernity and progress.
Founded by Philip V to collect, conserve and promote his collections, the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) is Spains oldest cultural institution. This year it is celebrating its tercentenary with Other Views, which, organized in tandem with Acción Cultural Española (AC/E), suggests a dialogue between outstanding works from the Biblioteca and works from thirty or so Spanish museums. The shows itinerary began in May in museums in Madrid (the Prado, the Queen Sofia National Museum & Art Centre, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the Lázaro Galdiano Museum, the Museum of Romanticism, the Royal Palace, the Natural Science Museum, the Madrid History Museum, the Museum of America and the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts) and is on its way to other venues, including the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. .
MODERN BLACK SPAIN
España negra (Black Spain, 1899), by Émile Verhaeren and Darío de Regoyos, is a rare book in every sense. We cant even call it lovely as we might others. The whole of it does, however, convey precisely what it set out to convey: an idea of Spain, a vision that is obviously limited to the manner in which books were customarily made here one hundred years ago, which was rather careless, painful and grey, rather than black, in spite all the engravings that punctuate the text. These are of great interest besides being of great value as they are the original boxwood engravings, not to mention the truly stunning vignette on the frontispiece which, despite or perhaps because of its caustic tone, is a masterpiece of typographic vignettes: a skull covered with a bullfighters hat, on top of a banderilla and a sword dripping with blood, representing tibia bones, suggesting to us right from the start that it is better to treat some matters with humour, albeit black humour, or ignore them altogether.
Perhaps it is because of all these small details, and another I will now mention, that it is one of my favourite books in my own library, not just because it is truly a great rarity, or the fact that my copy is rendered even more valuable because of its handwritten inscription by Regoyos, but because of what it means in literature and even beyond literature. Let us say, without further delay: we are looking at a seminal book. Two authors, one Belgian and the other Spanish, tackled the myth of Black Spain for the first time, and although it was not their intention to combat the Black Legend with that myth, they managed to do so much more effectively than all the ambassadors, chancellors and scribes who, as gloomy and useless as they were, had followed on one from the other since Philip II. You must look behind the doors, gentlemen, they seem to be telling us, appearances are deceptive, and if they do not deceive, then so much the better.
It was they who coined this concept which Gutiérrez Solana was to develop twenty years later, setting the seal on it for ever and masterfully carrying it to perfection: Black is beautiful, it is genuine, they seem to be reminding us. The villages, the ordinary people, the Spanish customs of deepest Spain, all of them are beautiful. The Romantics sought out the luminosity of Andalusia, its flamenco singing, its Gothic legends. First Regoyos, and then Solana, Noel and those of the generation of 98, gave Romanticism a twist of the screw, distilling it. From the fortified wine of Málaga and the dry sherries of Puerto de Santa María to the rough liquor of breed; from the tambourine and tassels to the twilight silence of woodland glades.
However, unlike the prominent figures of the Romantic era, Regoyos was a modern Romantic, as Solana was to be. He did not live in or through the past. He was not one of those purists who lashed out at the literature and art of the 19th centurys final years. He was a traveller, its true, but not in pursuit of prestigious footprints. It was not prestige that interested him, but the beauty of ordinary things, even if they came to him with no pedigree: a path, a vegetable garden, a cornfield, the town hall in a small town, the main square of anywhere, craftsmen at work, nuns (whom he plucked from the gentle Beguine sisterhoods of Belgium and transferred to the harsh Spanish plateaux). His eyes, like those of the primitive painters (there is something primitive about Regoyos as there was about Giotto), look at the world for the first time. Do we not get the feeling that that scene common in all other respects of an unsightly but sturdy bridge built by a Spanish engineer, with a train going over it while some monks cross beneath, is a unique scene? His cemeteries, his churches and railway stations, his landscapes are commonplace as well. There is nothing artistic in them; he seems to have stumbled on them, like life, achieving what few painters have achieved: to convey to us the gift of artlessness.
No one needs to go looking for Black Spain. Its everywhere. And its beautiful. There is no getting away from that, Regoyos insists, tired of giving explanations to those who fail to understand what he sees in it all. Understanding it is sufficient. Understanding is compassion, the virtues of Cervantes. And Regoyos understands, and Regoyos feels sorry for himself, and Regoyos laughs a little, with seriousness and respect. At himself, of course, at the inoffensive pathology that causes him to be magnetised to everything black in the world, and at the blackness of the world, which he cannot stop looking at through the eyes of a lyrical poet. Because, as modern as the next man, he is still a Romantic.
Sponsored by Biblioteca Nacional de España and Acción Cultural Española (AC/E)