Call it the Spanish enigma. At distant intervals, breathtaking masterpieces of world importance spring up on the art scene out of a morass of tame and often derivative works.
Never was the point made so forcefully, albeit not intentionally, as in the British Museum show “Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings From Spain,” put together in order to display most of the institution’s rarely seen collection.
In the introduction to his pioneering book that comes with the exhibition, Mark P. McDonald, the leading specialist in Spanish drawings and prints from the 15th to the 19th century, draws attention to a common misconception: “In accounts of art in Spain during the Renaissance and early modern period it has often been suggested that Spanish artists did not draw and that print production was insignificant.” This, Mr. McDonald goes on, is due to the scarcity of Spanish drawings.
One reason for the scarcity is simply that many remain unidentified and “languish in boxes marked anonymous” because of the lack of financial stimulus. The curator points out that as early as the 15th century drawings in Spain were considered to be of little value. Yet period sources prove that some Spanish artists were busily drawing early on.
The will of a painter from Valencia, Bartomeu Salset, whose oeuvre is otherwise unknown, mentions “many papers with drawn images.” Ten years later, the 1428 inventory of the estate of another Valencia artist, Joán Vicent, describes a chest of drawings “and other large sheets.”