Why Global Art Historians Are Aching to See this Exhibition’s Insights into the History of Painting

Did you know that the timeless tradition of still life has actually been the battlefront of many of painting’s key historical developments? This has long been known by Spanish curator Ángel Aterido, whose exhibition Spanish Still Life at BOZAR, Brussels, demonstrates that the tradition is more than simply an academic exercise in technique and reproduction, as it is often dismissed. Some of the key principles of the pictorial genre for which it has been overlooked – its attention to light, texture, form, and the act of painting itself – became the very basis on which modernists were able to redefine art altogether.

With 80 paintings in total, the exhibition contains several of history’s most consequential painters. It displays early bodegones of Cotán and Velázquez, to more expressive works by Goya, and more experimental works by Picasso, Miró and Dalí. The exhibition’s works are brought together from collections all over the world, among them London’s National Gallery, Paris’s Louvre and Pompidou, Florence’s Uffizi, and New York’s MoMA.

The exhibition boasts a series of world firsts – separated works are reunited, anonymous works are being named, private collections are being shown. Hence, for many of the world’s art historians and enthusiasts, this exhibition is a must-go.

THE PLUS took a tour with Aterido and got the chance to ask him some questions about Spanish Still Life exhibition’s numerous curiosities.

“As you go through the centuries, one of the things you’ll notice is that the paintings get larger, and the ways of representing still life gets more and more complex.”
– Ángel Aterido


“This Miguel de Pret [left] was originally from a bigger painting. It was cut up and resold. The grapes were isolated against the background. Up till now, the painter has been anonymous. But by putting it next to a larger de Pret still life as a comparison [right], we are now quite sure that it is an original de Pret.”


“Velasquez uses a biblical story as an excuse, or lead in, to still life. It adds validity to the genre.”


THE PLUS: What notable developments occur with Spanish still life in the 18th century?
Ángel Aterido:
In the 18th century, there is a more taxonomical approach to still life informed by the revolution in the sciences. Still life paintings, such as those by Meléndez, become more precise and academic. But there’s also a revival of simplicity.

“Goya’s works really emphasise the context of the violence of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, and are very far from academic imitation. One of the most exciting things about this exhibition is that we have gotten the chance to exhibit two rarely before seen works by Goya. They had been held in private collections following his death. Here they are reunited.”


“In the 19th century, there were changes in the reasons for which art was produced. Private commissions happened less and less. Paintings were being created more for national exhibitions and salons.”


TP: What was the reception to these paintings after such systemic changes?
Of course, the paintings attracted much more attention – but they were also the subject of criticism in newspapers.

TP: How did you decide to vary the light of the exhibition spaces?
For earlier paintings we used a darker space. But for the sections with 20th-century works onwards, we have used more light to emphasise the contrast both within and between the works.

“There’s a certain irony with this Picasso. Paradoxically, the traditionally bourgeois genre still life becomes the very centre of the artistic revolution.”


TP: What key theme did you want to bring out in the 20th-century rooms?
I really wanted to make the point that the 20th century did not bring about a single line. There is really a multiplicity of historical lines.

“Spanish still life has retained its position as a staple of the contemporary art world, with artists such as Miguel Barceló using still life to create paintings that are about painting itself.”


Photo: @thepluspaper
The Spanish Still Life exhibition runs at BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium from 23rd February – 27th May 2018, Tue – Sun 10am – 6pm, Thu 10am – 9pm.