By José Ramón Fernández
When we say the performing arts, we mean everything that is put on before an audience with an artistic intention, including theatre, dance, music, circus and more. This artistic intention encompasses not only eminent figures but also, of course, street artists. Someone displays themselves before others with the intention of conveying or sparking an emotion. The performing arts are an arena of encounter.
On the one hand, the relationship between the play and the audience takes place in the presence of some of the artists responsible for it and may be significantly changed by the viewers. A novel, a poem, a painting or sculpture are works of art which are not changed by the people enjoying them. A theatre, opera or dance performance, as well as any public performance of musical pieces, is often transformed by what today we call their “reception”.
On the other hand, and this is what we aim to show in this journey, the performing arts are a complex arena for the convergence of different arts, where they can infect one another. A live show may bring together such disparate disciplines as music, dance, literature and the visual arts.
In a theatrical, choreographic or circus piece, we find pictorial elements in the set, the costumes, the lighting, and the very gestures of the performers. In fact, this is true to such an extent that the sets or costumes for shows have often been designed by painters.
If we think about this vast trove of signs related to painting, it is inevitable that among the works that populate a collection as rich and replete with nuances as the holdings of the Museo Thyssen, we find testimonies of this encounter between the performing arts and painting.
Of course, there are more possibilities for this journey, but as lovers of printing, more than once we have all experienced that exhaustion that hinders us from enjoying the works because we have been standing for too long, or simply because our eyes need time to digest what they are seeing. Therefore, it is wise to exercise caution in order to ensure that a surfeit of information does not turn into noise. For this reason, we have chosen a limited number of paintings. Nonetheless, we would like to take advantage of this introduction to suggest that you visit the mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque painting galleries and look, for example, at three realities from our cultural heritage: the Greek tradition, paintings related to Nativity plays, and the paintings of musicians.
First of all, it is worth recalling that Greco-Latin culture is one of the foundations upon which our worldview is grounded. Ancient Greek theatre and the three great Greek tragic playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, were a prominent part of this foundation. Of all the great works in this early chapter in our culture, Medea particularly stands out, the sorceress princess who avenges Jason’s betrayal of her by killing her own children. This story has particular resonance in our country because of the mythical version by Miguel de Unamuno with which Margarita Xirgu and Enrique Borrás officially opened the Teatro Romano of Mérida in 1933, launching one of the most famous cultural events in our country: the Mérida Classical Theatre Festival. The story of Medea – who betrays her homeland and family to help Jason and his Argonauts steal the Golden Fleece, and who is later abandoned by Jason and takes revenge on him by killing their own children – is part of the Western literary and cultural tradition. The Thyssen Museum offers two views of this story: the painting by Enrico de Roberti, The Argonauts Leaving Colchis, and the work by Jean-François de Troy, Jason and Medea in the Temple of Jupiter.
After an almost one-thousand-year hiatus, in the Middle Ages theatre was revived in churches, accompanying the major celebrations. The first dramatic texts in Spanish are Nativity plays, and they recount the birth of Jesus, the annunciation to the shepherds and the adoration of the Kings. The oldest Spanish text is a play about the Three Wise Men. This prominence of religious subjects can be seen in works like Adoration of the Magi by Luca di Tommè and The Nativity by Barthel Bruyn the Elder.
At the same time, there has always been some form of street art: storytellers, jugglers, musicians... festivities and streets. Our Pierrot Content by Watteau could also inspire a visit to paintings that depict friends congregating at festivals, gatherings in the countryside, street musicians, people of any origin who find happiness in music. While I will omit them from our journey, I must cite this clutch of works: Uncle Paquete by Francisco de Goya, Portrait of Count Fulvio Grati by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Fisherman Playing the Violin attributed to Frans Hals, The Happy Violinist by Gerrit van Honthorst, The Young Musicians by Antoine Le Nain, Group of Musicians by Jacob van Loo, Oyster Eaters by Jacob Lucasz Ochtervelt, Concert Champêtre by Jean-Baptiste Pater, The Village Fête by David Teniers and Self-Portrait Playing the Lute by Jan Havicksz Steen. Even Shahn, Braque and Miró joined this celebration of joyful musicians.
Obviously, one special painting located on the second floor of the museum deserves special mention: Hans Wertinger’s portrait of a comic, The Court Jester Known as ‘Knight Christoph’. The portrait of one of the Duke of Bavaria’s jesters reveals to us the importance of his status in the court at that time. The date of the painting precisely points to this revival in theatre, which had languished during the first few centuries of our era and came back to life at the end of the Middle Ages. Over the course of those centuries, clowns, buffoons, and travelling comics were the ones who kept alive this artistic discipline which seemed to have died forever.
In short, we have chosen twenty paintings from this wonderful collection to suggest a journey through the performing arts which sparks curiosity and goads you to learn more about theatre, music, dance and circus so that you can revisit these amazing painters who have surely brought you a few moments of happiness.
One last note: we are presenting the paintings in chronological order. Of course, there are infinite ways to take this journey, and this is only the most obvious one. Enjoy your trip!