I’ve been blogging recently —  a bit in the abstract — about colour words in Spanish.

I’m just back from almost two weeks in Málaga and surroundings, where I experienced Spanish colours (and “Spanish colour”) less abstractly.

One of the highlights (puntos culminantes) for me was  a visit to the  CarmenThyssen Museum.


Housed in a completely remodelled sixteenth-century palacio1, the collection it contains consists chiefly of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spanish paintings (pinturas), particularly those painted by Andalusian artists or depicting Andalusian themes.

A personal eye-opener

A typically “Impressionist” Sorolla painting.

Previously, Sorolla was the only nineteenth-century Spanish painter I had been even vaguely familiar with, so the collection was a complete revelation to me. (OK, OK, I know, Goya [1746–1828]  lived well into the century, but it’s hard to think of him as “nineteenth-century”, other than in his visionary last period.) Even though (a pesar de que) many of the artists were active well into the twentieth century, all were born in the previous one.

The thematic and extremely educative way  in which the collection is arranged according to subject matter, from “Romantic landscape and ‘Costumbrismo‘” to “Fin-de-siècle“, makes it possible, on the one hand, to see how many of the stereotypes and clichés (tópicos)1 about Spain that for many people are still, in some sense, real and representative were created by visual artists who often had an eye on the incipient “tourist” market (mercado turístico); on the other hand, it also illustrates how artistic developments abroad — principally in France — often influenced Spanish artists, who, nevertheless, remain somehow unmistakably Spanish.

Many of the works displayed (obras expuestas1) struck me as being of exceptional quality, but the point of this blog — for I am hardly an Andrew Graham-Dixon or a Waldemar Januszczak — is purely to express my delight (deleite, el) in these gorgeous visual objects while adding my own two ha’p’orth. All six paintings are oil on canvas (óleo sobre lienzo).

The museum website (website, el, or sitio web) is very well laid out indeed: you can get an overview of the collection by going on different tours (recorridos), you can look at highlights (here obras destacadas, “highlighted works”), and you can search by artist. Moreover (además), each painting shown is presented with a detailed explanation (explicación detallada) or description, in Spanish and English.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

The Alamo (but not THAT U.S. Alamo)

Invierno en Andalucía (Bosque de álamos con rebaño en Alcalá de Guadaíra). [Winter in Andalusia; poplar wood with flock of sheep in…]
This painting is by Emilio Sánchez Perrier, who, so the catalogue (catálogo) tells me, lived (vivió)2 from 1855 to 1907, and was born (nació)2 in Seville but died (se murió)2, 3 in Granada — places which make him about as Andalusian as you can get.

However, he spent some time in Paris, where he studied under various French painters (pintores), and exhibited regularly. Although quite small in scale (45 x 31.9 cm, or 17.7″ x 12.6″), it has to my mind an almost jewel-like attention to detail that reminds me of (me recuerda) certain pre-Raphaelite works, while being arguably less dutifully literalistic. At the same time, when you see it in the flesh, as it were, it also has the feel of a watercolour (acuarela).

Perhaps it’s the wintry mutedness of the scene that appeals to me as a North European; certainly, its restricted palette, with those infinitesimal gradations of grey, silver and white tones (tonalidades grises, plateadas y blancas), is something anyone living in Scotland must perforce learn to understand and appreciate (valorar).

While trying to find an artistic parallel, Corot sprang to mind, for the quality of light; I therefore gave myself a smug little pat on the back when this biography, which is the most complete I can find on the “Interweb”, cited him as an influence.

“Typically” Spanish

There could hardly be a greater contrast between the nature idyll of the previous painting and the ur-Spanishness of this one, combining as it does so many stereotypical themes: a supposedly typical genre scene, Spanish light, white-painted buildings, grilles at windows, and Andalusian costume, horsemen, and dark-haired women. Yet it avoids banality through its great delicacy and detail of treatment and its daring and vigorous composition.

Cortejo español [Courting, Spanish style], 1883; José García Ramos, Seville, 1852–1912.
It’s worth lingering (detenerse) over such seemingly insignificant details such as the flower pots on the grille, the rider’s sash and his horse’s trappings, or the surface beneath his mount’s hooves, all of which work together to create a convincing realism that is utterly pictorial rather than photographic.

Compositionally, the dramatic diagonals of the roof (techo) and the path create depth (profundidad, la) while being immensely pleasing geometrically. Other key elements divide the surface (la superficie) of the canvas harmoniously and reinforce the illusion of space without being crassly obtrusive or dully academic. For example, at first sight, the boss on top of the street lamp appears to be equidistant from the edges of the canvas, but it isn’t; what occupies that exact position is the point where the left-hand bar of the lamp, sloping outwards, joins the lamp’s lid or roof. The exact midpoint of the painting’s vertical plane is occupied by … the barely perceived stretch of wall directly behind the three female passers-by. And so forth.

(Well, there I go, pontificating [sentando cátedra] as if I were an art critic. It makes a change from language, anyway!)

In short, the picture is ¡una delicia! I love it.

Learning points about the Spanish shown

1 Three examples of what are known as “false friends” (falsos amigos) between languages: words that look the same and are related in origin but mean different things, or have “additional” different meanings in one language that they don’t have in the other.

palacio – can translate a “palace”, such as Buck House, or Versailles (Versalles). However, it can also refer to a nobleman’s mansion, as in the case of  the Palacio de Villalón which houses the CarmenThyssen collection. Thus, el palacio de la duquesa de Alba en Sevilla is “the Duchess of Alba’s house in Seville” (which is, certainly, pretty bloody palatial).

un tópico – is not generally “a topic”, but “a cliché”. The most frequent words for “topic” are probably el tema or el asunto, but, as with all translation, only a complete context will suggest the most appropriate one, and there are several others.

exponer – can “mean” “to expose”, but in its transitive (rather than reflexive) use it more often translates as “to exhibit”; the derived noun una exposición is “an exhibition”.

2 nació, vivió, murió – these are all the él/ella form (“third person singular”) of the past tense of the  respective verbs, nacer, vivir, and morir.  They highlight the fact that the endings for the past tense of -er and -ir verbs are identical.

While the “stem” of nacer and vivir stays the same for all the past tense, morir is one of those awkward ones, like sentir (“to feel”) that changes its stem in the third person singular/plural of the past tense: morí, moriste, morimos, moristeis, but murió and murieron.

3 Both morir and morirse (i.e. “reflexive” in form) are widely used to talk about literal, physical dying, and it is very hard to define any difference. However, metaphorical and exaggerated meanings always use the “reflexive” form:
Por poco me muero cuando me lo contaron I nearly died when they told me.
Si me descubren me muero I’ll die if they find me out .
¡No se va a morir por llamar por teléfono alguna vez! It wouldn’t kill him to ring me some time!
¡Que me muera si miento! Cross my heart and hope to die!
Me muero de frío I’m freezing.
¡Me muero de hambre! I’m starving!
¡Me muero de sed! I’m dying of thirst!










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