Anthony Whishaw



Not on display

Anthony Whishaw born 1930
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 1000 × 3000 mm
Presented 2015


This large painting dating from 1955–6 depicts a crowd at a Spanish bullfight. Realised in muted tones of brown and ochre oil paint on canvas, the long, landscape-format composition is divided horizontally along the centre by a rail that separates the dense crowd of spectators from the startled white horse running from right to left across the foreground. The horse is cropped so that only the upper part of its body and outstretched head and neck are shown. The title, Corrida, is the Spanish term for bullfight, a shortened form of corrida de toros, literally ‘running of the bulls’. During the first stage of a bullfight, ‘picadors’ – horsemen with lances – jab at the bull. The loose, fleeing horse here may suggest that the picador has been unseated during this part of the event.

The art, landscape and culture of Spain have been a constant point of reference for Whishaw since his Royal College of Art travelling scholarship to the country in 1955. During this stay he made frequent visits to the Museo del Prado in Madrid and was immediately impressed by the Spanish art he encountered, in particular the work of Francisco de Goya (1746–1828). Corrida was started in Madrid the same year, and was subsequently included in the artist’s first solo show, held at the Libreria Abril, Madrid, in 1956. The painting encapsulates an important moment in Whishaw’s early career as he attempted to reconcile the influence of his British contemporaries, most notably Francis Bacon, with his deeply felt reaction to the emotion and human drama of Goya’s so-called ‘black’ paintings (c.1819–23). Whishaw has commented:

The work reflects my wonderment and thrill on seeing Goya’s black paintings in the Prado … As a young ex-student I was also influenced by Francis Bacon, but the catharsis on seeing Goya’s paintings made me want to attempt to reconcile aspects of both these two artists, together with my experience of the bullfight. The painting is also about degrees of fear, expressed by both humans and animals, not exclusively about the implied setting which hints at the bullring.
(Whishaw in correspondence with Tate curator Elena Crippa, 10 February 2015.)

The impact on Whishaw of the intense expressiveness and heightened states of terror and ecstasy present in Goya’s black paintings can be discerned in Corrida. The crowd of spectators is densely painted, shying away and grimacing in varying degrees of fear and excitement. The nightmarish otherworldly aspect of the conjoined female figures on the right, shrouded in white robes, calls to mind Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath 1819–23 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The influence of Bacon’s ‘New Realism’ is also evident here in the emotionally raw treatment of the figures and the painterly rendering of contorted facial features (see, for example, Bacon’s Study for a Portrait 1952, Tate T12616). The artist has described the screaming child near the centre of the painting as ‘my last reference to Bacon’ (Whishaw in correspondence with Tate curator Elena Crippa, 10 February 2015).

The flatly painted monochrome background serves to press the dark crowd of craning spectators forwards onto the rail of the bullring, producing a sense of claustrophobia and crowding. In contrast the foreground is treated sparely, with the bright, almost luminous white horse appearing to float in front of the vertical panels of the rail. The artist has said that ‘there’s a side of me which has always very much liked the strong contrasts of light and dark, the way light can reveal or devour, which I so admire in Spanish painting’ (quoted in Lambirth 1991, p.19). The influence of Goya’s black paintings also finds its way into Corrida’s irregular composition and complex visual configuration. The horizontal format of the painting and the pyramidal shapes formed by the two off-centre clusters of figures closely recall Goya’s A Pilgrimage to San Isidro 1819–23 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). Whishaw has stated that Corrida inspired a ‘lifelong involvement with a long horizontal format’, from his paintings of religious subjects of the late 1950s, such as Last Supper 1959 (Christchurch, Kensington) to his later landscapes (Whishaw in correspondence with Tate curator Elena Crippa, 10 February 2015).

In the late 1960s Whishaw’s practice underwent a major departure from his earlier figurative and religious themes. He switched from oil paint to acrylic and, influenced by cubism, began his Pueblo series of abstracted, heavily textured and collaged compositions based on Spanish villages. The stark, horizontal format and limited chromatic range of Corrida prefigures the use of near-monochrome colour and panoramic composition in this later series, while establishing the preoccupation with Spain that would continue throughout the artist’s career.

Further reading
Keith Patrick (ed.), The Romantic Tradition in Contemporary British Painting, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 1988.
Andrew Lambirth, ‘Anthony Whishaw: Ambiguous Spaces’, Artist and Illustrators Magazine, no.53, February 1991, pp.18–20.
Anthony Whishaw: Paintings and Works on Paper 1986–1992, exhibition catalogue, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol 1993.

Sarah Olivey
February 2015

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Online caption

After studying, Whishaw went to Spain on travelling scholarships. Corrida’s setting is suggestive of the bullring, where bulls are confronted by men on horses as well as on foot. The artist has explained that the painting does not only relate to his experience of the bullfight, but ‘is also about degrees of fear, expressed by both humans and animals.’ The painting reconciles the influence of Francis Bacon’s distorted and grimacing figures with Whishaw’s deeply-felt reaction to the haunting imagery of Goya’s so-called Black Paintings, seen at the Prado in Madrid.

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