Last year we were invited by a friend, the Curator of European Art at the Brooklyn Museum, Richard Aste, to attend the opening of his exhibition, “Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish Colonial Home, 1492-1898”. We regretted since at the time we were at home in Santa Fe. What is it they say, “All things come to he who waits”? Well, we did not have to wait long. The show came to Albuquerque in mid February and we went down for the opening .
It was definitely worth the wait and I would also rather drive an hour on the highway than spend an hour in the New York City Subway System!
The concept of the exhibition is to compare and contrast the way of life of those who came to the States from the Protestant lands such as England and Holland and those who came from the more Catholic southern part of Europe, i.e. Spain. This is accomplished by showing the rather simplistic images of English and American portraiture next to the far more ornate images of Spanish men and women in their best finery.
I think the bottom line is that no one leaves their culture in the old country but brings it along with them. This was certainly true for my German Jewish parents and I inherited many of their ways and interests. There is, however, a very important difference in the 16th century. Half a million Spaniards had come to the new world not for religious freedom but for personal wealth. In the Americas they mined silver and participated in the lucrative markets of tobacco, cacao, sugar and other goods that this new rich land offered. Remember New Spain was not just Mexico and parts of South America but at that time extended to today’s U.S. Southwest.
Position within the social hierarchy was extremely important to those from Spain and their progeny, therefore it was also part of the Spanish style at the time to demonstrate status by way of conspicuous consumption. This is illustrated in many different ways in the exhibition.
There are certainly many eye-popping works in this show. Paintings and objects that will knock you off your feet. Maybe not all 160 but many of them. What interests me the most is, as always, the works of art used to demonstrate the important points that the exhibition strives to make.
The ultimate demonstration of visual extravagance is a painting of The Wedding at Cana by Nicolás Correa (Mexican 1670- ?) It is lavishly inlaid with mother-of-pearl. It was considered too fragile to leave New York’s Hispanic Society to travel to Albuquerque or even across the river to the Brooklyn Museum but was considered important enough to be illustrated on one of the labels in the exhibition and in the catalog!
If I could pick one object to leave with it would be a two-sided screen known as a biombo illustrating the Siege of Belgrade on the front and a hunting scene on the back. Made between 1697 and 1701, it is oil on panel, inlaid with mother of pearl and stands 8 ½ feet tall. This is just one half of an originally 12 fold screen, the other half being in Mexico. Exhibitions are often a good excuse for a museum curator to build on the institution’s collection. In this case Richard Aste was able to purchase the biombo for the Brooklyn Museum for more than the institution had ever spent before. One of the many things that impressed me about this piece is that it reminded me of one of my favorite paintings of all time. A painting by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich called “Die Alexanderschlacht” (the battle of Alexander at Issus,1529).
Textiles are also well represented in the exhibition and my favorite is a tapestry made in the late 16th century measuring just 92 by 84 ½ inches, no bigger than an area rug in a reception room. What is amazing about this piece is that it just looks like a patterned textile until you get close to it when you see that it is made up of hundreds of different animals. In the center a spotted dog but throughout you will also find snakes, rodents, rabbits, birds and others. Click on the image in order to enlarge it and see for yourself. It was probably made in Peru which was a center for great textiles for many hundreds of years already before the arrival of the Spanish.
Children born to Spaniards in the New World were known as Creole. Needless to say, like all children they wanted to prove that they were doing as well or better than their parents. One such example is Don Tadeo Bravo de Rivera who returned to the old country to become a government administrator in Madrid and have Francesco de Goya Lucientes (1746-1828), himself, paint his portrait in 1806. Believe me this was quite a surprise when we turned a corner in the show and there was this over life-size portrait staring down at us by one of the greatest international artists. The painting was left to the Brooklyn Museum by the estate of Colonel Michael Friedsam. Much of the art in the estate had gone to the Metropolitan Museum.
To end with something that may seem less exciting but totally captured my imagination, a travelling altar. We forget that even without cars, trains and planes those who could afford it travelled a great deal and and a portable altar was part of the luggage of the Catholic elite. These altars were often something you could fold up and put in your trunk but in this case it is large enough that it could quite easily be used in a family chapel in your home away from home. You will notice that this one can be folded up so it would not take up as much room in the wagon in which it was being transported. The yellow textile is a replacement, the old one probably damaged when the actual altarpiece it housed was removed.
So much more to see, I am looking forward to going back. The exhibition remains open until May 18. I also want to point out that putting the images together for this Missive involved 3 museums and I would like to thank all of them. The Abluquerque Museum of Art, The Hispanic Society in New York and, of course, the organizing institution, The Brooklyn Museum from whose permanent collection most of the exhibition was drawn.