Sunday, December 22, 2013

Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain

The exhibition has come to the New Mexico Art Museum from the British Museum in London.  This is surprising enough but that it is the only U.S. venue for the show is even more of a shocker!

The art museum business is like every other and what is most important is who you know.  The director of the museum, Mary Kershaw, worked in York, England for 20 years so she knew the players.  This is not the first old European Art show in Santa Fe but the other two that we have seen since we first came here about 25 years ago were pretty mediocre.  There was a version of Nicholas and Alexandra show which was almost laughable with lots of trivial objects and no art.  Then there was a paintings exhibition of Old Master paintings from the Medici collection which only went to prove that even the greatest collecting family of all time could have some pretty bad art!

This show is different.  It may be a bit esoteric but a good curator, Mark McDonald working with a world-class collection has brought us some high quality art.  I heard about its arrival when my wife, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, came home quite excited.  She had been at the editorial offices of El Palacio the magazine for the Museums of New Mexico and, as one of the few scholars of European art here, had been asked to write an article for the magazine on the show.  From there she was asked to re-work the British Museum’s Press Release, which in typical British style, was rather dry.  In any case, it had been written for an European art educated audience.  This was a bit different than the South West art educated audience out here.  Also, there was a desire to attract the Hispanic community and the art students of the area.

Penelope working with the Public Relations Manager of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, Steve Cantrell, proved to be a formidable duo which was demonstrated when for the first time in history that all 4 television networks turned up at the press opening for a show at one of the state museums.

We went to the members opening of the exhibition on a Saturday Morning.  They had some light food and drink in the auditorium and then brief talks from the people involved with the show.  The director introduced Hugo Chapman the head of the Prints and Drawing Department of the British Museum, the BM curator for the show, Mark McDonald, who will be moving to the Metropolitan Museum in March, and Christine Mather, the museum’s retired collections curator who was hired as an in-house curator for the show and did a masterful job of installing the exhibition.  As a matter of fact Hugo Chapman said that the show looked better here than in the British Museum galleries which probably has some truth in it.  If it was in their usual drawings galleries they often feel claustrophobic to me but then the BM does have a major special exhibition space as well.  The red wall color is the same that was used when the show was at the Prado and is most effective at setting off the drawings. 

There are 132 works of art in the exhibition, which gives a great deal to choose from. (My wife wrote a 10-page article illustrating only 8 of them.) Roughly two thirds are drawings and the last third are prints. Though some are not exciting if you are not into Spanish drawings, which few are, there are many wonderful sheets.  As a matter of fact, Hugo Chapman said the British Museum did not even realize they had a collection of Spanish drawings until Mark McDonald started to delve into the collection!

The exhibition like any good exhibition can be seen on many levels.  The curator has broken it down by areas of Spain such as Madrid and Seville but it can also just be enjoyed for the riches of the material.

The drawing I find the most intriguing is due to a “discovery” that Penelope made.  Saint Isidore of Seville was recently named, by the Catholic Church, as the Patron Saint of the Internet!  That seems most odd since Saint Isidore of Seville lived from circa 560 until April 4, 636.  The drawing was done in 1655 in preparation for a large painting by BartholomĂ© Estaban Murillo (1617-1682), one of Spain’s most esteemed artists.  Saint Isidore was a scholar who promoted classical education in the pagan Kingdom of the Visigoths. He wrote the “Etymologies” a multi-volume compendium of all the information known to mankind.  It was the very first Encyclopedia and was deemed valid for the next 1,000 years.  Therefore, when the Church was looking for a Saint of the Internet, Saint Isidore was their man! Here he is with one of his large volumes, which today he might trade in for an iPad.

One of the drawings that has great presence is of “The Dwarf Miguelito” ca. 1680-83 by Fracisco Rizi (1614-1685).  He is dressed to the nine’s in the latest French fashion and in the painting that this drawing is for he stands very close to the king demonstrating his stature at court.

Of course, the best known artists for a contemporary audience is Francisco de Goya y Lucientes  (1746-1828) and here too we have quite a number to choose from.  Goya’s work is probably best known for several series of prints dealing with social criticism from wartime horrors to the bullring.  An etching and aquatint that I find a delight is that of the “Old Man in a Swing” of 1827-28, done right at the end of Goya’s life.  You can imagine a man of 80 getting on a swing when no one is looking and going as high as he can go just like he did when he was a child of 8.  Of course, it is not all fun because he realizes that he is flirting with death and his demons can be seen in the background.

I have just illustrated 3 images here and there are another 129 to go.  The immediacy of the works in original cannot be duplicated but if you are not going to make it to Santa Fe by  the close of the show on March 9 you can acquire the excellent catalog by Mark McDonald.

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