Sunday, June 30, 2019

Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain

My wife lured me to San Diego with the carrot that we would then go to Pasadena to see our son and his pregnant wife.  No, San Diego, was not to tour this lovely sea side town or lounge around but to go see an exhibition and the rest of the time, sit and listen to talks about the ideas behind the show. Having said that,  I am so glad I came along because, “Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain” is one of the best exhibitions I have seen in a very long time.   The paintings and sculpture are top notch.  The decorative arts a little less so but I am not complaining.  

The premise of the exhibition is that from the later 16th through the 17th century the glory of Spanish art was not restricted to the Iberian peninsula but was a global phenomenon of an empress that covered Flanders, southern Italy, the Americas and the Philippines.  Our friend Judith Dobrzynski, wrote about the show for the Wall Street Journal which certainly influenced our decision to come. Her only mild criticism  was that the thesis of the show she found “a bit of a stretch” in saying that while Spain may have influenced the art of the New World it did not work in reverse.  The curator for the show, Michael Brown, said that influences either way were not his goal.  I believe  that he was just demonstrating that great art  was produced in the mother country but also in Spain’s empire which is said to have been the largest in history.    I found that in some cases the paintings he selected  from Mexico and South America were  better than comparable works from Spain!

The first day we heard the inaugural lecture given by the Director of the National Gallery in London, Gabriele Finaldi, a specialist in Spanish art. The large auditorium was totally sold out for his very entertaining talk about the Spanish paintings in the National Gallery. He pointed out how recent cleaning revealed depth and detail in the St. Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbaran which was lent to the show.

The next day’s program comprised 10 speakers and many of the talks were excellent. They illustrated the originality of art made in the New World from the creative interpretation of Flemish prints to the use of newly discovered gems or indigenous feather work.     

I had asked permission from the curator to take photos though that turned out to be unnecessary.  I thought, however, that I could be selective in the photos I took but since there were so many images that I found wonderful.   I must have taken pictures of 75% of the 110 works shown.  Therefore, here are a few that at this moment stand out in my memory.

Since its founding in 1926 the San Diego Museum has built a collection of Spanish painting and in recent years has staged a number of exhibitions  on the history of Spanish art. The current Director Roxana Velasquez, encouraged  and supported Michael Brown, over the four years it took to put this show together.  Although 20% of the works came from the museum’s own collection, just think what it takes to get 35 private collectors and public institutions from here and abroad to lend the remainder which include stellar works, including three paintings by  Velazquez.  Here is my favorite of these, “The Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus” from the National Gallery of Ireland.

The San Diego Museum owns a lovely small Rubens cartoon for a tapestry, “Allegory of  Eternity, the Succession of Popes” and the Monasterio Descalzas Reales in Madrid lent the Flemish tapestry derived from it.   The latter had just been restored and Michael Brown was thrilled when he was informed that it was safe for it to travel.  As you see from the photo it was too tall for the ceiling of the museum but was ingeniously mounted  to a support curved at the top.

I have written about Biombos (folding screens) before and this one lent by the Brooklyn Museum and dating circa 1697-1701, was special.  It was actually only half a screen since it had  originally 12 folds and the other half is now in The Museum of the Americas in Madrid. On one side of the screen on view is a battle scene, the siege of Belgrade,  and the other is a hunting scene of which I am illustrating a detail. The subjects derive from European  prints but they are painted in oil  and inlaid with mother-of-pearl In an adaptation of Japanese technique practiced by the Gonzalez family in Mexico. The images below is the full screen of the battle and a detail from the verso.

I have seen Nun’s shields before but they always looked to me that they were too large for a wearable brooch and  in this show I saw the proof.  There was  a Nun’s Shield from the Phoenix Art Museum made in Mexico around 1700 installed beside the celebrated great painting dating around1750 by the Mexican master, Miguel Cabrera,   of “Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz” from  the National History Museum in Mexico City. With no lifetime image of learned woman to work from Cabrera imagined her as the prototype of a scholar, even depicting the Anunciation scene on her Nun’s Shield with the Virgin’s reading being interrupted by the Angel.

I mentioned sculpture and there are so many possible choices but if you force me I will pick this small woodcarving lent by the Denver Art Museum  of “St. Peter de Alcantara Penitente.”  The joke that went around the viewers was, “no, it’s not Hamlet!.”  The label attributes it to an indigenous Ecuador artist, Manuel Chili (circa 1723-1796) but it was Donna Pierce, former curator at the Denver Art Museum who explained what seemed a unique style was derived from Manilla Ivories imported through the galleon trade.

I will end with my wife’s favorite image by Zurbaran, an artist exceptionally well represented in the San Diego Museum’s permanent collection. There is another version of this lovely small picture of “The Lamb of God”  in the Prado in Spain.  At the time there was no concern about multiple versions, in fact they were frequently commissioned. One of the symposium speakers emphasized that in the history of Spanish art the copy of an image was of equal value and power as the original.

I have just scratched the surface and all I can say is if you are near San Diego before September 2nd do stop by the museum to see this wonderful and original exhibition.

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