sOmani statues, Renaissance doorknobs, world maps, and murdered saints; Easter procession of penitents and blood-stained Christians, multicolored, souls in agony and two girls basking in the sand, smeared with water, tramps catching the light.
In 1882, when Archer M. Huntington was eleven and on his first family trip to Europe, the adopted son of American railroad baron Collis Potter Huntington found a volume on Spanish Gypsies in a Liverpool library. His interest was piqued. The boy wrote in his diary: “Spain must be more interesting than Liverpool.” Later in the trip he visited the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris, and returned home to New York with the idea of creating a museum dedicated to the art of Spain and Latin America. What a strange origin story.
Having learned Spanish and Arabic, immersed himself in Spanish history and culture on extended visits to Spain, and after extensive forays into the auction houses of Europe, Huntington in 1908 opened the large Hispanic Society Museum and Library in Upper Manhattan. For some years now the museum has been closed for major renovations, and works from the collection have been traveling now, now landing in the main galleries of the Royal Academy. sunny and black Spain, sternly Catholic Spain; folkloric Spain of peasants and bullfighters, bodegas and carmen; Imperial Spain and Conquest, Moorish Spain in Al-Andalus and Pre-Reconquista and Expulsion of the Jews, it’s all here.
Grim and brilliant, broad and speeding, overwhelming in scope and oddly fragmented, the gallery contains remarkable objects–Sevillian painter Juan de Valdés Leal 1661 Carrying the Cross, Wandering Along, Bent Back Under the Weight of the Cross with his Telegram Pole Timber Luis de Morales’ Grim Painting 1565-70 , the painting of Ecce Homo and a miniature of El Greco, painted on an oval piece of cardboard that one might overlook among the lustrous porcelain and glazed pottery by Muslim artisans, the painting depicts Jonah fishing in his little boat, a gigantic creature more winged serpent than whale.
She captured Velázquez’s young, intimate portrait of a young girl (possibly his granddaughter), whom she feels was made for his pleasure, and the Count Duke Olivares, former tutor to Philip IV, whose shadow cast intricate, disturbing shapes in piercing gray on the ground below him. Then we came again, among the ecclesiastical vestments and church silverware, the monsters adorned with gold and lapis lazuli, and Giovanni Vespucci’s world map of 1526, with its inclusions, its vast voids, and its unknown parts. Other illustrated maps, of Tequaltiche in Mexico, with Caxcan people engaging in bloody naked battle, and in another nearby map of the Ucayali River in Peru, a major tributary of the Amazon River, produced by Franciscan missionaries and indigenous artists, and local animals are depicted, animals frequently devouring each other some.
This is also a show that tries to tell a story when we go from one thing to another, from Spain to Mexico, to Latin America and then to the Philippines. Starting with ceramics Bill Baker a figure about 5,000 years old and found unbroken by a British archaeologist in the Guadalquivir Valley near Seville, silver Celtiberian amulets and bracelets from Palencia, north of Valladolid (they look fresh as in a shop window) and finished with a variety of paintings from the late 19th and early 19th centuries XX, this exhibition gives us the opportunity to see what are described as “treasures” from the Hispanic Society’s collection, which Huntington himself had amassed. He collected many photographs, entire libraries, dozens of old masters, altarpieces and Roman antiquities, books of prayers, illuminated manuscripts and Hebrew Bibles, Islamic textiles and ceramics, paintings by Zurbaran, El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, traveler maps and intricately. Ornate portable writing desks constructed by Jesuit missionaries.
We travel further afield than the Spanish Empire, to the headwaters of the Amazon and the Bolivian silver mines, and to the English dinner table of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, where a gilded silver tray from Bolivia, decorated with chinchillas and other oddities, found its way in 1790. Tales of wealth and power (religious and secular), empires, colonialism, expulsion, subjugation and exploitation are inevitable.
Even when it comes to Goya, in the Rotunda gallery at the center of the show, you’re aware of money and power, or lack thereof. Goya’s small drawing of a woman checking her undershirt for fleas makes for the remarkable sight of his 1797 full-length portrait of the Duchess of Alba, dressed in the garish costume of a lower-class maga, while standing by a river in her own home. Her finger points directly at Goya’s signature, written as if inscribed on the sandy riverbank at her beautifully trembling feet. Solo Joya (Only Goya), the painter wrote, addressing the Duchess, as a letter. Her shoe almost trampled on his name, and she could get rid of it in an instant. There’s a wonderful pictorial depiction here, with that name in the sand, in the Duchess’s direct gaze outward and the opposite direction of her pointing finger. It is a completely static board and also riddled with misdirection. My eyes go in every direction with confusion, like a lover whose pronouncements leave him on edge.
And then things went wrong, and the story became about Huntington’s taste buds. Ignatio Zoloaga y Zabaleta’s 1903 Gypsy bullfighter’s family takes us back to that youthful encounter in the Liverpool Library. His appreciation of the Valencia-born painter Joaquín Sorolla seems to me to reflect the taste of Huntington’s critical class (Sorolla was a close friend of John Singer Sargent). He had to be persuaded to buy works by artists associated with Catalan modernism, including Ramón Casas and Isidre Nunel, one of whose portraits is included here. In 1897 Nonel shared a studio with Picasso in Paris, but Huntington never purchased any works of his.
Sorolla’s light-filled summer scenes of the early 20th century—promoted and purchased by Huntington—including sunbathing, elegant as seals on wet sand, give way in a final room to large gouache studies for Sorolla’s Vision in Spain, a cycle of paintings commissioned for display permanently in the Hispanic Society, which depicts daily life in the different regions. The total work done is 277 sq ft. The artist has been working on these matters for almost a decade. They depict a backward Spain, celebrating its ancient customs and holidays, its attractive regional differences and its folkloric poverty. The catalog tells how Sorolla used overtly modern techniques, such as collage, in these studies, but the modernity doesn’t seem to bother him much here. It’s not a big ending, after all of this history.