This is a big show with a big story to tell, one that both celebrates and critically examines what it means to be Hispanic. The show focuses on, but is not limited to, European Spain, which it follows through many of its incarnations: an ancient civilization, a Roman outpost, a Christian outpost, a center of Islamic culture with relatively harmonious relations with Christians and Jews, a nurturer and nationalizer of the Inquisition and the cause of its spread to the New World, the administrative heart of an empire that stretched across the globe, a colorful place that cultivated its exoticism as its power and wealth declined. It takes us from the Spain of the Copper Age to the Spain of John Singer Sargent and his Spanish dancers who whirl dizzyingly into the night. The chief author of this particular story is Archer Huntington, the heir to his father’s railroad and shipbuilding fortune. As the excellent catalogue to the exhibition tells us, around the time Archer Huntington became a teenager in the 1880s, he decided that “a museum is the grandest thing in the world. I should like to live in one.” He became the founder and chief benefactor of New York City’s Hispanic Society of America, a museum and library that opened to the public in 1908.
In the decades before and after its opening, Huntington personally supervised the growth of a collection which has been expanded thoughtfully and conscientiously in recent decades under its professional museum staff. Huntington acquired masterpieces of Spanish painting, often competing with better-known and better-heeled American millionaires for the best works coming on the market by El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya. He had an excellent eye for historical artifacts that were also of great beauty and—perhaps more surprisingly—the geo-cultural implications of beautiful things. His vision was broad and he obtained significant works in every medium you’d expect and many you might not: the collection includes funeral sculpture, medieval metalwork, pottery from several centuries, fiber arts, an amazing collection of illuminated manuscripts (including one in Hebrew and one done in gold on black pages), works in two and three dimensions by indigenous peoples, and the elegant court copies of the latest maps of the world while it was still being actively explored. There is a trove of autograph letters by figures in politics (including young Queen Elizabeth I, represented by a document countersigned by her Latin tutor) and the arts (including Velasquez and Rubens). There are lacquerware boxes, paintings inlaid with mother of pearl, watercolors of dances done with huge feathers, and amazing black clay drinking vessels with sculptures of fish and frogs inside. (Part of their purpose was to allow you to drink in the foul-tasting clay.) Turning a corner, you might encounter elegant samplings of modern museumship or a cluster of things that would be at home in some aristocratic schatzkammer. Visiting the exhibition is like taking in an extremely well-curated miniature version of the comprehensive art museum, with eye-popping works from most of the cultures that flourished in Spain, from prehistoric though classic, medieval, early modern, enlightenment, and romantic. The collection ends with works from the first years of the twentieth century, stopping just before high modernism—and with it, Spain’s descent into fascism, which, one should remember, outlasted its mid-century allies by several decades.
The exhibition is pleased to raise questions about what “Spain” is. Itself a crossroads contested by powerful forces—Rome, the Muslims, the Holy Roman Empire—Spain also projected its culture widely; perhaps 20% of the objects in the show were produced abroad by artists and artisans working somewhere across the sea out in the far reaches of the empire. What is exhibited under the heading of Spanish art is often by its very nature cosmopolitan. Like most of Europe from the late Middle Ages on, Spain imported artists as well as exported them. Well into the 16th century, many of the artists working in Spain were born elsewhere. (And what should we make of an artist like Jose Ribera, a Spaniard whose mature career was spent in Naples, which was then under Spanish rule?) Chronologically, the show begins with ceramics by a prehistoric people we know chiefly through carbon dating called the Bell Beaker Culture. There is some Visigoth material and Celtic metalwork and some extremely elegant Roman pieces. Roman Spain was called Hispania, and from it came such quintessentially “Roman” figures as the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian and the philosopher and playwright Seneca.
In Huntington’s vision of Hispanic culture, some of the most important work was hybrid in nature, sooner or later. Some fabulous weavings and painted pottery were made, for example, by Muslim artists for Christian consumption; one lusterware bowl was made in the Moorish style, but has fake Arabic script on the bottom, to help assure the owner that it is suitably Arabic without having to be painstakingly genuine. Cultures do this: many amazing works of art have been repurposed along the way, like the great cathedral at Cordoba which became the great mosque at Cordoba. In this show, there is a beautifully decorated ivory Islamic perfume bottle from the 10th century that became a Christian reliquary without removing the Arabic inscription that reads “I am a vessel for musk/And camphor and ambergris.” It stands in as a worthy representative of the enormous cultural wealth and distinctive style that centuries of Moorish occupation brought to Spain.
What sort of Christians were the Renaissance Spanish? In this show, they are made of serious stuff. There is a portrait of Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba (1549) by the Dutch-born painter Anthonis Mor, who became known in Spain as Antonio Moro. The exhibit doesn’t really have enough Spanish paintings from the 16th century to help us see to what extent this is a Spanish painting and to what extent it is a great Dutch-school work with a Spanish subject. The Duke wears shiny dark armor on which a crucifix is inlaid and carries a staff of office. He glares at his audience, and does not seem to trust anyone. There is no sensuality in the portrait; indeed, flesh seems an inconvenience. He looks like a human who has slipped into a reflective black exoskeleton—part hermit crab, part Alien. Over the years, the Duke of Alba fought the Ottomans and the French, but was best known as both the governor and the scourge of the Protestant Netherlands, while it was under Spanish rule. His policies were bloody and brutal (the Dutch nicknamed him the Iron Duke), but ultimately unsuccessful in bringing about submission.
The Iron Duke is as grim an historical figure as we have in the show, not that Spain doesn’t have plenty of somber episodes and characters. As far as I could tell, there is no acknowledgement in Huntington’s collections of either Ferdinand or Isabella (much revered in 15th century Spanish art), who were monstrous racists with far more loathsome actions to account for than Columbus has, who seems by comparison like the guy left to pick up someone else’s tab. (For that matter, there is nothing about Columbus anywhere in the show, except for the geographical advances to which he contributed, which are reflected in the new maps of the New World. Considering that Huntington’s collection was taking shape around the time of the Columbian quadricentennial, I found this surprising.) There are no signs in this show of the Inquisition or Torquemada or the expulsions of Jews and Muslims or the auto-da-fe. It is, frankly, a relief not to see them. It is hard to think that contemporary works would have done anything besides celebrating them; these are events that did not invite much public self-examination or contemporary satire. It is a reminder that Huntington’s love of all things Spanish was selective. It also raises questions about the show’s representations of history: by tending to emphasize what is noble and culturally hybrid and open-minded about Spain, it occasionally seems a history so scrubbed as to seem whitewashed.
If there are some deep dives into Christian history that are omitted from the artistic record in this show, there are plenty of rich and complex things that did make it. It seems to have been Huntington’s conviction that Spanish art truly comes into its own during the Counter-Reformation, and possibly became stylistically distinctive, rather than part of one European international style or another. Starting with the Council of Trent in the 1540s, the Catholic Church responded to the rise of Protestantism with a fundamental rethinking of some of its tenets, encouraging, it is often argued, expressions that would appeal more directly to its audiences while still being doctrinally orthodox. The exhibition’s wall tag asks us to see the core values of the Counter-Reformation in Luis de Morales’s “Christ Presented to the People” (c. 1565-70) on the basis of the emotional intensity of the suffering of Christ and the cruel, confrontational stare of Pilate, acknowledging the choice made by the people and finding them all the more contemptible for it. To me, the compact, almost crushed, painting, though psychologically rich, has more in common with earlier modes of painting.
It is easier to see Counter-Reformation values in El Greco’s “The Penitent Saint Jerome” (c. 1600). This Saint Jerome is a muscular older man, stripped to the waist, a rock in his hand held up to his chest. But he is not beating himself with it, as we sometimes see in such subjects. This Jerome is not a fanatic. He may be isolated in the desert, but he is none the worse for wear, and does not look like his solitude has been misanthropic. We are invited to admire him. He is gazing lovingly at the crucifix he holds in his hand. His look may be ecstatic, but it also strangely cheerful. It is interesting to compare El Greco’s Saint Jerome with Ribera’s etching “Saint Jerome Hearing the Trumpet of the Last Judgment” (1621), which surrounds the saint with many of the same set of signifiers: the books, the skull, the sheaves of papers, with the symbolic lion in place of the symbolic bishop’s hat. The approach of the angel has captured Jerome’s startled attention, a little as if it were an Annunciation scene. The wilderness landscape is more filled in, and this Jerome is more actively engaged in his translations; he turns to face the angel surrounded by unruly piles of manuscript pages and a few bound books, one of which has a title in pseudo-Hebrew. But his hair is more scraggly and his body more emaciated that El Greco’s; his divinity is more in his hands—one outstretched from the shadow to the light and the other still gripping his pen—than in his body, which is more plainly the body of an old man as one might see it on any ordinary day.
The Counter-Reformation promised more color and more emotion, and it embraced sensuality, sometimes through nudity but also through the tangibility of the worldliness that surrounded its subjects. Bartholome Esteban Murillo’s “The Prodigal Son Among the Swine” (1656-65) captures the broken young man at the moment of his conversion when he realizes that being a swineherd is hitting bottom. Rather than depicting the more usual scene of the son being embraced by the father (a pose that allowed artists to celebrate both the spiritual intensity of the reunion but also the depiction of material plenty in the form of the luxury goods which the father is bestowing on him), Murillo’s son is looking beyond his father towards his Father. His glance is rapt and upwards, and his prayers are mediated by a tree that looks a little like Saint Jerome’s crucifix. The drama of the soul is being worked out through the body; he is partly naked due to his poverty and partly due to a desire to be physically closer to his salvation. The dark sky is broken by a glow that shines upon him and the tree like a benediction—a sign that divinity surrounds him even here among the swine.
Two of the most remarkable 17th century portraits in the show are exceptions to the rules. Alonso Cano (who is represented in CAM’s permanent collection by an extraordinary, half-nude John the Baptist) painted his “Portrait of an Ecclesiastic” (1625-8) to show a young man (conscious of time passing, his hand rests on an hourglass) with an almost forbiddingly intense spiritual life. His body is virtually as covered up as Moro’s Duke of Alba, but he is covered by his black robe instead of a suit of dark armor. He is clean and well-groomed, but it is hard to say that he is comfortable in his flesh. He looks at us with a psychologically complex mixture of regret, sympathy, and superiority. There are things that he thinks that he understands and that he thinks we wouldn’t, but that knowledge brings him little joy.
The other exception is Velasquez’s “Portrait of a Little Girl” (c. 1638-42), but in so many ways, Velasquez is always in a category by himself. The girl looks straight out at us with perhaps a hint of a smile on her lips. If you asked why this could not have been a picture of Mona Lisa as a 6 year old, you would immediately see her reserve, the part of her that seems to be drawing back from us. She is resisting something in her situation, perhaps even the seriousness that she feels obliged to cover her smile with. Though the wall tag explains that this is one of only two pictures of non-royal children that Velasquez has painted, she shares with his princesses and young ladies-in-waiting a sense of being caught up in a world that prematurely ages you, and the look of someone who has a destiny facing her that she has not chosen for herself. There is something both sensual and anti-sensual about her at the same time. Sometimes the flesh in Velasquez’s portraits seems lighter than air—something one would never say about a Dutch portrait from the same time. She has a worldly presence and yet in some ways seems so evanescent as to be transparent, like a photograph taken of an image on a television screen.
Around the same time as the Counter-Reformation, Spain began its serious push towards acquiring its colonial empire, chiefly in the Americas. Starting with Huntington’s own collection and continued robustly in the years after his stewardship, the Hispanic Society has been acquiring work produced in far-flung places under the Spanish flag. A substantial percentage of the show has roots in the New World, selected according to what seems like a complex set of principles. They cover a rather narrow chronological range, the two centuries from the late 16th till the late 18th centuries, and have puzzling geographical restrictions. There are twice as many works from Mexico (the place where Huntington first made contact and fell in love with Hispanic culture) as from all other places combined (Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, and single pieces from Chile, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines), which means that there is nothing, for example, from Cuba or from Spain’s holdings in Africa or—perhaps most surprisingly—from America north of the Rio Grande. The exhibit does not romanticize the colonial effort or condescend to it, but seems genuinely interested in following the Hispanic frame of mind as it set out beyond its boundaries.
Some of the most interesting objects here are the maps and diagrams that document the different ways that space and time were conceived, explored, celebrated, and owned. There is a remarkable genealogical scroll showing in pictorial form the generations of Zapotec rulers going back to the 13th century and ending with the generation after the Spanish arrived. An even more remarkable piece is the “Map of Tequaltiche” (1584), which illustrates the geography, history, and socio-ethnography of a tribe around Jalisco, Mexico. We see images of their founding king at the center of the village, and various encounters between tribes in spaces between mountains, trees, and waterways. We see that they wore few clothes, fought with bows and arrows, and practiced human sacrifice. There are a startling number of decapitations. And in the lower left corner, there is a battle between the indigenous people and the Spanish army who came in, complete with cannons, to put down a rebellion in the 1540s.
The racial dramas of the colonial period are not overlooked, particularly in some of the Hispanic Society’s more recent acquisitions. Though there is not a single still life on display in the show, there is a wonderful painting by Jose Augustin Arrieta of “El Costeno” (c. 1843), a young black man carrying a basket of local produce. Arrieta was a Mexican painter who often combined elements of still lifes with genre scenes depicting domestic life, work, and pleasures among the people of various mixed races who were coming to be more and more of an important part of Mexico’s population. The young man carries a sort of still life with him, including a melon, a prickly pear, and a pineapple (which originated in the Americas before the Spanish transplanted them to Hawaii and the Philippines in the late 19th century). He is from one of the coastal towns in Mexico settled by people of African origin, part of a complex story of racial mixture with descendants of the rather substantial number of slaves brought into the Americas by the Spanish, before the abolishment of slavery in 1829 by the newly-independent Mexico. In any case, the young man is sure of himself and the painter does not look on him as an ethnographic curiosity. A more distressing picture is Juan Rodriquez Juarez’s “The Castas: Mestizo and Indian Produce Coyote” (c. 1715). A work of virtually dispassionate racial accounting, this and other of Juarez’s Casta paintings show a kind of Mendelian genetics at work. Each picture—and there would typically have been as many as sixteen in a complete series—illustrate how specific types of racially mixed marriages produce specific types of offspring. In this example, we are told that when a mestizo man (of mixed Spanish and indigenous blood) marries a native Mexican woman, their offspring will be of the sort who are called coyote. Casta paintings—usually done in series—are likely to have been produced in the New World and consumed in the Old, and are part of the complex and disquieting heritage of Hispanic concern with the purity of the blood. It is no accident that another category of work in the show are the patents of nobility from a century or more before this painting, documents designed to assure the authenticity of bloodlines. From beginning to end, the exhibit suggests that there were two spirits at war with each other in Spanish culture, one that valued the ways cultures met, mixed, and blended, and one that sought purity, distinction, and isolation.
The last century of the show, from romanticism to the early years of modernity, goes by very fast, represented by increasingly conventional art forms: paintings, drawing, and prints. Its leading light is Goya, an artist always ready to turn your world and your assumptions upside down. The selection of paintings and sketches by Goya would be reason enough to see this show. The Hispanic Society’s holdings give you the chance to see Goya both grounded and ungrounded—both literally and psychologically—and to remind you that it is not usually easy to find a middle ground between the two. There are two sketches from albums Goya worked on late in life with airborne figures. The “Old Man on a Swing” (1824-28) sports a broad grin, no shoes, and his butt hanging out beneath him. His smile has equal chance to be foolish or sinister. However much of him is on display, he has a secret that he’s keeping from us. Even more enigmatic is “Regozijo” (Mirth), from c. 1819-23, in which two figures fly, or soar, or dance, in mid-air. An old man, possibly a monk or a friar, alluringly plays the castanets, while an old woman, possibly in peasant clothes, looks up and holds onto him. The wall tag argues for their experiencing a relatively pure bliss, but I am not persuaded. Is this the woman’s first time up in the air or are they equal partners? Is he leading her away—astray—to the tune of his castanets? Are they two grotesques in love who do not care what anyone thinks, including us? Are they even of this world—outsiders, perhaps, who are celebrating a nefarious job well done? Personally, I lean towards the possibility that they are both mad and do not know it.
The major oil by Goya in the show is “The Duchess of Alba” (1797). If you aren’t gobsmacked by this painting, what can you be gobsmacked by? The Duchess stares directly at us—as she would have stared directly at the painter–with a look that is imperious, incredulous, and seductive. Recently widowed, she is dressed all in black, but it is black lace. Her eyes are wide open, and her lips slightly pursed. As the wall tag tells us, she is wearing two rings, one of which reads “Alba,” and the other “Goya.” She points down to the sand at her feet, where the words “Solo Goya” —“Only Goya”– have been written. It is a work as earthy as the other two were airborne. Her finger gestures unmistakably to the pair of names inscribed in the sand, but also to her feet; it indicates, unmistakably, her devotion to him, and that he should heel. Though there is plenty that scholars debate about just what is the relationship between painter and subject, clearly there is some sort of intimacy between them. It would be amazing to see this work next to the Moro painting of the third Duke of Alba—she was the 13th Duchess of Alba—to see two figures covered head to toe in black, one wholly denying sensuality and the other awash in it.
As the exhibit races to modernity, it introduces us to Ignacio Zuloaga before settling in with the more familiar Joaquin Sorolla. Zuloaga has three paintings in the show, all of which are theatrical in one way or another; they depict groups of figures in a shallow space, moving their subjects up close to the viewer, and are lit as if by stage lights. (Learning to paint in France in the 1890s, Zuloaga came into contact with Toulouse-Lautrec and his theatrical world.) “The Family of the Gypsy Bullfighter” (1903) is in part an exploration of the “modern” portrait: for some of the six figures, it is a formal occasion, and they face outwards directly towards the painter. For others, it is more like having a snapshot taken, including the bullfighter himself, who is distracted by his squirming son on his lap. If, indeed, he is actually a bullfighter: the picture is apparently populated mostly by professional models or relatives of the painter. In part, the painting seems to be a celebration of the multi-racial nature of Spain, who have been brought together, as if they were a family. It would be good to think of a work like this standing in conversation with the Casta paintings of the previous century, but things get tricky. Zuloaga was apparently a Franco supporter during the Civil War, and wrote to his American patron that his great hope was that under Franco, the government would once again “Spanishize Spain, and get rid of all outside influences, so that we can keep our great nature.”
One way to wrap up the show is to consider the figure of Joaquin Sorolla, who was the linchpin of modernity for Huntingdon; the museum owns dozens of his paintings and sketches, including a major commission. “Sea Idyll” (1908) doubles down on all the sensuality that had been latent in the Counter-Reformation. A boy and a girl lie in the shallow water parallel to each other. Flesh glistens, and is practically as much revealed beneath the girl’s swimming dress as it is in the boy’s complete nudity. The sea around them is richly abstract, not unlike the silken draperies in many 17th century paintings; it would be interesting to look at it next to El Greco’s “Pieta” of the 1570s, for example. There is something disorienting, almost dizzying in the painting’s sensuality. Cut off from all points of stable reference, we cannot really tell whether they are facing the shore or the sea. He wears a straw hat, usually, we are told in the catalogue, associated with fishermen. Are they the same social class? They communicate in pure pleasure, but we are extremely close to any of several taboos here; by 1908, Freud has already written Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and modernity is about to have its way with Europe.
But it may be better to let Goya, for whom all these mysteries were still latent but hardly deep beneath the surface, have the last word. In “Tuti li mundi” (All the world) (1808-14), a young man bends over to look through the eyepiece of a peep show. The vendor stands, disinterested, behind the cabinet. What is the young man looking at? It’s hard to say. Peep shows in the 19th century could have been educational, entertaining, or pornographic. While he looks on, absorbed in the show, he doesn’t realize that his pants have split or come unbuttoned, and his bare bottom is showing. A woman lying on the ground beside him absorbs this spectacle with a wide grin. Once again in Goya, the world is upended. He’s got his peep show, and she’s got hers. And we, of course, seeing all this for ourselves, have ours. Lest we are too hard on the delighted voyeur staring at the man’s butt crack, we should think back to our own relationship, say, to Sorolla’s “Sea Idyll.” Goya seems to be both skeptical and yet accepting of the scopophilia that powers us through this world, where there is always plenty to look at.