Art News Roundup: Spanish Stories

We’re back to the weekly roundup of curated news stories from the art world, and since I still have Spain on the brain – I just booked my next trip for after Christmas – today we’ll be looking at a few interesting items that touch on Iberian artists and architecture.

While many artists’ homes or final resting places in Spain have become places of pilgrimage for those who love their work, the physical legacy of Spain’s greatest painter, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), is somewhat more elusive. For one thing, the church where he and his wife Juana – who tragically died 8 days after her husband, both of some type of fever – were buried was destroyed by French troops during the Napoleonic wars, and the bodies were never recovered. Today, if you go to the Plaza de Ramales in Madrid, where the church used to stand, there is a cross on a column indicating that, lying somewhere underneath the paving stones, are the artist’s remains. On one of the sides of the base to the column are the words, “The painter Don Diego de Silva Velázquez died on Friday, 6 of August of 1660: his glory was not buried with him.”


Similarly, once he became court painter Velázquez moved into grace and favor apartments in the Casa del Tesoro (circled in red below), a small palace connected to the Alcázar, the official royal residence in Madrid. This allowed him and other courtiers to be able to come and go from the king’s presence without having to go out into the street. Sadly, this structure, too, was destroyed by the French during the Napoleonic wars, in this case on orders from Napoleon’s brother Joseph, himself. [Note: If any of my readers can recommend a book chronicling the horrific cultural destruction wrought by Bonapartists in Spain, let me know.]


In Velázquez’ native Seville however, things are at least a bit brighter. The church of San Pedro, where according to parish records he was baptized on June 6, 1599, fortunately still stands, and a plaque in the baptistery marks the spot where this took place. Unfortunately, experts aren’t sure whether the existing baptismal font is the one that was used at the time, but then you can’t have everything.


On April 23, 1618, Velázquez married Juana Pacheco (`1602-1660), the daughter of his master Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), at the church of San Miguel in Seville. This was a large, grand 14th century building, whose architectural styles mixed the Medieval influences of Northern Europe with the Mudéjar architecture of southern Spain, which blended Islamic and Gothic styles into an elaborately decorative scheme. Unfortunately, this church like many others was ordered demolished by the leftists who dominated Spanish politics during much of the mid-19th century.


Yet perhaps the most interesting survival of all is Velázquez birthplace, a 16th century house which still stands in the center of Seville. It has been empty for a number of years, having served various functions over the centuries, including for many decades as the showroom for one of Spain’s most prominent high-end interior design companies. In 2017 the building was purchased by a group of prominent locals, with the idea that it will eventually become something like the Rubenshuis in Antwerp or the Sorolla Museum in Madrid.


The Casa Natal de Velázquez project is an ambitious one, but at the moment fundraising appears to be going rather slowly. You can see from their crowdfunding page that there is a lot to do, and they are proceeding piecemeal rather than attempting to raise all of the funds they will need at once. The hope is that if they can get one of the interior patios of the house back up to snuff, that interest in continuing to restore the rest of the house will follow.

So, if any of my readers are able to contribute, or know of someone who can, please do share this information. The world is already full of monographic museums dedicated to other Iberian artists, such as Picasso and Dalí. Yet surely the greatest of them all deserves to have his birthplace preserved as a center for future generations to come and learn about his life and work.

Pharaonic Folly

The city of Sant Adrià de Besòs, which lies just up the coast from Barcelona, can be picked out from a great distance thanks to the hideous decommissioned power plant known as “The Three Towers”. Built in the 1970’s, the three roughly 656-foot tall smokestacks spewed pollution all over this stretch of coastline for decades, until the place was finally shut down in 2008. That should have been the end of the matter, or rather the moment when the wrecking balls started swinging: instead, municipal authorities decided to hold a referendum on what to do about the building. Even though hardly anyone showed up to vote, those who did voted to keep the building standing, meaning that it would have to be re-purposed in some way. Now, an Egyptian company is proposing that the site be turned into a new university where Mediterranean institutions of higher learning from Europe and North Africa can meet to exchange ideas, research, and information, with the smokestacks serving as a symbolic reference to the legendary Faros of ancient Alexandria, and even a glass pyramid and giant Eye of Horus thrown in for good measure. You can see a video of the rather overwrought proposal here.


Litigious Lleida

A story that I’ve been following for awhile now involves a number of works currently in the permanent collection of the Museum of Lleida, in western Catalonia, which were taken from their respective parishes or dioceses against the will of the locals. In 1995 as a result of ecclesiastical map redrawing, the Vatican ordered the Museum, which is co-run by the Diocese of Lleida and the provincial government, to return 111 religious works of art to a new diocese that had been carved out in part from the western portions of the existing diocese. Both the bishop and the local government refused, and despite numerous attempts since then to try to reconcile the parties, the bishops are now suing each other over ownership of the disputed works. Given the utter mess that the hierarchy of the Church is in at the moment, one would think that the bishops could do their job, rather than squabbling over treasures like caricatures in a Bosch painting, but there you are.


Possibly Picasso

Before I left on vacation, the mainstream press was agog about the (possible) discovery of a Pablo Picasso in a car boot sale in the UK. The painting was purchased for around $300 by an antiques collector who was more attracted to the Art Deco frame than the painting itself. When he took it to an auction house some weeks later to get an opinion on whether he had overpaid, he was astonished to learn that he might have purchased an actual Picasso, believed to be a preliminary sketch of a known work, “The Seated Bather” (1930) shown below, which is now in the permanent collection at MoMA. The story took a sour turn when a prominent British art forger claimed that he had executed the work, a claim which was later proven to be false, but unfortunately it ended up tamping down market interest in the piece. At auction a month later, the painting only made about $10k, rather than the many times that which it could have made had it been properly authenticated and attested to by experts. One mystery for example, is the inscription on the piece which the auctioneers could not make out: is it in Spanish? English? French? That could have been tested using imaging technology. It does go to show, however, how the slightest hint of doubt regarding a piece can have a serious impact on the market value of a work of art.


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