Like any other commodity, art gets around, but so do the ideas which lead to stylistic innovations in art.
Case in point: next weekend the Cincinnati Art Museum will open a major exhibition called “Treasures of the Spanish World”, featuring works of fine and decorative art from Spain and Latin America. All of the exhibits are on loan from the temporarily-shuttered Hispanic Society of America Museum & Library in New York, whose grand headquarters has been undergoing major renovation and is expected to reopen next year. The fact that such a large collection exists outside of Spain is quite remarkable, but the fact that it’s in America is a great opportunity for my fellow Americans to learn more about the role of Spain in cultural history.
Among the most significant objects heading to Ohio is Francisco de Goya’s controversial masterpiece, popularly known as “La Duquesa Negra” (“The Black Duchess”) because of her attire, but more properly a “Portrait of the Duchess of Alba” (1797). As the preferred painter of the Spanish Court, Goya (1746-1828) took a different tack from his predecessors, often depicting the royal family and their courtiers in rather unsympathetic or perhaps more earthy fashion. The nature of his relationship with one of his aristocratic patrons, the aforementioned Duchess of Alba, has always been subject to a great deal of gossip and speculation.
That whiff of scandal comes in part from the fact that, in this painting, the Duchess is shown pointing to something on the ground. Closer examination reveals that is writing, which reads “solo Goya” (“only Goya”). Because from our perspective the words are upside down, the implication is that the Duchess herself has written the text in the dirt. If that wasn’t enough to set tongues wagging, note that the Duchess is depicted wearing two rings: one bears the name, “Alba”, and the other the text, “solo Goya”, yet again.
Are these elements of the picture an indication that the Duchess only wanted the best, and that therefore she only wanted to be painted by Goya, the best artist then working in Spain, along the lines of the old advert, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins”? Or is there an implication of something more than a business relationship between patroness and painter? The reader is invited to draw his own conclusions, since art experts are still fighting over this topic.
The core of the Hispanic Society’s collection was assembled by philanthropist and Hispanophile Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955), who collected pieces from Spain, Portugal, and their former colonies, and his initial gift was added to over the years by subsequent donors. It includes everything from original Moorish tiles from the Alhambra Palace in Granada, to ivory colonial period statues from the Philippines and Goa. Everything won’t be heading to Cincinnati, of course, but what will be there should provide visitors with a hint of what to expect when the Society is finally able to move back into its home.
Due to the nature of the institution from which its component objects are drawn, this is the sort of exhibition that one doesn’t see very often in Europe, where there’s a tendency among the former imperial powers to segregate the work of their homegrown artists from those executed by artists in their former colonies. Yet once these countries began expanding their power and influence overseas, they couldn’t help but influence and themselves be influenced by the cultures that they were coming in contact with. We saw this last year in the Frick Collection’s exhibition of “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”, where not only was there some evidence to suggest that the artist, the Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), had executed the thirteen giant canvases for a client in South America, since his family had set up a kind of regional showroom in Lima to market his work in and around Peru, but several of the figures are depicted in garments that are reminiscent of traditional Inca attire.
Given the breadth of the Hispanic Society’s collection, and the extremely rare opportunity to see some of the key works from that collection outside of New York, I want to particularly encourage those of you in the Midwest, or who find yourselves there during the show’s run, to make the time to catch this show. The significant influence of Spain on the history and culture of the Americas and indeed of the United States is not a subject that is taught very much in schools, where the focus tends to be on the British and French empires. I suspect that, if you take the time to tour this exhibition, you will come away from it with a greater appreciation of that influence, as well as for the beautiful objects that the Spanish-speaking world has created over the centuries.
“Treasures of the Spanish World” is at the Cincinnati Art Museum from October 25th through January 19th.
And now, on to some of this week’s more interesting news stories from the art world.
Pamplona to Paris
Sticking with the Spanish theme for a moment, Juan Bautista del Mazo (c. 1612-1667) was an important painter from the Golden Age of Spanish art, whose work is not very well-known outside of specialist circles, not even within Spain. The son-in-law of Spain’s greatest painter, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), del Mazo trained in his future father-in-law’s studio beginning in the 1530’s, and assisted him on many commissions, particularly excelling in the depiction of landscapes. The two worked together so closely, that one of the big debates going on in art circles at the moment is whether some paintings that are currently attributed to Velázquez need to be re-assigned to del Mazo.
In the meantime, works that are currently known to be by the younger artist hardly ever come up for auction. Last week his “View of Pamplona” (c. 1550-1557), a fairly small painting at roughly around 2 feet by 4 feet, and featuring the coat of arms of the former kingdom of Navarra appearing in the clouds over the city, sold for $140,000 at auction in Paris. As greater research and new technologies begin to ascribe more of Velázquez’ work to del Mazo, and reassessment of the younger artist takes shape, his paintings are likely to increase in value, so I’d consider this purchase to have been quite a bargain for whoever bought it.
Naples to Seattle (and Dallas)
What looks to be an excellent new survey exhibition opening today in Seattle, and later moving to Dallas, will bring many great works of Renaissance and Baroque art to these shores for the first time. “Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum” at the Seattle Art Museum will showcase 40 works from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, whose core collection was formed by the powerful Farnese family, and later acquired by the Bourbons. Visitors will have the distinct pleasure of seeing two portraits of the same member of the Farnese family, painted by two of the greatest artists in history, but executed decades apart: Raphael’s “Portrait of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese” (c.1509-1511), and Titian’s “Portrait of Pope Paul III” (1543). The show runs through January 26th, after which it will travel to the Kimbell in Dallas from March 1st to June 14th.
Staying Put in Pompeii
And speaking of the Bay of Naples, last week I mentioned how British scientists are going to try to read hundreds of carbonized scrolls buried in the infamous 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, among other sites. This week, archaeologists digging at Pompeii have uncovered a remarkably well-preserved depiction of Roman gladiators fighting in the arena, with one having clearly wounded the other in rather graphic fashion. The wall fresco is located in the basement of what is believed to have been a tavern or wine shop, and was probably the 1st-century equivalent of a sports bar frequented by professional athletes, their supporters, and their groupies. Despite centuries of digging, much of the ancient site remains unexcavated, so hopefully there will be more of these discoveries to come.
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