Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic society museum & library is a major new survey exhibition featuring 150 works at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Hispanic Society’s Museum and Library in New York City own the most extensive collection of Hispanic art and literature outside Spain and Latin America. Much of the collection has been on loan to institutions worldwide, including the Museo del Prado in Madrid and the Museu del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City since the museum closed for a refurb in 2017.
The Hispanic Society operates a museum and reference library for studying the arts and culture of Spain and Portugal and their former colonies in Latin America, Portuguese India, and the Spanish East Indies. Archer M Huntingdon, a Philanthropist and heir to the fortune of an industrialist, founded the Hispanic Society in NYC in 1904. He was passionate about Spanish culture and the collection he built up between 1900 to 1930 includes art, books, maps, ceramics, altarpieces and jewellery.
The Hispanic Society has more than 18,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures and artefacts in its collection, dating all the way from the Paleolithic period to the 20th Century. Objects from prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Iberia; Spain and Portugal; Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America; Portuguese Goa in India; and the Philippines all figure notably in the collection. Artworks and artefacts drawn from 3 millennia are displayed at the RA in London. Covering such a vast period of history is rather ambitious. Nevertheless, the exhibition attempts to tell the story of Spanish and Hispanic art, culture, and colonial legacy, dating as far back as the ancient world through to the early 20th Century. Presented for the first time in the UK, it will offer visitors a chance to trace the great diversity of cultures and religions – from Celtic to Islamic, Jewish and Christian – that have shaped and enriched what we today understand as Spanish culture.
As well as Masterpieces by Goya, El Greco and Velázquez, there are illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, textiles, ceramics, silverwork, jewellery, maps, drawings and decorative lacquerware from Latin America on display. So the result is a potted history of Spanish and Hispanic art and craft, which begins in 2,400 BC with a display of pottery made by the Bell Beaker people and Celtiberian bracelets dating back to 50 BC and features a Roman’ Head of Medusa’ mosaic dating back to Seville in AD 175-225, a Roman sculpture of Diana the Huntress from AD 138-50. Diana was the Roman Goddess of the hunt and animals and was popular in Spain, as this is one of many statues of Diana found in the region. Other treasures on display include belt buckles made by the Visigoths in around 500 AD and religious iconography in the form of Miguel Alcanaz’s vast tempera on wood altarpiece ‘The Ascension of Christ’ (circa 1422-3), which was commissioned for the Church of San Juan del Hospital in Valencia, and two delicate carved wooden busts of religious subjects, unusually created by a woman artist – Andrea de Mena – her depiction of a crying Virgin Mary is particularly heart-rending in its realism.
The exhibition is an interesting history lesson, particularly a central section that charts the expansion of the Spanish empire into Latin America with manuscripts, artworks and maps which give an insight into the worldview of the time, notably in the form of Giovanni Vespucci’s famous World Map of 1526, which marked the beginning of the Age of Exploration and the dawn of Hispanic culture. Vespucci’s map was probably intended as a gift for Charles V to commemorate his marriage to Isabella of Portugal.
Also featured is an atlas with charts of the New World by Giovanni Battista Agnese (made in Venice around 1550) and an atlas from circa 1585 made by an anonymous Portuguese cartographer from the school of Luís Teixeira, which includes one of the earliest depictions of Bolivia’s silver mines.
In 1499, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain commissioned Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci to sail to Latin America to spread Christianity, colonize the New World and make Spain a dominant world power. This exhibition glosses over some of the more macabre aspects of Spain’s increased global dominance, such as the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, designed by devout Catholic Queen Isabella to convert Spanish citizens to Catholicism and decreeing that all Jews and Muslims should convert or be expelled.
Vespucci’s incomplete map of the world stretches across a wall in a room dedicated to the colonial art of Latin America. Its uneven texture mimics the topographical lines of a walker’s guide and contains the world on a single sheet. Also on display are Juan Rodríguez Juárez’s paintings of indigenous Latin American people, which provide an insight into the dubious colonial legacy of Spain and its links to slavery. The Spanish colonies were late to abolish slave labour in sugarcane production, particularly in Cuba. Moreover, the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean were among the last to abolish slavery: the British abolished slavery by 1833, while Spain didn’t abolish slavery in Puerto Rico until 1873. Also, in these rooms, we see how indigenous artists adapted their work to suit colonial tastes, and South American Christian art is featured. But the curators don’t delve deep enough into the underlying violence and horrors that took place during the expansion of the Spanish empire.
Latin American works in the central rooms that caught my eye include a beautiful 19th Century painting, ‘Young Man from the Coast (El Costeño).’ (c. 1843) by José Agustín Arrieta and a group of 4 polychrome sculptures originating from Ecuador and titled.’
The Four Fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven’ (c. 1775), attributed to Manuel Chili, called Caspicara (1723- 1796). The menacing image of the devil representing the ‘Soul in Hell’ could perhaps be seen as an allegory for the violence and conflict that came with the discovery of the ‘New World’.
On a more uplifting note are paintings by Velazquez, El Greco, Zurbarán and Sorolla. Velazquez was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV of Spain and Portugal and the most celebrated painter of the Spanish Golden Age and Baroque period of c. 1600-1950. Velázquez’s paintings inspired 19th-century realist and impressionist artists such as Picasso, Dali and Bacon, who all re-interpreted some of his most iconic paintings. Velázquez’s portrait of Spanish prime minister Count-Duke of Olivares is striking. Still far more intriguing is a much smaller painting of an anonymous young Spanish girl with haunting brown eyes peering out from the canvas and a halo of dark hair framing her alabaster skin, ‘Portrait of a Little Girl’ (c.1638-42).
Domenikos Theotokópoulos (1541 – 1614), better known as El Greco (‘The Greek’), was an artist of Greek origin who found success during the Spanish Renaissance with his dramatic, expressionistic style of painting, which lent a sense of religious ecstasy to his subjects and is often cited as an early form of Expressionism and Cubism.
In the RA exhibition, El Greco’s Pietà and Saint Jerome paintings are exhibited in the same room as an extraordinary painting of Saint Rufina by Zurbarán, who was a leading artist in Seville in the 17th Century, commissioned mainly by Spanish religious orders to depict religious subjects and was influenced by Caravaggio’s realism and use of chiaroscuro.
A highlight of the exhibition is a room dedicated to the celebrated Spanish Romantic painter, and printmaker Goya, considered the most important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of the collection’s most iconic artworks is Goya’s “Duchess of Alba” – a portrait of the artist’s patron in a romantic Andalucian landscape, wearing a dramatic black lace dress with traditional lace mantilla and red sash, with the words ‘Solo Goya’ (‘only Goya’) written beneath her feet in the sand. These words led to speculation that the Duchess and the Goya were more than patron-artist, and the painting certainly had some sentimental meaning to him, for he kept it for himself and never parted with it.
In the penultimate room of the exhibition is a wall dedicated to the impressionistic paintings of Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla, including ‘After the Bath’, which features a swimmer emerging from a sun-dappled sea, and a painting of a man in a light-filled Spanish garden, and my favourite canvas ‘Sea Idyll’ (1908) which provides a bit of welcome escapism from a freezing cold London January to a summer’s day on the Spanish costa brava. The final room features a 7-metre long frieze made up of 14 Gouache paintings by Sorolla, studies from his Vision of Spain (1912-19) series, which truly capture a sense of 19th Century Spanish identity and leave you with a taste for the culture, colours and characters of Spain.
‘Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library’ is supported by The Magic Trust, Crankstart Foundation and Ömer Koç, with additional support from the Embassy of Spain, London, and the Dr Lee MacCormick Edwards Charitable Foundation. The exhibition is on at the Royal Academy of Arts until 10 April 2023: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/spain-hispanic-world