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According to the curators of Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth and History, the dominant themes of Spanish painting can be captured in fifteen categories ranging from art-historical genre (“Bodegones,” or still lifes) to those seemingly made to fit the loans received (“Flyers,” “Landscapes of Fire”). The curators took great—and controversial—license in liberating Spanish painting from the conventions of chronology, school, and patronage that usually provide the foundation for its presentation. However, if the resulting exhibition does not succeed in presenting the masterworks on view in a more memorable way, or in making them somehow more accessible to a museum-going public, then the flaunting of conventions seems to become an end in itself. And this is what appears to have happened here.
This is not to criticize the quality of many of the works on view, including Alonso Cano’s Crucifixion (ca. 1640) from St. Petersburg or the portrait of Carlos II (1671) by Juan Carreño de la Miranda from Oviedo. Nor should we underestimate the role that serendipity might play in the organization of exhibitions: key works cannot be borrowed, and loan requests can be denied. Nor can we underestimate the challenges of installing a thematically arranged exhibition dominated by Old Master paintings in the space of the Guggenheim Museum. But arrangement of these works by categories that will probably not outlast the exhibition leads us to another issue: if “Spanish painting” can be so easily reformulated, what does it mean to begin with?
Scholars have realized the shortcoming of the phrase “Spanish painting,” as attested by a preference for “Painting in Spain” in the titles of recent survey texts. “Painting in Spain” invites consideration of the many influences that impacted the creation of painting in the country, including the influence of works in the royal collection as well as the sojourns in Spain of artists extending from Rubens, to G.B. Tiepolo, to Mengs. “Spanish painting” implies a far more reductive approach, suggesting continuity among unlike things and overlooking inconvenient breaks. It indiscriminately mixes paintings created for monks, for monarchs, for art markets; it implies continuity among paintings created at the court of Madrid, in Toledo, in Seville, in Paris. Had the exhibition looked beyond the familiar masters, had it included painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries whose work reflects the internationalization of painting in Spain, it might have dispelled the myth of the isolation of the Spanish school. Instead, it reconfirmed stereotypes.
What explains the ongoing appeal of this view? To trace its evolution and attraction, it is interesting to examine the catalogue of the first major exhibition of the Spanish school, as presented in the newly opened Real Museo del Prado in Madrid in 1819. The listing of the 311 paintings exhibited in three galleries suggests they were stacked on the walls. History paintings, portraits, still lifes, and landscapes are all included; although we have no images of the galleries, the listing suggests a mixed hang. But what is most interesting is how the Spanish school is defined for the public. Paintings by Velázquez, Murillo, and Ribera dominate. But there is an array of masters far less familiar to today’s general museum-going public: Claudio Coello, Eugenio Caxes, Alonso Cano, Juan de Juanes, and Juan de Escalante. Coello’s Sagrada forma (1685–90), housed in the Escorial, is represented by a copy by Vicente López. Inclusion of the copy, paintings attributed to unknown followers of masters, as well as a variety of masters and genres shows that the goal of the exhibition was to provide a far more comprehensive view of the Spanish school than what is usually offered in museums today.
One explanation for the change is suggested in a 2002 essay by the late Stephen Weil, “Courtly Ghosts and Aristocratic Artifacts.” Drawing on the research of Michael Conforti, Weil suggests that in the early twentieth century two U.S. museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, “turned away from the primarily educational focus with which they each had been established . . . [and] . . . would thereafter emphasize the aesthetic rather than the instructional aspects of the works of art that they chose to acquire and/or display” (Stephen Weil, “Courtly Ghosts and Aristocratic Artifacts,” in Making Museums Matter, Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, 160).
Extrapolating from Weil’s essay, I would suggest that this trend manifested itself during the course of the twentieth century in most major galleries of Western European painting. Displays moved from “visual encyclopedias” of national schools to a selection that gave priority to aesthetic quality over breadth. The national school, formulated in the eighteenth century as dictionary classification and instituted in nineteenth-century museums as an educational tool, now became an aesthetic category.
As a result, paintings by masters of lesser aesthetic quality were removed from the walls and taken into storage; and in looking for new acquisitions, museums sought out a small group of masters who passed the “aesthetic purity” test. A selective canon became a self-perpetuating one; lesser masters disappeared from view. It mattered little that these lesser masters may have provided lynchpins to explain the origins of the styles of better-known masters, now seen in isolation. Ultimately, “Spanish painting” no longer represents a “school” of artists related by training, culture, and patronage, but instead is identified with a highly edited group of masters that reflects changing tastes and fashions of collecting from 1900 to the present.
The categories organizing the present exhibition seem like a weak attempt to fabricate a rationale in the absence of history. But I do not think the rationale will outlast the exhibition. The paintings have been subjected to an art-historical image game, analogous to that played with magnets imprinted with individual words that you can arrange on your refrigerator to create poetry or nonsense. But the magnets can be endlessly reshuffled to create new, ephemeral meanings. What is more, some of these pairings seem to have been conceived as slide comparisons, without any consideration given to scale. In the first gallery, as we ascend the Guggenheim’s ramp, the inclusion of Goya’s intimate The Friar’s Visit (ca. 1798–1800) among several large paintings of monks or monastic themes by Zurbarán seems out of place; in another gallery, the delicately rendered catastrophe of Goya’s Shipwreck (1793) is lost, as the viewer ponders its relation to El Greco’s imposing The Vision of St. John (ca. 1608–1614) under the category “Landscapes of Fire.“
It is ironic that this exhibition takes place only a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum which, from 1987 (with Zurbarán) to 2003 (with Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting), has done more than any other U.S. museum to introduce, if not the full complexity of painting in Spain, at least an in-depth look at its universally accepted masters and an awareness of their critical fortunes. Given the variety of works included at the Guggenheim (and perhaps breaking new ground for U.S. audiences by including more works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), this exhibition might have complemented what has already been done—even if it meant an old-fashioned chronological arrangement by school.
Janis A Tomlinson
Director, University Museums, University of Delaware
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