Spanish Masterpieces Bridge Cultures at the San Antonio Museum of Art

500 years of Spanish art makes the point that culture links us, rather than separates us.

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Ignacio Zuloaga, "Young Village Bullfighters" (detail), 1906, Museo Nacional Centro Arte Reina Sofia. Zuloaga's naturalistic description combined with sketchy technique won him international fame. / via

The 41 works in the San Antonio Museum of Art’s exhibition “Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting from the Museums of Madrid” (through Sept. 16) offer a primer on the glories of Spanish art from the late fifteenth through the beginning of the 20th century. But the exhibition — with to-die-for loans from eight prestigious collections like the Prado — is much more than just an aesthetic coup for the city. It’s a ringing riposte to wall-builders, border-closers and anti-immigrant rhetoric. San Antonio, founded in 1718 by Spanish Franciscan friars before it became a province of Mexico, is celebrating its tricentennial. The exhibition, which attracted King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain to its June opening, is part of a citywide “Summer of Spain” party to mark the anniversary. With the largest Hispanic population in North America (around 65%, mostly of Mexican descent — of whom about 17% are foreign-born), San Antonio is the seventh-largest US city. Highlighting sublime masterworks of Spanish art makes a transnational statement, fosters local civic pride and reminds us that culture links, rather than separates, people across borders.

Collaboration is the best rebuttal to xenophobic discrimination.

Writing in the Foreword to the exhibition catalog, Miguel Gonzalez Suela, deputy director general of Spain’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage, says that culture and heritage are the “best ambassadors and the most powerful tools…to share our values,” as well as to strengthen ties, break down prejudices and engender respect between countries. With the current “zero-tolerance” attitude of demonizing Latinos who cross the US border and President Trump’s insistence that people of Hispanic descent are murderers, rapists and gang members, this exhibition mounts a timely counterpoint, reminding us how people of Spanish descent have enriched world civilization.

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“We share so much more than what separates us,” Katie Luber, SAMA director and co-curator of the exhibition, recently told me. The city’s demographics, the museum’s strong relationship with Mexican colleagues and its three-year-long interaction with Spanish museum officials while preparing for the exhibition make showcasing the art of Hispanic culture central to the museum’s mission. “Collaboration,” Luber added, is “the best rebuttal” to xenophobic discrimination.

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Luis Madrazo y Kuntz, “The Young Marchioness of Roncali,” 1858, Museo Lazaro Galdiano. Madrazo studied in Madrid and Rome and excelled at portraits of the nobility.

Luber’s crusading zeal to promote inclusion and diversity in the art world, as well as to encourage access to the museum’s encyclopedic collection, was ignited by a conversation with a San Antonio city councilman several years ago. When she asked him if he had visited the museum, he answered that he’d been there on a sixth-grade field trip and also later, when he worked as a waiter at a catered event. “My heart sank,” Luber said, before he added words that inspired her: “The kids in my district are so poor, they can’t go to Mexico or Spain or India, but they can come to the museum and they can learn about the world.” Luber went on, “He broke my heart in half but he gave me something so precious, because he gave me a mission.”

As minority populations swell across the US, San Antonio — a majority-minority city — could be a model of social cohesion for other regions. The San Antonio Museum similarly hopes to be a model of how to provide access to community groups that have not been so well served in the past. Opening museum doors wide to welcome those formerly shut out through lack of education or opportunity should be a priority for leaders of art institutions, Luber said, adding, “We should be more, not less, active in our advocacy roles.”

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Velázquez (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez), “Queen Mariana of Austria,” 1652-53. / via

William Keyse Rudolph, co-curator of the Spanish painting exhibition, told me that he agrees with the goal of providing access to underserved segments of the population. (Half of visitors to SAMA are first-time attendees; admission is free twice a week.) “You have to figure out what the barriers to access are,” he advised. “You have to ask yourself, when people walk in the door, what message are we sending?” His recommendation: to tell “stories that will resonate both particularly and universally.”

Art is a universal language and, Rudolph added, “What museums do is allow everyone to share everything. People can learn about the best art that humanity makes” and break down divisive categories of ethnic identity. “As a curator, my Utopian vision is that all the stories in our exhibitions remind us art is individual in concept and universally engaging.” Recognizing our common artistic heritage could lead, he said, to “a wonderful way to live: to be both about the individual and local and the global and universal.”

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Luis de Morales, “Pietà,” 1550-70, Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. The tight focus on the Virgin’s anguish and Christ’s bruised, haggard face increases the emotional intensity of this conventional subject.

The idea that art might bridge polarized identity politics seems not so far-fetched in San Antonio, where tacos — not hamburgers — are the snack of choice and Anglos (as white, non-Hispanic residents are called) guzzle margaritas rather than martinis. The city of about 1.5 million is already a blended confluence of cultures — a glimpse of a looming demographic shift in the US. “Bicultural coexistence is our way of life,” Rudolph said. “We are the future.”

The Spanish paintings on display, created by individual artists but reflecting global influence, make the point. The late-medieval, 15th-century paintings, for example, show Spain’s links to Flemish painting in their early adoption of oil as a medium. In the 16th century, an artist like Luis de Morales combined both Northern European and Italian influences in his moving Pietà (1550-70). Morales, called “El Divino” for the spiritual power of his devotional images, incorporated Leonardo’s sfumato technique of thin veils of color with Flemish architectonic, linear composition.

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El Greco, “The Annunciation,” c. 1596-1600, Museo Thyssen-Bornnemisza. The interaction of glances, gestures and drapery folds with a diagonal, upward thrust emphasizes the link between earthly and heavenly realms. / via

El Greco’s Annunciation (c. 1596-1600) is almost sui generis a work of startling originality, yet it owes a debt to Venetian painters’ vivid coloration. In a gallery boasting no less than four works by El Greco, The Annunciation shows the artist’s subjective interpretation of a common subject, made his own through elongated, expressive forms, dramatic lighting and acid color contrasts. Through the vortex of figures, bordered by popcorn-like heads of cherubim, the Holy Spirit (represented by a dove) descends like a bolt of sulfurous lightning.

Jusepe de Ribera’s Saint Jerome Writing (c. 1615) displays the artist’s trademark naturalism (the saint’s wrinkles, ropey muscles and uplifted eyebrow), intensified by spotlight effects borrowed from Caravaggio. Other masters of the Spanish Baroque Golden Age are represented, like Francisco de Zurbarán with Saint Elisabeth of Portugal (c. 1635), one of his signature monumental, single figures against a dark background with characteristic virtuosic rendering of fabric textures. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s The Virgin and Christ Child with Saint Rosalia of Palermo (c. 1670) displays his popular “vaporous” style — as if painted on air — of idealized naturalism suffused by golden light.

No survey of Spanish painting would be complete without Velázquez. A bust-length portrait of Queen Mariana (c. 1656) reveals the painter’s innovative technique of broad, loose brushstrokes to create a naturalistic effect of light and color. Velázquez individualizes his subject’s face while reducing her gown to a triangular swath of flat paint.

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Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes), “Manuel Godoy as Prince of the Peace,” 1801, Museo de la Real Academia de las Bellas Artes de San Fernando. Goya contrasts the reclining general to the conquered flag of Portugal leaning in the opposite direction in this idiosyncratic portrait of a battlefield victor.

One of the triumphs of the exhibition is Goya’s masterpiece, Manuel Godoy as Prince of the Peace (1801), the pride of Madrid’s Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. Goya, as court painter to the foolish Charles IV, lamented that commissions permitted him “no scope for fantasy and invention.” But viewing his court paintings, one has the impression that Goya did insert satirical commentary, which his aristocratic subjects were too dim-witted to perceive. In Goya’s depiction, Godoy (Queen María Luisa’s lover and a catastrophically inept and hated prime minister of Spain), lounges on the battlefield bedecked in pompous regalia, gloating over a conquered Portuguese flag. The portrait is realistic, yet the central image of the backside of a horse conveys sub rosa criticism of Spanish politics.

Outstanding works by other much-admired Spanish painters adorn the galleries, from an early Picasso painting of his sister Lola (1899-1900) in a black lace mantilla to flashy young matadors by Zuloaga (1906) and Sorolla’s charming, sun-drenched take on impressionism, Bath Time, Valencia (1909).

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Juan van der Hamen y León, “Still Life with Porcelain and Sweets,” c. 1627, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. The greatest still-life painter in 17th-century Spain, van der Hamen y León used light and dark to define volumes and voids and precise brushwork to render materials’ surfaces.

Lesser-known artists’ works also shine in this sterling company. Works by two masters of still life — relatively unheralded in this country — are spectacular. Still Life with Porcelain and Sweets (c. 1627) by Juan van der Hamen y Léon, a zig-zagging, rhythmic arrangement of vessels surrounding central confections, precisely defines wood, pottery and pastry surfaces. Another still life painter as gifted as the Dutch is the 18th-century painter Luis Meléndez. His Still Life with Oysters, Garlic, Eggs, Pot and Pan (1772) makes the frilly edges of oyster shells seem sharply tactile, the brass pot shiny and solid, the eggshells soft and velvety.

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Alonso Cano (1601-67) won the trifecta of talent as a gifted painter, sculptor and architect. The Crucifixion (c. 1646) is an almost three-dimensional version of Christ on the cross, blood running in rivulets down his toes, his head drooping in sorrow. And who knew a nineteenth-century Spanish painter like Luis de Madrazo y Kuntz is the equal of Ingres? The linearity of his draftsmanship and satiny sheen of the costume in his tour de force portrait, The Young Marchioness of Roncali (1858), trumpet his painterly skills.

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Ramón Casas i Carbó, “Interior in Open Air,” 1892, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. The proto-modernist Catalán painter Casas contrasts graduated colors from amber to pale yellow in this study of opposites.

Ramón Casas i Carbó is another artist who deserves to be better known. Interior in Open Air (1892) plays with geometry and contrasts of color, form, gender and light.

According to the consummately Spanish artist Picasso, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Perhaps another purpose of art is to sprinkle stardust over pictures of daily life to make us realize we share a common humanity and heritage of magnificent art.

With around 34 million tourists in San Antonio each year, the city’s embrace of multiculturalism reflected in the museum’s exploration of Spanish roots announces to visitors that foreign heritage is not really foreign in our nation of immigrants. Foreign roots can be an asset, not a liability, and not, in fact, otro mundo (another world) but nuestro mundo (our world). Celebra quién eres. “Celebrate who you are” could become a national mantra.