These are heady days at the Seattle Art Museum. In the midst of expanding its downtown headquarters and constructing a new sculpture park, the museum has just mounted its most ambitious show to date. Spain in the Age of Exploration brings together an impressive array of art and artifacts, mostly from the Spanish Royal Collection. The exhibition includes masterpiece paintings by some of the most notable names in art history, as well as armor, maps, tapestries, manuscripts, and scientific instruments. Several of the pieces have never before left Spain. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, has toured the show, and here is his review.
Many of the shows that travel the museum circuit are simply “Best Of” shows, like the Van Gogh to Mondrian exhibit that just closed at the Seattle Art Museum. Though such shows give museum-goers a chance to view examples of excellent works by significant artists, they usually do not attempt to impart any particular message, and connections between the assembled works are not given as much importance as the works themselves. Not incidentally, such exhibits are often quite successful at the box office, particularly when they highlight popular artists like the Impressionists, or Vincent Van Gogh.
Clearly falling into this second category is the new show at SAM, Spain in the Age of Exploration. The rise and fall of the Spanish empire is a dramatic story, one with a major but sometimes overlooked, impact on our own national development. The local connection is a particular fascination of the exhibit, with maps, drawings, and artifacts from the several Spanish explorations of the Northwest Coast.
Visitors are well to keep in mind that the exhibit is not called “The Art of Spain” for a good reason – painting is only one amongst many elements in the show, and in certain galleries objects, artifacts, and scientific illustrations are much more dominant. This is particularly true of the show-stopping room devoted to Spain in the 16th century. Here a half-dozen knights in shining armor provide mute testimony to a Renaissance culture where the royals saw themselves as latter-day Lancelots, fighting for Christ and the motherland. Towering over everything are two wooden horses, set up on pedestals with their flanks cloaked in steel – half animal, half war machine.
Given equal weight throughout the exhibit are scientific instruments, maps, and manuscripts. At times, this can seem almost a burden, as a full appreciation of the assembled materials requires navigating a great many wall texts. At other times, the objects speak for themselves, as when entering the 18th century gallery where an enormous, gleaming brass and steel navigational instrument used by Spanish explorers sits alongside the gorgeous, but humble, Northwest Coast Indian artifacts that these same explorers collected. The culture clash here made visible, of high-tech versus low, wood versus iron, is the recurring theme in all Spain’s encounters with indigenous peoples, for better or worse.
For many visitors, a particular highlight of the show will be the paintings and sculpture from Spain’s Golden Age, the period of roughly a hundred years where Spain led Europe as collector and creator of great art. The curators – Chiyo Ishikawa and Javier Vallejo - have made it a point to include examples by everyone on the A list, including Spanish artists like Velazquez, Murillo and Zubaran, and foreigners in royal favor, like Titian and Rubens.
Only a few of the paintings represent the various artists at their very best. But who needs a masterpiece when one can be mesmerized by works like the fragmentary Velazquez portrait of a Spanish princess, an image that seems to be constructed of light and color rather than paint? The shimmering face seems all the more magical when contrasted with the same artist’s much earlier portrait of King Philip IV, that sits alongside – the treatment competent, but dry and earthbound.
Other artists are represented by more major works. The enigmatic and compelling Hieronymus Bosch, a favorite of the modern era for his weird and grotesque imagery, was also cherished by the Spanish monarchs. Besides a huge tapestry based on one of his paintings, there is a large depiction of Christ carrying the cross. Here, unlike elsewhere, there are no demons or monsters, only a crush of brutish onlookers, with the occasional bizarre detail reminding us that this is no ordinary religious artist.
Even more impressive is a large, earth-colored canvas by José Ribera, a follower of Caravaggio living in Spanish-occupied Italy. Ribera was a master of telling Bible stories with characters taken from real life, and his depiction of Jacob beholding his angelic ladder strikes a perfect balance between the visionary and the everyday. The shepherd is depicted as staggered by his experience of the divine, clutching his breast with one beautifully rendered hand and holding onto a sheep for balance with the other.
Ultimately, the enormous glittering empire that Spain established by force of arms, and solidified by colonization, enslavement, and conversion, collapsed under its own weight. The subtext of the exhibit, and even more so of the excellent accompanying catalog, is that empires are ephemeral. Though the current political situation is nowhere mentioned, the message is implicit – however powerful a country might be, one attempts world domination at one’s peril. See you at the election.