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Filling the Gaps:
SAM Brings Art from Spain

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by Regina Hackett

"Spain in the Age of Exploration" brings to Seattle dazzling paintings from Spanish and predominately Northern European art history. Featured are paintings by Hieronymous Bosch, Titian, El Greco, Velázquez and Goya, among less illustrious others. These European art stars are entirely missing from Northwest museum collections. When it comes to European aesthetics devoted to historical themes of Spanish royalty and Roman Catholicism, we have nothing but gaps.

In the effort to fill a few, the Seattle Art Museum asked Spain's Patrimonio Nacional to collaborate on an exhibit from the Patrimonio's vast holdings. Spain's Patrimonio or royal collection doesn't agree to collaborate with just anybody. In the museum world, like calls out to like. If you have a dozen Goyas, there are museums eager to loan you a dozen more. If you have none, none are likely to come your way, except at prohibitively high rental fees.

Why did Spain seal this deal with SAM? Because the Northwest itself is of interest to the Patrimonio. It's one of the places in the Americas where Spain's historical legacy still asserts itself in our place names.

Under a Spanish flag, a Greek sailor named Valerianos de Cephalonia, also known as Juan de Fuca, sailed up the Puget Sound seeking the Northwest Passage. As a result of his 1592 voyage, we have Fidalgo, López, Juan de Fuca, Guemes, Rosario and Padilla.

"Spain the Age of Exploration" includes artwork Spanish explorers collected from Pacific Northwest Native American artists, Tlingit and Nuu-chah-nulth primarily. The Spanish were particularly drawn to carved and painted helmets and body armor, part of Tlingit battle dress. The exhibit compares them with contemporary examples of Spanish body armor. In the equestrian full metal suit of Charles V, for example, we see a similar emphasis on decor: beauty meant to serve as barrier to mortal wounds.

As the Native American contributions indicate, art from the Patrimonio Nacional is not necessarily Spanish art. Royalty collected art across Europe. Starting in the 15th century with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, the Spanish crown had a tendency to favor the emotional piety of Northern European painters, the ones Michelangelo disdained as painting for nuns crying over their rosary beads.

Interspersed with Christian religious images are images of royalty. The former are passionate, the latter deliberately cold. Royalty didn't have their portraits painted to acquire personal images of themselves. They wanted the paintings to reflect their status as figureheads for empire, chosen by God.

Juan De Flanders' Christ Calming the Storm from 1496 showcases a sailor getting sick over the side of a tubby wooden boat. Behind him, a recumbent Christ raises his hand in blessing, and the flag over the mast, bearing the shield of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and León , says "Long Live the King."

Which king, heavenly or earthly? Both kings. The painter is conflating the two to please his royal audience, and please them he did. There are more Flanders than any other painter, and even some "after Flanders," to continue the legacy.

I especially like the After Flanders portrait of Queen Isabel late in life, her pudgy face aglow with an inner light, her veil caressing her head like a halo. Here is the woman who drove the Moors from Spain and insisted the Jews convert or leave, who instituted the original edition of the Spanish Inquisition. She looks like a gentle old saint, full of grace. The story of her life is not in her face, but then, she paid for the portrait.

Titian's 16th century Adoration of the Magi is restrained by Spanish standards. Color reigns, darkening to gold along the barn braces and lighting the red edges of a tunic, the blue of Mary's dress, the white of her veil.

Hieronymus Bosch: Has any painter ever brought such a light touch to grotesque horrors? His Christ Carrying the Cross packs a sea of human depravity into a wedge between the crossbeams, driving the bent Savior down.

El Greco contributes a subdued portrait of a Spanish priest, 1608 - 14, the sky convulsing behind him. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo brought sweetness, some say cloying sweetness, to basic Christian iconography. His Nativity from 1665 - 1670 is a small jewel, with the family group made of light carved into the dark, and a bull rounding out of the shadows to pay its respects. The drama is undercut by two fat cherubs hovering overhead, but that's Murillo. He couldn't trust his figures to sustain themselves in a sea of dark space without giving them a metaphoric lantern overhead.

Isabel Clara Eugenia

Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569 -22), Isabel Clara Eugenia, dated 1599, oil on canvas, 87 13/16" x 52 3/8" Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid.

Philip IV

Diego Rodr’guez de Silva y Velázquez (1599 - 1660), Philip IV, Ca. 1623 - 1624, Oil on canvas, 24 7/16" x 19 3/16", Meadow Museum, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Algur H. Meadows Collection


Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746 - 1828), Shipwreck, Ca. 1793 - 1794, Oil on tin, 16 15/16" x 12 1/2". Placido Arango Collection, Madrid

San Idelfonso

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), (ca. 1541 - 1614), Saint Ildefonso, 1608 - 1614, Oil on canvas, 86 1/4" x 41 5/16". ©Patrimonio Nacional, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (10014686)

Francisco De Zubarán was clearer about the fusion of religion and empire. The Savior's Blessing from 1598 - 1664 makes Christ a giant with his hand on the earth, as if it's a beach ball. His beach ball. Members of other religions were clearly in the wrong and better hide from the enforcement end of Spanish piety.

Murillo and Zurbarán are on one level of accomplishment, and then there's a giant leap up, to Francisco José De Goya's Shipwreck. The bloated head in the foam, the woman scraping her bare backside against the rocks, the open-mouth, leviathan horror of the rocks behind them, the dirty sweep of the sky, the female figure asking and getting no relief from the heavens, is a stunner almost two hundred years after he painted it.

In his own day, Murillo was the most important 17th century Spanish painter. Today, that honor belongs to Velázquez. Even when he was painting frozen homages to King Philip IV, the intelligence of the painter shines through. The chilly magnificence of his many portraits of royalty make the exhibit worth seeing, all on their own.

The Dutch didn't have a corner on 18th-century still lifes. Luis Melendez's peaches and grapes on a wooden table, his raspberries heaped beside a dark wine bottle, his sagging cheeses and honey pot, rival almost anything produced in the north.

Spanish history is often viewed as the record of the wild, mystical end of Roman Catholicism fused with the absolute power of royalty. This exhibit attempts to broaden that picture. It makes a case for Spain as a historical center of science, presenting instruments of navigation and illustrations of various ground-breaking scientific experiments.

In the end, it's the paintings that dominate and make this exhibit essential to anyone who loves art for its own sake.

REGINA HACKETT is the Art Critic for The Seattle P.I.

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