Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 16, 2019
Michael A. Brown, ed. Art and Empire: The Golden Age of Spain Exh. cat. San Diego and Madrid: San Diego Museum of Art in association with Ediciones El Viso, 2019. 200 pp.; 100 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780937108604)
San Diego Museum of Art, May 18–September 2, 2019
Art and Empire: The Golden Age of Spain, installation view, San Diego Museum of Art, 2019. At right: González Family, Folding Screen with Siege of Belgrade, ca. 1697–1701, oil on wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, 90 1/2 x 108 5/8 in. (229.9 x 275.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum (photograph by the author)

Art and Empire: The Golden Age of Spain at the San Diego Museum of Art was an exceptional exhibition overall, from the quality of the artworks (one-third of them from the San Diego Museum of Art) to its bilingual wall text and even the use of augmented reality. The art of “Golden Age Spain” brings with it many entrenched and long-standing assumptions, such as the revered status of seventeenth-century Spanish painting and the artists whose names have become associated with this period: Diego Velázquez, Jusepe de Ribera, and Francisco de Zurbarán among them. Art and Empire attempted to redefine our understanding of the Golden Age by including the Spanish viceroyalties in its fold. While painting was clearly still the main focus of the exhibition, there were conscientious and thoughtful attempts to incorporate objects that speak to the dynamic flow of goods and ideas at this time. Paintings with mother-of-pearl inlay, folding screens influenced by Japanese screens, and blue-and-white ceramics that borrow from Islamic and Chinese traditions are but a few of the objects that pushed visitors to reconsider what they might know or assume about Spanish Golden Age art.

An initial red-painted room set the stage for the entire narrative that unfolded. Entering through the door, one encountered Willem Blaeu’s map of Spain (Regnum Hispania nova description, 1642); Pedro de Mena’s polychrome wooden statuette of San Diego de Alcalá (ca. 1665–70), which offered an immediate connection to the city of the exhibition; Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait of a Spanish prince (ca. 1573); and a painted scene of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid (ca. 1665), in which we see the Spanish royal family observing a bullfight. Considering the show was about art and empire, visitors might have been able to deduce that these introductory objects were intended to call to mind the imperial and colonial ambitions of the Spanish royal family during the seventeenth century. Three of the four objects in the first room, however, had no accompanying description, leaving viewers without much knowledge of this time period to guess as to why these specific objects greeted visitors.

An exciting aspect of the initial room was an educational map that used augmented reality, or AR. With the use of a smartphone, any visitor could download the museum’s app to use the AR. It entailed holding up the phone, as if to take a photograph, to frame the map, at which point the map dynamically transformed over several minutes to include animated arrows and images. Viewers experienced the dynamic flow of materials, artworks, and ideas across the Atlantic in the early modern period. It was an unexpected addition to the exhibition, and one that worked well with the focus on Spain and its American colonies. If a visitor used the AR with the map, the other objects in the room were better contextualized, as was the entire exhibition.

The first section of the exhibition centered on portraiture and courtly self-fashioning (“The Courtly Image: Portraiture in the Hispanic World”), and included several painted portraits of Philip IV by artists (including one by Velázquez), Marcello Clodio’s portrait of Philip II, and Alonso López de Herrera’s influential portrait of the Mexican archbishop García Guerra. At the center of this room—and, one might conclude, at the center of the exhibition itself—was Miguel Cabrera’s painted portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the famous nun, author, and intellectual from seventeenth-century New Spain. It serves as an end point to the exhibition’s first theme, and is wonderfully paired with López de Herrera’s portrait, which set the stage for portraiture in New Spain.

In the second section, about the birth of naturalism, museumgoers encountered Spanish artists with whom many are likely more familiar: Velázquez, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Bartolomé Carducho, and Zurbarán. While this section focused primarily on painting, a few sculptures highlighted the heightened degree of naturalism cultivated among sculptors of the time. Juan Martínez Montañés’s St. John the Baptist (ca. 1630–35) and a stunning polychrome wooden sculpture of Saint Benedict of Palermo attributed to José Montes de Oca (ca. 1734) provided visitors with a more well-rounded idea of how artists sought to develop naturalistic effects in different media. More information about these differences would have been welcome, especially for anyone less familiar with three-dimensional art of seventeenth-century Spain and its territories.

The third section, about art in the service of faith, had the largest concentration of objects. Like in the previous sections, most of the featured artworks were paintings. Still, the curatorial team should be commended for the high quality of works on display. The works that filled the gallery space were often stunning examples, among them Sebastián López de Arteaga’s Apparition of Saint Michael on Mount Gargano (ca. 1650), a sizable tapestry of The Succession of Popes (Allegory of Eternity) created by Jan Raes I and Peter Paul Rubens, and El Greco’s Penitent St. Peter. Curiously, as was the case for many of the artworks throughout the exhibition, there was no descriptive text for visitors to learn about a number of the artists and artworks here, many of which were undoubtedly unfamiliar to most who walked through the exhibition. For some pieces, one could use the smartphone app to look up information, but for many this was not an available option. It seemed a missed opportunity to engage more deeply with the art of Mateo Pérez de Alesio of Peru or Baltasar de Echave Ibía of Mexico, or equally fascinating objects, such as The Virgin of the Forsaken from Peru (1665); a seventeenth-century polychrome wooden sculpture of Saint Teresa of Ávila from Guatemala; and a silver processional banner from late seventeenth-century Guatemala. There did not seem to be an inherent logic to which objects did not have wall text nor additional information via the app.

One especially strong stop in this section of the exhibition was an enclave that allowed viewers to listen to music played by the LA Master Chorale and Sinfonia Orchestra while looking at paintings by Zurbarán, Murillo, and Baltasar de Echave Rioja. After already encountering so many wondrous rooms filled with art, I found this enclave a pleasant way to recharge before carrying on. It also placed museumgoers into a reflective environment, helping to call to mind the devotional function of religious paintings.

The final section, titled “Splendors of Daily Life and Global Materials,” tackled most explicitly the topic of global exchange across the Spanish Empire. In many ways, this final section seemed inspired by Richard Aste’s exhibition Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492–1898 at the Brooklyn Museum (2013–14), with some of the same or very similar objects and topics explored. This section, more than any of the preceding ones, offered an especially rich visual feast for the eyes, with a dazzling array of objects in varied media. Most of them were made outside of the Iberian Peninsula, offering visitors the most explicit opportunity to think beyond the traditional corpus of artists and artworks that tend to get exposure in exhibitions about Golden Age Spanish art. The only quibble one might have had is that, by the end of an already impressive stream of high-quality artworks, this section ratcheted up the number of artworks to an almost overwhelming degree. It was noticeable, too, that the space in which these works were displayed was more compressed. Still, for the visitor who remained patient, there were a number of treats that awaited, including casta paintings, crucifixes, writing desks, folding screens, ceramics, silver dishes, Hispano-Philippine ivories, and emerald jewelry.

Echoing how the exhibition opened, the final room also included San Diego de Alcalá, this time with a lovely oil and mother-of-pearl painting (called an enconchado) that encodes the dynamic transcultural processes at work. It was unfortunate that there was no accompanying wall text or link to the museum app to reveal to museumgoers the ways in which this singular object encapsulates transpacific and transatlantic trade and transcultural exchanges, Mesoamerican traditions, and the innovative and sometimes surprising visual culture born of the violence of colonization. Still, the final painting that visitors encountered as they exited the exhibition was a portrait of a young woman standing with a harpsichord, from eighteenth-century Mexico. Dressed in a sumptuous dress of imported silk and lace, with a large golden choker around her neck and pearl bracelets around both wrists, the young woman gazes out at viewers as she points to a sheet of music atop the harpsichord. The portrayed expensive fabrics and jewelry were indebted to the transpacific and transatlantic trade occurring at the time, and even the style of her dress speaks to a Mexican elite woman’s interest in adapting fashion trends popular in other parts of Europe. The curatorial decision to end a show about art and empire in the Golden Age of Spain with an eighteenth-century portrait from Mexico speaks to the show’s ambitious attempt to reframe our assumptions about what the Spanish Golden Age entailed.

An impressive catalog accompanied the exhibition, with five scholarly essays accompanying images of the exhibited works, although the latter are organized differently than they were in the exhibition itself. The essays are useful and compelling, expanding on the themes explored in the exhibition, including Michael A. Brown’s essay on Spain’s global Golden Age of painting and Sofía Sanabrais’s on Asian art in the Hispanic world. In framing objects differently from how the exhibition did, the catalog offers readers other lenses through which to think about art and empire in this more inclusive Golden Age. The catalog will appeal to scholars, students, and interested learners alike.

A variety of programming was created around the exhibition, with a full-day symposium, guest lectures, film screenings, musical performances, and a textile dyeing experience, and museumgoers seemed to respond positively to the variety of ways with which the San Diego Museum of Art engaged with their publics. Despite the above minor criticisms of the exhibition’s organization and the lack of descriptions in wall text or via the museum’s app, the exhibition was a success and a visual treat. 

Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank
Associate Professor of Art History, Pepperdine University