Manuel Arias Martinez

Magazine issue: 
#4 2015 (49)

This panorama of the museums of Spain focuses on collections that represent a true symbol of the country's identity. In a wonderful way museums bring back to society that which society itself has created, reinterpreting and re-presenting the best of a nation's "personality" through the objects that have endured as a testimony of its history. This journey through some of Spain's most notable Fine Art museums, especially those outside Madrid, allows us to delve deep into Spanish culture and character.

Many of the greatest Spanish museums were founded in the 19th century as part of a process to make art more widely available to the general public. Originally, they were not conceived as the final point of any specific goal, but were rather recipients of objects from diverse sources, grouped together as "witnesses" to the past; they also served as places of inspiration and study for artists.

The provincial museums emerged as a product of disentailment, the secular initiative experienced simultaneously in many European countries in the 1830s when the State seized the property of the Church. However, a problem arose around the question of what to do with the works concerned: committees were established to ensure the conservation of artistic objects or library archives, but often they arrived too late. The lack of legal protection pushed the process towards commerce, and during the second half of the 19th century a vast quantity of Spanish artworks began to circulate on the international art markets.

Nevertheless, many such collections led to the establishment of new museums, especially in the regional capitals. That turbulent origin - enhanced by the lack of, or incorrect documentation of pieces - made the existence of the early museum community rather precarious. In addition, on many occasions, such content was stored in "adapted" venues, generally religious establishments. This resulted in a number of unique buildings being restored for new use. Collections featuring works in many fields, collected from different sources and housed in often remarkable places, made the new museums singular in character, a factor only deepened by their subsequent accumulation of different contributions.

Thus, the acquisitions and unique configuration of museums in Toledo illustrate such a privileged environment. In this case, the museums were not separate "islands" that had remained through the vicissitudes of time, but rather particular places loaded with memories that were integrated into environments that provided irreplaceable new "keys" to discovering their historical context. For that reason, Toledo's museums represent a beautiful chapter of the Spanish identity. From the Museo de Santa Cruz, housed in a fascinating old hospital, to the museum that houses the treasure of the original Cathedral, impressive for both the quantity and quality of art it contains, such examples abound.

Two of Toledo's museums are of particular interest. The first, the Sephardic Museum (Museo Sefardf), is named after the term that refers to Jews from the Iberian Peninsula: Toledo has been called a city of three cultures - Catholic, Muslim and Jewish - and was a symbol of in terfaith co-existence. The museum reveals the possibility of such cross-cultural understanding, and the original building is also a historical monument to Jewish life in Spain, which for a variety of reasons has often been relegated to the second tier of history.

Its main building was the synagogue of Samuel Levi, a wealthy banker who maintained excellent relations with the Catholic Kings in the 14th century. Levi financed the construction of this religious centre for his community in the heart of Toledo's Jewish Quarter. With its secluded location and intricate urban planning, the mansions here with their old wooden doors and original facades look much the same as when the synagogue was erected. The building is elegant, featuring expansive and diaphanous outlines and, interestingly, it incorporates the ornamental repertoire of Islam. Plaster decorations with epigraphs, geometrical and floral plant designs reach a surprising virtuosity and give it a very specific personality compared to synagogues elsewhere in Europe.

The synagogue was conserved with hardly any modifications when it was converted into the Church of the Assumption (El Transito). An altarpiece was created in the chancel, and in the 16th century - following common practice - a funeral niche opened in one of its sides, where a panel painted by Correa del Vivar was placed (the piece, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, is today in the Prado). The museum illustrates the customs and presence of Jews both in Toledo and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, incorporating objects that contribute to a better understanding of their traditions and way of life. These communities were forced to leave Spain after the 1492 Edict of Expulsion: dispersed throughout Europe and Africa, some preserved the Spanish language, and associated musical and cultural practices, despite the passage of time, a detail that contributes to a better understanding of the idiosyncrasies of Spain today.

As well as the Sephardic Museum, the second institution that stands out in Toledo is the El Greco Museum. Spanish painting, especially from the late 16th to the 18th centuries, was one of the most important schools in European art. Its central figures such as Velazquez, Zurbaran, Murillo and Goya are internationally renowned, but there is probably no painter who has been identified with the identity of Spanish art as closely as El Greco. His innovation was combining mannerist language with subjective and unique compositions. The elegance of his figures, his sense of light and colour and sui generis expressionism made him the quintessential image of Spanish society during the Counter-Reformation. The dour faces of the saints, the tall and slender figures and elongated composition, his concetration on the detaied images of the portraitees, the artist's special attention to the styled hair mass, the intense colour palates and the daring compositions reveal the personality of a genius who has been identified as the preeminent portraitist of a nation.

In the early 20th century, El Greco once again began to receive critical acclaim and his art became an international phenomenon, with the establishment of the museum, an initiative of the Marquis of Vega-Inclan, contributing to that process. The origin of the museum stemmed from the acquisition of some ruined buildings in the Jewish quarter of Toledo: the grand idea of the Marquis was to recreate the spirit of the era by establishing a house-museum space similar to that in which the artist had lived.

It houses a series of pieces that provide background information: paintings and sculptures, combined with many objects of decorative arts, illustrate the historical context of the time. Works by El Greco appear in different rooms, as well as a piece by one of his most interesting disciples, Luis Tristan. One intriguing painting is the famous "View and Plan of Toledo", in which the city's lay-out is faithfully depicted, including a surrounding inscription which aids in identifying the main buildings. The special light and colour scheme makes this painting absolutely unique within the specific genre of the townscape, then just in its infancy.

Moving south from Toledo, if there is a place in Spain where the importance of the venue eclipses any material object displayed inside, it is surely Granada's Alhambra. The palatial complex of the Nazarid Kings is a "myriad of facets" not just from the architectural point of view, but also from an ornamental perspective. The Alhambra reveals the refined way of life of the Islamic kingdoms of the Peninsula, and for that its value is exceptional.

The conservation of the sumptuous chambers, ornate landscaping and fine materials, as well as their integration into nature, blend together in unique harmony. The landmark is a paragon of what cultural co-existence meant in medieval Spain: a blend of cultures and identities that were the substrata of contemporary society at the time. This combination of outstanding beauty and history gave the compound a distinguished romance that since the 19th century began attracting foreign tourists visiting Spain.

The beauty of the Alhambra as an architectural space, combined with the quality of materials used in its construction, reveals a superior aesthetic sense. The decorative art on display allows the viewer to delve deeper into the level of refinement achieved by artists and artisans in the old kingdom of Granada. Ceramics, mosaics and intarsia or inlaid woodwork reached a truly exquisite standard.

The palatial grounds feature one building that breaks the effect: the palace of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Its shape, proportion and lack of ornamentation disrupt the unity with the rest of the compound, which deepens the visual story revealed to the visitor. The building was designed by Pedro Machuca in the 1620s, during the early Spanish Renaissance, and followed Italian models, featuring classical elements: unparalleled in Spanish architecture of its time, it constitutes a new and special combination of architectural elements.

Today, the palace is home to the Museum of Fine Arts, next to the permanent exhibition of Nazarid artwork. It contains a select collection of artwork from after 1492, including artists such as Sanchez Cotan, whose "Still-life with Thistle" is a marvellous realist work of sobriety and restraint. There are also creations from great artists of many different media such as Alonso Cano and Jacopo Florentino and sculptures by Jose Risueno and Pedro de Mena.

Moving from Granada to Madrid, Spain's history of immigration, overlapping cultures and diversity is best showcased at the National Archaeological Museum (Museo Arqueologico Nacional), the "quintessential" Spanish museum and one of the greatest European institutions founded in the 19th century. Established in what was called the Spanish Library and Museum Palace (Palacio de Bibliotecas y Museos), built to commemorate the fourth centenary of the Discovery of America, it shares a building with the National Library. The story of the formation of this institution, recently renovated, and its collection is a long one. Some objects came from the royal collection, while others were brought from all over the country with the intention of offering a broad view of Spain; some of them were excavated from important archaeological sites. The museum provides an overview of the history of Spain, from prehistoric times to the modern world, with a special focus on primitive Iberian cultures, Greek colonialization, Romanization, the world of the Visigoths, medieval Spain, Muslim rule and the Christian kingdoms, and includes an interesting and rich collection of the decorative arts. In some ways, we could call it a "museum of museums", and it was designed with a combined chronological and cultural thread. The Altamira National Museum (El Museo de Altamira), the National Museum of Roman Art in Merida (Museo de Arte Romano), the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Madrid (Museo de Artes Decorativas) and the National Ceramics Museum in Valencia (Museo de Ceramica), along with those already mentioned.

Some of its pieces are truly national cultural symbols, such as the "Lady of Elche" and the "Lady of Baza". This type of sculpture dates back to the origins of the Spanish identity and reveals the degree of artistry and creativity achieved on the Iberian Peninsula before the appearance of Hellenistic styles. Furthermore, being able to admire them in a setting that also displays artefacts from the Greek and Egyptian worlds (well-represented in the collection) expands the visitor's point of view.

If the National Archaeological Museum offers an overview of the succession of different cultures that have occupied Spain, the Museum of the Americas (Museo de America) gives a perspective on the decisive centuries of its colonial rule. The Spanish expansion to the new continents and the consolidation of the large Viceroyalties of Peru and New Spain resulted in art that was influenced by other cultures and, in turn, inspired new styles, a hatching of forms in constant exchange, an amalgam of very diverse sensitivities and traditions.

From the beginning of these conquests onwards, representative objects from the cultures of the new Americas began to arrive to Spain. They were characterized by their diversity of materials, function and type, which illustrated both the novelty of the unknown in general, and the individual character of the conquered empires like those of the Incans and Aztecs. The stockpiling of such objects in the royal collections only increased with time.

The archaeological collections of the different pre-Hispanic cultures offer a rich panorama and bring visitors closer to developments in the different regions of the continent. Examples range from various kinds of ceramic pieces with floral and anthropomorphic themes to textiles. The collections of precious metals are remarkable, many with legends attached to them, like the treasure of Quimbayas dating to the second century BC that was donated later by the Colombian government. The archaeological collection has also received beautiful examples of colonial art, in which combinations of media have resulted in some unique pieces that are full of personality: for example, painted wooden sculpture created in the Baroque workshops of Guatemala reached a degree of quality never achieved in Spain, especially in the richness of its polychrome repertoire and the addition of silver and detachable - laid on - elements.

Painting also has a very particular character here. An example of one style that was widely popular at the time, casta (caste) paintings show the diversity of the vibrant societies of the colonies. Alongside them is a wealth of decorative arts including pieces made from feathers, which are only comprehensible in the exotic context of the new continent. There are also painted nacre inlays, where the paint incorporated the reflection of the adjacent shells in order to achieve a stunning "pattern" of vibration.

While Madrid offers a variety of extraordinarily important collections, no less noteworthy establishments emerged elsewhere in Spain, among them the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville (Museo de Bellas Artes). The economic strength of that city was enhanced by its position as the "gateway" to Hispanic America, and it became a place of both interchange and the arrival of new elements, and was characterized by growing artistic demands. The development of painting and sculpture, especially since the 16th century, has made Seville has an essential link between all the different Spanish schools.

The museum reflects this significance. Founded as a result of the disentailment laws in the Convento de la Merced Calzada, its architecture features the detailed figures that come from the original convent. Paintings are on display there from renowned artists like Francisco Pacheco, who is a key to explaining the works of great figures such as the best known Sevillian painter, Diego Velazquez. The group includes others known for their treatment of colour or individual narrative strategies in the world of the Spanish Baroque, such as Zurbaran, Herrera el Viejo, Valdes Leal and Murillo, all of whom borrowed from various traditions in their artwork.

The same is true with sculpture. The collection features "St. Jerome" by Pietro Torrigiano, an example of the quality achieved in Italian sculpture in the early 16th century. Martinez Montanes represents the apex of sculpture in Seville and is an example of an artist from the Counter-Reformation who produced serene and restrained plastic creations that featured a sober classicism that evolved into Baroque realism. Works such as "St. Bruno" and "St. Dominic the Penitent" express their unique way of understanding a genre that was deeply indigenous and featured the participation of the faithful in religious processions.

Another essential destination is the Museum of Fine Arts in Valencia. Although it grew as a result of the disentailment process, its origin dates back to the Royal Academy of St. Charles, one of the first such institutions - after the Royal Academy of St. Ferdinand in Madrid - founded in the 18th century in places such as Zaragoza and Valladolid. They were formed to standardise the teaching of the arts, following guidelines established by the Bourbon administration. The collection of paintings and drawings in Valencia is a reference point in Spanish art. It embodies Mediterranean cultural traditions and the permanent and natural ties with Italy which has given art from this area its distinct personality. Its collection begins with Gothic panels and altarpieces, some made by the Florentine Gherardo Starnina, commissioned by Friar Bonifacio Ferrer, and continues with examples of the early Renaissance from the late 15th century. The Renaissance took longer to reach the rest of the Peninsula: paintings by Fernando Llanos, Paolo de San Leocadio and Yanez de la Almedina are intimately connected to what was being produced in Italy at that time.

Work by artists such as Juan de Juanes is elegant and offers an unequivocally "clear" narrative, as seen in his well-balanced "Virgin of the Venerable Agnesio", a piece featuring contrasts of light in dramatic and daunting realism. The collection also displays art by great figures such as Jose de Ribera, who was from Valencia and mainly worked in Naples, in addition to Francisco Ribalta, a Catalan whose naturalism embodies the most characteristic expression of the Valencian school.

The collection extends to other genres developed in the 17th century with singular mastery, in which the visual representation of nature reflects on the verisimilitude of painting itself, a concept alluded to in the exquisite still-lifes of Tomas Yepes. Works by painters such as Pedro Orrente and Juan de Espinosa are complemented by those of later artists who were of Valencian origin but worked elsewhere, among them Mariano Salvador Maella and Vicente Lopez: together they make the museum essential for understanding the importance and evolution of Spanish painting.

The National Art Museum of Catalonia (Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya) must also be mentioned in any catalogue of Spanish Fine Art museums . Barcelona is a city full of great museums of all kinds, including unique collections like the Mares Museum (Museu Frederic Mares) and Picasso Museum (Museu Picasso). However, the National Art Museum is perhaps the perfect summary of the city's rich cultural tradition. Since 1934, it has been housed in a striking building, the Monjuic Palace, which was originally built for the 1929 World Expo: the unique period architecture adds charm to the space.

The collection of Romanesque mural paintings is the most emblematic feature here. The opportunity to admire pieces like the "Sant Climent de TaQll" and "Santa Maria d'Aneu" emphasizes the importance of church apse decoration in the 12th century. It also helps to understand the Byzantine influence through the contrast of colours and well-developed iconography loaded with symbolism. The influence of medieval artworks extends beyond this part of the exhibition, its echo felt by generations of later artists, with altarpieces featuring emblematic sculptures like "Batllo Majesty" and goldsmithery, together forming an ensemble superlative for its quality and degree of conservation. These late medieval collections surprise the visitor and define the museum. The Gothic era coincided with a period of economic boom, with the development of architecture corresponding to the development of the plastic arts. From the Gothic era, the museum has pieces by Huguet, Dalmau and Cascalls. These artists are an expression both of the city's development and the relations it established with European painting at that time.

The rooms dedicated to the Renaissance and Baroque world includes works of great quality, both from Spanish and international schools. However, it is perhaps the museum's 19th and 20th century collections that offer a deeper glimpse into the specific qualities of what was happening in Catalonia. Art of the 19th century, Modernism, the importance of design, the work of distinguished painters from Casas and Rusinol to Picasso and Miro, architects like Gaudi, sculptors like Gargallo and Julio Gonzalez, all express the creative activity without which it is very difficult to understand recent Spanish history.

Moving to the northwest, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao) dates from the early 20th century. The institution was not the result of any organized administrative directive, but rather of a public interest in creating a centre of culture and education. In fact, it was popular demand that resulted in the foundation of the museum, and its role and collections retain an importance that stands out even in the shadow of the new landmark that is Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum. The Fine Arts Museum features different levels and layouts with different kinds of galleries containing masterpieces from a variety of European schools, from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Goya, as well as El Greco, Ribera and Gentileschi.

The collection gains interest as it moves toward the contemporary, represented by paintings and sculptures by European artists not frequently represented in Spain, such as Gauguin and Francis Bacon. In addition to showing examples of other painters from the Peninsula, such as Sorolla and Barcelo, there are also works demonstrating the significance of the Basque school, among them the sensual and profound portraits of Ignacio Zuloaga like the "Countess of Noailles", and Eduardo Chillida's robust sculptures.

Valladolid's National Sculpture Museum (Museo Nacional de Escultura) concludes this journey of artistic exploration. Founded as the Provincial Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes) in 1842, it was originally dedicated to Spanish culture from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. In 1933, it was moved to its current main building, the Colegio de San Gregorio, and was assigned the monographic title that now defines its character, containing sculpture created both in the Iberian Peninsula and in other regions historically connected to Spain, including Italy, Flanders and South America.

That re-foundation in 1933 made this one of the most emblematic museums of the Hispanic identity. It came into existence at a time of investment in other museums, such as the Prado, and in some ways these two museums can be considered as parallel institutions, displaying the most brilliant artistic creations of Spanish heritage in different forms. The undeniable quality of Spanish painting had broken down international borders and become a perfect expression of the nation's history: the same was now sought for sculpture. The latter medium had traditionally been relegated to its religious context, but a "rebirth" was sought from a new perspective.

The singularity of painted sculpture is one of the most special traits of Spanish culture, and has generated renewed attention in recent years. The Iberian Peninsula not only conserves the medieval tradition of painted sculpture that existed throughout Europe, but stands out especially for its instrumental character in the field of devotional art during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. What was produced in Spain is a sum of artistic disciplines that reached surprising limits. Stone was used for funeral sculptures and church facades, but the quintessential material was wood, which was easier to obtain and less expensive. Later, wood was painted in multiple colours to enhance its sense of "reality". This fusion of sculpture with painting resulted in a new artistic "product": painting was not only complementary, but a necessity for heightened realism. Naturally, the technique was used with other materials like lead, terracota and wax, but due to its durability, wood both lasted longer and fitted better with the wishes of clients.

A chronological tour of the National Sculpture Museum reveals the techniques and most frequently reproduced forms, its masters and outstanding schools, allowing visitors to understand the evolution over time of a Spanish artistic culture which reached its apex in Hispanic America. Traditional types of medieval sculpture - representations of the crucified Christ and figures of Mary - open the display in a way that makes it possible to understand the evolution of the artistic language and the roots of a discipline without which it is not possible to understand the Spanish history of the fine arts.

Sculpture in late medieval Spain was a field in which practices from different parts of the continent were refined; they came especially from Central and Northern Europe, thanks to the political connections that existed between the Kingdom of Castile and those territories. Many works were imported from the Netherlands, full of interesting stories and narrative details.

At the time, a great number of masters were employed to meet this ever-increasing demand for religious art. Around 1,500 sculptors, such as Rodrigo Aleman and Alejo de Vahia, were at the forefront of their workshops in different areas of the country. Alonso Berruguete is one of the great figures of the Spanish Renaissance and the museum contains one of his most significant works, the altarpiece of the Monastery of St. Benjamin the Deacon. Berruguete worked with monks upon his return to Italy in 1526 and this work is a grandiose display of painted wooden architecture that features reliefs, sinuous sculpture and a painting on panel.

Berruguete's method of working had its own strong and characteristic personality. In Italy he became familiar with the works of masters like Michelangelo and Raphael; however, he also participated in the first developments of the new experimental style of Mannerism, and had a unique way of understanding shapes. Instability, expressive strength, asymmetries and inequalities co-exist with elements inherited from the classical world. He employed literal references to antiquity, mixed with a subjective vision of a truly innovative artist: Berruguete built an important workshop and defined sculpture in 16th century Spain.

Alongside Berruguete's sculptures, there are works by sculptors such as Juan de Juni, a French artist who relocated to Spain. His pieces convey the intensity of the Burgundian tradition and feature a concept different from that of Berruguete, even though the two artists were contemporaries. His work manifests the transcendence of volume and the devotional character of Spanish sculpture; a precursor to the Baroque, it shows the diversity of plastic languages that co-existed in Spain at the time.

Next to it, the work of other artists like Picart, Anchieta and Jordan show how sculpture transmitted the feeling of a society strongly sacraiized, especially by Catholic militancy, which was sanctioned at the Council of Trent and made Spain the leader of the Counter-Reformation, as the country turned into a bastion of the fight against Protestantism. In that process, sculpture took on a special role and represented something more tangible than painting; it had a greater verisimilitude, a factor which was further heightened when it was painted.

The abundance of materials and tradition in woodwork made it the quintessential material in which to depict sacred imagery. Various types of altarpieces, such as those destined to house reliquary busts from the Convento de San Diego in Valladolid, have extraordinarily interesting displays. They resulted in a combination of painting and sculpture, featuring architectural structures, doors with painted canvases and sculptures that contained reliquaries. The museum also contains liturgical furniture.

Perhaps one of the most representative genres in the collection, thanks to its singular concept and value as a symbol of identity linked to religion in Spain, is the processional sculpture. The development of this form in the early 17th century would be one of the most interesting contributions to the world of plastic arts for its unique theatricality, as displayed in processions through the streets . Although during the second half of the 16th century pieces were made with materials that would not last, after the first decades of the following century, large painted sculptures began be constructed.

Such processional sculpture depicts different scenes from the Passion of Christ, and was used on the street as a public catechesis. Its figures are presented in an easily comprehensible scene, which is linked to the theatre of the Golden Century (Siglo de Oro): the piece could easily fit within the literary works of Calderon, Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina.

The museum displays sculptures from different national schools, some of great importance, such as that of Andalusia which had its own specific personality, and from other places that belonged to the Spanish Crown, such as Naples. All help to better reveal the idiosyncrasy of a country in which the Mediterranean tradition gave a truly special dimension to sculpture.





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