Hispanists’ delight: art treasures come to London

BAS editor Helen Laurenson

The Royal Academy’s current exhibition ‘Spain and the Hispanic World – Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library’ brings to London (until 10 April) a wonderfully eclectic canter through Spanish and Latin American history, rich with silver, ceramic work, illuminated manuscripts and lashings of Catholic angst.

Set against dark teal walls, the exhibition of over 170 artefacts is arranged chronologically, tracing both plastic and decorative arts from Bell Beaker bowls dated circa 2000 BC, through the Celt-Iberian and Roman periods to the heyday of Al-Andalus.

The origins of the Hispanic Society of America are well documented.  In 1881 Archer M Huntington, the 11 year-old adopted son of a railroad baron, chanced upon a book about Spanish Gypsies.  From this discovery he developed a life-long passion for all things Spanish.

The present collection represents the spoils of his highly personal infatuation with both Spain and Latin America and – hence the rub – a subjective and partial snapshot of what The Guardian’s Adrian Searle describes as ‘royals, chinchillas, bullfights and blood’. Alastair Sooke of The Daily Telegraph likens visiting the exhibition to ‘flicking through an enjoyable but bewildering coffee-table book’. Eddie Frankel of Time Out is more caustic in his evaluation of the exhibition, calling it ‘a Bill and Ted approach to the past’.

Whilst it is true that the public is, to a certain degree, subject to the idiosyncrasies of Huntington’s taste, arranged somewhat insensitively in chronological order rather than in the careful curation to which we have become accustomed, the exhibition has much to offer. For one thing, the material collated is breathtaking in its range and, therefore, very different from previous, more focused exhibitions, such as the Wallace Collection’s ‘From El Greco to Goya’, the Tate Modern’s ‘Spanish Surrealism’ or the National Gallery’s ‘The Sacred Made Real’.  It is precisely this broader overview which makes the current exhibition suitable and accessible for learners of Spanish of all ages and (intermediate) Hispanophiles.

The beautifully lit, informative wall panels and maps explain key historical periods, such as Al-Andalus and Colonial Latin America, and present multiple opportunities for individual and group projects on race and empire. Maybe a visit is just what unpractised school pupils need in order to inspire them to such investigations? The well explained and beautifully presented artefacts are arranged in such a way that even the most recalcitrant Year 9 pupil will find something to take away from a visit.

There is no doubt in my mind that the ghoulish, almost comicbook figures of Caspicara’s ‘The Four Fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven’ (Ecuador c. 1775) would pique interest, along with Giovanni Vespucci’s ‘World Map’ of 1526, which opens a portal to the discovery of Latin America and the brutality therein. Similarly, the smattering of wonderful pieces by Goya, Velázquez, El Greco and Zurburán may well inspire IRP research at Spanish A-level.

In conclusion, the Alhambra silks, silver pieces from Potosí, gruesome mater dolorosa by the female sculptor, Andrea de Mena, and snapshots of vidas mexicanas y filipinas in the extant 1763 two volume Origen, costumbre y estado by Basarás, amongst others, cannot fail to delight even the most discerning visitor. I could not think of a more pleasant way to while away a winter Saturday morning.