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Spain and the Hispanic World at the RA review: a stunning selection from 4,000 years of art

Review at a glance

I

t would be a brave institution that sets out to sum up the art of the Hispanic world in the space of a single exhibition, but fortunately for the Royal Academy, this bold endeavour was already undertaken by Archer M Huntington.

The American philanthropist set up the Hispanic Society of America, a museum and library in New York in 1904. The building is being renovated, a cue for its treasures to go on tour. Like Archer M Huntington in his youth, they have come to London.

His father was a US railway magnate, his mother an aesthete who took her son on memorable tours to Europe: the National Gallery and the Louvre made a powerful impression on him. But plainly having an individualistic streak, he decided that the art of the Spanish world – old and new – should be his stamping ground, even before he visited Spain (though on principle he bought his collection outside the country). The museum was born from one man’s singular passion.

This memorable exhibition, then, is not just an institutional take on Spanish art, but the taste of a discerning individual. And the result is as good an account of Hispanic art in one place as you will find outside Spain.

Joaquín Antonio de Basarás y Garaygorta, Indian Wedding, 1763

/ The Hispanic Society of America, New York

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The early period is represented by the Bell Beaker bowls from around 2000 BC, and coiled jewellery and torques from the Celtic-Iberian Paloma hoard and some good, if not distinctively Iberian, Roman pieces.

From the period following the Muslim conquests, here are some very fine Andalucian textiles. The cross-fertilisation of Muslim-Spanish techniques with Christian figurative and animal motifs created the fabulous lusterware ceramics of Valencia, with their distinctive iridescent glazes, represented here by gorgeous platters.

Even after the reconquest of Spain, there remain distinctive Islamic elements in the decorative arts: as in elaborate background motifs in the great Renaissance door knockers in the shape of strange beasts.

Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of a Little Girl, c. 1638-42

/ The Hispanic Society of America, New York

The pictures of course include the greats – El Greco is here, represented by an elongated St Jerome; Diego Velázquez has a notable portrait of the Duke of Olivares as well as a lovely portrait of a little girl with a serious, self-confident gaze. Francisco Goya occupies the central space, not just with his dignified portrait of the Duchess of Alba, who makes up for plainness in sheer haughty presence, but also a little brush-wash work showing a woman looking in her shift for fleas.

The most striking work is perhaps the Ecce Homo by Luis de Morales, a depiction of Christ with a pensive, Hispanic Pilate, El-Greco-ish in the lambent whiteness of the flesh.

The great treasure of the Hispanic Society is its library: from it we find a beautiful illuminated Hebrew Bible and a rare book of hours with pages dyed black. There is some striking work from the age of exploration: the map of the Americas by Giovanni Vespucci, which presents a mariner’s view; and the mesmerising map of Tequaltiche, from 1584, produced by an indigenous artist showing the Caxcan people. It includes, I’m afraid, some disagreeable episodes of human sacrifice, and an equally fascinating map of the Ucayali river.

Map of Tequaltiche, Teocaltiche, Jalisco, Mexico, 1584

/ The Hispanic Society of America, New York

The decorative arts in the Americas inevitably took on distinctive indigenous aspects and techniques as well as replicating Spanish norms: the polychrome figures of souls in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, by the Ecuadorian Caspicara are deliciously lurid.

At the close we find Huntingdon’s contemporary Spanish art: notably Joaquín Sorolla, with his glorious light play, but also the lesser known José Gutiérrez Solana, whose Masked Street Musicians are memorably creepy.

So, if you can’t get to Spain, this exhibition conjures up the soul of the Hispanic world. Go see it while you can.

Royal Academy from January 21 to April 10; royalacademy.org

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