With splendor and saints, Hispanic Society shows its treasures

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With splendor and saints, Hispanic Society shows its treasures
An installation view of “Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh,” with some two dozen rarely-seen Spanish sculptures, at the museum in New York. This gem of a museum in Upper Manhattan has reopened with an operatic eye-filler of religious sculptures we’re just learning to appreciate. Hispanic Society Museum & Library via The New York Times.

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK, NY.- The Hispanic Society Museum and Library, founded in 1904, is one of New York’s cultural gems and, of late, one of its mysteries. Housed in a beaux-arts enclave called Audubon Terrace overlooking the Hudson River in Washington Heights, its gallery walls are famously hung with paintings by Goya, Velázquez and Zurbarán. But the institution has been closed to a walk-in public for nearly five years.

Rumors have swirled; people have worried. Located outside the art mainstream, the society is known to have had a hard time pulling foot traffic. Plus, the term “Hispanic,” which to the society’s founder, Archer M. Huntington, primarily meant Iberian, has changed significantly in scope and meaning in recent decades. Given all this, could the institution hope to survive, economically and politically?

Apparently, yes. The society plans to be fully up and running again after an interior overhaul, to be completed in 2022. And in the present, it’s staging a sort of soft reopening with a terrific teaser show of historical sculptures from Spain and the Spanish-speaking Americas at its Washington Heights home, and a survey of archival material at the Grolier Club on the Upper East Side.

The sculpture exhibition, called “Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh,” is an operatic eye-filler of some two dozen religious works — seven by women — dating from the 15th through 18th centuries, all brilliantly colored and all but one from the society’s holdings. Italy was the stylistic source for most of this work; many Spanish artists did an apprenticeship there. But the Roman Catholic art developed in Spain, and later passed on to, or imposed on, the Americas, was, formally and emotionally, a world of its own, a world little acknowledged by major museums.

To put distinctions too simply, Italian artists of the Renaissance and beyond favored what they imagined to be a Greek “classical” tradition of idealized figures carved in pure white marble (although, in fact, ancient Greek sculpture was painted). Sculptors in Spain went for more perishable media, such as wood and ceramic, and for expressive realism, the more naturalistically detailed and colorful the better.

For centuries, canon-forming Western art history came down on the side of classicism, presenting idealism and realism as a good-bad divide: high art versus low art; elite versus popular; the Metropolitan Museum versus, well, the Hispanic Society. This bias created a visibility problem.

Euro-American museums hustled to round up as much Greco-Roman and Renaissance work as they could. But Spanish sculpture mostly stayed put in the churches, monasteries and convents it was made for. International exhibitions have been few. The last one I recall in New York City was a truly fabulous gathering of Spanish religious art called “The Ages of Mankind: Time to Hope” that landed, like a piece of heaven, at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. But that was almost 20 years ago.

So for rarity alone the Hispanic Society show is special. It’s also drop-dead gorgeous. There is, as advertised, much gold. It’s a binding visual “wow” factor. In a large altarpiece relief attributed to 15th century late-Gothic sculptor Gil de Siloé, the Resurrection of Christ takes place in a gilded world. The landscape is gold; the uniforms of the soldiers snoozing around the tomb are gold; Jesus’ beard, cloak and halo are gold. The whole piece is conceived as light-reflective device, designed to come fully alive and radiant set behind banks of candles.

The human presence, blending real and ideal, is a binder too. You see it in two carved wood busts by 16th century French-Spanish artist Juan de Juni. Technically, they’re reliquaries, but they’re also saintly “portraits,” the sitters being pious sisters Martha and Mary Magdalene of New Testament fame, one a compulsive doer, the other a “concept person,” a dreamer. And those are the people we see: Mary, lips ajar, lost in thought; Martha, eyes closed, catching a power nap.

And for a really arresting personality, there is a bust by baroque sculptor Pedro de Mena of St. Acisclus. Acisclus seems not to have a large following or much of a story — he was beheaded in Córdoba, Spain, in A.D. 312, is about all we know — but Mena has made him unforgettable. For one thing, the guy’s a dreamboat: flawless skin, soulful eyes, meticulously tousled hair. But what stops you is his expression: hurt, uncertain, unbrave, and the thin red thin line across his neck that explains it.

Art careers ran in families. Mena had three daughters, two of whom became artists. One, Andrea de Mena, is in the show with two exquisite, signed minibusts of the grieving Virgin and the suffering Christ, both in their original gilded cases. Although she was clearly a talent, her life and art are thinly documented. Such is the case with many female artists, with the exception here of Luisa Roldán.

Roldán, born in Seville, Spain, and also the child of an artist, was an outright star. Independent-minded, she married young, set up a studio, then, probably in the interest of networking, moved to Madrid, where she was known as La Roldana and was named personal sculptor to Emperor Charles II. The appointment — contemporary artists will be familiar with this scenario — brought high prestige but zero cash. To support herself, she turned out a line of tabletop-size terra cotta religious scenes — there are three charmers in the show — for private clients. And, simultaneously, as if to flex her experimental chops, she created hyperrealistic reliefs of severed heads of martyred saints.

Such images of graphic violence, whatever their devotional uses, were a turnoff to classically minded art historians, who dismissed them or their like as examples of vulgar populism, a category into which most Spanish colonial art fell. The Hispanic Society itself came late to collecting such art, yet fully one-third of the show — organized by Patrick Lenaghan, a curator of prints, photographs and sculpture, and Hélène Fontoira Marzin, head of conservation — is devoted to it, and there are remarkable, chilling things.

Among them is a painted wood relief by an unknown Mexican artist on the standard Spanish theme of “Santiago Matamoros” — “St. James the Moor Killer.” It depicts the saint mounted on a horse and trampling a Muslim adversary. The twist is that, transported to colonial context, the same image served as a battle cry against Indigenous peoples.

Much of the archival material in “Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library” at the Grolier Club is also, in ways negative and positive, about politics. It’s there in the form of land-grabbing maps and shady diplomatic treatises, but also in multilingual books and manuscripts that give evidence of the quasi-mythical era known as the “La Convivencia” when Christians, Jews and Muslims are said to have shared Iberia in peace.

The wealth of cultural information in the Grolier Club show — assembled by the Hispanic Society’s former director, Mitchell A. Codding, and its current curator of manuscripts and rare books, John O’Neill — provides necessary grounding for the too-sparsely annotated sculpture display at Audubon Terrace. Yet it’s the sculpture itself that’s the grabber, visual and emotional, and one that we’re still just learning to appreciate.

The three-decade rise of identity politics and global consciousness has certainly helped with this. So has resulting awareness on the part of our “encyclopedic” museums of what they’ve left out. Spanish and Spanish colonial religious art of the 15th to 18th century is finding a place in institutional collections and gaining visibility through special shows. One, “Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain,” put together by the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Meadows Museum in Dallas, traveled the country in 2019. And a year earlier, Spanish baroque sculpture had a starring role in a contemporary group show called “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body” at the Met Breuer in New York, where Pedro de Mena and La Roldana shared space with Jeff Koons and Duane Hanson, and more than held their own.

To do so, however, they had to be stripped of their social, political and spiritual values. They were made “modern,” museumized. You still need to visit the great churches of Spain or Mexico or the Philippines to see and feel how these images were meant to work as devotional objects. And to fully understand this art, to be true to it, and to all religious art (which is, after all, the bulk of surviving art before the 20th century) you need to keep this need in mind.

Actually, the gilded Hispanic Society figures make this easy, because they don’t give us much choice. They tell stories many of us barely know, about figures, human and divine, we barely believe in, and about histories, natural and supernatural, we barely understand. And they do so with a dramatic power so strong and strange that we’re willing to suspend reservation and savor their passionate shine.

Exhibit Information:

‘Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh’

Through Jan. 9 at the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, 613 W. 155th St., New York. 212-926-2234; hispanicsociety.org.

‘Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library’

Through Dec. 18 at the Grolier Club, 47 E. 60th St., New York. 212-838-6690; grolierclub.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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