Giving away narrative, this exhibition is an expansive trail through the history of the Hispanic World, a coordinated sprawl that tales a chronological tour from 2400 BC, it is guided room by room all the way to the closing remarks of the founding of the Hispanic Society of America in 1904 which is followed by the Hispanic Society’s exhibition in 1909.
The first room opens to the ancient marble bust statues, though really feeling as if rendered out of wax and as if lit by candlelight from above. The craftsmanship exhibited, detailed in its crowned armour is equal measure utterly ostentatious and compliantly a requiem for a dream – and it couldn’t dare to be anything less. This presentation invites all-endeavoured rhetoric, an adventured spiritual through the trials, and emblazed iconography of ample vested objects, ornamented creatures, fresco cycles, silks, and paintings, to the very utilitarian pill jars and writing boxes. This feeds the full plane of my vision, but as a list feels almost innumerable to catalogue, and would only be a disservice to do so. The tin-glazed Earthenware with cobalt and lustre, marble-enamelled glass, manuscripts, and wood sculptures invariably in their display becomes a prized study of museology within its revered objecthood sorted for display in cabinets and frames. This true artisan and severe decorative skill, specifically around ceramics, was fostered and flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries. But dually go with equal consequence as a loss of authorship and place with many unknown artists and practitioners housing much of the rooms.
Displayed during the first quarter of the exhibition, the fluid intersection between the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faith practices meant the religious iconography not only delved deep as a mediation on fellowship but conversed with great intention, penance, polyvocality, and piety. The rooms then follow to tour Colonial Latin America, its people, and places, – the traded world of Turkey, Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, and further. The varied catastrophic consequences are most evidently shown through these incomplete maps, the caustic hand of the cartographer’s line made this World Map  displayed to our viewer’s eye as truly nothing but a map of fictions and dangerous falsehoods.
There are also many surprises, my own gaze changed when the work of the immaculate El Greco is present with Portrait Miniature of a Man c. [1586-90] as a work of oil on cardboard: the most delicate miniature of miniatures is painted on such a discretionary and forgetful material. A twin is found in the final room with Joaquin Sorolla’s installation plans  and painting composites for Vison of Spain, which found a base on the very cardboard used to stiffen shirts from his NY laundry spot.
Andrea de Mena’s polychrome wood sculptures Mater Dolorosa  and Ecce Homo  never stall to evoke consumed suffering with the sculpture’s deep sunken eyes, the wounding entrenched. But not only do these polychrome woodworks get shown mirrored by indigenous artists, a pushed-back reflection on their stolen ground, on a beguiled smeary interconnectedness. These indigenous artists were employed to dress the decorative arts in the traditions of a certain Eurocentric style to satisfy European tastes. Take Manuel Chili’s The Four fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven  as an example of an undimmed reciprocal, and more so rather a new language swapping out vowels in such rhythmic synchronicity. The objects are haptic. The painting The Wedding at Cana  travels this notion further, by artist Nicolás de Correa as an irrevocable masterpiece inlaid with mother of pearl, – its eclipsed making broke the centre of my view in a room full of emboldened religious art.
A rare sight out of Manhattan but never really lulled out of view; the title image for this very exhibition, the nicknamed Black Duchess is in full view from another room with her forgiving salubrious eyes. Goya made her eyes simmer, and as at the midpoint of this exhibition’s journey, The Duchess of Alba  writes in the sand before her ‘Solo Goya’ [Only Goya’] – is this an address for a calamitous submission or a wishful call of true love? Her rings seal the names, ‘Goya’ and ‘Alba’ respectively pointing favour to the latter of a glazed desire – but we’ll never really know. Open and fully promised expression, Zuloago’s paintings follow Goya’s tradition with works The Family of the Gypsy Bullfighter , and Lucienne Bréval as Carmen  glowing with warm tones of cadmium red, yellow ochre, and luminescent undertones blush of cadmium yellow light and phthalo-blue sear through the paint. This seals the development of new traditions of Spain in the coming 20th Century.
Even under shallow focus, this exhibition is one for the calendar. This treasure elixir of a show confounds surprise objects, and author-unknown craftsmanship, with historical works from seemingly the full geological strata. This wholly sublime collection made willing for your viewership finds the Royal Academy as temporary turf until the 10th of April 2023.
Image: Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa, Girls of Burriana (Falleras), 1910-11, Oil on canvas, 166 x 208 cm, On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY
Review by Devika Pararasasinghe
Devika is currently living and working in London, by trade an artist and snake oil salesperson. Devika graduated, last September with a research MFA at Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.
For more information and tickets Spain and the Hispanic World | Exhibition | Royal Academy of Arts
Founded in New York in 1904, the Hispanic Society Museum & Library is home to the most extensive collection of Spanish art outside of Spain. Presented for the first time in the UK, it will offer visitors a chance to trace the great diversity of cultures and religions – from Celtic to Islamic, Jewish and Christian – that have shaped and enriched what we today understand as Spanish culture.