Spain is a very big country, with a very long history. So big and so long, that trying to sum it all up in one exhibition sounds like an impossible task, a bad idea doomed to unavoidable failure.
Who would set themselves up to stumble so spectacularly? Well, the Royal Academy’s giving it a whack. The works in this show are all loaned from the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York, an institution dedicated to exploring the history of Spain and its colonial legacy, which is currently closed for refurbishment and apparently using the RA as a storage space. The exhibition is a sort of greatest hits, starting way back around 2,000 BC with ceramics by the Bell Beaker people, Celtiberian bracelets from 50 BC and Visigoth belt buckles from AD 500. Then you’re whooshed through time to the Arab invasion of Spain, with its intricate silks, expert ceramics and a wall of door knockers. All in the first few rooms, presented with almost no context, history or information. Here’s some stuff, you figure it out.
By the time the show dumps you in the seventeenth century – as Jewish, Arab and Christian coexistence was being chucked out in favour of Catholic dominance – your head’s spinning. Not that there aren’t amazing things here: there are stately portraits of serious men by Velazquez and Alonso Cano, two incredible, thickly painted, gestural, tormented El Grecos and Andrea de Mena’s tiny polychrome busts of Mary and Jesus which are bursting with colour, gore and emotion. But it’s all so broad and general and swept over. It’s a Bill & Ted approach to the past, Pokémon collecting for history buffs.
It’s a Bill & Ted approach to the past
Spain’s colonial endeavours get a quick look in too. More than half a millennium of history and violence summed up in a handful of maps and decorative boxes. It’s interesting to see how indigenous artists adapted their work for colonial tastes, and to watch South American Christian art develop its own identity with elaborate uses of mother of pearl and gold, but it’s all just glossed over, dumped in some vitrines and then, bosh, the next room plonks you back in Spain with some Goya portraits.
The other problem here is that so much of this is just so dour and glum, a remorseless trudge through sombre religious iconography and silver plates. Only in the more modern work do you actually get any sense of national character or identity. José Gutiérrez Solana paints the solemn stoicism of impoverished fishermen, Ignacio Zuloaga’s huge paintings of Spanish families are filled with contrast and colours and emotions, and Joaquin Sorolla is an eye-tingling burst of seaside colour and floral joy. And I don’t even like Joaquin Sorolla.
Every era here could – and should – have been a show of its own. By reaching so far, trying to say so much and having such a broad scope, the show ends up telling you very little. I don’t doubt it works brilliantly as a museum, but it’s a failure as an exhibition, Sure, viva España, but this show might just bore you to muerte.