The Spanish Golden Age
El Alma de España at the Albuquerque Museum
By Steven Robert Allen
At the time of Albuquerque's birth in 1706, Spain was one of the most powerful empires on Earth. Its tentacles seemed to stretch around the entire globe, but its greatest influence was felt in the New World.
Empire, of course, is about more than guns, gold and glory; it's just as much about art and culture. Between the late 16th and early 19th centuries, Spanish painting from immortal masters such as El Greco, Velásquez and Goya rivaled, and often surpassed, anything being created in the rest of Europe.
As part of our city's elaborate 300th birthday celebration, the Albuquerque Museum is presenting a series of three exhibits focusing on Spanish art. The first of these, El Alma de España, recently opened in the museum's stately new exhibition hall. This first show explores the golden age of Spanish painting, with some sculptural work from the period thrown in for good measure.
This ambitious exhibit took two years to orchestrate. It consists of loans from public and private collections in Spain, Mexico and across the United States.
Filled with immensely beautiful religious imagery, El Alma de España serves as an enlightening reminder that the Catholic Church, for all its many flaws, was the single best outlet for Western artistic genius throughout most of the last millennium. You'll find plenty of still lifes here, along with portraits of aristocrats and even a few peasants. Mostly, though, this exhibit is full of virgins, angels and saints, but even the most obsessive atheist will find plenty to marvel at.
El Alma de España also presents a golden opportunity to witness some work by brilliant lesser Spanish masters. José de Ribera is a fine example. A Spanish painter who spent most of his life in Naples, which was then under Spanish control, Ribera was a follower of Caravaggio, using dramatic lighting effects inspired by the Italian Baroque master. At his peak, Ribera was even more popular among Spanish art patrons than his contemporary Diego Velasquez.
This show exhibits several fine examples of his work. His somber, hyperrealistic "St. Bartholomew" is one of the most striking paintings in the show. Created circa 1630, this painting shows the saint clutching the blade with which he was ultimately skinned alive, the expression on his face both dignified and dry.
A later work from 1642, "Virgin and Child," shows Ribera working with a lighter touch, a plump Mary presenting her bare breast to her doe-eyed son. This painting has a more luminous quality than Ribera's other work in the show.
Another brilliant painter who is well represented in the show is Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. One of Murillo's finest talents is his ability to depict children. His oil study "Four Angels" is an astonishing example. This quartet of cherubs tumbling through the stratosphere is a small but beautiful piece of work that depicts the winged toddlers in a highly natural manner.
Of course, with a show of this breadth and stature, there's more to explore here than I could possibly touch on in such a limited space. Suffice it to say that this is the kind of show that we never see in Albuquerque.
The second exhibit in the series will focus on Spanish art from the early 19th through the early 20th centuries. Watch for it. It'll be opening in August, shortly after this exhibit closes.
El Alma de España, an exhibit of Spanish art from the late 16th through the early 19th centuries, runs through July 31 at the Albuquerque Museum. $4 adults ($1 discount to NM residents with ID), $2 seniors and $1 kids. 243-7255.
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