Exhibition for Masters a Bit Light on Masterworks

A critique of SDMA’s new exhibition of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón’s Spanish Masters


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Smartly organized exhibitions always contain a pledge or pitch in their titles, some direct and others implied. Often, a show suggests more than one appeal in its name.  The major exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art, “From El Greco to Dali: Great Spanish Masters from the Pérez Simón Collection,” (through November 6) offers up three.

One is that you will get to see exemplary works by iconic artists. After all, when it comes to Spanish art, names don’t get any more familiar than El Greco or Dali, unless we are talking about Picasso. But then, he’s included, too.

A second appeal: that you will encounter the sweep of Spanish art history. The 60-plus works in this internationally touring show—San Diego was a late addition—take us from the 16th to the 20th century.

As for the third pitch: the title implies that you are bound to encounter stellar examples by great painters. And though the word is not used, the term “masterpieces” can’t be far from any visitor’s mind.

A tall order, no doubt. And publicity surrounding the show created great expectations.

So, it is fortunate to find one undeniably great picture in the exhibition: Francisco Goya’s 1783 portrait of the wife of the semi-disreputable aristocrat, Infante Don Luis. Unacceptable behavior had forced Don Luis to leave a career in the clergy. He subsequently married Maria Teresa de Vallabriga and commissioned a portrait of his much younger bride, along with other paintings by the artist.

This was Goya’s first foray into portraiture, but you would never know it, looking at how vivid this depiction of her is. He subtly illuminates her pale skin and renders her eyes so that they seem to look through us.

Of course, we should keep in mind that all of the work on view was amassed by Mexican magnate Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, and as deep as his pockets are, and as broad as his ambitions have been for amassing Spanish art, his holdings display gaps which are typical of a collection built in an age of inflated art prices and limited availability of particular historical greats.

A significant example: There is no painting in the collection by one of the linchpins of Spanish realism, Francisco de Zurburán.

Then there is the conspicuous quirkiness in an exhibition trying to give us the sweep of Spanish art history: a surplus of paintings by the late 19th- and early 20th-century artist from Valencia, Joaquin Sorolla. As lovely as many of his paintings are—and “lovely” is the right word—Sorolla’s sun-drenched scenes of Spanish seaside life, genteel nudes, and handsome portraits are overemphasized, even if his reputation has been on the rise in recent decades. But 13 of them when there only six Picassos? And unfortunately, the Picassos are pretty minor except for a small, vibrant portrait, Françoise in an Armchair (1949), freely interpreting his longtime partner Françoise Gilot in bold colors and characteristically distorted forms (Gilot later married Jonas Salk; she made her home in La Jolla for many years.)

At the same time, one of the pleasures of a collection like this, which delves deep into a subject, is to discover relatively obscure works deserving of attention. There is a wonderfully complex painting—the artist is anonymous—of the procession of Charles III into Madrid in 1706 as he becomes king. The scene is Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. The artist pictures the crowd and the architecture in enticing detail.

As lovely as many of his paintings are—and “lovely” is the right word—Sorolla’s sundrenched scenes of Spanish seaside life are overemphasized, even if his reputation has been on the rise in recent decades.” 

A major virtue of this exhibition is its relation to the permanent collection of the SDMA. Spanish painting is one of the museum’s real strengths. Even Peréz Simón’s passion for Sorolla connects up with the institution’s history: the first picture to enter its collection was Sorolla’s Maria en la Granja (1907).

If you want to experience the greatness of Spanish painting, supplement your viewing of the show with a visit to the galleries housing the collection. They contain one of the most memorable pictures in all of Spanish painting, Juan Sánchez Cotán’s mesmerizing Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber (1602). Other highlights of the permanent collection are a pair of stellar Zurbaráns and a strong El Greco. If part of museum director Roxana Velásquez‘s plan in bringing this exhibition to town has been to underscore just how good the museum’s collection is in Spanish works, then she has done the SDMA a very good turn. On its own merits, the show is a bit less grand than its title.

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