Spain and the Hispanic World review: An elegant, old-fashioned dive into identity

In this show at the Royal Academy, the most exciting objects are ones that contest, indeed threaten, to explode the notions of Spanish or even ‘Hispanic’ culture altogether

Mark Hudson
Tuesday 17 January 2023 16:38 GMT
<p>Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Emerentiana (c.1635-40), on loan from The Hispanic Society of America in New York</p>

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Emerentiana (c.1635-40), on loan from The Hispanic Society of America in New York

This plainly titled exhibition induces a strange sense of being trapped in another era. And that era isn’t one of the actual historical periods covered in the show’s fascinating assortment of treasures from New York’s Hispanic Society Museum and Library – be it Spain’s 16th century Golden Age or colonial Mexico. It’s more a feeling of being transported back to an older and simpler period of exhibition-making. First there’s the very plainness of that title, redolent more of some arid 1950s textbook than the kind of sexy, crowd-pulling show the Royal Academy needs in these desperately straitened times.

That impression is compounded by a certain basicness in the show’s layout and design. Four millennia’s worth of artefacts – from Neolithic pottery to Impressionist painting via substantial works by Velasquez, Goya and El Greco – are laid out chronologically in a succession of dark-walled rooms. This “visual narrative of the history of Spanish culture” is elegant enough but a shade old-fashioned, with little of the contextualisation in terms of colonialism and stylistic appropriation you’d expect in these “politically” obsessed times. I felt at moments as though I was marooned in some old-school decorative arts museum, say the V&A, in a time, say the 1970s, before museums felt obliged to present themselves as designed experiences: when it was enough simply to put interesting stuff in a room and leave it up to the visitor to take it or leave it.

Nonetheless, there’s more than enough here I’d be extremely happy to take, and that’s well worth going out of your way to see. Often it’s the more unexpected works that are most revealing, and a degree of quaintness in the presentation suits their provenance.

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