Treasures of the Hispanic Society in the Prado

Treasures of the Hispanic Society in the Prado

I’ve just returned from visiting the new special exhibition in the Prado: Treasures of the Hispanic Society of America. It is fantastic. I had no idea that the Hispanic Society—a relatively unknown and ignored museum in uptown Manhattan—had such a vast and beautiful collection. The special exhibit adds a completely new dimension to the Prado; it is like having an entire additional museum inside the original one. It opened on April 4th and will continue until the 10th of September, and so I recommend you go see it while you can.

The Hispanic Society of America is a museum and library dedicated to Spanish and Latin American culture. It is housed in an impressive Beaux-Arts building in Audubon Terrace, situated in uptown Manhattan. (I’ve never visited or even seen the museum; and since it will be closed until 2019 for renovations, it seems as if I won’t be seeing it anytime soon.)

The museum was founded in 1904 by the exceedingly wealthy and Spain-obsessed Archer Milton Huntington, heir to the Huntington railroad fortune, who commissioned the Audubon Terrace three years later. This building complex (so named because it was built on land formerly owned by the famous naturalist), although beautiful, was not the ideal location for a museum. Being so far uptown, inconveniently distant from the tourist center of Manhattan, the Hispanic Society has attracted relatively few visitors over the years—and this, despite having the finest collection of Spanish art outside of Spain, and despite being free to visit.

The new exhibition in Madrid’s Prado has recently changed this. The Hispanic Society lent its collection to the Prado as part of a mutually beneficial exchange. The Society’s building in New York is in need of repair. Its lack of air conditioning makes it a poor environment to preserve cherished works of art; and there is not enough space to display the Society’s huge collection. The Hispanic Society also lacks the funds necessary to restore some of its priceless paintings. The Prado, in exchange for being allowed to borrow the collection, agreed to undertake these renovations at their own expense. Along with the help of the bank BBVA, the museum is even paying the transportation and exhibition costs. When interested are aligned, cooperation can accomplish marvels.

Even more important than the restoration and renovation work, the Prado’s special exhibit has already helped to make the Hispanic Society more well-known. By the end of the exhibit, 400,000 visitors are expected—and this is incredible, considering that the museum was getting only 25,000 visitors per year in New York. (I am getting most of this information from the excellent article recently published in the New York Times about the exhibit.) Considering what I’ve seen today, it is a shame that the museum languished in obscurity for so long; it certainly deserves a more ample reputation.

It is impossible to talk about the Hispanic Society without discussing its founder. Archer Milton Huntington’s fondness for all things Spanish is particularly peculiar, considering that he was active immediately after the United States fought and won the Spanish-American War in 1898. This was a period of scant respect for Spanish culture, and a period of cultural anguish in Spain (which eventually culminated in an artistic and intellectual revival by those known as the Generation of ‘98; more below).

Huntington used his vast fortune to purchase archaeological artifacts and old manuscript collections, along with works of art in nearly every medium, including several by Spanish masters. (I wonder what I would do if I were born into such a wealthy family; probably not anything nearly so admirable.) But he was careful to extend his activities to the present day as well. Huntington formed close ties with the contemporary Spanish painters Zuloaga and Sorolla, and commissioned the latter to paint several works for the Society. Indeed, what is sometimes regarded as Sorolla’s masterpiece, The Provinces of Spain—14 giant murals depicting Spanish life—was commissioned by, and remains in, the Hispanic Society.

The exhibit in the Prado is organized chronologically, from prehistoric Iberia to the early 20th century. Every object on display is fascinating. The visitor is greeted by copper-age pottery, from around 2,000 BCE, decorated with fine geometrical patterns. We then swiftly move into Roman times: a mosaic, the torso of a goddess, delicately decorated bracelets. There is an exquisite belt-buckle from the Visigothic period, and a pyxis (a small ceramic vessel) from the Ummayad caliphate period of Moorish Spain—covered in vegetable motifs of stupefying beauty. Even more stunning is the so-called Alhambra Silk, from a later period of Moorish Spain, woven with the same intricate, mathematical patterns as the tiles in that famous palace in Granada. Reliquaries, funerary statues, and, most memorably, gothic door-knockers with fantastic beasts—iron dogs, lions, and dragons snarling in wait for the visitor—give yet another intimate look into the Spanish past.

One of the Hispanic Society’s prized possessions is its extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts. There is a private letter from Carlos V to his son, the eventual Philip II, advising the young man how to govern in Carlos’s absence. Illuminated bibles and even a copy of the Torah, every inch of every page decorated with care and skill, along with official grants and royal decrees, bearing both elaborate ornamentation and the original leaden seals—all this is collected for the visitor’s pleasure. I cannot fathom how much time it would have taken to create even one of those books. Everything had to be done by hand; and since every page was beautified with elaborate drawings and designs—even documents of state, which presumably needed to be produced in some haste—I am led to imagine scores upon scores of scribes and artists in the service of the king and the church.

I was especially gratified to find the historic maps on display. It is always fascinating to see old maps; they capture so much about the worldview of the time. There is one map of Teocaltiche—a province of Mexico—drawn up, if memory serves, either by the missionary or the colonial governor stationed there. It is an extraordinary thing: instead of a useful tool for navigation, it is a cartoon featuring naked natives practicing human sacrifice, battling the Spanish invaders with bows and arrows, and in general causing all sorts of chaos. The thing is clearly the work of a European mind, horrified by the “savages” he encountered. More beautiful is the map of the world by Giovanni Vespucci, nephew of the more famous Amerigo Vespucci. This map is impressively accurate, for the most part, in addition to being attractively made. The shape of the American continents is left vague and undefined, mostly because Europeans hadn’t gotten around them yet.

The most prized items of the collection are the three paintings by Velazquez. There is one portrait of a little girl—unnamed, but perhaps a relative of the painter—which showcases Velazquez’s talent for capturing charming young faces. Even better is Velazquez’s full-length portrait of the Conde Duque, Gaspar de Guzmán, Philip IV’s most powerful minister, a kind of Spanish counterpart to Cardinal Richelieu. He stands proudly, dressed in velvety black, looking every inch the ruler. The Hispanic Society also boasts an excellent portrait by Goya of the Duchess of Alba. She is dressed as a Maja (a lower-class resident of Madrid who tended to dress splendidly; there was apparently a fashion for adopting lower-class dress at the time) and pointing proudly down at her feet, perhaps to signify that she owns the land. It is a wonderful picture; there is so much energy in the Duchess’s feature and pose.

I thought that the exhibit would end with Goya, but the Prado has dedicated another floor to the collection. After an escalator ride I found myself surrounded by even more excellent paintings. Of these, the most important and impressive is a series of portraits by Sorolla—an excellent and perhaps underrated portraitist—of notable Spanish intellectuals and artists from the time, including most of the prominent members of the Generation of ’98. This includes the novelist Pío Baroja, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, and the poet Antonio Machado, along with Azorín himself, the essayist who coined the name “Generation of ‘98” (the generation of artists and intellectuals whose lives were shaped by Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898). All of the portraits are remarkable examples of the portraitist’s ability to capture a complex personality in a gesture, a posture, and an expression.

Along with these works by Sorolla—which also includes two of his enchanting beach scenes—the collection also includes some notable works by Zuloaga. My favorite of these was his The Family of the Gypsy Bullfighter, which manages to combined startling realism of feature (I was immediately reminded of Ribera) with more modernist touches of color and shading. This blending of traditional and modernist seems to have been a persistent feature of his paintings, and allowed him to please both parties. He was particularly praised—both by Huntington and by Unamuno, at least—for his ability to capture the ‘essence’ of Spain. (This was a time when many countries were preoccupied with their ‘essences’.)

This little essay has been hastily dashed out, with enthusiasm and love, for a heretofore underappreciated cultural institution. I naturally feel a particular attachment to the Hispanic Society, since it is from New York and connected to Spain. After visiting this exhibit, it is impossible not to share, at least in part, Huntington’s passion for all things Spanish. What a wonderful breadth and depth of history is collected here.

Quotes & Commentary #29: Evans-Pritchard

Quotes & Commentary #29: Evans-Pritchard

A man is a member of a political group of any kind in virtue of his non-membership of other groups of the same kind.

—E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer

Evans-Pritchard—or “EP,” as his friends called him—was one of the great pioneers of cultural anthropology. His work among the Nuer, a Nilotic ethnic group living in modern South Suden, is now regarded as among the classics of anthropology.

I read his work when I was just a young anthropology student. After all these years, this quote has stayed vividly in my memory because, though not occupying a central position in EP’s thought, I think it says something profound about the nature of social behavior.

Consider this typical habit. If somebody from Europe asks me where I’m from, I say the United States. If an American asks me the same question, I say I’m from New York. If the person is a New Yorker, I say I’m from Westchester; and if they’re also from Westchester, I say I’m from Sleepy Hollow.

Thus, I locate my identity with increasing precision depending on the proximity of our origin. Differences between people become more important, paradoxically, the more similar you are. Freud called this phenomenon “the narcissism of small difference,” and it is memorably portrayed in EP’s book.

The Nuer, a tall, thin, pastoral, cattle-herding people, are constantly at war with the Dinka. The Dinka also speak a Nilotic language, are also characteristically tall and thin, they also herd cattle. An outsider would likely have trouble telling the two groups apart. And yet the Nuer look down upon the Dinka with disdain and disgust, regarding them are nearly subhuman, and never hesitate to inflict violent raids upon them.

This sounds ridiculous; but consider how often we do the same thing. Indeed, it is of the nature of our social identities that they are defined by the groups they are opposed to.

The phenomenon is especially visible in sports. Here in Spain, your identity is signified by the football team you support. Being a fan of any given team has political and cultural overtones. The ideological tension between Madrid and Barcelona is symbolized by the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barça (known as El Clásico). Likewise in New York the Yankees and the Mets attract different demographics.

Politics, too, is classic example. To be a Democrat means being opposed to everything the Republicans do and believe; and vice versa. To quote a recent Op-Ed article by the comedian Trevor Noah: “Either black people are criminals, or cops are racist—pick one. It’s us versus them. You’re with us, or you’re against us.” Even the minor parties are defined by their contrast to the major ones. A member of the Green Party is somebody too leftist and idealistic to be a Democrat; and a libertarian is somebody who disagrees with the Republicans on social issues and with the Democrats on economic ones. And so on.

Less apparent, though no less real, is the operation of this phenomenon in the sphere of culture. This was demonstrated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu’s classic sociological study, Distinction. There he documents how people use their taste in music and literature in order to define their position in the social scale.

Snobbishness is an attempt to distance oneself from other groups by snubbing your nose at their art and culture; and in so doing, you signal your allegiance to your own group and construct your own social identity. Just consider how much time people have spent publically complaining about Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. Why do people so enjoy—in the privacy of friendly conversation and the openness of social media—berating movies, shows, songs, and books? And why do we often consider a person’s taste to be such a critical factor of who they are?

In the words of Oscar Wilde (who was right about everything): “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

I myself, I am ashamed to admit, have viciously judged others by what books they read and didn’t read—even by what books they have or hadn’t heard of. Likewise, in various circumstances I have been judged for my lack of knowledge of Buddhism, rap, postmodern philosophy, contemporary physics, and the history of the United States.

The knowledge deemed “crucial” varies from group to group. And in each case, some other reason is given for their snobbishness. Buddhism can save your life! Physics is the nature of reality! You need to know all the names of the Supreme Court justices in order to be a conscientious citizen! And so on. But the truth is that all this knowledge, while useful and interesting, also serves as a social marker, identifying your place in the complex, ever-shifting, overlapping hierarchies that we use to negotiate the public world.

Take a moment to reflect on this. How much of your own identity is constructed from this process of embracing and scorning, of judging and condemning, of critiquing and collecting, of identifying and opposing? How much of our self-image is composed of the types of movies we watch, the genres of music we listen to, the sophistication of the books we read? How much of your sense of self is a reflection, a negative definition formed by you self-consciously not belonging to a certain political party?

Personally, when I ask myself these questions, I find the answer very disturbing. Yes, to a certain extent it is inevitable if we are to live in a society. But identifying yourself by variously allying yourself with, or distancing yourself from, various pre-existing identities seems like the very definition of superficiality. After all, if we are not to be mere party members or fans or cheerleaders, we cannot put together our identity out of puzzle pieces we find laying around. A true individual is not made of legos.

At the very least, we can keep this insight of Evans-Pritchard in mind the next time we feel inclined to judge somebody for their political party, for the team they support, for the books they read, or any of the other innumerable things we use to reduce the irreducible complexity of a human being down to simple social categories. Next time you have the urge to be a snob about your musical taste, to hate somebody because of their opinion, or to crown yourself with a halo for not being a Democrat or a Republican, consider how this very act of judging is a way of defining yourself. And do you really want your self-image to be the byproduct of snobbery?