Spanish Treasures

‘Spain and the Hispanic World’ at the Royal Academy is a mixed bag which doesn’t really aim for a coherent view but presents a large selection from the American Hispanic Society’s collection (I believe their building is being refurbished at the moment). There are works by El Greco, Velasquez and Goya as well as other items whose interest is more historical or even ethnographic. There are fascinating maps and they also have a fine set of knockers on display (thank you, I’m here all week).

Goya’s large painting of the Duchess of Alba (‘The Black Duchess’ – he also did a white one), used on posters for the exhibition, is interesting. You notice she is pointing down, and at first I thought she was drawing attention to the remarkable shoes she is wearing, which are silver and sharply pointed. In fact, there is a message written in the sand at her feet: ‘Only Goya’ it says. Goya treasured this picture and kept it for himself. Hmm.

We also have a remarkable bust of Saint Acisclus, life size and unsettlingly realistic. The saint’s expression, which seems to change slightly when viewed from different angles, expresses a curiously anaemic distress at his head being cut off (here indicated only by a delicate red line).

Also memorable is the set of little pieces depicting the Four Fates of Man (death, hell, purgatory and heaven). Death doesn’t quite fit here: it seems to suggest that total extinction is another option hereafter, which surely isn’t the orthodox view.

El Greco’s work is always fascinating and here we’ve got good old St Jerome, recognisable by the invariable presence of a cardinal’s hat (though he never seems to wear it). His usual friend the lion is not shown, though. You couldn’t mistake El Greco for anyone else. Did those distortions, that otherworldly sense in his paintings, really come in part from poor eyesight? People have said something similar about Turner.