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  • Writer's pictureDominic Dalglish

Visions of Spain: the Hispanic Society at the RA

21.01.23 - 10.04.23

Royal Academy of Arts, £22


An exhibition at a major gallery without a hyperbolic tagline might cause a bit of an upset these days. How dare we be subjected to something that isn’t ‘monumental’, a ‘world-first’, or ‘life-changing’! The ‘landmark’ exhibition at the Royal Academy, ‘Spain and the Hispanic World’ is duly at pains to stress just how important it is. There are works in the show that are exceptional by any measure, but they sit somewhat uncomfortably in an exhibition that doesn’t quite know what it is: a display of another institution’s collection and its formation, or a show about Spain and the Hispanic World?

The collection in question is that of the Hispanic Society of America, and indeed the show at the RA doesn’t hide this fact, ‘Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library,’ being its subtitle. The museum has been closed for refurbishment since 2017, and as a result its 'treasures' have been out on tour. One stop off was the Prado in Madrid, a quick glance at which will tell you that the form – and the title – of the exhibition was to a large extent already mapped out before coming to London. There’s nothing unusual about this – travelling exhibitions are an important part of the circuit – but it speaks to the curatorial intent behind the show: to make something that could travel. It’s not that touring exhibitions can’t have this type of ‘landmark’ impact, but given that the show consists entirely of an existing collection doing the rounds, claims to this status appear a touch misplaced.

Nicolás de Correa, 'The Wedding at Cana' (1696), Mexico. The form of work is called enconchado, comprising oil painting and mother of pearl inlay (Photo author's).

Starting with pre-historic, Celtic and Roman Iberia, the show moves swiftly on to the abundance of Moorish art and design in what is now modern Spain. One of the main gallery spaces contains a large collection of 13th through 17th century paintings, sculpture, ceramics and manuscripts mostly from the Spanish court and commissions for the Church. Several rooms then explore the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and responses – largely in the form of goods made for wealthy imperial customers – made by local artists and artisans. These are followed by rooms displaying works by some of the better-known artists in the exhibition, including Goya, Sorolla and Zuloaga.

Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa, 'Girls of Burriana' (1910-11). The different poses of the women between formal and relaxed, and the contrast between the decorated horse and sprawled dog give the painting a wonderful balance (Photo author's).

The Hispanic Society was established in 1904 by American Philanthropist Archer Huntington. Opening its doors in 1908 in New York’s Washington Heights, it houses this extraordinary range of material from the prehistoric to early twentieth century, from textiles and ceramics to photographs and manuscripts, and from Spain to the Philippines. Although his efforts were rather more pronounced, Huntington was not alone in developing an interest in the art and culture of Latin America and Spain from the 1870s onwards. That Spain was at this time fashionable is evident in Henry Clay Frick’s purchase of Velázquez’s portrait of King Philip IV of Spain for ‘the highest price he had ever paid for a painting.’[1] However, Huntington’s interest not only in fine art, but also a much wider range of crafts – visible, for example, in the Society’s extensive collection of Spanish door knockers – is testament to a broader ambition to frame Spanish life. Central to his vision was a library that wouldn’t merely complement the museum’s collection, but foster an intellectual community to contemplate it (and latterly, him). But therein lies the problem for the RA: what is it to remove all these things from their setting in New York – free galleries and a community of engaged curators – and to show them around the world?

Above: left, the exterior of the Hispanic Society complete with bronze equestrian statue of el Cid; right, the interior mezzanine.

The issue with all such collections is that they are precisely the product of singular visions, in this case, the eye of Huntington. His romantic perception of Spain and Spanish inflected cultures – particularly of the Americas – stands in contrast to the rapidly developing and industrialised society of which he was a part. An essay accompanying the exhibition written by Hispanic Society curator Patrick Lenaghan, suggests that back in New York this is well-understood:

At the heart of [Huntington’s] project lies a nostalgia for ancient Spain that obviously grew out of his personal experience of growing up in New York in the 1870s and 1880s… the Hispanic world that appealed to him offered an exotic alternative…

The differences between peoples and places that Huntingdon perceived and duly framed as ‘exotic’, to some degree, are clearly familiar. Speaking about his acquisition of paintings from 19th and early 20th century artists, Lenaghan writes:

Although Huntington appreciated the artists’ talent, he prized their images as representations of the customs of Spain he wanted to enshrine… he chose canvasses that conformed to his vision of Spain…

As much as Lenaghan’s essay sounds the praises of an evidently extraordinary man, he is quite prepared to take the collection for what it is. And why shouldn’t he? This is how these assemblages have come to exist; it is a fact of how we have to approach many artworks. That this essay is handed to you on entry is a good thing, but the exhibition itself largely sidesteps questions of choice that permeate everything on display, opting rather to present ‘Spain and the Hispanic World’ as a story of ‘Hispanic’ art.

A Roman bust, Celtiberian bracelet, mosaic and Bell-Beaker bowl are all to be found in the first room , spanning a period of some 2,000 years. Photos from the Hispanic Society Antiquities collection.

This has some significant implications right from the start. The idea of ‘Spain’ projects onto the ancient and pre-historic material an entirely superfluous frame of nation-hood. These objects struggle under the weight of future expectations to do anything at all in the context of the show. An ancient statue, a bit of mosaic, silver bracelets, and beakers. All intriguing, all beautiful, but brought together in an impressively banal assemblage. Except, of course, if you contemplate this through the lens of Huntington and the early 20th century project he undertook.

Left to right: Francisco Goya 'Duchess of Alba' (1797); Joaquín Sorolla 'Sea Idyll' (1908). Though very different in style and tone, it's not hard to see how both these images could be made to fit a romanticised vision of Spain - none of Goya's 'Black' paintings or scenes of insurrection here.

Other aspects of the exhibition’s organisation and marketing give an equally confused sense of what exactly it is. Two (and a half) rooms focus more or less entirely on works by Goya and Sorolla. The former’s Duchess of Alba is without doubt a delight; some of the latter’s summertime daubs have no doubt inspired their fair share of schmaltz. These names speak for themselves, but what does it do to display their work in this more isolated fashion, and how does this compare to the presentation of pieces by other artists – many unnamed – elsewhere in the exhibition? The marketing consistently stresses big-names – as one might expect – but as a result, it’s unclear how the show holds together.

Above left to bottom right: Amphora 1600-1700, Mexico, Jalisco; batea with ‘Los Galgos (Greyhounds)’ decoration, Mexico, Michoacán; Inlaid casket 1625-50, Colombia, Pasto; Silver Maya – fantastical female figure, 1700-1800, Bolivia. In the Hispanic Society, Decorative Arts of Latin America & The Philippines.

A great deal of space is turned over to art produced in parts of the world that Spain – amongst other European imperialist powers – came to control. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from this period of Spanish history, yet there remains a somewhat naïve celebration of arts combining local and Spanish elements. The push in recent times to problematise works in light of their colonial past doesn’t mean that they cannot be enjoyed. If anything, this allows for a deeper understanding of their significance. Behind these hybrid forms lie extremely unequal power relations between colonisers and colonised, none of which were especially important to Huntington, seeking traces of Spanish culture’s spread and influence. As with the parade of ancient objects, it remains unclear what the claim is here about ‘Spain’, ‘Spanish’ and/or ‘Hispanic’.

A draft of Joaquín Sorolla's 'Vision of Spain' (Photo author's).

This is all rather ironically summed-up nicely in the final room dedicated to Sorolla’s ‘Vision of Spain’. The full set of fourteen paintings has remained in New York, so viewers to the RA are offered drafts and sketches instead to give a sense of the finished product. Huntington originally wanted a work covering the history of Spain; this was changed by the artist to be ‘visions’ of Spain including parts of North Africa and various Spanish territories, until finally being distilled down to the Iberian Peninsula and a 'vision'. If I were to be charitable, I’d say that the unfinished drafts leave us with the impression of a work in progress: Spain in the making. Being far more cynical, it is emblematic of the muddled vision of the exhibition.

At home in New York, the collection on display at the RA benefits from a lack of urgency. There is no need to articulate exactly what it is or what it represents as a whole. It can be problematised, its parts approached separately or framed distinctly to respond to different questions. The issue that arises with its transfer to institutions around the world is precisely that of framing: just what is this collection and how to present that to a general audience? For all that the works on display might be individually captivating, the failure to grapple with that question makes for awkward, and at times tedious viewing.


Dominic Dalglish is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space

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[1] Frick’s collection would go on to form the basis of another of New York’s great bequest galleries. Point on the purchase taken from Nicola Jennings, ‘At the Royal Academy’, LRB 45, 7.

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