Update: The MFAH will be reopening on Saturday, May 23. Glory of Spain will be extended through January 3, 2021.
THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON [MFAH] recently welcomed an itinerant exhibition from The Hispanic Society of America in New York City. The exhibition has been on the road for three years, starting in Albuquerque in 2018, moving to Cincinnati in 2019, and opening in Houston in early March of this year, only to close after a couple of weeks because of the coronavirus. It would be optimistic to think that you’ll be able to see the exhibition in Houston, but I do hope that you will visit The Hispanic Society in New York when the renovation of its 110-year-old building is completed. We aren’t going to be exiled from our museums forever.
The catalog titles this exhibition Visions of the Hispanic World, but the MFAH has retitled it Glory of Spain. Certainly, the exhibition is glorious, but the Hispanic world is larger than Spain. Happily, so is the exhibition.
I was glad to have the opportunity to see this fabulous array of paintings, manuscripts, books, prints, sculptures, ceramics, glass, and metalwork in a modern museum setting, because the musty-dusty old Beaux Arts/American Renaissance–style building at 155th and Broadway wasn’t great for appreciating them. But I loved the old building anyway, and I trust that the
renovation will respect the feel of the place. It is off the beaten path for museumgoers in New York, so every time I visited I felt that I had once again discovered it by/for myself. Rarely were there more than a few souls inside, and entering the interior court directly from the main entrance, I felt transported to 16th-century Andalusia. Well, almost.
The Hispanic Society was founded by Archer M. Huntington (1870–1955), the only son of Collis P. Huntington, the vastly wealthy railroad baron. In fact, Collis married Archer’s mother, Arabella, when Archer was 14. Collis eventually adopted Archer and made him his sole heir — luckily for lovers of Hispanic art and culture. When Collis died in 1900, Archer began to spend his inheritance in earnest.
The United States had just defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, an unvarnished imperial escapade that netted the United States considerable bounty: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. For most Americans, Spain was “the enemy” — obscurantist (i.e., Catholic), weak, and poor. Archer could well have seen an opportunity to amass whole libraries and art collections at wholesale prices. I don’t doubt his fascination with Spain, but the timing was certainly opportune.
I recently mentioned Huntington’s collection to a Mexican friend, and he responded without missing a beat: “Cómo no, el saqueo de Europa” (“Of course, the sack of Europe”). That took me aback, and I confess that I jumped to the defense of Huntington and his collection, noting that Europe had been pretty good at sacking others, too. But if, by “sacking,” my friend meant that Americans during this period wielded the economic firepower to acquire vast swaths of cultural patrimony, he was right. More to the point, though, the United States was an upstart power at the time, a newcomer to the world stage, and wealthy collectors were looking to create a past. I believe that collectors wanted to plant America’s cultural genealogy in deeper ground, and this deeper ground was, it seemed, in Europe.
American collectors justified their shopping sprees with the implicit argument that they would preserve art and artifacts that might otherwise be lost. This assumption was self-serving, of course, because they were buying from dealers in Paris and London who knew exactly what treasures they had on offer, and how American appetites could best be satisfied. There was also the understanding that they would eventually make their collections public — beneficence for which I am guiltily grateful.
We have The Frick, The Morgan, The Walters, and The Huntington Library and Gardens in Pasadena, California, to name a few. (The collector of this last was Archer’s first cousin, Henry.) Mexico was also drawn into this American whirlwind of collecting, and perhaps that is why my Mexican friend was so quick to speak of looting.
In a neighborhood in the south of Mexico City, a Spanish Gothic chapel (14th century) and a Romanesque cloister (12th century) are set together in a garden behind a modern cultural center. William Randolph Hearst bought these two gems in Spain and had them shipped to New York, stone by stone. Then came the crash of 1929, and he could no longer afford this rather expensive fantasy. The stones sat in their numbered boxes in New York for 30 years, until Hearst’s heirs put the lot up for sale in the mid-1950s. A Mexican collector, Nicolás González Jáuregui, bought them, had them assembled in Mexico City, and added a sculpted stone frame from a 17th-century Mexican facade. Mexico, with its centuries-long indigenous and viceroyal histories, didn’t need to create a past, but here again, I detect the collector’s genealogical imperative — his compulsion to create a cultural lineage, even when one was already thick on the ground.
Hispanic culture was also thick on American ground. Archer Huntington had spent more time in Mexico than in Spain when he began to collect, and he knew it wasn’t a matter of creating a past so much as reminding us of it. For me, the heart and soul of the exhibition lies in the works that attest to the shared lineage of Spain and Spanish America.
The exhibition highlights European models for Spanish-American art and artifacts, but it also demonstrates that cultural influences crossed the Atlantic in both directions. Indigenous artists and traditions enriched European forms of expression, as did African traditions later in Brazil and the Caribbean. Among dozens of Spanish-American artifacts are elaborate silverwork from Peru, lacquerware from Colombia, ceramics and fabrics from Mexico, a Mexican feather-work miter and stole, and a parchment fragment of a post-conquest Zapotec genealogy from Oaxaca, acquired by Huntington in New York in 1913. To recognize this fragment as part of our American cultural genealogy was to understand something that most American collectors in 1913 did not.
There are early maps that show Europeans trying to make sense of the Americas. This map by Juan Vespucci, the nephew of the Florentine pilot, navigator, and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, was based on his uncle’s maps and on his own subsequent voyages. The name “America” does not appear, but by 1526, the name of his uncle was already used to describe the new continents. Amerigo Vespucci was the first navigator who sailed far enough down the South American coastline to realize that this wasn’t China or the Indies but an utterly unknown land mass. His nephew’s map covers an entire wall of the exhibition. It is eight-foot-seven-inches long by two-foot-nine-and-a-half-inches wide, extending over four large sheets of parchment. Note the Habsburg imperial coat-of-arms with the two-headed eagle above North America.
There are a number of baroque paintings and sculptures from the New World in the exhibition. Art was essential to the “spiritual conquest” of the Americas, and by the mid-16th century, the Spanish monarchy was regularly sending artists to America to make religious
images. Conquest was justified by conversion, and converts were indigenous peoples; visual images were indispensable. Soon, American-born artists were also working, and over time indigenous and African elements were incorporated into European models. You get an idea from the 18th-century sculpted Saint Michael, with his American headdress, about to triumph over an anthropomorphic devil, described in the Book of Revelation as a seven-headed beast. In the New World baroque, drama vies with orthodoxy for spiritual effect.
There are not many 19th-century Latin American paintings in the exhibition, the better to appreciate this one. A Mexican boy of African descent from the Gulf Coast region near Veracruz is carrying tropical fruit in a basket. There was a large Afro-Mexican community on the Gulf Coast at the time, though now only small communities remain, mostly on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, the so-called “costa chica.” This painting, by the well-known costumbrista painter José Agustín Arrieta, is one of a series of portraits representing diverse populations in mid-19th-century Mexico. With the emphasis on the nation’s indigenous heritage after the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century, the African branch of Mexico’s cultural lineage has been too little noticed. Arrieta’s painting reminds us of this fact.
It should be noted that most of the Latin American paintings in the collection have been acquired since Huntington’s death in 1955. Huntington collected books and artifacts from Latin America that he found in Europe and New York, but most of the Latin American paintings have been acquired by the Hispanic Society lately. Arrieta’s El costeño was acquired from Sotheby’s in New York only in 2013, and the sculpture of Saint Michael Archangel in 2001, from a collector in Spain.
This doesn’t diminish the achievement of Archer M. Huntington, nor does it compromise his vision of the “Hispanic world.” It simply means that our understanding and our appreciation of Latin American artists have increased in the past half-century, and that these artists have thus taken a more important place in the cultural genealogy that Huntington’s collection represents.
Lois Parkinson Zamora is professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Houston. She is a leader in the comparative study of literature of the Americas.