Review: Spain and the Hispanic World

Starting off the year as I mean to go on, I visited the first major exhibition of 2023 which opened in London this weekend. Over 150 items arranged chronologically, from antiquity to early 20th Century, provide a visual narrative of the history of Spanish culture. On display at Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library at the Royal Academy, are pieces from the New York museum presented for the first time in the UK.

Favourite pieces included a Map of the Ucayali River, which brought to mind the Bayeaux Tapestry, with its delightful borders featuring fishermen, flora and fauna; the rather gruesome The Four Fates of Man; and the life-sized Duchess of Alba, in all her magnificent glory.

Goya, Camarasa and Velázquez

L to R: The Duchess of Alba, 1797, by Francisco de Goya and Portrait of a Girl, c. 1638-42, by Diego Velázquez.
Main post photo: The Four Fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven, c. 1775 and attributed to Manuel de Chili Casparica. Photos courtesy The Royal Academy.

Central to the exhibition is the arresting portrait, The Duchess of Alba, 1797, by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Seeing this iconic painting online is one thing but close-up it is quite another experience altogether. The gold embellishments in juxtaposition to the sombre black lace is exquisite, and the enigmatic expression on her face makes it hard to tear your gaze away.

Portrait of a Girl, c. 1638-42, by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660); paintings by Luis de Morales (1510/11-1586), El Greco (1541-1614) and Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) offer further treats. Post-Impressionist and modern artists, including Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), are well represented, with the large-scale panoramic gouache for the Vision of Spain by José Gutiérrez Solana (1886-1945) dominating one room. Commissioned by the Hispanic Society between 1912 and 1919 it brought to mind Picasso’s Guernica (1937) in both form and bold content.

L to R: Girls of Burriana (Falleras) 1910-11 by Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa. Oil on canvas; complex decorative details. [Click image to enlarge].

The soft muted colours of Girls of Burriana (1910-11) and the decorative features of their apparel immediately call to mind the stylized complexity of favourite French painter, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). Bonnard’s everyday interiors are deliciously papered and embroidered, his garden scenes intensely coloured and planted in patterns. Here, internationally renowned painter, Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa (1872-1959), considered a radical artist for expressionistic paintings of folkloric subjects, applies similar treatment to the girls’ costumes and adornments, resulting in an intimate and sumptuous study of the hair combs, fans and embroidered materials.

The Four Fates of Man

These delightful, if a little gruesome, polychrome sculptures from Ecuador, in contrast to the celebratory atmosphere of Girls of Burriana (above). The Four Fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven, c. 1775 and attributed to Manuel de Chili Casparica. Photo courtesy The Royal Academy. Below the tiny figures at the exhibition,

Maps, robes and silverwork

Other highlights from Spanish colonial Latin America include the celebrated World Map, 1526, by Giovanni Vespucci, a detailed nautical chart produced during the Age of Exploration. But it was a Map of the Ucayali River (1708-12) in pen and brown ink and watercolour that really captured my heart (see below). The river runs central horizontally with a multitude of tributaries. A wide border top and bottom depicts a wide variety of plant and animal life, and indigenous peoples engaged in activities such as fishing or chopping wood. It is utterly charming. Created between 1808-12 the artist is unkown but the map was prepared by Franciscan missionaries with the assistance of indigenous artists, Anti (Asháninka), Cashibo, Chontaquiro, Conibo, Ipitineri, Panobo, Shetibo, and Shipibo.

Map of the Ucayali River, Peru (1708-12) in pen and brown ink, and watercolour. Unknown artist. [Click image to enlarge].

Church ritual is a form of theatre and a rather flambouyant gold and red silk brocade coat in the exhibition would not look out of place in an operatic performance. Displayed to show the detailed embroidery worked in metallic threads, it is a remarkable piece of textile art. There are further textiles in the show and a fellow visitor remaked on passing that she ‘didn’t find textiles very interesting’. I’m fascinated by the warp and weft of old fabrics, the colours, and the skill of the hand-crafted work. We tend to believe that the contemporary, technlogical world is highly superior but there is no comparison between today’s over-use of synthetic materials with the sumptuous textiles, silverwork, wood and other objects from earlier civilisations,

L to R: Gold and red silk brocade liturical vestment – dalmatic – embroidered with metallic thread, unknown artist. c. 15th-16th century; Bolivian silverwork, unknown artist c. 1700-50 featuring flora and fauna, later exported to England, it became part of a centrepiece for Queen Charlotte, consort to George III.


These are a few of the remarkable pieces in the show. Spread over a numbers of rooms the spaces often felt sparse as if the objects needed to be spread out to fill the rooms. Of course, this can often be a good thing but here the narrative tended to feel a little disjointed or diluted. Or maybe it was simply that an arrangement of choronological order alone lacked enough glue to hold the show together. None the less, there are some magnificent works included and it is a privilege to see these at all here in the UK.

L tyo R: Handpainted book Letters of Patent of Nobility, Peru. Unknown artist (1651); Virgin and Child and The Nativity (Peru), Unknown artists (c.1620-50); ironwork door knockers.

Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library runs until 10 April 2023. Adult a rather hefty £22 or £24.50 with donation.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.