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You have about three more weeks to see the historic exhibit “Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting from the Museums of Madrid” at the San Antonio Museum of Art.

GRECO, El (Doménikos Theotokópoulos)_La Anunciación, c. 1596-1600_171 (1954.1)

It’s “historic” because it’s the first such undertaking by a local museum and also because it introduces American audiences to a number of works never before seen in the U.S. Since brave Spaniards founded this city 300 years ago, and Spanish influences are still very much present in 21st century San Antonio, the show is a most fitting tribute to our Tricentennial celebration.  Credit goes to SAMA’s director Katie Luber and chief curator William Keyse Rudolph who came up with the ambitious idea and pursued the project for several years, visiting Madrid multiple times and gaining access to the major museums in the Spanish capital, among them the famed Prado, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemizsa and the Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. Additionally, some works were borrowed from American museums.

The show is arranged chronologically to cover the period from the mid-15th century to the beginning of the 20th. Naturally, devotional art, saints and scenes from the Bible dominate the earlier works, one of which I found particularly interesting. Painted by the famous El Greco (The Greek), it is his rendition of the Annunciation (late 1500s) which is like no other I have seen in European museums. A multi-layered image of a surprised Virgin Mary looking up toward a winged Gabriel standing on a cloud, is crowned by heavenly creatures making music, all of them suffused in dark-light shadows and almost abstract elements. It’s stunning. Another nearby El Greco, borrowed from the McNay Museum for the occasion, shows an unforgettable portrait of Jesus, gazing heavenward. In fact, all four El Greco pieces will likely stick in your mind for a long while.

In addition to El Greco, there are also a couple of works by two other well-known masters, Goya and Velasquez, though the latter is represented only by a small portrait of Queen Mariana, the second wife of KIng Philip IV. Yet another remarkable painting in the religion section is Alonzo Cano’s “The Crucifixion” which, chief curator Rudolph said, invites reflection on the core of Christianity, Jesus’ sacrifice for the redemption of humanity. And again, it is fairly different from most depictionsoif the Crucified Christ I have seen.

Goya’s paintings are in the next section, including two large canvases, one showing young bullfighters struggling to subdue a bull, and the other depicting Spain’s prime minister and generalissimo Manual Godoy “as Prince of the Peace” after he defeated Portugal in 1801 in the 30-day War of the Oranges. According to the catalog, Godoy was also “a patron to Goya, commissioning and collecting (Goya’s) works.” There is also a remarkable portrait of a French general, painted in 1810, that will compel you to stop and engage with the painting’s subject.

Family and other scenes from ordinary life, exquisite paintings of children, landscapes and a few still-lifes populate the rest of the exhibit, documenting changing artistic interests.  In the last section, you suddenly enter a room with happy beach images, showing bare-leg people in casual clothing – an abrupt change that may take you aback. These are by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida and they have a contemporary feel about them even though the painter died in 1923.

The show ends with a single Picasso painting that you wouldn’t even recognize as his work. He painted his sister Lola before he left Spain to become Picasso, pronounced the French way.

As I said, you have about three weeks to see this unique treasure trove. The exhibits is not slated to travel anywhere else. The exhibition was “made possible” by Bank of America, which deserves credit for its enlightened generosity.

For information on special events, tickets and operating hours go to www.samuseum.org
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Photos (from top) “Annunciation” by El Greco; “Saint Elizabeth of Portugal” by Francisco de Zurbaran;
“The Young Marchioness of Roncali” by Luis de Madrazo y Kuntz