It wasn’t a good look for the Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, to compare the State’s economy with that of Spain this week. First because it’s simply not true: Queensland’s economy is extremely healthy compared with that of Spain. But also because it’s an insulting reference to make in this of all weeks, when we Queenslanders are benefitting from Spanish generosity with the opening of the new exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery, Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado.
If you live within travelling distance of Brisbane, this exhibition is well worth a visit (or more than one: you can buy a season ticket for $66, the cost of 3 visits). There are some big names in the show: El Greco, Rubens, Titian, Murillo, Goya, and no less than 3 generations of Velázquez (though it’s the oldest, Diego, that we know best). There were also for me many magical discoveries of painters I’d never heard of, though that’s not saying much, I’m no expert on Spanish art.
Spain may be going through a bad patch recently, but the hundred or so paintings in this exhibition are a testament to its former wealth and power. The Spanish Empire was the first on which the sun never set, especially during the years after 1580 when the Portuguese dynasty failed and Philip II of Spain was crowned king. For the next 60 years, the Spanish and Portuguese empires were combined, stretching from the Azores to West Africa to Goa to South East Asia (Macao, Philippines, Timor and Ambon) to South America.
Many of these elements are on show in a delicate, unassuming still life: Still life with chocolate service by Luis Meléndez (1770), which shows cakes of chocolate from South America with a finely painted ceramic bowl that looks as if it comes from China. Did the drinker also sweeten her drink with sugar from the Azores? Or flavour it with nutmeg and cinnamon from the Moluccas?
[This and other images are accessible at the QAG website here – but I don’t have permission to include them in my post so you’ll have to go to them yourself.]
As always, I find the portraits most fascinating. Some are very strange. I’ve written before about how inbreeding affected the Spanish Habsburgs. The dynasty died out with the death of Charles II in 1700. A portrait of his father, Philip IV, shows the characteristic bulbous lips and elongated Habsburg jaw. These features are less obvious amongst earlier members of the family, but none of them are beauties. Their clothes, though, are another matter – these are paintings in which the texture of silk and satin, linen and lace, are recreated with loving skill.
Beyond the paintings themselves – over a hundred of them, taking up most of its floor space – the gallery has put on a fun festival of all things Spanish. There’s a café serving tapas and Spanish wines, with a guitarist playing at lunchtime every day. There are displays of fruit and vegetables set out so you can attempt your own still life – with paper and pencil, or on an electronic tablet.
It must have taken years to set up this exhibition. No doubt the credit for it lies with many people, but 2 in particular have moved on: the QAG director, Tony Ellwood, who is moving to the National Gallery of Victoria, and the former Premier, Anna Bligh, who was also Minister for the Arts until the last year of her government. Let’s hope the new team keeps up the good work, but the omens for the future aren’t good. According to John McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald, Premier Campbell Newman didn’t bother to attend the opening.
This time last year:
More or Less: the Norwegian massacre and statistics, 26 July 2011