11.27.06 - When the acclaimed Spanish curator Carmen Gimenez chose to make a life in art, it was a revolutionary decision. At the time in Spain, in the early 1970s, women did not participate in influential art circles. But she came by her idealism naturally. Her Socialist parents left Spain after the start of the Spanish Civil in 1936, refusing to live under the dictator Francisco Franco. Her father became the leader of the opposition Republican Party in Morocco, and she lived there until her teens. “They instilled in me a love of art and a certain fearlessness,” she said, over lunch in Seville in September.
Those traits have propelled her remarkably successful career. “Carmen is the greatest ambassador of Spanish culture today,” the president of the board of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens, said recently. He appointed her curator of 20th century art when he became the museum’s director in 1988. In 1999, he approached her about doing a show on Velaquez and Spanish painting. She had other ideas, however.
Those ideas come to beautiful fruition in the thrilling new show, “Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth and History,” which will be on view at the Guggenheim Museum through March 28. The exhibition, which she curated with Spanish art historian Francisco Calvo Serraller, a former director of the Museo del Prado in Madrid, includes 138 works. It spans five centuries of Spanish painting, including 15 works from the collection of the Prado. It is only because of the influence of Serraller and Gimenez that the museum has made such a large loan.
Francisco De Zurbarán (1598–1664), Saint Hugh in the Refectory (Saint Bruno and the Miracle of the Uneaten Meat), ca. 1655. Oil on canvas, 262 x 307 cm. Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville.
“Carmen created something far more illuminating than a chronological show,” Krens said, “an exhibition built around themes which have particularly resonated in Spain: portraits of gentlemen, nudes, crucifixions, and children. This show gives us an opportunity to see them in an original context. She knew where to find the surprises. Some from provincial collections had never traveled before. She convinced curators to lend them. She never gives up. She’s like that hitter cherished by baseball team managers: She always delivers.”
Among the most outstanding works in the show are Zurbarán’sSaint Hugh in the Refectory, Miró’sThe Table (Still Life with Rabbit),El Greco’s The Vision of St. John, Murillo’sThe Virgin of the Rosary,Dalí’sDream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate, One Second before Awakening,Goya’s The Duchess of Alba, and Picasso’sPortrait of Jaime Sabartes and The Infanta Margarita María from The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas), after Velázquez. They will be grouped by themes, rather than chronologically, so that viewers can compare how the painters treated similar subjects through the ages.
Above, left to right: El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541ñ1614), The Vision of Saint John, ca. 1608–14. Oil on canvas, 222.3 x 193 cm with added strips, 224.8 x 199.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1956.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Winter Landscape, 1950. Oil on panel, 52.9 x 125.7 cm. Collection of Kate Ganz.
Above, left to right: Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Francisco Pacheco?, ca. 1619–22. Oil on canvas, 40 x 36 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Portrait of Jaime Sabartés, 1939. Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 38 cm. Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Gift of Jaime Sabartés, 1960.
Above, left to right: Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627), Still Life with Fruits and Vegetables, ca. 1602. Oil on canvas 69.5 x 96.5 cm. Várez Fisa Collection, Madrid.
Juan Gris (1887–1927), Still Life with Newspaper, 1916. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 60.3 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
In spite of the prevailing prejudices in Spain, in 1983, Gimenez was appointed executive advisor to the Spanish Minister of Culture. Over the next six years, she made her mark by arranging international exhibitions of works in the Madrid museums, proposing the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia — now one of the world’s most important centers of contemporary art — and promoting young Spanish artists internationally. She began concentrating on 20th century Spanish art, with Picasso eventually as her focus.
Above: Francisco De Goya (1746–1828), The Duchess of Abrantes, 1816. Oil on canvas 92 x 70 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
Below: Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Portrait of Marie-Thérese Walter with a Garland, 1937. Oil and pencil on canvas, 61 x 46 cm. Private collection.
She has curated shows on David Smith, Richard Serra, Bracusi and Alexander Calder, as well as numerous exhibits of Spanish art. Though based in Madrid, she is curator of 20th century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and works as an independent curator for museums all over the world. Gimenez put everything she knows about Spanish art and history into the new exhibition at the Guggenheim. “Spain has a peculiar history,” she said. “It was isolated from Europe from the time of El Greco to Goya.
The artists tended to feed on its past. Even Velázquez, who traveled, would return to old traditions when he went home. But Spanish art began to look very modern by the 19th century. Outsiders identified certain characteristics as Spanish: realism that was almost expressionistic, a range of colors dominated by black, an interest in the gruesome, and near religious fanaticism. There was another kind of isolation in the 20th century. Picasso, Gris, Miró, Dalí, and Julio Gonzalez were all political exiles.”
During her research for the show, she discovered new, subtle connections among Spanish works over the centuries. “I took small images of all the paintings that Paco [Serraller’s nickname] and I wanted in the show and laid them out on the floor like cards,” she said. “Looking at them that way, altogether, I saw certain consistent themes. That’s not to say other nationalities didn’t paint some of the same subjects but only that the Spanish appeared to share an unusual predilection for certain ones. These themes — we call them chapters in the exhibition — in fact were a particularly enlightening way to look at the paintings. We recognized something that could be called ‘Spanishness’ that we found fascinating. I hope others will, too.”
Above, left to right: Juan Pantoja de la Cruz (ca. 1553–1608), The Infantes Don Felipe and Doña Ana, 1607. Oil on canvas, 118 x 124 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Gemäldegalerie.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) Two Seated Children (Claude and Paloma), 1950. Oil and enamel on plywood, 116 x 89 cm. Private collection, Courtesy Galerie Jan Krugier, Ditesheim & Cie, Geneva.
Above, left to right: Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Portrait of Queen Mariana, ca. 1656. Oil on canvas, 46.7 x 43.5 cm. Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Algur H. Meadows Collection.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), The Infanta Margarita María from The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas), after Velázquez, 1957. Oil on canvas, 50 x 81 cm. Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Gift of the artist, 1968.