MADRID — The Prado’s The Other’s Gaze: Spaces of Difference uses the museum’s permanent collection to trace the history of same-sex relationships within Western art, “making visible the invisible,” according to curator Carlos Navarro. The exhibition, which opened in tandem with Madrid’s 2017 WorldPride festival, is based on a selection of thirty works that depict either same-sex relationships, transgender individuals, or cross-dressing individuals, or were created by artists who themselves were persecuted for their sexuality. Rather than sequester these artworks in an exhibition space, the curators have left the objects in their usual locations in order to illustrate the rich history of representing non-normative gender and sexuality already present within European painting and sculpture, while simultaneously highlighting that history’s silence.
Upon entering the collection, visitors are offered a pamphlet explaining the objectives of the exhibition and mapping out itineraries based on four different themes: “Immortal Friends,” “Pursuing Desire,” “Deceptive Appearances,” and “To Love Like the Gods.” Not for those with a troubled sense of direction or difficulty reading maps, viewers are invited on a treasure hunt through the labyrinth of the Prado, searching for dark blue labels that identify paintings, drawings, and sculptures that are part of the exhibition. The Other’s Gaze also includes two works from the Prado’s collection not usually on display that have been hung specifically for the exhibition: Rosa Bonheur’s “El Cid” (1879) and Francisco Goya’s “El Maricón de la Tía Gila” (1803–1824).
Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio are each represented within the show as examples of artists persecuted for their sexuality and tried for sodomy — facts little known despite their continuing eminence and fame. Leonardo is believed to have conducted a romantic relationship with two of his closest disciples, Salaí and Francesco Melzi, one of whom painted a second version of the famed “Mona Lisa (La Giaconda)” (1503-1519). That painting was purchased for the Spanish royal collection in 1666 and is now housed within the Prado. Modern analysis of the two paintings has given further support to the theory that Leonardo was romantically involved with its author. Each minute change Leonardo made in his original “Mona Lisa,” to the bust, outline of the veil, and position of the fingers, is incorporated into the Prado’s version, suggesting that it was painted by someone intimately involved in Leonardo’s practice and that the two works were created almost simultaneously.
“Hermaphrodite” (1652) by Matteo Bonuccelli is an exquisitely rendered life-sized bronze sculpture of the Greek god, Hermaphroditus, and an example of European art’s celebration of the beauty of the androgynous form. Both the sculpture’s subject matter as well as the word “hermaphrodite” originate in the classical myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of Hermaphroditus, the exceptionally handsome son of Hermes and Aphrodite who merges with the female nymph, Salmacis, to create a single body that is both male and female. “Hermaphrodite” is a copy of one of the most renowned sculptures from the collection of the Villa Borghese in Rome, commissioned by Diego Velázquez during his visit to Italy in search of artworks to decorate the Royal Alcázar of Madrid. That Velázquez sought out this work for the Spanish royal collection illustrates his own interest in the figure of the hermaphrodite, as well as a general acceptance of the subject at the seventeenth-century Spanish court. (Though the word “hermaphrodite” was also often used in a pejorative sense to describe a cultured woman who crossed the boundaries of Golden Age Spain’s strictly prescribed gender norms.)
The Prado’s exhibition also unearths artists’ meditations on prejudice towards and stereotypes of homosexuality. “La Maricón de Tía Gila” appears among drawings of deformed and handicapped figures in Goya’s private collection of drawings, Album C, intended to represent those at the social margins. The word “maricón,” meaning “faggot,” is a term now considered a homophobic slur. The haunting drawing is of a small man with a gnarled face and contorted expression, wearing a large dress and standing with his hands on his hips, his pelvis thrust forward. Its title, found directly below the figure, is believed to have been written by Goya himself. By bringing this work to light specifically for this exhibition, the Prado confronts head on the uncomfortable place this work inhabits within Goya’s oeuvre as well as the poignant suffering and mockery of the figure represented, which Goya directly correlates with non-normative sexuality.
Through two Peter Paul Rubens paintings that depict moments of discovery, The Other’s Gaze also uncovers other aspects of European art history that have typically been avoided or ignored. In Rubens’s “Achilles Discovered by Ulysses and Diomedes” (1617–1618), the central female figure dressed in flowing red robes and surrounded by a group of gaggling ladies is, in fact, the god Achilles disguised as a woman in order to hide his identity. Looking more closely at the figure, the viewer may recognize not only the cross-dressing man, but also, directly behind him, a small black boy paired with a fair-skinned, blonde-haired girl with their gazes fixed upon each other. Similarly, another large Rubens painting, “Diana and Calisto” (c. 1635), depicts the tragic romance between the goddess Diana and her nymph Calisto at the moment at which Diana discovers that Zeus disguised himself as her in order to impregnate Calisto. Rubens’s painting highlights not only the commonplace nature of rape but also the existence of female as well as male homosexuality within Greek mythology. At the far left edge of the canvas, one may also notice a black female figure who helps lift or wash one of Diana’s astonished nymphs.
The issues presented by The Other’s Gaze are not what one expects to see within the Prado’s comprehensive collection of canonical old master artists. However, the exhibition illustrates that though these issues can seem exclusive to modern and contemporary art, in reality, artists since antiquity have personally confronted and actively chosen to represent diverse forms of love and sexuality. It is difficult to envision an exhibition of this kind taking place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show’s popularity is, in contrast to the US, an example of the progressive attitudes of Spain, one of the first nations in the European Union to legalize same sex marriage.
The Other’s Gaze also offers a lesson in close looking that challenges our traditional expectations of what is to be found in museums such as the Prado. The exhibition forces viewers, who often wander through museums half preoccupied by their cellphones or by taking selfies, to recognize the benefits of slowing down to look at works of art for longer than a cursory thirty seconds. In a conversation between Estrella de Diego, professor of gender and contemporary art at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense, and Jamie de los Santos, director of Madrid’s Office of Culture and Tourism, moderated by journalist, Javier Moreno, Diego describes The Other’s Gaze most subversive element. It is, she says, its revelation of how necessary it is to keep looking in order for works of art to talk to you and begin a conversation in which you discover the multiple perspectives they offer.
The Other’s Gaze is an exhibition that is as much about rediscovering the Prado’s formidable collection as it is about rewriting art history. It allowed me to rediscover a museum to which I make an almost annual pilgrimage, one I thought I knew well. Wandering through the galleries, with the exhibition as my guide, I was forced to stop and notice paintings to which I had never before been drawn, as well as figures and meanings within them that have always been hidden in plain sight.