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SAN DIEGO — Art and Empire: The Golden Age of Spain at the San Diego Museum of Art assembles a collection of over 100 works from the four corners of the Spanish Empire at its zenith under Habsburg rule from 1516 to 1700. It includes works by such canonical figures as Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, and El Greco. In a postcolonial society still deeply divided by race, gender, and class inequalities, how can we understand these works? The extensive exhibition attempts to retell the story of Spain’s golden age by highlighting the global exchange of cultures as seen in the empire’s art and its hugely diverse body of subjects.
The number and range of representations of women and people of color among the objects in the collection are surprising and suggest that Inquisition-era empire was perhaps more progressive and socially mobile than the history books tell us. But that vision is difficult to square with what we in the US and Europe know of colonial oppression, its mechanisms, and of the far-reaching legacy of the pogrom it initiated.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, “Kitchen Maid and the Dinner at Emmaus” (ca. 1617–1618) by Velázquez, depicts a young woman of African descent as the eavesdropping protagonist of a dinner tableau featuring Jesus. By placing a young Black woman at the center of this important religious scene, the painter reveals his attitude toward race, though his relationship with Black people was bifurcated. Velázquez inherited a Moorish slave, turned protégé, named Juan de Pareja. De Pareja was freed and went on to become an independent master in his own right, but only after working as a slave for Velázquez.
Among the many religious works in the exhibition is de Pareja’s “Flight into Egypt” (1658). The figures are squat and ill-proportioned, and it lacks the intense luminosity of his later works. The painting is a rare example of an important work by a Black artist of the period, but it was likely included in this collection for its intimation of colonial progressivism more than its technical prowess.
A spectacular wooden statue of St. Benedict of Palermo (1734) attributed to José Montes de Oca is among the show’s most striking objects. Benedict rose from poverty to become a leader of two different religious communities despite his dark skin; he was even enshrined in a tomb built by King Phillip III. Benedict commanded unprecedented respect for his humble piety, which allowed him to blend into the establishment. The great man’s intense religious conviction and righteous confidence is communicated in the sculpture’s dynamic pose and concentrated gaze.
Unfortunately for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), colonial society in New Spain wasn’t as liberal for women. She was an aristocratic nun renowned for her intelligence and the elite salons she held in her grandiloquent apartments. A monumental posthumous portrait of her by Miguel Cabrera hangs adjacent to another of a male Arch-Bishop in one of the galleries. The pairing implies a sense of gender equality that does not reflect the patriarchal and sexist reality of her time. As punishment for her outspoken feminist ideas and writings, Sor Joana was forced to sell her library, to sign a forced confession in her own blood, and to work in a plague hospital. She died of the disease one year later, at the age of 47.
Toward the end of the show is a perplexing set of “casta” (caste) paintings that elaborate a pictographic taxonomy of mixed-race people in the New World. The paintings carry inscriptions such as, “De Español y Indio Produce Meztizo” (“From a Spaniard and an Indian, Meztizo”). One casta painting in particular by Juan Rodriquez Juárez stands out: instead of systemic racism, Juárez depicts a loving bourgeois family. The white-skinned father, donning a powdered wig, and his bejeweled indigenous mistress, resplendent in her Chinese silk huipil, stare affectionately at their two happy children. There’s warmth in this scene, but there’s also an implicit power imbalance between this couple.
Should viewers reassess the Spanish colonial empire as a progressive meritocracy? I don’t think so. The exhibition offers a compelling counter-narrative to the violence conventionally associated with Spanish colonial art, but its complete exclusion of representations of imperial brutality — inflicted on millions of people — borders on rose-tinted historical revisionism.
What this exhibition does demonstrate is how effective art can be at selling an image of progressivism. One of the most insidious operations of colonial oppression was its attempt to inculcate into the colonized a desire to assimilate to the colonizer’s culture through a vision in art of racial harmony — dominated by the colonizer. The struggle to represent equality in art and the media, and, moreover, to realize it, seems to have changed very little since the “Golden Age of Spain.”
Art and Empire: The Golden Age of Spain continues at the San Diego Museum of Art (1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California) through September 2.
Editor’s note: The author of this piece works part-time as a security guard at the San Diego Museum of Art.