The exhibition Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh marks a triumphant return for the newly renamed Hispanic Society Museum and Library (HSM&L), an institution that has spent several disoriented decades trying to find its place in the New York cultural landscape. The exhibition is in many ways traditional — in its focus on a single medium (polychrome sculpture), circumscribed subject matter (mostly Catholic saints), and a neatly defined period of time (1500–1800). What sets it apart is its success in foregrounding the agency of individual artists, and the material choices they made to ensure their works come to life, without losing sight of their enmeshment in the imperialist project of the Spanish Golden Age.

Founded by Archer M. Huntington in 1904 as the Hispanic Society of America, the HSM&L is an outstanding collection of art from predominantly Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking regions. It contains, among other items, over 900 paintings; 6,000 works of sculpture and decorative art; and a quarter-million rare books and manuscripts. The shadow cast by the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art has made it difficult to appreciate that the HSM&L alone outranks the holdings of most American museums of its size. Despite the quality of its collections, however, the institution has suffered greatly under leadership that refused to reach out to audiences in its surrounding neighborhood, and even actively offended those same audiences with openly racist rhetoric. As a consequence, the museum’s galleries have spent most of the 21st century devoid of crowds. Even before the institution closed down for renovations in 2017, the art press was ready to ring the death knells.

Installation view of Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh at the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York. Foreground: Polychrome wood statue of St. Martin, by unkown Hispano-Flemish sculptor (c. 1450-75)

Gilded Figures is, therefore, a comeback show, and a terrific one at that. It is organized along three major lines: one focusing on artists working in mainland Spain, one highlighting two women who carved out careers for themselves within male-dominated spheres, and a section devoted to works by artists in Latin America. On paper, this division might appear overly simplistic (if not pandering), grouping “women artists” into a section of their own while reviving Old World versus New World stereotypes. However, this is not the case. Instead, the exhibition’s objects and artists are so well chosen and so carefully interpreted that each section actively challenges those divisions and rejects easy tropes.

Take, for instance, the works by Spain-based artists Gil de Siloé and Juan de Juni, neither of whom conform to clear-cut geographic boundaries. De Siloé, a Late Gothic master of both stone and wood carving, is best known for working in Burgos, but his origins are thought to be Flemish or French. An exuberant “Resurrection” relief (c. 1490), attributed to Siloé, reflects this complexity, with figures whose anatomy recalls Flemish contemporaries, surrounded by a wealth of textural details characteristic of Spanish Gothic. Meanwhile, two exquisite female reliquary busts (c. 1545) by the French-born de Juni show the impact of recent Italian art. And yet, while the busts do recall the monumental women of Michelangelo, vibrant polychromy renders them immediately lifelike in a way that neoclassical white marbles never could: though their features are now still and composed, their flushed cheeks and heavy lids reveal the lingering presence of exhausting inner torment.  

Luisa Roldán (attributed), “Head of Saint Paul” and “Head of Saint John the Baptist” (c. 1692-1706), polychrome terra cotta

Similarly category defying are the works by Luisa Roldán and Andrea de Mena. The two women, both daughters of sculptors, were contemporaries who must have faced similar constraints within Golden Age Spain. Yet, their art seems worlds apart. While de Mena entered and worked within a Cistercian abbey, Roldán is credited as one of the only women who ran her own workshop outside of the convent system. The polychrome terra cottas of Roldán, whose renown earned her the title of Royal Sculptor to Charles II, are heavy, mystical, and gory creations. The smaller, wooden busts of de Mena appear by contrast quite tame and delicate. Next to Roldán’s two terra cotta plates featuring the huge severed heads of Saints Paul and John the Baptist (c. 1692-1706), the blood-covered face of de Mena’s “Ecce Homo” and her tearful “Mater Dolorosa” (c. 1675) seem almost treacly. 

In the section devoted to the works made in Latin America, the wall labels demonstrate how carefully the exhibition’s curators and educators considered their rhetoric. They do not employ euphemisms about the ways art was weaponized in the service of imperialism (“The colonization of these civilizations presented the Catholic church with the challenging task of converting indigenous people to a new faith. To accomplish this, bishops and religious orders turned to art as part of a campaign of indoctrination”). However, neither do they present the artists creating these objects as mindless followers of the church’s bidding; instead, “sculptors responded with works characterized by an impressive range of scale and emotion.” To speak of these objects as artists’ “responses” is helpful, as it demonstrates the individual agency of artists working within a larger system of oppression. 

Manuel Chili (Caspicara), attributed, The Fates of Man: “Death,” “Soul in Hell,” “Soul in Purgatory,” “Soul in Heaven” (c. 1775)

This dynamic is especially relevant in places like Quito, in Ecuador, a city that had flourished under the Incas. No artist embodies this complexity better than Manuel Chili, known as Caspicara. Born to an indigenous family in Ecuador, he adopted the imposed Catholic style with tremendous virtuosity. Although they are some of the smallest objects in the exhibition, his The Fates of Man series (c. 1775) — “Death,” “Soul in Hell,” “Soul in Purgatory,” and “Soul in Heaven” — is certainly a showstopper. With maggots crawling over skeletons and nails ripping through burning skin, Caspicara’s figures project a singular understanding of agony. Through a skillful combination of paint, wood, glass, and metal, each detail is taken to its emotional extreme.

Gilded Figures is part of a much larger project currently underway at the HSM&L. An updated acquisitions policy, for example, finally includes Latino and Caribbean artists. The museum’s new website, which replaces a notoriously bad predecessor, is now rich with detail and surprisingly transparent about the inner workings of an institution that used to take pride in being impenetrably elitist. That visitors may leave Gilded Figures thinking “I wonder what else they may have in store” is perhaps the biggest accomplishment of them all.

Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh continues at the Hispanic Museum & Library (613 West 155th Street, Manhattan) through January 9, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Patrick Lenaghan, Head Curator of prints, photographs and sculpture of the HSM&L, and Hélène Fontoira-Marzin, Head of Conservation of the HSM&L.

Roko Rumora is a curator and a doctoral candidate in art history at the University of Chicago, where his research focuses on sculptural aesthetics in the Roman Empire. Born and raised in Croatia, he received...