Bishop Auckland’s newest museum honors great Spanish minds of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, but it makes no mention of Miguel de Cervantes, the most important of them all. Perhaps because Don Quixote tilting at windmills in Cervantes’ Don Quixote would be too personal. For this exhibition is tragicomically quixotic, housed in a restored Victorian bank in a tiny British town.
It aspires to be the north’s Prado. Institutions such as the National Gallery and the New York Hispanic Society, who have loaned paintings, seem to have a lot of good will towards that goal. In this era of superficial populism, who wouldn’t want for a gallery to speak up for the great culture of a neighboring European nation?
However, what seems to be courageous, rigorous, and idealistic often appears to be a vanity project. The Spanish Gallery is the idea of collector and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, and is part of his Auckland Project, a one-man redevelopment plan that includes Auckland Castle, a gallery of miners’ art, and a museum of religion (coming soon).
Ruffer’s support, however, is accompanied with a desire to impose his ideas, making it difficult to discover your own pace and emotional connection with The Spanish Gallery.
One may legitimately wonder why the Spanish Gallery devotes so much attention to paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. This was, without a doubt, a fantastic epoch. Velázquez is up there with Rembrandt as a giant, with Zurbarán and Ribera close behind. But pretending there hasn’t been any outstanding Spanish art since is arrogance and lunacy.
Goya and Picasso aren’t exactly on their deathbeds. “Those who expect to see Spanish art from the Altamira caves to Picasso and beyond will be disappointed,” boasts one of the catalogue’s numerous fruity phrases, without attempting to explain.
This project is divided between wanting to share excellent work and boasting about a level of brilliance that the average person can never comprehend. The hubris is unwarranted, since the exhibits read like bad history essays.
A wall of portraits of Spanish Habsburg rulers confronts a series of 17th-century paintings of rotting fruit and vegetables in a part named Cabbages and Kings. You see, the overwhelming assumption is that Habsburg power withered like a cabbage.
However, this academic arrogance is accompanied by an appalling lack of taste. Old Spain was harsh, drab, and even austere. The gloomy monastic Escorial outside Madrid, where Philip II displayed his art collection, established the tone.
Ruffer, on the other hand, displays his collection in grotesquely formed, sometimes tight rooms – a bank, it turns out, does not readily transform into a museum – with garish theatrical lighting, against fancy wallpaper, and clichéd and emotional writings strewn around. As if it were a funeral home, one area is filled with artwork of saints placed against white satin drapes.
“Envoi” is written in large letters on the wall in a last exhibition, demanding an emotional goodbye the museum has not earned.
The art, though, is the most serious issue. It’s not terrible at all. It’s simply that there’s nothing in the permanent collection to halt the heart.
All of the meticulous, exaggerated presentations eventually seem to be an effort to hide this reality. There’s a chamber devoted to youthful 17th-century Spanish painters. We are led to think that they are not well-known for this reason alone.
But it’s simply a room full of nobodies’ little work.
Then everything starts to look up. A large picture from Murillo’s The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes hangs high in the center hall, and it is really stunning.
Its rich shadows and time-deepened colors are so commanding that they outshine the other paintings, both in terms of quality and size. But, hold on a second.
This is a forgery that is publicly recognized. It’s a high-tech replica created by Adam Lowe and his Factum Arte company, which combines digital scanning with fine craft skills to create an eerie appearance.
At the top of the gallery, Factum Arte has built an entire level of equally stunning remakes. Here, ancient Spain comes to life for the first time.
In Seville, you may stand on a terracotta-like floor surrounded by gleaming replicas of Moorish tiles from the palace where young Velázquez studied painting. In Toledo, there’s a full-size, strangely ghostly replica of a tomb.
Death paintings that seem genuine (but aren’t) may be seen in a last chapel.
The “fakes” have a stronger emotional impact than the main collection. They will transport you to Spain. Tapas and cold sherry are in order.
In fact, a tapas bar will open shortly inside the Spanish Gallery. In the meanwhile, you’ll have to make do with these spectacular displays of shabby art. This town needs a Sancho Panza to keep it grounded.