|Memories of Spain
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
3 November 2007
Nobody realises, when building a museum, that
it would be better to allow room for expansion. All successful
museums grow and have a tendency to burst their seams. And so
all museums are likely to be mucked around with, and it is very
rare to find a museum interior more or less as its founder intended.
But when you enter the door of the Hispanic
Society of America, on West 155th Street in Manhattan, and your
eyes become accustomed to the brownish interior light, your
brain, too, takes a little time to adjust. It's like an old
photograph in sepia tones, recording a museum interior that
vanished long since. It is executed in an imaginary Renaissance
style, in ornate terracotta. Even the tiled flooring belongs
to the original conception, and the walls bear the arms of every
province of Spain.
A rich man had the obsessive idea that there
should be a museum in America devoted to the soul of the Spaniard,
as revealed through his art and artefacts over the centuries
everything ever made on the Iberian peninsula by Spanish, Portuguese,
Visigoth, Moor, everybody. And not only peninsulares, but the
Latino peoples of America as well. One museum, he thought, could
cover all fields: literature through rare books and manuscripts,
pottery, textiles, metalwork, glass, furniture, sculpture, painting.
The very best of Spanish art Velázquez, Goya, Zurbarán
would represent the golden age, and Joaquín Sorolla y
Bastida the leading painter of his day, the founder thought
would carry the flag for the moderns.
The scheme was highly ambitious and, amazingly,
completely achieved. Today's museum (still free to visit) was
built a century ago beside the Hudson river in Upper Manhattan,
at a time when the whole island had been surveyed for the eventual
grid plan of streets, but had not yet been fully developed.
The place was called Audubon Park, named after the famous naturalist
and painter of the birds of America. Audubon had had his house
there, where Samuel Morse stayed as his guest. It is thought
that Morse's experiments in submarine telegraphy were carried
out from Audubon's house.
The visionary behind the Hispanic Society of
America was Archer Milton Huntington, a member by marriage of
the supremely wealthy Huntington family, magnates of the shipping
and railroad trade. Huntington himself had no great interest
in that business, but everything he did, he did like a tycoon,
thoroughly. He learnt Spanish. He wrote about his travels. He
bought rare books, and as soon as he owned something worth reprinting,
he had it published in facsimile. He translated the epic of
El Cid. His wife, the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, made an
equestrian statue of the Cid, to set outside the museum. Huntington
himself wrote poems about Spain. He had a mission in life, and
it was a big enough mission to prevent him from falling victim
to a narrow obsession.
Every wall, every vitrine, every drawer of
his museum is crammed with objects illustrating the history
of glazed pottery, of decorated tiles, of Hispanic lustreware,
of Roman mosaic, of textiles and so on. A gallery runs around
the main room, and on the upper walls are paintings of a wide
variety of quality. The best are simply the best. There is Goya's
famously imperious Duchess of Alba, all in black save for gold
sleeves and a red sash. There is a full-length Velázquez
of the Count-Duke of Olivares, again in black, but for a thick
gold chain. There is a room decorated by Sorolla an artist now
much sought after by museums, richly represented here. What
the collection lacks, perhaps, is a really stunning early Picasso,
such as the boy with the pipe, something to complete the chronology.
Audubon Terrace, as it became known, attracted
a group of cultural institutions to make a small monumental
campus, which is bizarre to come across in today's modest Dominican
neighbourhood. It looks like the classical buildings put up
for some early trade fair, except that these structures were
made to last. Yet some have outlived their function. The American
Numismatic Society came and went. There used also to be a Museum
of the American Indian, and the names of the tribes are carved
into the frieze. When the museum's collection was moved, the
bronze doors, by Berthold Nebel, were left in situ. They have
been sprayed with graffiti and are currently in a bad state.
It is a shame.
Also here is the American Academy of Arts and
Letters, which has an auditorium with an excellent acoustic.
You would think that a wealthy place such as New York would
be rich in places where music could be recorded, but this is
ceasing to be true. The American Academy is therefore much in
demand. And it, too, bears a frieze stating, as the Everyman
books used to say, that "A good book is the precious life-blood
of a master spirit ".
Huntington, in his Hispanic museum, held views
that were ahead of their time. He bought Spanish objects from
the art market, but is said to have avoided buying them from
Spain itself. He did not want to denude the source of all this
cultural wealth. He had female assistants whom he encouraged
to train as curators. They each became experts on their chosen
aspect of the collection, and, long before I first visited the
museum, I knew about Spanish sculpture through the work of one
of these pioneering women.
His wife's sculpture, including the statue
of El Cid and the large relief of Don Quixote, is academic and
highly proficient. Nobody would have paid it much attention
a few years ago, but it is typical of its American tradition.
One learns to value art of this kind. It has its own historical
place. And it has always been widely appreciated as a public
art, just as the sculpture park that the Huntingtons founded
in Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina is still thriving and
much appreciated the first sculpture park in America.