Albuquerque exhibit explores Spain’s soul

“(The city) has never seen a show quite like this,” boasts the Albuquerque Museum’s web page featuring “El Alma de España: The Soul of Spain,” an art show which opened May 15 in the brand-new North Gallery. It’s the first exhibit in Albuquerque’s history solely devoted to Spanish masters. It’s also the first of three shows designed to celebrate the Albuquerque Tricentennial.

In my 20 years covering New Mexico arts, I’ve come to expect high-caliber exhibits from the Albuquerque Museum, but I’m not prepared for what I see when El Alma’s curator, Ellen Landis, leads me into the gallery. On walls and dividers cut to look like a Spanish courtyard, nearly 100 magnificent paintings, sculptures, and carved reliefs display artistic skill and creativity not often seen in one place. Landis seems to shimmer as much as the art she’s assembled. The small dark-skinned woman with short grayish- black hair should shimmer — with pride. She’s spent the last two years gathering the pieces for El Alma from museums and private collections across Europe and America. The show covers 300 years, from the Renaissance to 1805.

“We have El Grecos, Murillos, Valásquezes, and Goyas.” Her brown eyes sparkle. “Some big names.”

Huge names — Who’s Who in Spanish art. Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82) became one of the first popular Spanish painters in Europe, with his joyous scenes of religious life. D i a g o Valásquez’s technique and individualistic style influenced painters all over the Continent. Court painter to King Philip IV, Valásquez (1599-1660) recorded the daily activities of His Majesty’s family with a cool, detached eye.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) heralded artistic thinking of the late 19th Century by expressing his thoughts and emotions in a personal and frank way.

El Greco (1541-1614) fused the Byzantine traditions of his native Crete with ideas encountered in Venice, Rome, and finally Toledo, where he settled. His art mixes passion and restraint, religious fervor, and mysticism.

Landis beckons me across the gallery’s polished floor to an El Greco, a small painting called “Bust of Christ.” When she put El Alma together, she wanted one of his large works. But collectors and museums had just retrieved their El Grecos from a traveling show, and didn’t want to loan them again. She settled for the ‘Bust of Christ.” Then, an El Greco expert revealed startling news: The artist painted his large works for commission, and kept the small ones for himself.

Landis all but jumps for joy. “We have one that meant something to him.”

Even more interesting, “Bust of Christ” is not a typical El Greco. He elongated figures, distorting perspective to express his ideas. “Bust of Christ” has a more natural look. Landis believes he had no room on the tiny canvas to elongate Jesus’ face. I wonder if El Greco painted an inti- mate moment with his God.

We stroll the gallery again, savoring other images: a portrait of a blackrobed, bearded friar with intense dark eyes, enhanced by an oval-cut matte in a square, black frame; bright windblown flowers swaying in a vase; a pewter plate of dark bread, beside wine glowing blood-red in the light from a window.

“Anonymous,” read many title cards. “El Alma de España: The Soul of Spain” contains as many unknown as famous artists. Landis sighs. “It would be nice to know who some of these painters and their subjects were.”

She pauses by a small sculpture called “Maria.” Luisa Roldan created the Virgin in her sky-blue cape. Smiling, Maria holds Jesus, while angels and John the Baptist surround her.

“She was a court artist in the 17th Century. That’s all we know.” The curator’s voice trails off.

I glance around, awed. Mystery adds to El Alma’s power. The paintings also appear very Spanish. They are not from northern Europe. Landis chuckles.

“I think what makes them Spanish is the drama. The northern European paintings are serene. These are not serene by any stretch of the imagination. You see tremendous emotion.”

The images are also cosmopolitan. A blue sky with light-filled broken clouds could appear over the Rhine Valley. A portrait of a young woman shows Rembrandt’s influence.

Spaniards traveled Europe and the Americas. For centuries, foreigners entered their country. Spanish artists picked up painting technique from everybody, and made it their own.

“That’s one of the characteristics of Spain,” Ellen Landis laughs again. “The intense expressions, the dark clothes, and the lighting in the skies are — well — dramatic is the only word I can think of for them.”

She gives the North Gallery an all-encompassing glance. Once the Albuquerque Museum’s Curator of Art, she retired, then returned to mount El Alma de España and the two shows that follow it, at the invitation of Millie Santillane, director of Albuquerque’s Cultural Services Department.

“It’s just been wonderful dealing with these paintings. I feel like they’re mine now.”

From Arts & Entertainment, June 2005.