Sunday, January 27, 2008

Yo Soy Boricua

... and not just because it's mentioned in one of my favourite ever overheard in new york quotes.

TOH worked out the other day that this is the longest, since leaving Sheff for university, that he's ever lived in one place. And I think that's true for me, too; obviously lived in London, but in various places. Yet we are embarrassingly ignorant about where we live. Therefore, we are embarking on a mission to tour the riches around us, before we head off for other climes (which may well happen later this year).

One of the most obvious omissions has always been The Hispanic Society of America, which is based in the campus of Boricua College. It's on Audubon Terrace, on Broadway between 155th and 156th. It was founded by a museum founder; seriously, that's what he did, with lots of others founded, no apparent connection between the themes. According to the museum, he was obsessed with Spanish culture, having read travel memoirs of it as a young man in the early 20th century. TOH and I are both enthusiasts of Spanish painting, yet until this afternoon had never visited this place two blocks south of our house that houses works by Goya, El Greco (his and my favourites, respectively) as well as Velázquez, Zurbarán, de Ribera, and Murillo.

It's a modest, but lovely, collection. The most important painting there, however, is a glorious Goya that is extremely famous - the portrait of the Duchess of Alba, dressed in black mourning clothes. There's a lot interesting about this painting. He painted two of her, and the one of her in virginal and highly fashionable white is displayed in a palace in Madrid. In contrast, the "Black Duchess" was never given to the Duchess, or indeed shown in public, essentially because it represented Goya's apparent passion for the widow. When you think about it, it's a really quite cheeky thing: she's in her mourning dress, but has a ring on her finger saying "Goya," and is pointing to the ground where the words "Sólo Goya" ("Only Goya") have been etched into the sand, apparently by her - after all, she is alone.* Robert Hughes, in his wonderful biography of the artist, states
This is not what she feels, but what Goya hopes: she is in mourning for her dead husband, and Goya is the only man for her. It is the painter's fantasy, not the subject's, and presumably that is why the portrait did not pass into the possession of La Alba; she would hardly have wanted visitors to see so striking a declaration of a love that she did not in fact feel.** In the painting she is beautiful and imperious, the yello of her gold-embroidered blouse and the red of her facha, or knotted sash, powerfully suggest the burning coals of passion, glowing through the black filigree of lace. One can imagine the painter staring at it through the privacy of his studio and wishing it were so.
The museum is free, peaceful, and this painting is utterly exquisite. There's also a lovely Sagrada Familia by El Greco, a beautiful small head portrait of a little girl by Velázquez, and a couple of striking Zurbarán portraits of female saints that actually bring to mind the society portraits by Singer Sargent, with opulent cascading materials, rather than traditional saintly images. Further, there's a Spanish impressionist, Sorrolla y Bastida, that we'd never seen before, who warrants further investigation. Apparently they have an extensive collection of his work - indeed, a whole room - but that is closed until 2009, sadly, so a return visit is definitely necessary.

* It may just be me, of course, but she looks much more... buxom, standing in a more sensuous and challenging position, in the black than in the white.
** Of course, there are many who suggest that it was indeed reciprocated, or at least they had an affair.

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