The wealth of cultural information in the Grolier Club show — assembled by the Hispanic Society’s former director, Mitchell A. Codding, and its current curator of manuscripts and rare books, John O’Neill — provides necessary grounding for the too-sparsely annotated sculpture display at Audubon Terrace. Yet it’s the sculpture itself that’s the grabber, visual and emotional, and one that we’re still just learning to appreciate.
The three-decade rise of identity politics and global consciousness has certainly helped with this. So has resulting awareness on the part of our “encyclopedic” museums of what they’ve left out. Spanish and Spanish colonial religious art of the 15th to 18th century is finding a place in institutional collections and gaining visibility through special shows. One, “Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain,” put together by the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Meadows Museum in Dallas, traveled the country in 2019. And a year earlier, Spanish Baroque sculpture had a starring role in a contemporary group show called “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body” at the Met Breuer, where Pedro de Mena and La Roldana shared space with Jeff Koons and Duane Hanson, and more than held their own.
To do so, however, they had to be stripped of their social, political and spiritual values. They were made “modern,” museumized. You still need to visit the great churches of Spain or Mexico or the Philippines to see and feel how these images were meant to work as devotional objects. And to fully understand this art, to be true to it, and to all religious art (which is, after all, the bulk of surviving art before the 20th century) you need to keep this need in mind.
Actually, the gilded Hispanic Society figures make this easy, because they don’t give us much choice. They tell stories many of us barely know, about figures, human and divine, we barely believe in, and about histories, natural and supernatural, we barely understand. And they do so with a dramatic power so strong and strange that we’re willing to suspend reservation, and savor their passionate shine.
Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh
Through Jan. 9 at the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, 613 West 155th Street, Manhattan. 212-926-2234; hispanicsociety.org.
Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library
Through Dec. 18 at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, Manhattan. 212-838-6690; grolierclub.org.