Usually when a major art exhibit leaves the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it moves to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Los Angeles. But not this time. If you missed “El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III” during its Boston run earlier this year, you can still catch it in Durham, North Carolina. That’s right. Durham. Truth is, Durham isn’t exactly podunk. We have 200,000 residents, as well as Research Triangle Park and Duke University. Duke is why the show is here now, at its Nasher Museum of Art. Specifically, the stunning exhibit is due to a decades-long interest in the art by Nasher curator Sarah Schroth. She pretty much single-handedly uncovered a treasure trove of art from 1598 to 1621, a little known period during Philip III’s rule of Spain — and Spain’s rule of the world.
Boston was involved because Sarah turned to her art historian colleague and college pal Ronnie Baer, who is a curator at the MFA in Boston. The women had studied at NYU together and become lifelong friends. I saw them speak together at the Nasher’s press preview for the show and they were very sweet and excited. They even giggled a little, so delighted they were in this amazing partnership and exhibit. What a testament it is to decades of friendship and toil in a field that, while impressive to many, isn’t likely understood by most people. Duke president Richard Brodhead spoke, as did Bruce Sharpe, who is Triangle Market President at Bank of America, the show’s primary sponsor, Bank of America. Bruce has quite the lovely drawl, and ended his little PR chat with “Thanks, y’all.” I don’t think you’d hear that in Boston.
Of the 52 paintings are seven works by El Greco, three by a young Velázquez and works by their contemporaries, including Gregorio Fernández and Luis Tristan de Escamilla. (The show also includes altar pieces and more than 50 pieces of period glass and ceramics. The work formed the foundation of the Spanish Golden Age. That’s according to the Nasher press release. Personally, I know nothing about the lesser-known artists or the time period. I do greatly admire El Greco’s work, having seen much of it at the Prado in Madrid and at the MFA when I lived in Boston. While I can’t say the traditional art stirred me, I value its significance. What I did find magnificent and moving were the three full-length carved and painted wooden sculptures of Spanish saints. Each was carved from one piece of wood. They are exquisitely made and filled with life and history.
Wessel and I are returning to the exhibit on Saturday, when it will no doubt be jam packed. This time I’ll pay the $15 admission, a $2 savings from the MFA price. Yet another reason to come see it here, y’all.
Update: Wessel and I did go on Saturday. It wasn’t jam packed, but there was a steady flow of visitors. I’m always expecting “blockbusters” in my neck of the woods to be like those in Boston, where you can’t park and have to wait in line for everything. Not so down here! I took the time and forked over the $3 to rent the audiotape and it was amazingly well done, complete with great period music and quotes from the curators and other experts. I highly recommend it!