The Spanish Gallery Review – would you like a spooky mural with your sherry and tapas? | Art

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gGreat Spanish geniuses of the Renaissance and Baroque era are celebrated by Bishop Auckland’s newest museum, but there is no mention of the most influential of all, Miguel de Cervantes. Maybe because Cervantes’ Don Quixote bowing against the windmills would strike too close to home. Because this gallery, in a converted Victorian bank in a small British town, is tragicomically chimerical.

He wants to be the Prado of the north. There seems to be a lot of goodwill towards this dream from institutions such as the National Gallery and the New York Hispanic Society, which have loaned works. And who wouldn’t wish it, a gallery defending the high culture of a compatriot European nation in this era of superficial populism? But what promises to be courageous, rigorous and idealistic often looks like a plan of vanity. The Spanish Gallery is the brainchild of collector and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, part of what he calls Project Auckland, a one-man regeneration program at the center of this beautifully located but economically besieged place that includes the Auckland Castle, a miners’ art gallery, and – to come – a faith museum. Yet with the generosity of Ruffer’s patronage comes a determination to impose his views, which makes it very difficult to find his own rhythm and emotional connection with the Spanish Gallery.

The Cabbage and Kings Room at the Spanish Gallery. Photography: House of Hues

One might reasonably wonder why a museum called Spanish Gallery focuses so ruthlessly on 16th and 17th century art. Of course, it was a great time. Velázquez ranks with Rembrandt as a titan while Zurbarán and Ribera are not far away. But it is snobbery and madness to claim that there has been no great Spanish art since. Goya and Picasso aren’t exactly a deadly fall. “Those hoping to see the art of Spain run from the caves of Altamira to Picasso and beyond will be bewildered,” boasts one of the catalog’s many fruity phrases, without trying to explain. This company is fatally torn between wanting to share great art and learning about a skill that the hoi polloi will never understand. And the arrogance is misplaced, because the displays read like poor history essays. There is a section titled Cabbages and Kings in which a wall of portraits of Spanish Habsburg monarchs faces a row of 17th-century paintings of decaying fruits and vegetables. The authoritarian vanity, you see, is that the power of the Habsburgs has decayed like a cabbage.

Yet this intellectual ostentation is accompanied by an embarrassing lack of taste. Old Spain was stern, smeared with black, even minimalist. Philip II set the tone by showing his art collection in the dreary monastic Escorial outside Madrid. Ruffer, on the other hand, exhibits his collection in grotesquely shaped and often cramped spaces – a bank doesn’t easily turn into a museum, it turns out – with appalling theatrical lighting, on chic wallpaper, with mundane texts and sentimental everywhere. One room is full of paintings of saints set in the middle of white satin curtains as if it were a funeral home. A final exhibition has “Envoi” in large letters on the wall, calling for an emotional farewell the gallery did not deserve.

Old Spain comes to life… Moorish tile installation by Factum Foundation and Skene Catling de la Peña.
Old Spain comes to life… Moorish tile installation by Factum Foundation and Skene Catling de la Peña. Photography: House of Hues

But the biggest problem is the art. This is not bad. It’s just that the permanent collection has nothing to stop the heart. All the picky and overrated postings ultimately look like an attempt to escape this truth. There is a room dedicated to 17th century Spanish artists who died young. For this reason alone, we are asked to believe, they are not famous. But it’s just one piece full of minor art per person.

Then everything is displayed. There is a truly impressive painting high up in the central hall: a huge scene from Murillo’s Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. Its deep shadows and deep hues are so authoritative that they eclipse other art, both in quality and scale. But oh, wait a minute. This is a fake and openly recognized as such. This is a high-tech facsimile of Adam Lowe and his Factum Arte studio, which mixes digital scanning and artisan skills for a supernatural effect.

Factum Arte has created an entire floor of equally surprising remakes at the top of the gallery. Here, old Spain finally comes to life. You can stand on a mock terracotta floor in Seville, surrounded by glittering reproductions of Moorish tiles from the palace where young Velázquez took art lessons. There is a life-size spectral copy of a tomb in Toledo. A final chapel contains terrifying (but false) death frescoes.

The “fakes” are more moving than the main collection. They take you to Spain. Bring the fresh sherry and tapas. In fact, the Spanish gallery will soon have a tapas bar. In the meantime, you’ll have to settle for a few displays of somewhat uneven art rum. He needs a Sancho Panza to keep this place a little more real.

The Spanish gallery, Bishop Auckland, opens on October 15.


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