CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Captive Beauty: Treasures from the Prado Museum

Exhibition: 10 October 2015 - 31 January 2016

From The Japan News, 21 October 2015

In a first for Japan, genuine works of Bosch, of which only 20 exist in the world, will be shown

A large-scale exhibition of masterworks from the Prado Museum of Madrid has come to Japan for the first time in 13 years, and this time it is one that aims to shed an entirely new light on the famed Prado collection. The concept for the exhibition originated from a suggestion by the Prado’s director for an exhibition consisting of small-format works from the museum’s collection spanning the 15th to 19th centuries. The result was a successful exhibition that was held at the Prado in 2013 and toured to Barcelona the same year.

Now that exhibition has come to Tokyo, newly composed specially for the Japanese audience and the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum’s more intimate gallery spaces. With over 100 works, almost all of which are oil paintings, this is in fact a large exhibition. Furthermore, roughly half of the oil paintings are shown as originally intended, without glass in their frames. Each of the small masterpieces is given plenty of space on the gallery walls and each is individually lighted, all of which adds to the intimate viewing experience.

Rooted in the royal collections of the Hapsburg and Bourbon monarchs of Spain, the Prado’s collection is celebrated as one of the world’s finest, not only in the art of the great Spanish masters such as El Greco, Luis de Morales, Diego Velazquez, Bartolome Murillo and Francisco de Goya, but also the Italian Renaissance masters Titian, Tintoretto and Correggio, and the Dutch masters Bosch, Rubens and Brueghel, among others. The Spanish monarchs actively collected works by all of these artists, and all are represented in this show.

“Each of the paintings in this show are carefully selected masterpieces that show the scope of the Prado collection, and although they are small paintings, I hope the viewers will find that each one contains the creative passion and intelligence of the artist,” said the exhibition’s curator from the Prado, Manuela B. Mena Marques, who was in Tokyo for the hanging and opening of the show. Also present for the opening was the Prado Museum’s director, Miguel Zugaza.

“Because the Prado’s collection came largely from the royal collection, you might say that rather than being an encyclopedic collection of European art, it is one that also reflects the personal tastes of the kings of Spain over the centuries,” Zugaza said. “For this reason there are certain notable areas of specialization, such as the world’s most important collection of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, which King Felipe II purchased to hang his own personal quarters. The Bosch painting ‘Extraction of the Stone of Madness’ (ca. 1500-10) that has left the Prado for the first time for this exhibition is a very fine example of Bosch’s unique realism, as seen in the details of the figures and in the landscape, and his criticism of the follies of life in Holland during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age.”

Asked about how she had selected the works for this show, Mena explained: “It was a difficult task, not only because there were some 700 small works to choose from but also because a Prado exhibition must always have a clear theme and an educational aspect. With a collection that covers more than four centuries, a historical focus was impossible, so I decided to select works showing that even though a painting is small it still has the same artistic value as a large one, and often with more concentrated richness and beauty.”

Zugaza pointed out that two paintings in the show — Bosch’s “Extraction of the Stone of Madness” and Goya’s “The Duchess of Alba and La Beata” (1795) — are very similar in appearance and artistic essence despite being separated by nearly 300 years, with Bosch focusing on the follies of society and Goya on aristocratic folly. “Goya was convalescing at the estate of the Duke of Alba, and instead of painting a portrait of the Duchess, in typical Goya style he chose to show the reality of daily life among the nobility by painting her from behind in a scene where the capricious young duchess is teasing her pious Christian nanny with a pagan amulet,” explains Mena.

Among the 19th century works is one that will surely interest many in the Japanese audience, Mariano Fortuny’s “The Painter’s Children in the Japanese Room.”

“Fortuny was one of Spain’s finest painters of the day and he had lived abroad in Italy and France, and in this painting, I believe he wanted to show that he was knowledgeable about the latest trends in Europe, in this case the Japonisme boom that was popular among artists at the time,” commented Mena.

Most of the paintings in this exhibition have such stories to discover, and all are works of high quality and are beautifully displayed for close-up viewing. Many of the works are interestingly paired, such as small studies and the larger finished works by Rubens and Goya. There are also exquisite still lifes and religious paintings by the likes of El Greco and Titian. In short, it is a beautiful exhibition, and one that offers the vicarious pleasure of savoring the same art as the Spanish monarchs.