On KERA’s Think today, Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks spoke with University of Dallas history professor Alexandra Wilhelmsen and SMU history professor Kenneth Andrien about Treasures of the House of Alba, the landmark exhibition of some 140 items from the great Spanish family’s collection of art works and historic documents. For its 50th anniversary, the Meadows Museum has brought in a collection that has never traveled before — containing individual paintings and manuscripts that have never been displayed in North America (above, a map of the coastline of Haiti believed to have been drawn by Christopher Columbus).
The discussion covered not simply some of the artworks never seen before in public in the United States — such as Goya’s famous The Duchess of Alba in White (1795) — but also the history of the Alba clan, its survival through the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime and its current status — after some 600 years — as still one of that country’s wealthiest families. And yes, I mention how I find the exhibition to be peculiarly laid out. Although it’s ostensibly chronological, it’s not chronological according to the artworks; it’s organized around the different dukes and duchesses who collected the artworks. Thus, you can be admiring an 18th-century painting and step into the next gallery and go backwards in time to face late Renaissance works — because the 14th Duke of Alba went on a buying spree (or rather, ‘grand tour’) in the early 19th century and bought some of the collection’s greatest works. It’s also hard to figure out which door is the entrance to the show. What certainly looks like a sign for the entrance — with two video screens and a large grey wall with ‘Treasures of the House of Alba’ lettered in red on it — isn’t.
It seems clear the Meadows had space considerations on its second floor and laid out the show in a doughnut around a central room, where part of the Meadows’ permanent collection remains on display. Frankly, it’s clunky but the fact is, it doesn’t really matter in the end. The show has not been curated to demonstrate a particular school or style or period or grand theme or historic development. The best way to enjoy it is probably the mistaken way I did: I started in the middle, stunned at Goya’s White Duchess, eventually worked my way to the start and wandered around all over again.
In short, this is a sprawling heap of pleasures and rarities — dotted with the occasional historical or biographical insight into a particular duke-collector.