The Spanish Gallery review – would you like a scary fresco with your sherry and tapas?

·4-min read

Great Spanish geniuses of the Renaissance and baroque era are celebrated by Bishop Auckland’s newest museum but it makes no mention of the most influential of all, Miguel de Cervantes. Perhaps because Cervantes’ Don Quixote tilting at windmills would strike too close to home. For this gallery, in a converted Victorian bank in a small British town, is tragicomically quixotic.

It wants to be the Prado of the north. There seems to be plenty of good will towards that dream from institutions such as the National Gallery and the New York Hispanic Society, who have loaned works. And who wouldn’t wish it well, a gallery standing up for the high culture of a fellow European nation in this age of shallow populism? But what promises to be brave, rigorous and idealistic often looks like a vanity project. The Spanish Gallery is the brainchild of collector and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, part of what he calls the Auckland Project, a one-man regeneration scheme in the centre of this beautifully set but economically embattled place that includes Auckland Castle, a gallery of miners’ art, and – coming soon – a museum of faith. Yet the generosity of Ruffer’s patronage goes with a determination to impose his views that makes it very hard to find your own pace and emotional connection with The Spanish Gallery.

One might reasonably ask why a museum called the Spanish Gallery focuses so ruthlessly on art from the 16th and 17th centuries. Sure, this was a great era. Velázquez ranks with Rembrandt as a titan while Zurbarán and Ribera are not far off. But it is snobbery and madness to pretend there has been no great Spanish art since. Goya and Picasso are not exactly a dying fall. “Those who hope to see the art of Spain running from the Altamira caves to Picasso and beyond will be nonplussed,” brags one of many fruity sentences in the catalogue, without trying to explain. This venture is fatally torn between wanting to share great art and preening itself over a cleverness the hoi polloi will never understand. And the arrogance is misplaced, for the displays read like poor history essays. There’s a section called Cabbages and Kings in which a wall of portraits of Spanish Habsburg monarchs faces a row of 17th-century paintings of decaying fruit and vegetables. The overbearing conceit, you see, is that Habsburg power rotted just like a cabbage.

Yet this intellectual ostentation goes with an embarrassing lack of taste. Old Spain was severe, black-coated, even minimalist. Philip II set its tone by showing his art collection in the bleak monastic Escorial outside Madrid. Ruffer by contrast exhibits his collection in grotesquely shaped, often cramped spaces – a bank really doesn’t convert easily into a museum, it turns out – with lurid theatrical lighting, against posh wallpaper, with trite and sentimental texts everywhere. One room is full of paintings of saints set amid white satin curtains as if it were a funeral home. A final display has “Envoi” in big letters on the wall, claiming an emotional farewell the gallery has not earned.

But the biggest problem is the art. It is not bad. It’s just that the permanent collection boasts nothing to stop the heart. All the fussy, overstated displays ultimately look like an attempt to evade 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 a room full of minor art by nobodies.

Then it all looks up. There is a truly impressive painting high in the central hall: a huge scene of The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes by Murillo. Its deep shadows and time-deepened hues are so authoritative they dwarf the other art, in quality as well as scale. But oh, wait a moment. This is a fake and openly acknowledged as such. It is a hi-tech facsimile by Adam Lowe and his studio Factum Arte, who mix digital scanning with fine craft skills to uncanny effect.

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Factum Arte have created an entire floor of similarly startling remakes at the top of the gallery. Here old Spain at last comes alive. You can stand on a simulacrum of a terracotta floor in Seville, surrounded by glistening reproductions of Moorish tiles from the palace where young Velázquez had art lessons. There’s a full-size, freakily spectral copy of a tomb in Toledo. A final chapel contains terrifyingly real (but fake) frescoes of death.

The “fakes” are more moving than the main collection. They take you to Spain. Bring on the chilled sherry and tapas. Actually, the Spanish Gallery will have a tapas bar soon. Meanwhile you’ll have to make do with some very rum displays of somewhat patchy art. It needs a Sancho Panza to keep this place a bit more real.

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

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