Exhibition: Spanish masters at the Amsterdam Hermitage

A few years ago, an exhibition in Amsterdam showing Spanish art from Spain’s Golden Age completely bowled over throngs of visitors. Fruit in paintings made mouths water: the dew on grapes made them seem ripe to be plucked. Meat, bread, cheeses – they also seemed so fresh they were ready to be eaten. Portraits of stall-holders and publicans engaged with visitors and seemed ready to strike up a conversation or share a joke. It was a brilliant exhibition.

So once the Amsterdam Hermitage, a branch museum of the Saint Petersburg Hermitage, advertised its next exhibition would be about Spanish Masters from the Russian collection, expectations were high. Especially, as there would not only be works on show from Spain’s Golden Age painters like Murillo, El Greco, de Zurbarán, de Ribera, Goya, Velázques, but also a few more modern works by for instance Picasso.

After visiting this exhibition the day it opened to the public, there was only one word to describe this exhibition: disappointing. If one happens to be in Amsterdam, it is worth a visit. However, it certainly does not impress as much as the previous exhibition on Spanish art from its Golden Age. This is simply no stunning exhibition one will still fondly remember years later.

Sure, there are examples by great painters to be admired. There are prints by Goya. There is a large El Greco, as well as a few works by Picasso. There are a great many religious and larger-than-life paintings to be seen. But the quality of the selected works – bar a few exceptions – is simply totally not outstanding.

Especially not, if one has visited Madrid’s museums like the Prado, seen Picasso’s Guernica, visited a whole exhibition dedicated to Goya’s works, been to El Greco’s lovely home – now a charming museum – and admired his “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” in Toledo, Spain. The difference between what is shown in Amsterdam’s Hermitage and what other museums are able to exhibit, is simply too great.

This exhibition ambitiously aims to introduce visitors to the world of El Greco, Velásquez, Goya, right up to Picasso – in which it hopelessly fails. The exhibition works fine as an introduction to Spain’s great masters – provided one bears in mind their most impressive works can be seen elsewhere and other museums own more brilliant examples.

The exhibition even includes a video documentary on bull fighting. The latter will certainly illustrate why so many people the world over consider the Spanish tradition of corrida de torros to be a clear example of deplorable animal cruelty, which should be totally banned. However, one or two paintings relate to this tradition.

Included with your ticket is a free audio tour. Not a useful one explaining the most important works or providing background information to help you understand this exhibition Nothing of the kind. It is an audio containing a sample-mix of Spanish music selected by some Dutch DJ and reacts to points throughout the exhibition.

Having most of the music at home and being familiar with various performances of the works, the selection did not impress at all. Moreover, many of the selected excerpts take up far longer than the time needed to admire the paintings they are linked to, or reach the next trigger-point for another musical sample. Like most other visitors, I found this audio tour a total waste of time, especially as the exhibition works well without it.

A visit to this exhibition is not free, but at least your ticket entitles you to visit the other wing of the large Amstelhof as well. In its other wing, you can still visit the exhibition “Portrait Gallery of the Dutch Golden Age”. A few period rooms of the Amstelhof are occasionally also open to visitors.

This museum has a good restaurant and cafeteria, as well as two well-stocked museum shops. The Spanish Masters exhibition will run till the end of May 2016: Hermitage Amsterdam website


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