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Spanish conquest

Brisbane shows how a great exhibition should be executed, with works from Madrid's Museo del Prado never before seen in Australia.

Over the years, one grows wary of the claims made for so-called ''blockbuster'' exhibitions. Each new show is the biggest, the best, the first, the most important. It is, therefore, a pleasure to see an exhibition that lives up to its pre-publicity.

None of the 100 works borrowed for Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado at the Queensland Art Gallery have been exhibited in Australia. By contrast, about one-third of the items in the National Gallery of Australia's Masterpieces from Paris of 2009-10 had already visited these shores.

For the opportunity to see this show we may thank the Spanish economic crisis and an outward-looking policy on behalf of the director of the Prado, Miguel Zugaza.

If we ask why the show is being seen only in Brisbane and not Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra, one may look to the productive partnership that has grown between the QAG and the touring agency, Art Exhibitions Australia. Last year, this meant Brisbane hosted the world's largest exhibition of Matisse works on paper, and the Prado show provides an impressive sequel.

Portrait of Spain is also the swansong for QAG director Tony Ellwood, who is leaving to take up the reins at the National Gallery of Victoria, an altogether more testing assignment. Ellwood has enjoyed a dream run in Brisbane. Last weekend, The Courier-Mail reported that ''the gallery has become one of the most visited art galleries in the world under his directorship''.

When one reads things such as this, it seems clear Queensland has a long way to go before shaking off its provincial attitudes.

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Meanwhile, what's next for the QAG?

Although there was a lot of crowing at the opening about how Queensland secured this show ahead of Sydney and Melbourne, the recently elected Premier, Campbell Newman, distinguished himself by not bothering to attend. Spain was represented by the director and deputy director of the Prado; the Spanish ambassador; and the chief executive of the sponsor, Acciona, a Spanish firm with large investments in Queensland; but Newman didn't see this event as a priority.

His Arts Minister, Ros Bates, was sent to do the honours. At the time she was given her portfolio, Bates had allegedly never set foot in the Gallery of Modern Art, so she is still on training wheels.

Simon Crean represented the federal government, but it was an occasion where the Prime Minister should have made the effort - if only to give the impression that the Labor Party has some vestigial interest in the arts.

It is a bad sign for culture in Queensland if Newman can't recognise the significance of Portrait of Spain, because the collaboration with Madrid has been one of the most positive activities undertaken by any Australian gallery, and the show has significance not only for Brisbane but for the nation.

The curator, Javier Portus, the Prado's head of the department of Spanish painting up to 1700, has not taken the easy option of choosing a group of average-quality works, assuming Australian audiences will never know the difference.

On the contrary, he has devised a show that investigates the evolving identity of Spain from 1550-1900.

Intense, intelligent and passionate about his task, Portus has relished this opportunity to see familiar paintings in a fresh context, in an exhibition organised thematically rather than chronologically.

The show includes pieces by all the most celebrated figures in Spanish art, including Velazquez, Goya, Ribera, El Greco and Zurbaran, but the curator has concentrated on individual pictures, not names.

The Hapsburg emperors, from Charles I (r. 1516-56) to Philip IV (r. 1621-65), were probably the greatest royal art collectors in Europe. When it opened in 1819, the holdings of the Prado were drawn exclusively from the imperial collections, amassed over the previous centuries.

The Spanish monarchs were devout Catholics and leaders of the Counter-Reformation, perpetually engaged in conflict with the Protestant states, the Ottomans, and Catholics who disagreed on worldly or doctrinal issues. Consequently, a large percentage of this show is devoted to war, religion and portraits of the nobility.

Each picture has its particular place within the story. For example, Antonio de Pereda's large canvas, The Relief of Genoa (1634-35), presents a new kind of ''war'' picture made famous by his rival, Diego Velazquez, in The Surrender at Breda (1634-35). The victorious Spaniards are not shown in the act of slaughtering their enemies, but graciously making the peace. War is portrayed as an act of liberation on behalf of a benevolent emperor. This painting is de Pereda's masterpiece - his one great stab at achieving a position as court painter. His failure owed everything to politics, not to any lack of talent.

Velazquez himself may have helped scuttle Pereda's chances. Although he was one of the supreme painters of his age, Velazquez devoted a large amount of time to his duties as a courtier. He helped choose and purchase works for the royal collections, supervised their hanging, served on committees and jealously guarded his own privileges.

One sees Velazquez's originality in his famous portrait of the dwarf Francisco Lezcano, who is treated as a human being, not an object of curiosity. This was in contrast to the usual way in which dwarfs and other ''freaks of nature'' were viewed at court. A prodigiously fat little peasant girl was brought to Madrid in 1680 and painted by Juan Carreno de Miranda in both clothed and nude versions. The former is in this show, and the child looks suitably grumpy at the way she is being displayed.

Religion provided the excuse for any painting that deviated from convention.

Jusepe de Ribera painted gaunt, aged men as ''apostles''. The surreal fantasies of the Flemish master, Hieronymus Bosch, were prized as parables of devotion. There is nothing by Bosch in this show, although other foreign masters such as Titian and Rubens are present.

The foreigners were allowed a freedom that was not extended to their Spanish counterparts. El Greco painted a major work to secure a post at the Spanish court, but offended the king with his departures from convention. He retreated to Toledo, where he found an alternative group of rich, influential patrons.

Ribera was one of the most revered of the Spanish painters but he spent most of his working life in Naples, aware that any return to Spain would rob him of the mystique he had achieved.

Painters of religious images were constrained by doctrine, although the actual style of a painting might still have been subject to changes in taste and fashion. One of the most interesting comparisons in this show is between the dark, morbid work of Juan de Valdes Real, who shows a bloody Christ carrying the cross, and his Sevillian rival, Bartolome Murillo, whose saccharine-sweet image of the Virgin Mary defined a new sentimentality in local art. This same quality would win Murillo admirers in the late Victorian period, including the novelist Henry James, who thought him one of the greatest painters of all time. Today we reserve our fascination for the nightmare visions of Goya, captured in his landmark print series, The Disasters of War (1814-15).

For many viewers, some of the most memorable pieces in this show will be in a room of still lifes, traditionally considered only a minor genre. A painting of plums and cherries by Juan van der Hamen y Leon would be a standout in any show, while two pictures by Luis Melendez display a mastery of texture and tone. In one work, Melendez identifies a loaf of crusty bread with a rough-hewn pot, letting us see how both clay and dough have been sculptured in the oven.

Among the curiosities in this selection is Francisco de Zurbaran's Martyrdom of Saint James (c.1640), where the saint, about to be beheaded, exchanges mournful glances with a large dog. Even more alarming is Vicente Lopez Portana's portrait of the wonderfully named Senora de Delicado de Imaz, whose fanciful hairstyle, elegant clothes and jewels do not distract us from her moustache or the masculine cast of her features. Lopez was obviously no flatterer, and the senora, who looks like a Spanish ancestor of Aunty Jack, was probably not vain.

A great show always requires a great ending, and Portrait of Spain concludes with a stunning sequence that includes Velazquez's mythological picture, Mars (c. 1638); Picasso's La Belle Hollandaise (1905), the gem of the QAG collection; and Female Nude (after bathing) (c. 1869), by Eduardo Rosales Gallinas; daring in both its subject matter and its wilful state of incompletion.

I have no space to discuss the relationships between these pictures, which may be traced in attitudes towards the human figure, and the degree of ''finish'' a painting required. In fact, there is no part of this exhibition that does not reward a little time and reflection. Regardless of whether or not a work is a certified masterpiece, it invariably needs to be considered in connection with the other paintings in a room. An object lesson in curatorship, this show does not simply attempt to educate us about Spain or Spanish art; it exudes pleasure and pride.

PORTRAIT OF SPAIN: MASTERPIECES FROM THE PRADO
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until November 4

John McDonald travelled to Brisbane courtesy of QAG.

johnmcdonald.net.au