by Lucas Justinien Perez
SAN DIEGO — Art and Empire: The Golden Age of Spain at the San Diego Museum of Art assembles a collection of over 100 works from the four corners of the Spanish Empire at its zenith under Habsburg rule from 1516 to 1700. It includes works by such canonical figures as Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, and El Greco. In a postcolonial society still deeply divided by race, gender, and class inequalities, how can we understand these works? The extensive exhibition attempts to retell the story of Spain’s golden age by highlighting the global exchange of cultures as seen in the empire’s art and its hugely diverse body of subjects.
The number and range of representations of women and people of color among the objects in the collection are surprising and suggest that Inquisition-era empire was perhaps more progressive and socially mobile than the history books tell us. But that vision is difficult to square with what we in the US and Europe know of colonial oppression, its mechanisms, and of the far-reaching legacy of the pogrom it initiated.
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