Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

Spanish Masters At San Diego Museum Of Art

Salvador Dalí's "The Ascension of Christ" currently on view at the San Diego Museum of Art.
Salvador Dalí's "The Ascension of Christ" currently on view at the San Diego Museum of Art.
Spanish Masters At San Diego Museum Of Art
Dalí, Picasso, Miró, El Greco, Goya. These are just a handful of the artists represented in the new SDMA exhibit "El Greco to Dali." The exhibit showcases over 60 works from one of the top private art collections in the world and offers a look at Spanish art from the 17th century through the 1950s. We'll talk with museum curator John Marciari.

Dalí, Picasso, Miró, El Greco, Goya. These are just a handful of the artists represented in the new SDMA exhibit "El Greco to Dalí." The exhibit showcases over 60 works from one of the top private art collections in the world and offers a look at Spanish art from the 17th century through the 1950s. We'll talk with museum curator John Marciari.


John Marciari is the curator for European Art and Head of Provenance Research at the San Diego Museum of Art.


"El Greco to Dalí" opens on July 9th and runs through November 6th at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The artists el Greco, Goya, Picasso, Dalí, are different in style and century. But together, they are all masters of Spanish painting. A new exhibit of works from an extensive private collection is opening at the San Diego museum of art called from el Greco to Dalí, bringing together Spanish master works from the sixteenth to the 20th centuries. Here is John Marciari, the curator for European art and head of prove dance research at San Diego museum of art. Welcome back.

LUCAS: Always nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: What makes this collection so important?

MARCIARI: The Perez Simon collection is an enormous private collection, perhaps 1700 works or more, and it's constantly growing. It has pockets of strength. One is in nineteenth century painting, and one of the others is in Spanish painting. Was born in Spain and has always been fascinated with the art of his native country. One of the interesting things of this as a private collection is that it runs the gamut, from the renaissance to contemporary works.


CAVANAUGH: That's interesting because you think of an art collector focusing in on something that they really like, you know, 20th century modern or impressionists. But this, because it's Spanish art, because it's such a wide area of time, there's everything in this collection.

MARCIARI: And in a way, that's part of the point of the exhibition. The way the project came to be was that the people at the muse yea Jacque man draw in pairs realized there hadn't been an exhibition of Spanish art in years, in a couple of decades. They had this idea that it would be interesting to people not to see only the golden age, Velasquez, murrio, Ribera, or Picasso and other modernists, but to see how Spanish art evolved and has certain consistent themes from its beginnings up to the present day. And so that's how the project came to be. And that very much characterizes the way that the show is presented.

CAVANAUGH: And another level to this is I understand that there's an interesting connection -- some interesting connections between Perez Simon's collection, and San Diego of museum of art's permanent collection.

MARCIARI: While the show began, because it was filling a gap pairs of not having seen Spanish art, for us the real point of the exhibition was that it meshes so well with our permanent collection. Starting with el Greco, we have two works of our own, and there's a Goya portrait in the Perez Simon exhibition. And Sorolla, 2, 1 of the -- from el Greco to Dalí is well represented in our collection by one work, but a major painting by Sorolla of his daughter that was one of the most works to come to the San Diego museum of art. So this is one of our goals with all of our exhibition program, to do things that also draw attention to our permanent collection, which is, we think, one of San Diego's treasures.

THE COURT: Let's get to the art that our listeners will see when they go to this exhibit from el Greco to Dalí. Dalí Dalí's the ascension of Christ is in this show. Can you describe it?

MARCIARI: At a bit of a tall task to describe a Dalí painting because so much is going on. To give it a step, it's about a four by four-foot canvas at the center of which you have Christ's body. Lying down on his back as if it's ascending to the heavens, except you see it more or less straight on. So you're looking first and foremost at the center of the canvas at the bottom of Christ's feet and at the under side of his outstretched arms. He floats in this yellowish Corona that looks sort of like a diagram of an atom or perhaps the center of a sun flower over this visionary landscape with this almost apocalyptic sky, at the center of which is an image of Dalí's wife, gala, as the weeping virgin Mary looking down on her son. It's an incredibly complicated composition. I'm sure that description only confuses the matter.

CAVANAUGH: I don't think so. And of course with Dalí's exceptional technical ability pointed out in this extreme foreshortening of this image, and the face of Christ is absent in this painting. Is that how Dalí always paints the Christ figure?

MARCIARI: Well, more or less. For different reasons. Here he's playing as so often in his paintings with the history of art, and the great man 10ia dead Christ. Who is seen in a similar perspective. He is also plague off this stunt that Dalí engineered where he is lifted up by a helicopter like an ascending Christ, and was photographed from below. So you have the same view of Dalí in this stunt. I don't think there's any better way of it. Where Dalí is in a kind of way a stand in for this Christlike figure. All of this begins to blur together in his paintings. One of the speakers in our symposium Saturday morning who is the director of the Matisse museum in Madrid, he's going to focus on this painting. And he much better than I can try to give some sense of Dalí's symbolism and the many, many parts of Dalí's interests that go into this painting.

CAVANAUGH: For our listeners who'd like to see it, you can get a taste of some of the works in this show, including the ascension of Christ, on our website at There are a number of Picassos in this show, and one has a San Diego connection. There's a portrait of Francois Gileau, who was Picasso's lover, later married to Jonas Saul. Tell us about it.

MARCIARI: It's one a series of works that he painted in 1949, 50. We had another work essentially of the same subject, Francois is seated in an armed chair. It's an interesting moment for Picasso. Maybe for the first time in his life, he's happy, settled. He has this beautiful young woman as his lover, she's pregnant with his daughter, Paloma, and Picasso is almost in his middle age becoming a sort of happy bourgeois father. And he just can't beyond -- he loves this new motif of Francois painted in an arm chair and paints it again and again. It's a symbol of his work and his life at that moment in the middle of the century. And yes, it has this nice San Diego connection because Francois's -- married Joana Saulk, and spent much time in San Diego and La Jolla, and still comes back from time to time.

CAVANAUGH: As an artist herself, there's an exhibit of her work currently on view at the Oceanside museum of art.

MARCIARI: That's right. It just opened up a couple of weeks ago 67. I'm afraid I've been so caught up in working on this show that I haven't made it yet.

CAVANAUGH: We talked about Dalí and Picasso. People are familiar with the name Goya, el Greco also in this exhibit. Many well known names. But there are a lot of artists people won't be as familiar with who are very important. For example, Jusepe de Ribera.

MARCIARI: Ribera is not an artist who's well known among the public. Although scholars and connoisseurs of painting adore him. He's a painter's painter. He is technically so proficient with putting paint on the canvas that his works just come Alive. He was born outside of Valencia in Spain. So he is claimed by the Spaniards, and almost always signs his name Jusepe de Ribera Español. But he spent most of his life in Italy, he moved there possibly as early as his tenth or 11th year and worked primarily in Naples where he was really the leader of Neapolitan painting after Caravaggio visit there. He's works have that dramatic chiaroscuro, that dark background, and the naturalistic details we associate with someone like Caravaggio. So even if he's not well known, the kind of painting that he does is so forthright, so frank, so dramatic that I think it will appear to people who haven't necessarily studied this artist before.

CAVANAUGH: One of his favorite subjects was saint Jerome who was a scholar and writer in the church. What is interesting about Ribera's portrait of saint injury only in this show.

MARCIARI: It's a very humble image of this old saint who's been out pen tent in the wilderness for many years with sagging skin and an unkempt beard. He's more or less naked to the waist. He has a reddish robe around his middle, he holds a cross and a skull, he's been praying. And as much as the saint is an actor in the painting, so too is the light. On the one hand it's this very humble painting or this painting of a humble man, but on the other hand there's this divine light. The light becomes an actor in the painting, and injury only looks upward to the top of the painting where it screams in as if from a spotlight. That is a good illustration of the ideas that come out of Caravaggio among others, and just make for these rather stunning paintings. This is a work that's right on the central side line as you enter the show to grab you, as it were.

CAVANAUGH: Grab your attention with that spotlight that he creates. You already mentioned another one of the painters highly featured in this exhibit. Sorolla.

MARCIARI: Sorolla.

CAVANAUGH: He's a very important figure in nineteenth century painting.

MARCIARI: Sorolla was not just in Spain but really around the world in the years around 1900. One of the most famous artists. He painted all through Spain, in France, he even came to America and painted a portrait of president Taft that still hangs in the Taft museum in Cincinnati.

CAVANAUGH: That's great.

MARCIARI: He was greatly beloved by archer Huntington who founded the Hispanic society in New York, and the Hispanic society murals which are almost 70 feet long are his master piece. He is in some ways the beginning of modern art in Spain. He's akin to the impressionists, although it'd be a mistake to call him an impressionist painter. He's a painter of light like the impressionists in France whose works he would have known well. But he's also tied back to the traditions of Spanish patienting. Having moved from his native Valencia to Madrid, he was entirely infatuated with the works of Diego Velasquez at the prado. You have this person who studied the old masters, knows of modern painting and is moving Spanish painting forward. He's one of Perez Simon's favorite artists.

CAVANAUGH: How many years does it take to build a collection like this?

MARCIARI: I think Mr. Perez Simon has always been a collector. Although in the case of the works in this exhibition, the 64 works in this exhibition, nearly all have been acquired in the last 20 years, since the early 90s. For those who are interested in finding out such things, the catalog written by Veronique Perell, who is a lecturer in Paris. Has at its back the full providence of all of its painting. So you can trace where they come from and the year in which they were acquired, which especially for a private collection like this added an extra interest to people.

CAVANAUGH: Having this collection here at the San Diego museum of art, the Spanish masters collection, that's a very special connection for us right here in San Diego, given our heritage. What do you think San Diegans can take away from this exhibit?

MARCIARI: Well, as I said earlier, one of the things that we thought about in doing this exhibition is putting on a temporary exhibition that does tie back to our permanent collection, to make those connections to show off our own collection. Also we really like the idea of stressing relations across the borer with Mexico. At the opening yesterday, the mayor said a few words to point out that something like 40% of the visitors to Balboa Park in any given year are of Mexican or Latin heritage or are from Mexico or of Mexican families. So the idea of showing a Mexican private collection here in San Diego is a great one. And also all else aside, it's a collection of great works from a private collection that is private and can't be seen. So come and see it while you can because then it goes back to a private home and is off view. Some pictures forever.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know from el Greco to Dalí, the exhibit opens this Saturday, this weekend, at the San Diego museum of art, and it runs into early November. So you have plenty of time to see it. I've been speaking with John Marciari who is the curator for European art and head of providence research at the San Diego museum of art. Thank you so much.

MARCIARI: It's always great to be here.