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El Greco to Velazquez to Lopez

This article is more than 11 years old.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a new addition. Well two, actually: a pair of massive bronze baby heads, poised on the MFA's front lawn.

They're made by contemporary Spanish artist, Antonio Lopez Garcia, part of his first-ever retrospective at an American museum.

But Lopez Garcia's work wouldn't be at the MFA if it weren't for the big new exhibition of classical Spanish art inside. WBUR's Andrea Shea explains the connection.

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ANDREA SHEA: The baby heads are about 8 feet high and weigh one and a half tons each. People walking past the MFA's Huntington Avenue entrance do double-takes and voice opinions.

PEOPLE ON THE STREET: I like them, I like them for one reason because they are extraordinary - You don't usually see a baby head in the middle of Boston so, it's kind of unusual but cool at the same time - I was disturbed by the size and just the fact that they were disembodied heads of babies - They're fantastic. I'm a big fan of Lopez's work so we came up from Philadelphia to see the show and they're amazing.

SHEA: But Antonio Lopez Garcia's baby heads wouldn't be in Boston if it weren't for the other exhibition of Spanish art that just opened at the MFA: 'El Greco to Velazquez.' They're icons, and have influenced many artists, including Lopez Garcia. Ronni Baer is the curator of the show that represents art during the reign of King Phillip III.

RONNI BAER: In school you learn about El Greco and then you go right to Velazquez. But when you look at the two artists they're very different one from the other. So I was always asking how did we get from El Greco to Velazquez? And it turns out that the key to that lies in the reign of King Phillip the third, these 23 years, that's been, it would be nice to say underappreciated but it's really unknown.

SHEA: King Phillip III wasn't a big art patron, says Baer, but that doesn't mean art wasn't being made during his rule between 1598 and 1621. This show is filled with works from lesser-known artists of that time. Baer says her co-curator's actually discovered logs documenting about 2000 paintings.

BAER: That's a lot of paintings. So it dispelled this whole idea that nothing was happening at this court. It wasn't the king who was collecting necessarily, but it was his Prime Minister.

SHEA: The curators wanted to put together a sampling of these rare works. They started with two pieces the MFA already owned: one El Greco and one Velazquez.

BAER: And these were the bookends, but that's all we had in Boston and so we had to travel to Madrid and get the support of the Prado.

SHEA: Short for the Museo Nacional del Prado, which promised seven major loans to the MFA. Many have never left Spain before. Some are enormous and came here on freighter ships.

BAER: 'The Annunciation' by El Greco is 315 centimeters tall, which means that it doesn't fit on our walls.

SHEA: So the MFA custom built new ones extending into the middle of the room. 'The Annunciation,' like many of the pieces here, depicts a religious scene, dark and divine, with the Virgin Mary and Gabriel, the archangel. Then there are the sculptures.

BAER: They're devotional objects.

SHEA: Borrowed from churches in Spain. Three polychrome figures of canonized saints stand in the gallery. They're life-like and kind of creepy.

BAER: They have glass eyes, and St. Ignatius of Loyola, his head was taken from his death mask.

ANDREA SHEA: Baer says the statues and paintings in the exhibition show us what the artists in Spain were making between El Greco and Velazquez. And that's the point of this show.

BAER: We see Luis Tristan who was El Greco's pupil, as a history painter but also as a portraitist, and when you see his portrait of a Carmelite monk hung between two El Greco portraits of clerics you see how he take s a lot from his teacher but he's on the naturalistic road towards Velazquez.

SHEA: And the road after Velazquez is well-traveled, too. Even three centuries later Velazquez's influence is what convinced contemporary artist Antonio Lopez Garcia to have his first American retrospective here. About 60 of his realist sculptures and paintings...including those big baby heads...are currently on view at the MFA...where the lineage between the living painter and the classic masters is only a few steps away.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

'El Greco to Velazquez: Art during the Reign of Phillip III' and the Antonio Lopez Garcia retrospective are currently on view at the MFA. For information, click on the links below.

This program aired on April 24, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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