A Portrait of Spain, Brisbane style

I knew they were important the moment my clunky old cab pulled up behind a shiny Statesman and three Euro-swish amigos in immaculate suits stepped out.

The Spaniards had arrived.

I later learn that one of them is Miguel Zugaza, the dashing director of the Museo Nacional del Prado – the main Spanish national art museum. Think Antonio Banderas meets Mr Darcy!

Like me, Miguel is here for the media launch of Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado. Unlike me, he takes one of the grand poobah seats – elevated above the glut of Brisbane media and other curious PRs – to tell us about the magnificent collection of Spanish art that now consumes 70 per cent of the Queensland Art Gallery.

“We arv brought to Queensland zome of ze greatest paintings in our collection,” Miguel explains, “in an attempt to tell the history of our country between the sixteenth and twentieth zentury.”


He says a lot more, but I’m not really listening. The thing is, not only does Miguel look like Antonio Bandanas, but he sounds a bit like Puss in Boots from Shrek and my mind has taken a holiday to Ibiza (ahem, pronounced with a definite “th”. I’m so in Spain today).

He apologises for his English (sigh, who cares mi amor) and then reminds us this is the first exhibition from The Prado to ever come to Australia and that the blockbuster is exclusive only to Brisbane.

Even before I go inside, I know I’m in for a treat. The Queensland Art Gallery has been given the matador touch – slab white walls are awash with fighting red against gypsy black, all hinting at the drama ahead.

I spend at least a couple of hours absorbed in the art, admiring my ancestors and learning a lot about the history of the country that was once the centre of Europe.

The verdict: Portrait of Spain is the supermodel edit from the Prado and it doesn’t disappoint. The paintings are rich in colour, at times humorous in topic and always superb in their execution. There are paintings of the ultimate sacrifice (Jesus done a dozen ways), a gallery devoted to mythology, a panorama of the merchant class, and a room full of royals. With only 100 paintings it’s a skinnier version of what’s on show in Madrid, but Brisbane’s Portrait of Spain is espectacular!

Here are my three favourite pieces:

1. Hello, mo

Gallery Six is home to my favourite painting. No matter how you dice it, the subject – Señora Delicado de Imaz – is one comely character. The irony is, unlike her name, there’s nothing delicado about this Señora.

According to the explanation, the artist Vicente López y Portaña was acclaimed for his “exceptional technical skills and astonishing accuracy”. So much so that this poor woman has a very visible mo. In fact, from where I stand, Señora Delicado is the spitting image of Freddie Mercury in a gown.

If portraiture of the 1800s is the equivalent to today’s glossy magazine cover, then the editor of the past forgot to Photoshop.

Even the curator has a bit of a go at our Delicado, explaining that “the mass of shining jewels and layers of extravagant fabrics appear to be an attempt to compensate for the lady’s lack of physical beauty”.

2. Daddy’s Girl

Desperately regal, the second gallery has a striking portrait of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, one of the most powerful women in the Habsburg Dynasty. The painting perfectly reflects the luminosity of the brocade dress but it’s the accompanying story that gets me giggling. When Isabella was married in 1598, her father gave her and her husband the Spanish part of the Netherlands.

In my family, it’s tradition for the old man to chip in a few bucks for the bar…. Not a whole bloody nation.

3. Portly Princess

Across the room from Isabella is another nod to the curator’s humour. Eugenia Martínez is a six-year-old girl. Nothing wrong with that, except she’s also the whole enchilada. Aside from looking like Eva Longoria’s daughter from Desperate Housewives, she’s staring at the painter with a perfectly murderous pout. Still, the technique of the artwork is breathtaking and the painting is sumptuous.

Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado runs at the Queensland Art Gallery until 4 November 2012.