“Groundbreaking exhibitions challenge us to question inherited notions and recast how we see both past and present,” Max Hollein writes in his Director’s Foreword to an exhibition that opens a week from Monday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
It was a task Springfield-raised David Pullins knew he’d bear significant responsibility for when the museum hired him three years ago to become co-curator of “Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter in the age of Velazquez.”
The man who will turn 40 on April 12 remembers joyfully his hours with art teacher Dee Dee Rigney in all nine years spent at Springfield’s Ridgewood School. He graduated from the Miami Valley School arrived at The Met with an impressive background, as the museum website reports:
“David Pullins studied art history at Columbia University, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. in 2016. After holding fellowships at Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard University Art Museums, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), he taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and served as an assistant curator at The Frick Collection,” an internationally known museum also in New York City.
Still, the stakes involved in Pullins’ first job with the Met involves, as Hollein describes it, “one of the most beloved and celebrated moments in the history of art:” the unveiling in 1560 Rome of the Diego Velazquez portrait of Pareja — who, in addition to being the Spanish master’s subject was his slave.
That moment’s significance place in the pantheon of art history is reflection in the passion with which Xavier Saloman, deputy director of The Frick Collection, describes it in an audio posting on the Met’s website.
“This (person) is not a pope, a king a duke,” he says, “yet you feel Velazquez finds in him a real nobility and a real strength of character.” In impassioned tones, he then turns to the reactions of those at the portrait’s unveiling.
“One of Velazquez’s first biographers … said in the opinion of all the painters of different nations, everything looked like a painting. This alone looked like reality.”
Pullins said this presents one of the exhibit’s two major challenges.
“Velazquez is such a huge figure, as soon as he enters the room, all of the air is consumed.”
But at a time when the lives of slaves of African descent are being rediscovered and celebrated, Pareja’s fame from the portrait -- combined with a few surviving paintings and a slender biography – created the opportunity for his story to be told.
Unlike most African slaves who were part of the art world of 17th century Spain, Pareja’s voice “could be recovered” through his work,” Pullins said.
“Many square feet of canvas” of Pareja’s work survives,” Pullins said, much of it in two 11-foot-wide canvases in the exhibit: “The Calling of St. Matthew” (1661) and “The Baptism of Christ” (1667). Although those paintings represent half of the Pareja works on display, Pullins said they do serve to make an important point.
After 20 years being enslaved to Velazquez, a freed Pareja did not simply continue to paint in his artistic master’s style, Pullins said. By Velazquez’s death in 1660, Pareja was practicing “completely cutting-edge contemporary” artistry, “responding to what was happening in the art world” of the day.
That, of course, addresses the issue of Pareja’s “agency,” the term in vogue for describing what in this instance amounts to the power of Pareja and other like artists to explore their individual talents in the face of a social status based on their race.
Such agency is both searched for by historians on a mission to recover stories of lives that have gone missing or unreported in standard histories.
Pullins awards Pareja agency points for a sort for the “really creative and interesting” style with which the artist signs his works. When the exhibit opens April 3, visitors will be able to search for Pareja’s name on a sheet of paper St. Matthew is holding and chiseled into a rock in “The Baptism of Christ.”
In part by necessity, in part design, the exhibit offers a larger look into the world of what has been called the Golden Age of Spain.
It brings together “approximately 40 paintings, sculpture and decorative arts objects, as well as an array of books and historic documents, from The Met’s holdings and other collections in the United States and Europe,” the exhibit summary tells us.
“One of the things we wanted to highlight was that he was not unique by any means,” Pullins said. “Other painters had multiple enslaved people,” as did sculptors, silversmiths and carpenters.
These enslaved artisans were “very much part of the household or the workshop” in the art world of the time, Pullins said, and for “individuals who have specialized skills” those talents are both mentioned and reflected in the prices of the legal paperwork involving their sales.
Pullins said historical documents include many stories of owners who, upon their death, free their slaves and give to them tools of their shared or art or trade.
There is no intent, here, of creating a narrative of a kinder, gentler slavery. In perhaps necessarily careful, if stilted, language, it describes instead an attempt “to come to terms with the remarkable sort of disturbing intimacy” in the relationship between the owners and the owned.
The exhibit summary uses similarly distinctive language in describing trip to Italy in 1749-51 during which Velazquez would reveal his portrait of Pareja. Calling their joint journey “a turning point in Pareja’s professional and personal life,” the summary asks whether “his enslaved status perversely afforded him rare access to monuments of European art that would inform his artistic voice.”
The phrasing safely avoids any hint of suggestion that the relationship between slave and master might be anything other than disturbing, but it seems to steer clear of what might seem a practical question: Whether, among the many positions held by slaves in Spain’s art world of the 1600, Pareja might have counted himself lucky, if not to be a slave, to be associated with the artistic master of the age.
Put another way, the question might be raised as to whether, in the context of the times, Velazquez’s agency as an artist served to increased Pareja’s – and conversely, whether Pareja’s skills were a factor in Velazquez’s success.
The text adds that on the same trip to Italy, “Velazquez signed manumission papers that would free Pareja four years later and open the door for Pareja to pursue his own career as a painter.” (The manumission papers are part of the exhibit.)
The exhibit’s new angle for more fully exploring the issue raises one more tantalizing question about “how we see past and present,” as Hollein puts it in his director’s foreword.
They can be explored by returning Xavier Salomon’s comments about Velazquez’s portrait of Pareja on the met website.
After noting the artists from various countries agreed that, when compared with other portraits, “this alone looked like reality (or truth)” Salomon’s commentary continues.
Observing the painting, he says, “It’s as if you’re meeting a human being, not just a canvas with oil paint on it. It’s that truly extraordinary moment when art becomes part of our lives ... rather than just another image of a dead man who lived a long time ago.”
From one angle, that might be seem an overstatement of an artist and slave owner’s ability to fully understand a person he owns, let alone express that person’s essence. From another, it might seem a celebration of an artist and art’s special capacity to overcome human limitations of understanding.
Either way, at important time in our culture, they raise interesting questions about human agency.
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