How Spanish Prehistoric Art Came to Museums | Culture


Rock art in Spain has two stories. First there is the already known one, with lines in a cave in Cáceres that is more than 65,000 years old. The other, the story of history, is how rock art went from being the object of curiosity among peasants and wise men of the 19th century to being in museums and being an invaluable heritage with protected sites ranging from Altamira, in Cantabria, to Risco Fallen, in Gran Canaria. The exhibit Prehistoric art. From the rock to the museum, which the National Archaeological Museum (MAN) inaugurates this Friday, unearths this second story.

One of Francisco Benítez Mellado's rubbings of the ceiling of the Altamira Cave polychromes (1921).
One of Francisco Benítez Mellado’s rubbings of the ceiling of the Altamira Cave polychromes (1921).Javier Rodriguez Barrera / National Archaeological Museum

The exhibition has been organized with the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sports and Cultural Action and consists of more than 250 pieces, the majority from the MAN collections with some contributions from institutions such as the Museo del Traje and the Museo de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo. of Santander. Visitors can appreciate from everyday objects such as vessels and tools to handicrafts made in bronze and ivory, although the most striking are the reproductions of paintings of the caves that decorate the rooms. The exhibition is inspired by and commemorates the centenary of the exhibition Spanish prehistoric art, organized by the Spanish Society of Friends of Art in 1921 and which marked a before and after in the museum’s appreciation of cave art in Spain.

Eduardo Galán Domingo, one of the three curators of the exhibition, admits that “Spanish prehistoric art It was a rara reviews”. “The Spanish Society of Friends was fundamentally dedicated to the fine arts, to the decorative arts, almost bordering on the world of collecting. Being convinced to do this exhibition was risky for them and their prestige. It must be borne in mind that they were chaired by no less than Alfonso XIII’s aunt, the Infanta Isabel, ”says Galán.

The director of MAN, Andrés Carretero Pérez, indicated that at the time the exhibition was “novel and highly debated” and is an example of the existing challenge for archaeologists, paleontologists and art historians when it comes to understanding and interpreting the findings of the remote past.

Poster of the exhibition 'Spanish prehistoric art' of 1921.
Poster for the exhibition ‘Spanish Prehistoric Art’ from 1921.National Archaeological Museum

The 1921 exhibition took place in the Palace of Libraries and Museums in Madrid and not only consisted of a sample of reproductions of cave images but, as the curator pointed out, it was an attempt to systematically and documented heritage pieces unknown by the most of the society of the time. The curator Ruth Maicas Ramos highlighted the work of the artists Juan Cabré and Francisco Benítez Mellado, specialists of the Commission for Paleontological Studies, who made the rubbings of the cave paintings that adorned the walls of the exhibition and that, after being donated to MAN , had not been shown to the public since 1951.

Prehistoric art. From the rock to the museum It will be at the National Archaeological Museum until July 31, when it will be transferred to the Altamira Museum, in Cantabria. Isabel Izquierdo Peraile, director of programming for Acción Cultural Española, declared the intention of taking the exhibition to Portugal and France in 2022. “Although making plans at this time is uncertain due to the pandemic,” he added.


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