SMU's Little Wilde Streak

The new Meadows Museum symbolizes everything good and bad about life on the Hilltop

Southern Methodist University has always suffered from a bit of a split personality. Its better-known persona is as one of the nation's top-tier party schools, a place of awe-inspiring intellectual perversity, full of not-too-bright frat boys and Idlewild debs and hometown princesses with eating disorders. It is a university with a new multimillion-dollar football stadium and threadbare, disorganized, underfunded libraries, a place where you can get 59 flavors of practical taxation courses but can't find "law and literature" or, even in the haute Reagan years, "law and economics." A place with a tragic history of putting rich ignoramuses on the board and letting them actually guide educational policy--although, in former Governor Bill Clements' defense, he did manage to rid the Hilltop of football for one brief, shining moment.

But just under the surface there has always been another SMU. This SMU is the one with the live-and-let-live theology school and the serious fine arts department, where young men and women with piercings and tattoos and even serious intellectual ambitions could, if they tried, actually get a decent liberal education, or at least take life drawing. In this regard, SMU has often seemed to fit Oscar Wilde's definition of a hypocrite: one who leads a double life, pretending to be wicked and secretly being good the whole time.

SMU's new Meadows Museum neatly symbolizes everything that's good, and bad, about life on the Hilltop. Perched atop a monumental brick parking pedestal, the rectangular, arched museum fronts Bishop Boulevard, the main campus promenade, drawing attention from and slightly obscuring the new Gerald Ford stadium, that faux-Georgian metaphor for all that ails SMU. Architecturally, the new Meadows Museum building apes the great Victorian beaux-arts tombs built by 19th-century robber barons to house their plunder. Rendered in red brick and cast stone, it has the weighty appearance of Chicago's Arts Institute--no surprise, since its architects, Chicago's Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge, are the same ones who added onto the Arts Institute a decade ago. All that's missing are the lions.

"Acacias and the 10,000 Martyrs on Mount Ararat," a 1490 Spanish Gothic painting attributed to Gallego
"Acacias and the 10,000 Martyrs on Mount Ararat," a 1490 Spanish Gothic painting attributed to Gallego

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(214) 768-2516
5900 Bishop Blvd.

In the three weeks since the new Meadows formally opened, the building has been justly criticized as boring, backward, a missed opportunity. Strangely, no one has yet pointed out that this may be the perfect envelope in which to enclose Spanish old masters, at least those collected by Algur H. Meadows. Like the exterior, the art inside presents the artistic impulse molded and shaped by conservative, even repressive forces: constrained, sometimes formally backward, but nevertheless fascinating, with little flourishes of fantasy and even humanism.

The Meadows tale is the stuff of high-concept farce, Bick Benedict does the Prado. In 1948, Meadows, a good-hearted, rich Dallas oilman, established a foundation to give away part of his fortune. During the 1950s, while prospecting for oil in Spain, he fell in love with the priceless treasures in the Prado. He started dragging some masterpieces back home. In 1962 his foundation gave SMU his collection, along with funds to construct a museum with his name on the door.

The result, unveiled to fanfare and hometown hosannas in 1965, was a strange, dark, neo-baroque space tacked on to one end of SMU's new international-style arts building. Many of the paintings were hung so high and lit so poorly that they were virtually impossible to see. As it turned out, most weren't worth the effort; while Meadows was being feted, experts examined the collection, broke out the books and noted a few problems. It seems a series of shady art dealers had seen "sucker" tattooed on Meadows' forehead and sold him a bunch of paintings that were, to put it nicely, not what they were supposed to be. In 1967, Meadows started over, this time hiring an expert, William B. Jordan. Over the next decade, Jordan helped Meadows spend $10 million on honest-to-God Spanish masters.

The goal of the Meadows Museum, as outlined in press materials, is nothing less than to cover "a thousand years of Spanish [artistic] heritage," a breathtakingly ambitious task, like trying to pack Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire into a 60-minute audiotape. Up to the 15th century, the results are spotty at best. The collection contains a few objects that represent important trends in early medieval Spanish art, such as a 10th-century carved Islamic capital, but their significance is inadequately explained to the public. Likewise, one of the acquisitions of which the Museum is proudest, an over-restored 14th-century Eucharistic Cabinet, only hints at how the medieval church discouraged painting in nonreligious contexts.

Though not exactly spelled out, the story hanging on the Meadows' brightly colored walls picks up with the 1469 betrothal of Ferdinand and Isabella, a union that ushered in both artistic innovation and religious repression. Like so many royal nuptials, theirs was less a marriage than a merger of family concerns, both of them sitting atop lots of undeveloped real estate and superstitious peasants.

The Meadows' paintings from this period reflect the international styles and tastes preferred by the Spanish court, used of course for appropriately religious subjects. One early Gothic masterpiece is "Acacias and the 10,000 Martyrs on Mount Ararat," a 1490 panel attributed to "Gallego" (there seems to be some confusion over precisely which "Gallego" gets the credit). The twisty, elongated martyrs, distorted hills and pale, stylized faces show the influence of Northern painters such as Roger van der Wyden and presage the distortions of El Greco. Beside it is Fernando Yanez de la Almeda's "Saint Sebastian," a remarkable oil clearly influenced by the Italian Renaissance. Nor are the provinces ignored; nearby is a magnificent fragment from an altarpiece done by Martin Bernat, an Aragonese painter, depicting Blaise, patron saint of sore throats (no joke).

In the absence of a son, Ferdinand and Isabella married their daughter Joanna off to a Hapsburg prince, ushering in two centuries of Spanish Hapsburg rule. The result was Charles I, later renamed Charles V and crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In wonderfully schizophrenic fashion, Charles' son, Phillip II, made it his business to promote the arts and stamp out the threat of Protestantism, ushering in Spain's golden age of painting even as he encouraged the worst excesses of the Counter-Reformation.

Under Phillip II, the official formula for Spanish court painting--that is, portraiture--was perfected. The Meadows collection contains some fine examples, including an Anthonis Mor portrait of Alessandro Farnese, Charles V's grandson. This grand Spanish tradition is carried on and expanded upon in a remarkable series of Velazquez royal portraits, culminating in "Sibyl with Tabula Rasa," a 1648 masterpiece. One of the real prizes in the collection is Jusepe de Ribera's 1630-38 "Portrait of a Knight," which may well be the quintessential portrait of a Spanish nobleman.

The Meadows' greatest strength is in Spanish painting under the Hapsburgs, especially the Baroque and its variants, including El Greco. Even here, however, there's a lot of collecting-by-numbers, and the result is a collection of mixed quality. And there are some disconcerting aspects to the way the permanent collection is presented. After climbing the stairs to the second-floor exhibition space, visitors willy-nilly enter the center gallery, which contains scenes from the late Gothic to the Spanish high Baroque, smack dab in the middle of the story. From there, one wanders into other galleries, forward or back in time. Thus there is no linear progression, an aspect some might find disconcerting. The galleries themselves are handsome, with high-coved ceilings and (for a museum) richly colored walls that complement the mostly somber Spanish palette. Across the vestibule, on the south end of the building, is luxurious temporary exhibition space.

To be sure, the collection contains some magnificent specimens, such as the Velazquez portraits and Claudio Coello's "Saint Catherine of Alexandria"; moving on to later centuries, there's Goya's magnificent "Yard with Madmen" and even an erotic boudoir portrait, Antonio Maria Esquivel's "Woman Removing Her Garter." Alas, there's also a very weak Zurbaran and some fair-to-middling Murillos and a lot of pale rococo putti in the style favored by the Bourbons, who ascended to the Spanish throne in 1700. From there, things deteriorate even further, culminating in a couple of second-rate Goyas and some very bad 19th- and 20th-century academic painting. Though much of this latter is blissfully stored out of public view, one wonders what a more educated and discerning eye could have done with the dough.

Of course, that's the central question underlying the collection's new home, and even in a larger sense, SMU. And so the new Meadows Museum and the collection inside present the perfect metaphor for life on the Hilltop: a little challenging, even subtly subversive, but only if you go looking for it.

Editor's note: Christine Biederman studied law and art at SMU.

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