MINING FOR OIL ON CANVAS

Byline: Holly Haber

DALLAS — What began as a quest for crude oil in Spain half a century ago has yielded an artistic treasure here this week, as the Meadows Museum reopened in an elegant new building at Southern Methodist University.
Formerly cramped in gloomier quarters on the campus, the Meadows collection is now gloriously displayed on color-saturated walls and under natural light, bringing justice to what is considered by art historians as one of the finest collections of Spanish art outside of the Prado in Madrid. Among the artists represented in its halls are Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, Francisco de Goya, Bartolome and Esteban Murillo, and prime religious works from the 14th through 17th centuries.
Two weeks of festivities to celebrate the opening even drew King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain, who were expected to attend a black-tie dinner for big donors at the museum Thursday night and tour its galleries today.
The museum’s Georgian arched-brick facade was designed by Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge to complement the architecture of its surroundings at SMU. But the interior was styled to enhance the paintings. Each of the seven galleries for the permanent collection is painted a rich hue, like gold, sage or eggplant.
“The most important thing in any museum is that the art looks good,” said John Lunsford, the museum’s director. “Most of the collection was painted before 1900 and that art was intended to be seen in natural light. We have learned that older paintings look better against color. They were never meant to be seen against white walls. That is a 20th-century idea.”
The collection began as a passion of Dallas oilman Algur H. Meadows, who made his first fortune in the East Texas oil gush and then began to look farther afield. Meadows became entranced with Spanish art during monthlong sojourns to Spain in the Fifties, when he received the first foreign concession to drill for oil.
Meadows stayed in a hotel across from the Prado and visited the museum frequently, befriending a guard who taught him about the art. Deciding he wanted to own works like these himself, Meadows began buying paintings, altar pieces and sculptures. His friendship with Francisco Franco, who led Spain beginning in 1936, enabled him to export the works to Dallas.
Later, he often joked that the only oil he ever brought out of Spain was on canvas.
Meadows was killed in a car accident in 1978, but the museum continues to add to its trove. Two years ago, it bought its sole El Greco painting for $1.3 million to fill a void in the collection.
“El Greco considered himself the greatest painter in the world and charged accordingly,” Lunsford noted during a tour. “The prices were scandalous. There were many litigations over his work, which he usually won.”
Lunsford paused before a small but disturbing painting, Goya’s “Yard with Madman,” one of the most prized in the collection. The 1794 oil painting depicts a guard whipping inmates who are fighting in the gray courtyard of an insane asylum with a wash of light streaming in from above.
“If we loaned this to everyone who wanted to borrow it, we would never have it here,” Lunsford said. “Goya visited his aunt in a lunatic asylum in his childhood and painted this from memory. It is the first of five or six painted on tin and was the start of his probing the darker side of the psyche. Goya may be partially responsible for the concept that artists have got to be original. It’s powerful for its small size.”
The museum’s temporary exhibit galleries opened with models, photographs and drawings of the contemporary architectural designs and sculpture of Santiago Calatrava. Known for intricate cabled bridges and airports, including the Sondica Airport in Bilbao, Spain, Calatrava has a knack for creating sculptural forms out of functional elements, like garage doors. On display is a mechanical model of his addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which features a roof topped by spikes of steel that can be raised like wings to adjust the interior lighting.