“Portrait of a Woman,” Julio Romero de Torres, 1930

The “Spanish Mona Lisa,” Christ clawing at magnetic neon sunbursts of atomic fission, the work of “the master of light” – All this and much more occurs on canvas at the exhibit, “From El Greco to Dalí: Great Spanish Masters from the Pérez Simón Collection,” at the San Diego Museum of Art.

The show samples the best Spanish art over a 500-year span, with 64 works from 25 artists, lent from one of the world’s finest private collections. These paintings are rarely seen in public and this will be the only U.S. stop and the last week to see these polished, Hispanic gems.

“Spanish Masters” is skillfully put together, emphasizing the recurrent themes and culture of the Spanish people through time. Beginning with the era of great church commissions when El Greco and others worked to beautify cathedrals and monasteries, it continues to the modern era, loosely organized by themes.

Charles V ruled Spain at the inception of the earliest paintings, and the march of rulers and wars can be observed in some of the works. This was a high time for art in general but particularly in Spain, where cooperation between the church and artists resulted in works foundational to the Western concept of culture.

Visitors to the “Great Spanish Masters” will encounter important artists better known in Europe, such as Jusepe de Ribera and Bartolomé Murillo, whose work highlights the piety and religious zeal more common in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“Saint Jerome,” Jusepe de Ribera, 1646

Ribera’s “Saint Jerome,” stunning in simplicity, presents a very human and frail elderly man with a pensive appearance. Not the unapproachably holy or invincible, he could be reciting these words from the Psalmist: “My heart is smitten and withered like grass.”

El Greco, the artist best known among this older group is represented by just one, tiny, battered but lovely “Head of Christ.” It is enough to give viewers a chance to study the method he painted faces: mannered, intensely spiritualized, with eyes focused and rolled heaven-ward.

The little head is reminiscent of an icon, understandable considering El Greco was originally from Crete in the shadow of the Byzantines. This little piece may be a bit disappointing to some El Greco fans, but the show has so much more to offer everyone.

Pieces by the great Spanish painter Velázquez are also conspicuously missing, proof that neither love nor money (Perez Simon is not lacking in either), is enough to buy the truly priceless.

One of the most famed names in Spanish painting, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes – shortened to ‘Goya’ for obvious reasons – shows up with one portrait. “Doña Maria Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas” (1783) isn’t his best work but is still impressive to find in a private collection. Goya is best known for grim, dramatically lit scenes of military mistreatment and abuse that he observed himself in the Napoleonic Wars. His beautiful court portraits are also well known and much easier to view.

One of the more heavily represented artists from the early twentieth century is Joaquin Sorolla, with nine works of paintings and studies. He is widely loved for his introspective, approachable figure subjects, landscapes and portraits, which are somewhat akin to John Singer Sargent in the U.S.

“Oxen in the Sea,” by Joaquín Sorolla

Known as the “master of light,” most of Sorolla’s works were done outdoors with an impressionistic burst of sunlight and movement energizing them.

An unusual and charming subject in one depicts bulls pulling a boat through the surf in “Morning Sun” (1901). Sorolla was extremely popular and heavily collected in America, Europe and his native Spain. Recently, interest in his work seems to be rising.

Contemporaries and occasional competitors, Picasso and Salvador Dali are both featured in the Perez Simon Collection, but Dali more so, which appeals to me. Not only is it a personal preference, but the Spanish soul as it appears historically, in art anyway, seems decidedly religious – and Picasso is decidedly not.

“Ascension of Christ,” by Salvador Dalí

There are six works by Salvador Dalí, with the most impressive being his explosive “Ascension of Christ,” which stops most viewers dead in their tracks. It is from his “Mystical” period, when he returned to more classical techniques and often used religion and mythology as themes. Dalí speaks of his obsession and new-found love of everything religious, especially Roman Catholic:

“By reviving Spanish mysticism, I, Dalí, shall use my work to demonstrate the unity of the universe, by showing the spirituality of all substance.”

What else could explain his concurrent themes of atomic bombs, theories of relativity, dominion, marriage, death and resurrection all in one piece?

Julio Romero de Torres, an early 20th century portraitist, painted the hauntingly lovely woman that is sometimes called the Spanish Mona Lisa. “Portrait of a Woman” (1930) is used as a general graphic for this exhibit.

Some lesser known artists are Manuel Barrón y Carrillo, Hermen Anglada Camarasa and Bartolomé Pérez, among others. A piece by Juan Gris shows up, along with and Miró’s “Woman Before the Moon.” And there is at least one living artist with work in this exhibit, Antoni Tàpies.

The great masterworks of this exhibit testify to the determination and love of art by one man, Antonio Pérez Simón. Born in Spain, businessman Pérez Simón now considers Mexico City home but has continued to acquire Spanish art. Pérez Simón takes collecting seriously and has amassed such a remarkable accumulation of art since the 1970’s that it is now considered one of the greatest private collections in the world. It contains 1,700 works of art and 60,000 volumes and manuscripts, which are scattered in loans as far as China. He intends to continue buying art from all nationalities and cultures.

Pérez Simón clarifies the personal nature of his quest by explaining, “If you saw all of my paintings, you would see my personality.”

It almost seems as if the San Diego Museum of Art had been waiting for this exhibit, as it makes so graphically clear the cultural and spiritual connections between Spain and the New World.

One of the show’s earliest contributors, Alejo Fernández (1475-1545), is best known for his portrait of Christopher Columbus and “The Virgin of the Navigators,” concerning Spanish exploration in the Americas.

San Diego is a city so aware that it was once part of a Spanish empire that even the front of the museum is engraved with portraits of some of the artists in this exhibit. With “Great Spanish Masters” it seems to have come full circle.

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