Travels in Madrid-Art

The Museums

The Paseo del Arte Pass (€30.50) gets you into three major museums quickly, although we did not encounter big lines. It is good for a year. Let me know if you’re going to Madrid, I have two of them. 

Spoiler Alert: There is a No Photos policy in all of these museums, which means one has an unmediated experience with the art (okay, maybe you get the audio), and brings back what resonates, and a few postcards. You, dear reader, get no pictures, sorry.

The Prado, way big. We focused on the special exhibit of 17th Century Spanish, Dutch, and Flemish painters, which aimed to dispel the idea of national identity in art, pointing out instead their similarities and shared influences. Point made. National identity in art, a war-borne disease in this case (Spain lost the Eighty Years war, ceding the Netherlands to the Dutch). Lots of portraits: ruffs, ruffs, and more ruffs, both finely and loosely executed (ruffs were banned periodically for being too fancy, giving way to a simple flat collar), incredibly detailed brocades, and multi-toned blacks. Oh yes, the faces, all wonderfully painted, running the gamut from invisible brush lines and flawless complexions, to rougher renditions, warts, wrinkles and all. Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Velasquez stole the show as usual, but we also got to appreciate Halls, Ribera, and others.

Then onto Bosch, that tripper, more Velasquez, El Greco, and an overdose of Goya. I’m not sure how any of this will translate to my own painting.

Wiped out on art, we started the next day with a walk to the San Isidro museum of the history of Madrid, from the Neolithic period to the 15th century. A lot of paleontological and archeological discoveries have been made while quarrying or road-building. The exhibits were not dense, and many featured some digital arrays. Good for a school field trip, or a quick overview of how the city grew. 

Back to the pad for a siesta, then on to the Reina Sofia, dedicated to art of the 20th century and beyond. The is the home of “Guernica”, which is now exhibited among galleries that augment the historical context: works of both Phallangist and Republican propaganda, art by other artists during the Spanish Republic and Civil War, and in the subsequent diaspora. One gallery is devoted to studies Picasso made in preparation for, and as postscripts to the work itself, and you see how he worked out how to make the work as strong and torturous as it is. In a series of photos by Dora Maar, we see how Picasso rearranged the bull, for instance, or the prostrate, armless man’s head so that nothing feels inert, and the terror of the moment is thrust at us. For me, this made “Guernica” all the more powerful and alive.

Not satisfied with that gigantic masterpiece, or perhaps because we needed relief, or maybe because we were on automatic pilot, we went back in time to the Cubists, savoring their color and lyricism.

And then.

A retrospective of the US artist David Wojnarowicz, a gay man, prolific and vociferous in his critique of US politics and society during the Reagan years (Central America, contras, AIDS, you get the picture). Spot on analysis, extremely vivid and powerful imagery in many different media. What would he be doing now, if he had not died of an AIDS-related illness? 

We went away knowing that we lived that same era, but did not know of this artist, and realizing that were had been more focused on what was happening in Central America, than the fight to demand more attention to finding a cure for AIDS. Shame.


Saturday, after breakfast at the Brown Bear Bakery, and a long chat with Gordon, a Canadian living in Vienna, in town to sell some property, we headed out for a long walk to see the frescoes Goya painted in 1798, on the ceiling of a small chapel, San Antonio de Florida (No Photos). On our way, we saw the Municipal Print Shop, now a free museum, with old presses, and a special exhibit to Herman Zapf and his wife Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse. Both were instrumental in the 20th Century printing world, in the development/revitalization of typefaces: Zapfino, Optima, Palatino, among others. As you might expect, his calligraphy is stellar. No photos allowed.

The walk to the frescoes took us into a more modern part of town, say mid 19th to mid 20th  century. On the way, we passed through a park by the Manzanares river, newly renovated, with broad paths, civilized pay toilets (15 mins for 10 cents, handwashing & drying,clean), and very few people. This was a mystery, but maybe it fills up on Sunday.

Goya frescoes: Depicting the miracle of San Antonio de Florida, a Franciscan monk who revived a dead man. Full of movement and everyday people in the cupola, the arches are filled with angels dangling in the air, pulling back drapery that goes back deep in space, beyond the surface of the wall. Goya (and crew) painted the whole thing in six months.

We sped to the Thyssen-Borgemisza in a taxi, which took us into the big shopping district of Madrid, where all the people were. So glad to see this quickly from a cab. 

At the museum we filled up on religious pieces, more 17th century portraits, Impressionists, Expressionists, American Art of 19th century (romanticism). A friend described the collection as having the top works of 2nd tier artists, and the second best works of 1st tier. Many of the works seemed “neither here nor there”, in Larry’s words.

We’ll continue with Art in Sicily and Rome. But check out this building, the Caix Forum, a cultural center. Converted old factory, where the lower support has been offset, so it looks like this huge brick building is hanging in the air!