We arrived at the museum a little after 10am. A long line stretched from the ticket office into the plaza, which was by now beginning to steam. Frank & I had come from Queensland winter (really the very refreshing, only livable time of year in Brisbane), and weren’t looking forward to broiling while we waited for our tickets. The last 2 days had been mercifully cool, but now summer was gearing up. Suddenly we remembered that we live in the 21st century and, for a small fee could purchase our tickets on line. This we did in less than 2 minutes, after which we left our place in the Stupid Shlubs Line, and proceeded to the entrance.
I can’t say really anything about the exterior of the museum, as most of its (or so photos tell me) neo-classical though not particularly noteworthy exterior was covered in scaffolding. Planned in 1785 during the Enlightenment by Charles III to house the Natural History Cabinet, (aka Natural History Museum), its construction was interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars, and only completed during the reign of Ferdinand VII (Charles III’s grandson) in 1819.
Rather than typing up this post for the last hour I have been perusing the history of Charles III on Wikipedia. Apparently he was actually a pretty decent monarch for his time, in Spain, and before that in Naples. It was he who convinced the citizens of Madrid (much to their collective dismay) to stop tossing the contents of their chamber pots from their windows into the streets. Real progress, for sure.
So having checked our bags, we were ready for some art appreciation. First we perused the works of Caravaggio, who’s tortured and violent paintings reflected his own tortured and violent life. He had a particular penchant of painting himself into his works, most notably as the beheaded John the Baptist & Goliath. We discussed the changing norms of the standard for beauty of the female form while enjoying the works of Ruben.
We spent quite a lot of time in front of the paintings of Diego Velazquez. The premier painter and great favorite of the court of Philip IV, and a leading force of the Spanish Golden Age, the massive scope of his works, and style in general blew me away. Most famous of all was his Las Meninas, a portrait of the daughters of Philip IV, but he did so much more. He faithfully (and sometimes unflatteringly) painted members of the royal family, and painted dwarves and court baffoons realistically, and respectfully. The painting of one dwarf, Sebastian de Morra, struck us with his uncanny likeness to the actor Peter Dinklidge. He is by far one of my favorite painters, for many reasons, not the least of which is that he is portrayed in a recurring role in El Ministerio del Tiempo, a Spanish time traveling drama in which they draw on his talents as a composite sketch artist. It’s a cool show, check it out if you have the time, and the patience for subtitles.
Frank, who’s not particularly into this kind of thing, manfully put his all into appreciating the time, effort, and talent it took to create all these masterpieces, but was honest enough to not pretend to be particularly enthralled with much of the display. However, both he and I were absolutely wowed when we encountered the Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco.
I’ve never truly appreciated El Greco, finding his work often messy, but I can now put that down to the fact that no photograph in a book or on a computer screen can capture the absolute passion that flows through his paintings. I know when you shrink paintings/drawings down to fit a page it almost always looses something, but I think in El Greco’s case it loses most everything. We stood and ogled this painting for a good 5 minutes, if not more, and both confessed to chills & goosebumps.
The Prado is huge, and wandering it can be exhausting, and so our minds were starting to turn towards lunch, but we were loath to go to the museum cafe which we knew would be expensive, and didn’t want to leave the building in search of sustenance either, so we pressed on.
I’m not going to go on and on about what we saw there, because really, people should just go. Besides books have already been written about the place. But I will mention a couple of other little things.
I spotted a painting of a large bearded man wearing what looked like boyar court dress, and to my delight upon reading the tag discovered that it was a painting by Juan Carreno de Miranda of Pyotr Ivanovich Potemkin, who lead the Russian embassy to Spain in 1667-68, and apparently made the Spanish king take off his hat every time he mentioned “the Tsar of All Russias.”
Frank, and then I, were particularly struck by The Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach at Malaga, by Antonio Gisbert Perez. The piece was highly political, as it was painted in 1888 to protest the monarchy’s authoritarianism, and remind the country’s liberals of past sacrifices made. Torrijos had lived in exile after Ferdinand VII (Isabella II’s son) was restored to the monarchy in 1823. Having been fooled by Spanish monarchist agents in 1831 to return to Spain via Malaga, he did so with 60-70 of his most loyal men. They were summarily ambushed and then shortly afterward executed without trial on San Andreas Beach for the crime of high treason and conspiracy against the divine rights of His Majesty’s sovereignty. Now, while the history itself is interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing, what caught us was the scope of emotion that the painting exuded. A dozen or so men standing on the beach, all with different expressions as they wait for death. Defiance, resignation, fear, prayer, all almost palpable. In front of them lie the bodies of their comrades who have already been executed, while 3 benedictine friars read them their last rights and blindfold them. Behind them stand the firing squad, and behind them still loom the severe Sierra Nevada mountains. It left an impression.
We encountered room after room dedicated to the Spanish royal family, and couldn’t help but feel mildly uncomfortable about how all the portraits of the royal children became more and more alien-like as time went on. The tall wide foreheads, the bulging eyes, the mishappen jaw… guh, stuff of nightmares, all culminating with Charles II, who was so inbred he couldn’t speak until the age of 7. Thankfully, after the Hapsburgs came the Bourbans, who just had giant noses.
At the end of these galleries we wandered into a green room, containing 20 odd paintings of constipated bulldogs in fancy dress. Upon closer examination, we quickly realized that these were portraits of English nobility, probably curated to not show Spain’s old enemy in too nice a light.
At this point we were a bit done in, foot sore and hungry, but we had yet to see the one artist that was the pride and joy of the Prado, Francisco Goya. The Primer Pintor de Cámara, the highest rank a painter can reach in 18th century Spain, Goya was extremely prolific, and the Prado displayed his work with pride. While I liked some of his work, particularly La Mija Desnuda (the first Western female nude painted without mythological or allegorical meaning, considered profane at the time) and her companion piece La Mija Vestida, most of his work provoked a “meh” response from Frank and me. We dutifully toured his galleries, admiring some of his tapestry cartoons (fully completed paintings of idyllic Spanish scenes that were used to later make tapestries for the royal palaces), and viewed his famous brutal paintings The Second of May, 1808 & The Third of May, 1808, depicting a battle with the Mamelukes of the French Imperial Guard, and the execution of Spanish patriots respectively. Overall though we couldn’t see quite what the fuss was about, and made towards the exit.
Weaving our way through the crowds that had gathered in the museum through the early afternoon, we unexpectedly found an artist who was able to hold our fascination enough for us to forget about our empty bellies and sore feet for a while… Hieronymus Bosch, or El Bosco, as he is known in Spain. A Dutch 15th century painter about who never actually lived in (or to anyone’s knowledge ever visited) Spain, I’m not quite sure how so much of his work ended up in Madrid. I’m not sure how to describe his style other than… well… weird. Frank put it best when he said something along the lines of “all those people who think hallucinogenics were perfected in the 20th century need to take a look at this guy.” Salvador Dali had nothing on this guy, seriously, compared to him, Dali’s work is a 2nd grader’s art project. We are now big fans. Methilda Boon was absolutely right, he’s well worth checking out…
Much to Frank’s relief I was willing to forego finding the Prado’s small collection of Rembrants, (also one of my favorite artists), and we finally made it out the door. It was time to rehydrate and find sustenance, but first, of course, a smoke.