Suad in Spain, 2012: Part Four – Museums
(Text and photos: Suad Bejtovic)
About the only thing I knew about Madrid before going there was that it is the home of one of the world’s most famous museums, Prado. After doing some research before the visit, I realized that at least two other Madrid museums are worth the visit – Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza. On top of that, I found that Prado is hosting a guest exhibit from another of the world’s best museums, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. All that meant that, after a few days of sightseeing around Madrid and a day trip to Toledo, I’d have to set aside two whole days just to visit all of the amazing artwork and artifacts on display.
The problem with this post will be that photography is not allowed anywhere except some areas of the Reina Sofia museum. So, the best I could do under the circumstances is to take photos of some souvenirs with images of my favorite pieces.
I traded 12 euros for an entrance ticket to Prado and started with the Hermitage exhibit. As a part of Spain-Russia year 2011, Prado became a temporary home for about 170 works from the Hermitage collection that started with Peter the Great. One of the most unique features of the Hermitage is its collection of ancient gold objects found in the archeological excavations all over Russia, such as the Syberian collection. Intricately carved everyday items, such as a comb with a battle scene depicted on top of it, impressed the visitors from all over the world.
Aside from its imperial patrons (which included Catherine the Great, and her grandson Nicholas I), Hermitage museum pays an homage to another Russian statesman – Grigory Potemkin, a well-known diplomat. We learn that he often visited England and that he was loved and respected, among other things, for his flamboyant sartorial style, on display in a few portraits.
Large section of the exhibit was devoted to European paintings of the past 500 years or so, but among the first works that really grabbed my attention was a sculpture of French master August Rodin, titled “Eternal Spring”. The lines that follow the two lovers in a passionate embrace inexplicably create the illusion of movement. Another great-looking sculpture was the one by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, titled “Beethoven’s Large Tragic Mask”, which is in stark contrast to the usual images of the great composer.
The paintings in the Hermitage exhibit include a lot of the classic stuff – a wonderful Rubens landscape (“with a wagon carrying stones”) as well as some prime examples of Monet’s signature brush strokes (“The Pond at Montegron”). But, my two favorite pieces were upstairs, in the modern art collection. The first one was the “Absinthe Drinker” by Pablo Picasso, which was actually painted on the back of a canvas that the artist used before, so it was done without priming. It’s almost bizarre to imagine possibly the most famous artist of the 20thcentury not being able to afford a new canvas. Then, another mesmerizing piece was just around the corner – a wonderful and strange “Composition” by Vasily Kandinsky, depicting what seems like a deluge. The dynamic of the lines and colors is quite captivating, even if there are no easily recognizable shapes.
It was time to leave the Hermitage exhibit behind and visit the goods that Prado proper had to offer. I went to the second floor again and found myself in a long hall with awe-inspiring masterpieces everywhere. There was a lot of Rubens, since he spent quite some time in Spain; my favorite was his interpretation of the legend of Saint George battling the dragon, but nearby were his “Three Graces” (which may have been the origin of an adjective “rubenesque”), as well as “Achilles discovered”, depicting a scene where a reluctant Achilles, disguised as a woman, is discovered by Ulysses and Dionysius, who came to convince him to join the Trojan war.
As a major Spanish museum, Prado is home to an extensive collection of classical Spanish artists, primarily Goya, El Greco and Velazquez. I was able to see one of Goya’s “Maya” paintings, the nude one; the other one, “Dressed Maya” was on loan to a Caixa Forum museum in Barcelona. There was also a large section dedicated to Velazquez, most impressive of which to me was “Mars”, showing the god of war not in armor or ready for battle but on an unmade bed looking rather weary.
As Prado’s collection grew, they decided to move most of their modern art pieces to a new building. Just across and down the boulevard from Prado is Reina Sofia, which is the modern art complement to the more classical Prado. If you’re a fan of Picasso and Dali, this is the place to come. Reina Sofia allows photography in all parts of the building, except in the Spanish Civil War exhibit, which houses one of its famous pieces – Picasso’s “Guernica”.
On the outskirts of the Spanish Civil War exhibit I found a room filled with wartime photographs by Agusti Centelles; the way they show the senselessness of the destruction hit a little too close to home for this Bosnian War survivor.
The “Guernica” is a massive painting (11’x 25’, or 3.5m x 7.7m), displayed in a large room, in front of a sophisticated scanning system, which is being used for an unprecedented mapping of the painting. The focal points of the painting are the bull and the horse, along with several human figures, all arranged to show the tragedy, anguish and destruction of the city of Guernica in northern Spain by German’s Luftwaffe in 1937. Picasso created the painting for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, and the rooms at the Reina Sofia surrounding the “Guernica” show the progression of his work, photo essays by his companion Dora Maar, and dozens of sketches he created in preparation for the final outcome. Some of these sketches are fully realized oil-on-canvas paintings, while others are done in color, even though the final painting was black-and-white.
Naturally, no self-respecting museum of modern art in Spain could go without the other major figure of 20th century art – Salvador Dali. Reina Sofia is the home of many of his works; not just paintings, but also sculptures, installations, and various multimedia projects he was a part of. You’ll find his portrait of the film director Luis Bunuel next to the projection screen showing Bunuel’s famous “Un chieu Andalou”. In the same room is a small canvas called “Sterile Efforts”, which is among Dali’s most famous. Other famous Dali works are in a room of their own, from “The Great Masturbator” to “The Enigma of Hitler”. Throughout Reina Sofia, there were groups of students and tourists, with guides interpreting the secrets of the famous artwork on display.
The third museum on this tour, Thyssen-Bornemisza, has been a large private selection, only recently converted into a museum. By this point, my feet were hurting pretty badly, and I was so impressed with what I saw at Prado and Reina Sofia, that it was difficult to get excited about some of the stuff that Thyssen collection had to offer. Which isn’t fair, because it has some really interesting works by such artists as Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and particularly Paul Gaugin. Back in Hermitage, I saw two main phases of Gaugin’s career, one of which started in the emerging Impressionist technique, but when the artist moved to Tahiti, it departed sharply towards a completely different style. Gaugin painted many scenes of Polynesian life, and the Thyssen museum hosts a few of these, particularly “Mata Mua”.
There is some modern art at Thyssen, as well, including Picasso (“Harvesters”, “Bullfight”) and Dali (“Pierrot with Guitar”). If you plan on visiting the museums of Madrid, perhaps you should start with Thyssen-Bornamisza, as an appetizer. Then, between the older, more classical art of the Prado and the more modern art of Reina Sofia, you can have the choice of which to visit next and which to leave for dessert. Regardless of which itinerary you create, prepare to be thoroughly amazed, and perhaps even moved to tears.