Art of MadridReview by Jolyon Gumbrell
I was in Madrid on 12th October this year - the 12th October is a national holiday in Spain - so I took advantage of Spain’s museums being open to members of the public for free that day. I visited two of Madrid’s most important art galleries: the Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia (Reina Sofia Museum) and the Museo Nacional Del Prado (Prado Museum). If I had wished to be chronological, I should have visited the Prado before the Reina Sofia, as the Prado exhibits art from the 12th century until the early 19th century, while the Reina Sofia exhibits 20th century art. However, as most of Paseo del Prado had been cordoned off that morning, because King Juan Carlos was reviewing a military procession, it was easier to see the Reina Sofia first. Later in the afternoon the cordon had been removed so I made my way to the Prado.
There is quite an interesting collection of work by the Surrealist artists of the 1920s and 30s on the second floor of the Reina Sofia Museum. As well as paintings and drawings by artists such as Joan Miró, and Salvidor Dali; their lives and work are put into context by historical texts such as the very ordinary poster advertising an exhibition of Miro’s work that took place in Paris between the 12th and 27th June 1924.
In one of the Surrealist galleries, a short film by the Spanish film director Luis Buňuel (1900-1983) is projected repeatedly onto a white wall. The film was called Un chien andalou and made by Buňuel in collaboration with Salvidor Dali in Paris in 1929. The film was limited by the technology of its day, in that it is in black and white and silent. However, even today the scenes in the film are bizarre, unsettling, sometimes hilarious, and definately unforgettable as was intended by the film’s creators. In one scene a man with a razor is standing next to a woman sitting on a chair, in the next frame a very thin cloud passes across the moon, in the following frame a blade cuts an eyeball. In another scene a man holds his hand out and there is a hole in the middle of his palm, out of which ants are crawling. There is a scene where a man struggles to drag something very heavy across a room. In the next frame you see his rope is attached to two grand pianos, each piano has a dead horse on it, also adding to the weight are three Roman Catholic priests.
Guernica by Pablo Picasso, is probably the most famous painting on display at the Reina Sofia. It was painted as an anti-war and anti-fscist protest against an air raid which killed 1650 men, women, and children in the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. I have previously seen a copy of Picasso’s Guernica in the form of a tapestry at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, which I reviewed in an article entitled: History as art at the Whitechapel Gallery, published on this website on 11th June 2009. The Spanish Civil War is well documented with drawings, cartoons, paintings, photographs and films of the artists who lived during the conflict from 1936 to 1939.
Both the Reina Sofia Museum and the Prado Museum tell us much about the history of Spain. Many paintings in the Prado were at one time in the Royal Collection of the Kings and Queens of Spain. These paintings were very political when first painted: take for example an equestian portrait of Emperor Carlos V of the Holy Roman Empire - who was also King Carlos I of Spain - that now hangs in room 27 on the second floor of the Prado. That painting was commissioner in around 1548 by the Emperor and painted by Titian (Vecellio di Gregorio Tiziano) to commemorate the victory over the Protestants at the Battle of Mühlberg.
Following the death of King Carlos I, Titian continued to receive commissions from Carlos’s son King Felipe II of Spain. The Battle of Lepanto is commemorated in two of Titian’s paintings on display at the Prado. The Battle of Lepanto was a naval battle which took place on 7th October between the Holy League (Spain, Venice, and the Vatican) and the Ottoman Turks. Both Titian’s Lepanto paintings are allegorical: in the painting entitled ‘Religion Saved by Spain’, a female figure representing Spain rescues another female figure representing the Christian religion from the Turks represented by a chariot on the sea. In the other painting entitled ‘Following Victory at Lepanto, Felipe II offers Prince Fernando to Heaven’, the figure of a captured Turk is in the bottom left hand side of the painting, while Felipe offers up his son Fernando to Heavan in thanks for the victory. Fernando was born shortly after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and died when only 7 years old.
One of the most famous paintings in the Prado which hangs in Room 12 is ‘Las Meninas’ painted in 1656 by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velàzquez. Velàzquez was a court painter to King Felipe IV of Spain, and Las Meninas captures a scene where the King’s daughter, the Infanta Margarita is having her portrait painted by Velàzquez. The Meninas, or ladies in waiting (Agustina de Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco) are either side of her.
An equestian portrait entitled ‘Felipe IV on Horseback’ painted by Velàzquez in the 1630s also hangs in Room 12 of the Prado. This painting was probably the inspiration for a 19th century equestian statue that stands in Plaza de Oriente facing the Royal Palace. The Spanish inscription on the back of the plinth of the statue tells us that Isabel II erected the statue for the glory of art and the ornamentation of the capital, but Felipe IV’s name is not mentioned on the plinth. However after seeing Velàzquez’s equestian painting of Felipe IV we can recognise that the figure on the horse’s back, is that of the 17th century king. On the front of the statue’s plinth another inscription says “REINANDO ISABEL SECUNDA DE BORBON ANO DE 1844” which translates as: The reign of Isabel II of Bourbon 1844.
Queen Isabel II is commemorated at the Plaza Isabel where there is a statue of her. She was responsible for setting up the Teatro Real (Royal Theatre) which stands on the west side of the square named after her. Queen Isabel II seemed to have been genuinely interested in the improvement of Madrid for the people of the city. However, her reign was not a particularly lucky one as she was forced to abdicate as the result of a military coup in 1868.
On Thursday 13th October I went on an excursion by local train from Atocha station in Madrid to El Escorial. The Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Royal Monastery of Saint Lawrence of Escorial) is situated on a hill which is about 20 minutes walk from Escorial station. This Royal monastery and palace was commissioned by Felipe II in 1562 and not completed until the 1580s. From here Felipe II ran an empire which included most of Central and South America and the Philippines. The monastery has provided a place of burial for Spain’s Monarchs from Carlos I as well as other members of the Spanish Royal Family until the present time. The site also houses the Royal Library, a school, and a Royal art collection - first brought together by Felipe II and added to by later Monarchs - comprising of paintings by Bosch; El Greco; Goya; Ribera; Rubens; Veronese; Velàzquez; and van der Weyden amongst others.
In one of the large rooms in the palace there are paintings of Spanish military victories against Protestants in Flanders and the Netherlands. Three of the place names of the battles are recognisable as Antwerp, Nijmegen, and Maastricht. These type of paintings - like the Mühlberg and Lepanto paintings - are examples of how art has been used for properganda purposes over the centuries.
At 7 p.m on 14th October I left Madrid on the night train to Paris, but had enough time beforehand to visit the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum). The paintings on display at the museum were brought together as a private collection by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his wife Carmen. The collection has been on public display in Madrid since 1992.
There are some very fine medieval religious paintings in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection. Begin your visit on the second floor and you are taken through the history of art from the middle ages to the 20th century.
There are many paintings in the Thyssen-Bornemisza which would interest an English visitor such as: Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1537 Portrait of Henry VIII of England; or Canaletto’s 1748 painting of the South Facade of Warwich Castle; or John Constable’s, The Lock painted in 1824. In Constable’s painting I noticed the cloud formations which reminded me I was soon to return to England.
©Jolyon Gumbrell 2011
The Prado Museum http://www.museodelprado.es
The Reina Sofia Museum http://www.museoreinasofia.es
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum http://www.museothyssen.org
El Escorial http://www.patrimonionacional.es