Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Madrid I: The Big Three

As our time in Spain comes to an agonizing close, it’s fitting that our penultimate trip was to its capital. This weekend—finally—I saw Madrid, which I’d vowed not to leave Spain without doing. And the effect it had was that we are more reluctant than ever to leave Spain at all.

Everything I’ve ever read about Madrid talks about the “big three” museums—the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the Reina Sofia—so visiting these was at the top of my list for the trip. Andrew had seen them all before, years ago, but he was more than willing to visit them again.

Our first stop: the Prado. The collection is simply too large to cover in one visit, so we decided to focus on the big three—El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya. This was more than enough territory to cover, and there was a lot to take in. I hadn’t known, for instance, that El Greco is actually a nickname—“the Greek”—for Domenikos Theotokopoulous. I hadn’t known that Velasquez devoted so much of his work to dwarfs and other freakish figures—wandering through his galleries made me wonder if he hadn’t been an influence in some way on Diane Arbus. And Goya’s “black paintings” were a surprise as well, sinister and disturbing. In each of these galleries were small vending machines selling small, in-depth guidebooks on each painter’s works (we bought them all), so we definitely got a full dose of art exploration during our visit.

Two of Madrid’s museums is too much for one day, but we squeezed in the Thyssen anyway. It’s a truly eclectic collection, spanning many different time periods and styles; but it’s interesting to see many of these painters in such close proximity to one another. Art fatigue led us to walk through the galleries much more quickly than they deserved, but there’s only so much you can take in on one day.

We saved the Reina Sofia as well as the Sorolla museum for other days. The Sorolla museum was as interesting for the paintings as for the house in which they’re hung—it’s the house where Sorolla lived and worked, with a huge, airy studio and lovely Moorish-style gardens outside. Andrew and I both love Sorolla’s peaceful, light-filled paintings of windswept women and children on beaches.

The Reina Sofia, of course, houses the Guernica, but the museum is much more than just this. The building itself is lovely—by far, for me, the nicest of the big three—with galleries surrounded by a window-lined hallway that overlooks a lush courtyard sculpture garden. There are several rooms of works by Dalí and Miró, two artists I feel a particular affection for simply because I feel like I’ve had such in-depth experiences with both—Miró at the dedicated museum here in Barcelona, and Dalí in our weekend trip through the Dalí Triangle in November. Seeing new works is always a treat. And there are roomsful of Picassos, including a long series of women crying over their dead children—an image that appears, strikingly, in the Guernica, and which seemed even more affective after being repeated in paintings throughout the gallery.

Just like Semana Santa and the tapear in southern Spain and the Modernista architecture in Barcelona, the remarkable museum-going is what, for me, sets Madrid apart from the other cities. Madrid holds its own art-wise with New York, London, and Paris, and it’s one particular reason—among many reasons—why I’m happy we made the journey.

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