Madrid’s Art Neighborhood: The Good, the Bad, and the Picasso–Part, 1

When one thinks of great art in the world, your mind usually goes to the Old Masters of the Renaissance, and especially the Italians. But Spain had its share of Old Masters, too: El Greco, Goya, Diego Velázquez, and Murillo. However, when it comes to modern art, Spain wins the prize with heavy hitters like Picasso and Dalí. We were able to see a healthy sampling of them all in Madrid’s famous art museum neighborhood. Part 1 of our tour of art through the centuries will focus on the classical works at the Thyssen and Prado. In part 2, we’ll have a crash course Spanish Civil War-era modernism.

Our artistic warmup was the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. The Thyssen collection was begun by Baron Thyssen and his wife and former Miss Spain, Baroness Carmen. After the baron’s death, she opened the gallery to the public and continues to add to the collection today. While you do have a couple of Titians and a Caravaggio, you will mostly only see the artistic B-list here. Now, that’s not a bad thing, as even bad classical art is still pretty good (unless it’s German, and bad German art is, well, bad). The Thyssen’s main strong point is its collection of Impressionist works. As the Renaissance drew to a close, Velázquez and Goya spearheaded a movement in which intricate details started being “faked” by broader brush strokes and “blotches” of color, giving you the “impression” of the picture–and from far away, they look very realistic. Just don’t get too close.

The next day, we visited the A-list, beginning with the world-famous Prado. We used our guidebook to take us straight to the big guys (it is a very good idea to always enter an art museum with some kind of plan, saving you literally hours of confused wandering). We began our artistic journey with the Renaissance fledglings, Fra Angelico and Bosch. Both were religious artists, but frontrunners of the movement. Bosch (1450-1516) also gives us the first peek at surrealism, especially with his Garden of Earthly Delights, a discomfiting three-panel depiction of what happens when God’s creation devotes his life to pleasure rather than spirituality. Short answer is eternal torment with a creepy self-portrait of Bosch staring at you reproachfully.

Fra Angelico Annunciation

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was next on the list. His most well-known painting is Las Meninas, a lovely snapshot of the royal family. This is a beautiful 3-D painting, drawing you in as the action happens all around you. Mom and Dad are sitting somewhere behind you as Diego paints their portrait, but you can see their reflection in the mirror behind the artist. Their little princess watches them as her meninas, maids of honor, play with her. The court dwarf and the family dog seize the opportunity to relax.

Velazquez Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas

Next up was El Greco (The Greek, 1541-1614). The nickname is understandable, since his real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos, and that would have been very difficult for the lisping Castillianos to say. El Greco specialized in religious art, but mixed a bit of impressionism with spirituality and a touch of mysticism. His saints are long and thin, guiding your eyes up their bodies and to heaven–which is usually where their large, expressive eyes are pointing, too. El Greco’s Christ bears His cross, blood running from His pierced head and down His neck; but His face is serene, looking towards His deliverance and the sinful world’s redemption.

Christ Carrying the Cross El Greco

El Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross

Rubens, a Flimmand, was next. And really, it’s safe to just go ahead and lump Rubens (1577-1640) and Titian (1490-1576) together, especially since they reside next door to each other at the museum. Both of their works center mainly on sensualism, with a focus on mythological themes. Titian’s big patron was Philip II, who was apparently not as rigid of a saint as he would have you believe. But when they were being serious, they both presented some beautifully executed portraits, making even the “let’s marry within the family” Habsburgs look almost normal.

Rubens Habsburg Portrait

Peter Paul Rubens, Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma

Our last stop at the Prado was Goya (1746-1828). And wasn’t he quite the character–he began as a court artist, albeit a facetious one. He painted his royals like they were, rather than flattering them. Now the world saw the arrogance, the stupidity of their nobles shining through. Habsburg underbites jut out viciously and eyes stare blankly and dumbly ahead. He ended his royal portrait career when Napoleon put his brother on the Spanish throne, spurring a mob to gather in Madrid in protest on May 2, 1808. Napoleon’s brother was brutal, and rather than end the protest peacefully, he sent his Eqyptian mercenaries into the plaza to make an example of the rebels. The mob was too big, and no one could escape the massacre. On May 3, the ringleaders were rounded up and executed before a firing squad. Goya watched it all, and produced his quintessential works Second of May, 1808  and Third of May, 1808. Some legends say the screaming young man in white in Third of May was a friend of Goya’s that he watched die. He retired from the public eye when he became too deaf and riddled with disease to continue. This began his Black Period, where he smeared the walls of his house with nightmarish visions of flying demons, witches, and satanic rituals.

Francisco de Goya Segundo de Mayo 1808 Second of May

Francisco de Goya, Segundo de Mayo, 1808

Francisco de Goya Tres de Mayo 1808 Third of May
Francisco de Goya, Tres de Mayo, 1808

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and are public domain images.

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2 Responses to “Madrid’s Art Neighborhood: The Good, the Bad, and the Picasso–Part, 1”

  1. vanbraman Says:

    I was beginning to wonder if you were able to take pictures :-). I usually find that you are not allowed to in art galleries. Then I saw your disclaimer at the end :-). I really like going to galleries. You can learn a lot about history when visiting.

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