Viaje a Espagña — The Art

Breugel the Elder’s Triumph of Death (1562–63) at the Prado. Be prepared for the gruesome when going to Spanish art museums.

The Prado houses the best collection of pre-Impressionist European paintings west of the Louvre. If you want to study an artist in depth, it’s your place. Think it would be nice to see a work or two by Anthony Van Dyck? Don’t even know who Anthony Van Dyck was? The Prado has 16 of his paintings in one room alone, including a portrait of King Philip IV’s slightly-less-ugly brother (more on that later). But the Prado naturally specializes in Spanish art, particularly that of El Greco (1541–1614), Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), and Francisco Goya (1746–1828).

I went in liking El Greco the most and left liking him the least. He’s the earliest, which puts him at a disadvantage, but he also strikes me as the most reverent of the three. Even under the Inquisition, there had to be degrees of belief. That Velázquez did comparatively few religious works says a lot about him. That Goya went so far beyond religious works says a lot about him. But El Greco is either really chasing those ecclesiastical commissions or is a true believer himself. Either way, his paintings have a dogmatic aura, and without distance I’m not sure there can be great art — although as El Greco shows, there can be great craft.

Velázquez had distance. He used dazzling technique and (most likely) a silver tongue to convince royal patrons his portraits flattered them. Philip IV has to be the most hideous king ever, yet he commissioned countless paintings from Velázquez. He looks better than usual in this one.

The pallor, the lantern jaw, the hound-dog eyes, the fatuous handlebar mustache, and those impossible Habsburg lips, puffier than a Nineties supermodel’s, fronting the equally famous royal underbite — Philip IV in Hunting Dress by Velázquez, 1632–1634.

I left the Prado liking Goya best. Perhaps that’s because his output reflects a more modern sensibility: weary of power and authority, prone to anger and depression, teetering between hope and cynicism. There’s a room full of paintings from his dark period featuring such subjects as Two Old Men Eating.

I didn’t stay in that room long.

Great as the Prado is, The Fabulous Wife and I consider the nearby Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum more absorbing. The collection is much smaller than the Prado’s but includes first-tier examples from the range of western art, including a few that bridge centuries. This is Bramantino’s The Risen Christ from around 1490.

I’ve seen enough Resurrection art to last five lifetimes, but this one is different. The ghostly Christ with the puzzled expression probing his healed wound is arresting enough, but I also saw so much Dali in this work (note the moon that could pass for a face), that in a flash I understood Spanish art’s continuity over the centuries.

My favorite painting in the Thyssen-Bornemisza is 1885's The Reader by the obscure Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler. It’s pretty much my self-image.

I might make this my new Facebook avatar.

We finished our tour of Madrid’s great museums with a visit to the Reina Sofia, devoted to modern art. We had passed up the Picasso Museum in Barcelona because (1) we’ve seen tons of Picassos, and (2) we knew we’d be going to the Reina Sofia, which has the greatest Picasso of them all, Guernica.

I didn’t realize how big Guernica is. My first estimate was 20 feet wide, but in fact it’s 25 feet wide — and 11 feet high. Here’s the thing, though: if I hadn’t already known the sprawling canvas was about the horror of war, I’m not sure I’d have realized it by looking. After all, Picasso churned out lots of paintings whose subjects, including lovers, appear distorted by agony. But Guernica and contemporary works like Isaias Cabezon’s Allegory of War and Horacio Ferrer’s Madrid 1937 dramatize a new and terrible phenomenon: war from above. Not that planes weren’t used during World War I, but they weren’t used to bomb civilians. How traumatic that must have been — so shocking only artists could convey it.

That’s a grim note to end on, but there’s a lot grim about Spain. I’ll talk more about that in my next — and last — post on the trip (hey, stop cheering!), then move on to something pleasant like impeachment or the San Francisco Giants.

Dali’s Invisible Man (1929–1933) at the Reina Sofia Museum.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.