Madrid has many art museums, and the most well-known is of course the Prado, which has one of the most important collection of paintings in the world. It possesses works from the two most influential geniuses of universal painting, Velázquez and Goya. It also houses other seminal paintings from the 12th to the 19th Century (Rubens,el Greco, Bosch, Ribera,Titian, Fra Angelico, to mention a few) in a building that was designed by Juan de Villanueva and commissioned by Carlos III; it opened as a museum in 1819.
While at least one visit is de rigueur, the Prado is daunting, even for someone who is in Madrid for more than a few days. There are so many works, spread over three floors and a basement, that it’s difficult to take everything in. When you limit yourself to the recommended works, you’re bound to be frustrated by all the magnificent art you’re passing by. Over four days, we spent more than 12 hours in the Prado and feel that we barely scratched the surface.
Yet, when you’ve spent some time in the museum, you realize that the collection is somewhat unbalanced. The museum has over 114 paintings by Goya, but only one by da Vinci and Caravaggio. Ironically, you’ll find the Mona Lisa among the works displayed. She’s a copy, of course, sanctioned by da Vinci and probably painted at the same time: she has the same mysterious smile but doesn’t hide between bulletproof glass like the real Mona Lisa in the Louvres. Talk about name-dropping.
Like many museums in Europe, the Prado’s inventory came from collectors – mainly the aristocracy, including various kings over the years. These collectors did not build their collection with variety in mind; instead, they found one or two artists they liked and proceeded to amass, through buying or commissioning, the works of those artists. Hence a collection heavily skewed toward the Spanish artists.
In the second of the three important museums of Madrid, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, you can find the amazing collection of the family of the same name, which was donated to the State and is now housed in the beautiful palacio de Villahermosa. The collection is much more varied, including American painters of the 19th century. Because the Baron and his son wanted their collection to be as complete an illustration of Western art as possible, you can find a greater variety of works, from Brueghel the Elder to Gauguin, and Edward Hopper to Picasso. You can find Impressionists, Expressionists, Realists, even Pop Art. The collection is organised chronologically into three well-lit floors.
Although it doesn’t have the prestige of the Prado, its contents were very impressive, and when I left I had the feeling that I’d taken a beautiful voyage through the centuries.
Unlike any of the two museums described above, the Reina Sofía is an ode to modern and contemporary art. Its claim to fame is Guernica, Picasso’s response to the bombing of the Basque country village in northern Spain in 1936. It’s a huge painting (11 feet high x 25 feet wide) and has its own room. However, the museum has much more to offer than one, albeit famous, painting. The museum is a sprawling structure that used to be the Hospital de San Carlos and has 23 rooms that show off paintings and sculpture of the 20th Century. Artists such as Picasso, in his early works, Solana, Juan Grís, Miró and Dali are well-represented. The museum houses also 21st Century temporary exhibitions and even displays works from the troisième art (third art): many films of the mid-twentieth Century are projected on the walls, sometimes without sound.
This museum may be more difficult to take in than the two others, but I found it fascinating, if only as an other cog in the evolution of art through the centuries. Art between the two world wars was dark and disturbing. Post WWII, it was even more so, and artists sought to express their anger, befuddlement, or despair through sometimes obscure, misshapen or basic works. These sentiments continue to this day, reminding us that the times of celebrating God, mythology, nature, etc., are past. When it comes to great art, artists must seek a different way of expressing what it is to live in this century.