Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Art in Madrid

On this trip to Spain, Wendi, Leona, Meeka, Alan and I added a few days in Madrid in order to visit two of its world-class art museums. Usually Alan and I are so taken with wild places that we bypass the human artifacts, but it doesn't really take much encouragement to pull me into an art museum.

Okay, so the birds still catch our eye! Common Swifts ply the skies over Madrid, here seen from our apartment. (Photos by Narca)

Madrid's finest offerings include the Prado and the Thyssen museums. The famous Prado has classic collections, with an emphasis on Spanish art (surprise!) from 1100 to 1910. It also has rich collections of German, Italian, French and British work dating from about 1300 to 1800. There you will see plenty of Old and Newer Masters, including van der Weyden, Memling, Hieronymus Bosch ( think Garden of Earthly Delights!), Brueghel, Dürer, Raphael, Titian, Fra Angelico, Tintoretto, El Greco, Caravaggio, Zurbarán, Murillo, Rubens, Van Dyck, Goya––and, yes, Rembrandt. One of the Prado's most famous pieces is Las Meninas by Velasquez, a painting so admired by Picasso that he devoted painting after painting to his interpretations of Las Meninas.

For me the show-stopper was a marble sculpture of a veiled woman's head. Usually I can see how an artist arrived at the final piece, but this bust was completely mystifying. The face was delicately visible beneath the draped veil. Without touching it, I couldn't figure out how the effect had been achieved. How deeply was the marble cut? The very rock appeared translucent, with the face glowing under the marble veil.

As satisfying as it was to see, in the flesh, pieces that I had studied years ago in art history classes, the Prado does not cover my favorite period of art. The Thyssen does!

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum houses the remarkable private collection of a single family, often considered to be the world's most important private art collection. Indeed, it is not to be missed! Spain acquired the collection (valued at about $1 billion) for $350,000,000 in 1992. Out of 1600 works, about 800 are in the main collection, housed across the street from the Prado in the Palace of Villahermosa––itself a beautiful neoclassical building.

The Thyssen collection spans 800 years of mainly European art and is presented chronologically, beginning on the top of three floors with works from the Renaissance and Classical periods, continuing all the way through Cubism, Avant-garde, and Pop Art. Each piece is a carefully-chosen gem by artists that include Van Eyck, Dürer, Holbein (portrait of Henry VIII), Rembrandt (the self-portrait!), Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyck, Murillo, Hals, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Miró, Dalí, Mondrian, Hopper, Cézanne, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O'Keeffe, Rodin, and many more.

My favorites at the Thyssen included the French Impressionists and North American painters like O'Keeffe, Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargeant. I was riveted by Van Gogh's self-portrait. Several Degas pieces are outstanding: we are all familiar with his masterful depictions of dancers, but racehorces? I hadn't known of that one, and it's a winner.

As exquisite as the early masterpieces are, it is a great relief to move from their gloomy colors into the fresh, lively colors of the recent era, and into the loose (but still masterful) brush strokes of, say, Homer's beach scene.

I wonder what the actual colors were, at the time the early pieces were painted? Were they really so uniformly dark? Or have aging varnishes and impermanent paints caused them to darken over the centuries?

We try to preserve miracles of accomplishment and for a while may stem the flow of change, but in the end... change comes.

Each of these museums requires at least a day to see, and both are closed on Mondays. You will find it best to buy entry tickets on-line before your visit, to avoid standing in long lines. Or investigate the Madrid Tourist Card, which includes free entry to these museums, as well as other benefits, and is valid for a year.

A Starbucks is strategically located near the museums. (The Starbucks app shows all the locations in Spain, for die-hard connoisseurs.) But we also found, mainly in Barcelona, an incredibly rich, thick Spanish mocha, so do experiment!

The Metro––subway––stop closest to the museums is Atocha on Line 1. We found the Metro easy to use (though visitors are cautioned to be wary of pickpockets). If several people are traveling together, or if you'll use the Metro for a number of trips, it is less expensive to buy one 10-ride ticket and share it. It is fine for more than one person to use that type of ticket. Just pass it back to the next person after you've cleared the turnstyle. (Another Metro line runs from the international airport to downtown Madrid.)

The Plaza Mayor, with living statues and other street performers, was about 4 blocks from our apartment.

As for lodging in Madrid, we found and booked on-line a self-catering apartment in the heart of the old city, near the La Latina Metro stop. This lodging was less than most hotels would cost for the four (at times, five) of us and included a well-supplied kitchen, wireless router for internet, and washing machine. Three nights cost 453 euros, for an apartment that could have slept 7 people in beds (and more in more creatively-contrived berths). Location was excellent.

To contact this company, email Catalín was our contact, and he spoke excellent English.

Our apartment in Madrid, on Calle de los Estudios

In the sultry summer evenings, we ambled through the neighborhood of our apartment, where tapas bars, street performers and sidewalk artists abound. One fellow, painted gray, impersonated a statue that silently clowned with passers-by.

For food, we alternated between sampling tapas and restaurants, and picking up food at nearby grocery stores. Try the Limón y Nada lemonade! And the ciruela––prune––yogurt. A classic, easy Spanish breakfast is a slice of good baguette bread, spread with olive oil and topped with tomato and cured Spanish ham. Think I'll have some now....


  1. I loved reading some highlights of your trip. What a treat to have Leona, Meeka, and Wendi along! I love using self catering apartments when traveling. Even for a single traveler they are usually a bargain and located away from the tourist hotels, plus you have the advantage of breakfast in your pjs and a place to do laundry.

  2. The apartments really are good. Lisa and I stayed in a similar one in Sevilla, in the old Jewish barrio near the cathedral, with streets too narrow for driving. It made a great base for attending their Bienal de Flamenco, or big flamenco festival, held every-other-year in September. You've no doubt stayed in similar apartments in Portugal!