October 14, 2012

Three Days in Madrid - Day Three

It has been a beautiful stay here in Madrid - sunny, warm days, absolutely delicious food and drink, friendly people and a lot of great art!  Although I have eaten, drunk and "museum-ed" myself silly, these are my favorite occupations and I have only 24 more hours to indulge!

Madrid's City Hall

There remained two major museums and one foundation on my list of "must-sees" so I started at the farthest point, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, across the boulevard from the Prado.  Opened in 2002, the Thyssen showcases the art collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family, once the second largest in the world after the British Royal Family's.  With an emphasis on portraits and landscapes as opposed to the wealth of religious and historical paintings in the Prado, the Thyssen serves to fill-in-the-blanks of Renaissance art.  More recently, under the influence of the Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, the fifth wife of the Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza, the museum's holdings have expanded to include Impressionist, Expressionist and Spanish, European and American Modern Art.  In fact, the museum's holdings now span Western art from the 13th through the 20th centuries although to varying degrees of quality.

Unfortunately I was just a few days too early to see the Thyssen's special exhibition for fall 2012 "Gauguin and the Voyage to the Exotic" but there was a small and very interesting showcase of "Orientalisms in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections".  In an effort to contextualize the collection, the museum periodically focus' on a particular artist or period and displays a choice selection of works together in a special gallery.  In this case the microscope was on "Orientalism", a predominantly French style from the 19th century that drew on the exoticism of oriental and middle eastern subjects.  I was surprised to see a beautiful oil by the American artist William Merritt Chase entitled "The Kimono" (below) prominently featured in both the gallery and the advertising!

The next stop along the "Golden Triangle of Art", as this stretch of the Paseo del Prado is known, is the newest addition to the cultural scene - The Caixa Forum.  Housed in a former power plant that was redesigned by the Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron (who won the Pritzker Prize for their work on the Tate Modern in London), the site also features a fantastic vertical garden with 15,000 plants and flowers.  Sponsored by the Spanish banking concern La Caixa, it is a fantastic exhibition space for temporary art shows and events. 

On view until October 21 is a comprehensive survey of the work of British poet, artist and engraver William Blake (1757-1827).  A man ahead of his time, Blake never compromised his rather avant garde views in the interest of financial success.  His complex symbolism was criticized as "in poor taste", "absurd" and "disturbing", yet he had a huge influence on future generations of artists especially the Pre-Raphaelites.

I was not too familiar with the work of William Blake but I left with a keen appreciation for his exquisite draftsmanship and a respect for his ideas.  Thanks to substantial loans from the Tate Britain, The Caixa Forum's exhibition presented drawings, prints, illustrated books and paintings that captured Blake's intense commitment to the struggle between good and evil, women's equality and his criticism of the power wielded by the Church.  Generally quite small in format, these works on paper were typical of Blake's eye for space, color and dynamism of the human body.  I found it captivating.

Finally, after a cup of coffee and a little something sweet, I headed to the third stop of the day, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the modern and contemporary arm of the "Golden Triangle".  Founded in 1990 and housed in a 16th Century hospital building, the museum has recently undergone a major expansion including an annex by French architect Jean Nouvel. 

The collection consists primarily of European works of art from 1900 to the post-modern era with the star of the show being Picasso's epic "Guernica" (above).  Painted in 1937 as a response to the bombing of the Basque town of the same name during the Spanish Civil War, this enormous painting became the symbol of the tragedies of war.  Originally displayed at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, it toured the globe and brought international attention to the plight of the Spanish people.  Eventually the painting found a home at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it was a major draw.   Picasso himself stated that the painting was not to return to his native Spain until the Spanish people enjoyed a republic with the attendant "public liberties and democratic institutions".  That day finally arrived in 1981 with the death of Franco and Spain's return to a democratic constitutional monarchy.

This powerful painting is now part of a special exhibition entitled "Encounters with the 1930s" a look at how art influenced and in turn was influenced by the events of this turbulent decade.  Spread over two floors and divided into six sections including Realism; Abstraction; International Expositions; Surrealism; Photography, film and posters; and Spain:  The Second Republic, the Civil War and exile, this is a thorough (maybe too thorough) examination of the period.  It was not surprising that the curators emphasized the Spanish experience, but I thought that the artistic premonitions of World War II were not given much attention.  Overall, the show had some very interesting sections - particularly the World's Fairs of 1930 and 1937 - but I felt that "less would have been more" as the enormity of the show was overwhelming.

Given the country's current fiscal crisis and the recent public protests I was a little apprehensive as my day of departure came closer, but amazingly I saw absolutely no evidence of civil discord.  The city itself was clean, the streets and buildings well maintained, the tapas bars and restaurants doing a brisk business and the people I met were extremely friendly.  I had a wonderful time in Madrid with its gorgeous sunny weather, the delicious food and drink, the beautiful paseos and plazas and of course, the fabulous art. 

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