Okay, let’s be fair. I haven’t been to every art museum in Europe. Still it’s hard for me to imagine liking one better than the Prado.It meets my criteria for everything a museum should be:
Not Too Big
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – size matters. But bigger isn’t always better.
I remember comparing notes with another traveler in Paris and telling him that I had enjoyed the D’Orsay much more than the Louvre. “Oh, everyone does,” he replied. Probably true. It would be a gross understatement to say that the Louvre has an incredible collection, but the very size of that collection makes it hard to enjoy. Contemplating one piece I was haunted by those I knew I would not have time to see. What’s the best strategy? If you keep up the pace to maximize the number of works you see are you really doing any of them justice? How many months, years, lives would you need to truly see and appreciate it all?
I felt exhausted at the end of my day at the Prado (standing all day on those marble floors can be hard on the feet). However, I also felt satisfied that I’d seen what was there, with time to linger in front of my favorites.
Quality Collection – The Golden Age, Goya and Guernica
The heart of any museum is its collection and the Prado can stand with the best of them. Famous pieces include:
Las Meninas, Diego Velázques, 1656
Diego Velázques was the primary artist of Spain’s Golden Age. Although, realism doesn’t usually do much for me, Velázques’ masterpiece is an undeniable feat. Velázques’ makes perspective look like child’s play. Figures from the Court of King Felipe IV are placed at various distances: first a dog in the foreground, then the young Margarita and her entourage- the main subject of the painting, followed by the artist himself. Velázques’ is working at an easel which faces away from us, but we can see the reflection of his painting, a portrait of the King and Queen, in the mirror behind him. The Queen’s chamberlain stands in a doorway in the back of the room.
Velázques includes himself and us in the experience. He is there behind the easel and his gaze is fixed forward to where you, the viewer stand. It feels like time travel, this interaction between artist and viewer. We are in the room with them. As we are carried back in time, Velázques seems to have jumped forward, as if he has projected himself into the present and is saying, “See what I can do!”
The Third of May 1808, Francisco Goya, 1814
Goya’s commemoration of Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies is considered to be one of the first paintings of the modern era. Goya broke from the way artists had traditionally depicted war in that he did not sugar-coat things. The victims face a firing squad and nothing in the painting suggests that they are martyrs soon to be rewarded for their suffering (as Christian art showing war traditionally did). The victims are anonymous and members of the firing squad faceless. Goya offers no heroism and no glory. The vision of war portrayed in the Third of May is unembellished, senseless, cruelty.
Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937
The Prado does not typically house modern art, but the controversial history of Picasso’s big anti-war statement resulted in it being displayed at the Prado for eleven years, which happily coincided with my visit.
It has now been moved to the Museo Reina Sofia, a short distance from the Prado.
Guernica was created in response to the 1937 bombing of the town of the same name by German and Italian war planes on behalf of the Spanish Nationalist forces. The large (3.5 by 7.8 meters), gray scale painting depicts the violence and chaos of war. It succeeded in its goal of bringing the world’s attention to the horrors of the Spanish civil war and has become art’s anti-war icon. Picasso stipulated that the painting could not return to Spain until the country had become a republic. In 1981, the current monarchy was deemed to be close enough and the painting was ceded to Spain. An armed guard stood on either side of it when I saw it in 1991.
Art is a personal experience and the pieces I remember most from my visit to the Prado are not necessarily the famous ones listed above. A captivating series of Goya’s later “black paintings” was displayed humbly by the door. They depicted humanity on the edge, or maybe over the edge, of madness. There’s something to be said for dark art. It holds up a mirror so that we cannot forget what we are, cannot ignore the dark side. Yet, it also relieves us of that burden. Putting the craziness down on canvass makes it concrete, brings the danger closer, but also holding it still for just a moment. It is like standing next to a ferocious, wild animal in a cage. I love it.
Less of a “Thieves’ Museum”
Velázques, Goya, Picasso…notice anything? A lot of the masterpieces in Spain’s national art museum were created by Spaniards! How appropriate!
Art is more meaningful in its correct geographic context.
And it fits my sense of justice. I was eight years old the first time I went to Europe. My mother had purchased a coloring book with pictures of Greek statues and ruins to keep me occupied as we tootled around in our Volkswagen. A caption below each picture gave the title of piece and its current location. An awful lot of them said, “British Museum, London.” This was an affront to my infantile sense of fair play. If these treasures were Greek, what were they doing London? I began to refer to the British Museum as the “thieves’ museum.” Truth be told, I’m still a little indignant about it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m dying to visit the British Museum, and I understand that sometimes art and artifacts are better preserved by being removed from the turmoil of their homelands. The Prado does have paintings from other European artists, but it highlights Spaniards.
So there you have it- the right size, with the right stuff from the right place. What more could you want in a museum?