Madrid: May 2007:1

That day had started auspiciously. The night before our first meal in Spain was just bloody awful. Even the wine was poor. But this morning was a rainy but warmish day and the place we ducked into was alive with the clatter of early bird workers chattering over coffees, pastries and cigarettes. In contrast to other times of the day, the turnover was fast. You ordered, a minute later there it was, and a minute after that the bill sat in front of you. We each had cafe con leches (brilliant stuff; half sweet espresso and half steamed milk (figured out to make these as soon as we got home)) and glazed croissants filled with ham and cheese. Though the latter doesn’t sound like much, trust me, they were. And like the others, we ate them with fork and knife. It made sense since the glazing made the confection sticky. We noticed that in Spain everything was eaten with utensils.

From there it was a few kilometers through the city, iron grill work everywhere, and sculptural tops to many of the buildings. This was a real Spanish city full of Spaniards. Though there must have been quite a few tourists we really only saw them at the galleries. And the people were little different than people anywhere except that they were absurdly LOUD. I don’t think you would ever need a hearing aid in this country. And it wasn’t that the restaurants and bars were all that loud but on the street. I tell you, Spaniards and cellphones, a really bad idea.

So back at the Prado. It was insanely busy. One large groups of Japanese tourists who seemed to be following us, and many school groups with teachers. This seemed to occur at all the galleries we went to in Madrid. They did more that just build world class collections; they taught the children about the art and this heritage of theirs. We flip through large books or slides on a wall or sad little reproductions on our screens and they can stand two feet away and see the brush strokes and the frames. They can see the range of an artist rather than the one or two representative works.

One thing that you could learn here as nowhere else was how artists started out together and gradually moved towards their own style. Its one of those things you know but don’t really think about much. You see all those early works where Dali paints like Braque and Picasso like Goya. At the beginning they are all like green garden shoots, all the same, and then, some earlier than others, they take on distinctive shapes and like plants, we can only think of their distinctiveness and not of those earlier manifestations.

Oneof the drawbacks of the Prado other than the sheer size of it, is that there is so little modern work. It would have been nice to break up the old with just a bit of the new. There are of course the seeds of modernism everywhere, the hallucinatory light in the El Greco’s, Goya storming the ideological barricades, Bosch’s utter lack of discretion. But the rule is big, and bigger, religious pictures. Its all a bit much, an upscale version of St Agnes where art took second seat to the correctness of the time. Symbolism over reality. And even the Goyas I found ultimately wearisome. Rooms and rooms of them, and you had the sense that were it not for his political power, he would not have quite the stature he does. Don’t get me wrong. The Prado is full of remarkable and awe inspiring paintings; this is the hall of the great ones; this was not to be missed but it is like being trapped at a really great traditional restaurant for a week with a decent range, every meal a big one, a plate buster, but boy could you go for some Thai.

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