29 October 2007

Madrid highlights

I have recently returned from a very relaxing week in Madrid. The weather was wonderful – warm and sunny every day (once or twice reaching the upper twenties).

One of the main reasons for visiting Madrid must, of course, be the amazing accumulation of fine art in the city’s galleries. Of those galleries my favourite has to be the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza: a complete history of Western art in a single gallery. Particularly striking among the early paintings was an almost surrealist portrayal of the risen Christ by Bramantino. It is an amazingly rich collection. My one reservation about it was that the strictly chronological layout left me with a sense of anti-climax; it created the impression that Western art had finally dissolved in the acids of high modernity. Or perhaps I was just suffering from an art overdose.

The Prado is compulsory viewing for anyone visiting Madrid. Lots of amazing paintings, but embedded in an even larger number of indifferent ones. Highlights included Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I hadn't realized that it was a triptych. Usually reproductions show the three panels separately. But taken together they become a morality tale beginning with Eden, depicting humankind's fall into sensuous pleasures in the central tableau, and culminating in his vision of hell. There were Goyas in profusion, including some of his most iconic works and some of his most horrific. Court painter and recorder of the darker recesses of the human imagination, Goya seems to use such different styles that he might have been two people. And is it my imagination or could Picasso have taken some inspiration from some of Goya's later works?

Of the big three, the one I enjoyed least was the Reina Sofia. I’m not a great fan of contemporary art and I hated the external glass lift, which seemed to be the only way in and out of the building, but the visit was worth just to see Picasso’s Guernica in the flesh.

Another gallery I enjoyed was the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (which was conveniently just round the corner from our hotel). The downside is that the layout is confusing and there is no detailed English guide. The gallery includes some excellent Goyas – including one of his madhouse paintings and his painting of the inquisition (placed side by side so the structural similarity of the two is unmistakable). But perhaps the most interesting was a sequence of little paintings of children playing.

Apart from the galleries we just wandered about, relaxing and absorbing the atmosphere. There was the compulsory visit to the Royal Palace (for me the highlights of that were the armoury and the reconstructed alchemist’s laboratory), plenty of parks (including one containing an entire Egyptian temple) and interesting shops. The food was generally good (though I didn’t get used to the Spanish habit of eating late in the evening) and I really enjoyed the Madrileno tradition of chocolat con churros. Last but not least, the holiday benefited from a really nice hotel (the Maria Elena Palace).

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