The Masters in Madrid

A few long-anticipated experiences for me last week in Madrid. I got to see the Turner and the Masters exhibit at the Prado and check out, for the first time, the Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art. I also happed upon a rare exhibition at the National Library and Caixaforum, two great finds.

The pamphlet from the Prado I have in my hands says Turner gave the landscape in painting a more modern look. Indeed I was impressed with his work, in particular later pieces like "Burial at Sea," "Shade and Darkness: the Evening of the Deluge," and especially "Snowstorm," which I bought a reproduction of on the way out. These run roughshod over how one character in a novel I'm reading now, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, depicts the Flemish-dominated painting of Turner's day: "the thoroughness with which they [the Flemish masters] feel obliged to recreate the atmosphere, and the... these painters who aren't long on suggestion, but pile up perfection layer on layer, and the detail, it's... it becomes both the force and the flaw..."

Yes, the paintings are fresh, even today after more than 150 years, because they ratchet up the suggestion and do away with the one-hair precision, opting instead for a mood, an overall feeling, long swipes of the brush which give them movement, darks which convey a sense of mystery, sfumato which brings depth, and bright highlights which capture light and steer the viewer's gaze. The overall effect is something approaching abstraction, or in the very least impressionism, which is mind-blowing considering Turner was painting decades before the impressionists and in full swing of the Académie tradition.

After the Turner exhibit, I spent time in the Prado's permanent exhibitions, sketching wherever I could. Since I'd been to the Prado before and knew it was too monstrous to take in in a single trip, I focused this time on the Italian section and found myself most drawn to the Venetians, Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, as well as Raphael. Then I breezed through Goya, Velázquez, Bosch, and others, except for one long demurral in front of "Las Meninas," one of my all-time favourite paintings.

I love the Prado but I gotta say I found myself wondering why there are no women and non-European artists represented in it, even if the museum is a "civilizational," empirical kind of place, built during the height of Victorianism. I can understand Velázquez, Goya, Sorolla, and El Greco, all native Spaniards, or in the case of El Greco an adopted citizen. I even get the Renaissance Italians, who were extremely influential to the Spaniards. The Dutch can, in a way, make sense, given that Spain ruled Holland for many years. But the French? The Napoleonic conquest? The proximity? What about the Brits? The Armada? Or the Germans? It seems the museum has gone out of its way to include just about every major western European nation and simultaneously exclude, with deliberate effort, the Latin Americans, Moors, Africans, Portuguese, or Filipinos, each of whom have had a much directer influence on Spain. As for the women, what women? A few of them appear as the masters' muses, say Goya's Majas, but none as far as I could tell as the creators themselves.

Fortunately, things change a bit - but only a bit - in the Reina Sofia, with its fast forward in time to the 20th century. Here I checked out a variety of postmodern installations and paintings from the 1950s and '60s. There was stuff by Miró, Tàpies, Juan Gris, and Picasso, with a few foreigners (Americans), among them some women.

The highlight was Picasso's "Guernica." I can only say joder! I had no idea it was so large, easily three or four billboard signs put together, and all black and white. Interestingly, on an opposite wall were a series of photos taken by Picasso's lover and fellow artist Dora Maar, which she took while Picasso was completing the monstrosity, in Tours, France. What's astonishing - and utterly revealing to me as an artist - is how little Picasso knew what he was doing when he was doing it. He sketched and prepared in advance but mostly he improvised, he performed. He paints entire persons, animals, a huge fist in the air that he later blacks or whites out. If you could peel the paint back you'd find dozens of different paintings.

Following the Reina, it was a quick stop at Caixaforum, with its living wall and a photo exhibit on fair trade, the first mention of this I've seen in Spain.

I could've continued to bounce from one museum to the next but time was tight. I ran back to the National Library and, sweating, spotted "Memory of the Moriscos," which intrigued me. The Moriscos were Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity in Spain in the medieval era, before they were expelled for good from the peninsula. Their language, both written and spoken, was banned and most of their books were burned, so it was quite unusual to find an exhibit of Morisco texts, both because the material for it must be lacking but also because, despite all the interest among scholars and even regular folk in the medieval epoch, there is a heavy silence over this particularly rotten episode. But that's a story for another time…

One extract of text that interested me was a page torn from a book. The writing was Arabic script but if you read it the words and grammar were Castilian, not Arabic. Apparently Spanish scholars don't know why a community of people wrote this way, but it could be conjectured that the two societies were so intertwined one could not separate itself from the other, or perhaps conversely there was such a strong desire to intertwine that people were prepared to compromise on something as intimate as language.

We rounded out the day as usual, famished and thirsty. In the brutal Madrid heat we downed a few beers and gobbled up plate after plate of olives and peanuts, which the waiter kept feeding us, for some reason, maybe because he thought we'd bite him if he didn't.