Art in Madrid | Spain | Living in Mexico

Art in Madrid

Traveling back to Madrid from Marrakech took twice as long—a full day—because of a long layover in Casablanca. We were confined to a grimy '60s-era transit lounge, eating abysmal airport food and guarding our hand baggage from the horde of unwashed pickpockets and bag-snatchers.

We, and all of our possessions made it without incident to our hotel in Madrid—a triumph. We're staying at the Hotel Mora, a clean, rudimentary place for only €70 per night—another triumph in a city where it's easy to spend €300. Better yet, the Mora may be the best located hotel in Madrid for art lovers, situated as it is on the Paseo del Prado, almost exactly halfway between the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and the Museo del Prado. An OK hotel, but no internet access. If you stay there, insist on an outside room with the pretty view of the Jardín Botánico. Inside room windows open onto a grim stairwell and fire escape from which anyone can break in.

Art is everywhere you look. Naming streets after historical figures is one thing; including their portraits is quite another.


I love the old Spanish symbol for DE, the combined letters D and E to make the character Ð. I'm reminded of the old way of writing the in English: Ye.

The sign for the Taberna La Delores has a wonderful fin-de-siècle look.


Delores knows how to entice men to patronize her bar, with her bare shoulders drawing your eye and her arm reaching, offering a beer. And the look on her face: it says "If you're a good boy, sailor, things could get serious." Hard to say no to her.

Madrid, like most cities that the Allies didn't completely flatten, is full of monuments. Here's one just to illustrate the point.


Naked bronze people with winged horses. Just screams "Agriculture," doesn't it. Still, I love these sculptures; important ingredients in European cities.

Now, we'll spend a moment contemplating the ugly.


The little cretins have spraypainted the unpolished granite facing of this building that faces the Reina Sofía Museum. The damage is permanent; you can see where attempts at cleaning have failed to completely remove the writing. Usually taggers restrict themselves to concrete canvases that can be repainted or left as is, depending on location.

Whenever I see this stuff, I think uncharitable thoughts; a test of my spirituality.

Then there's state-sponsored ugliness.


These abysmally ugly elevator housings were slapped up against the classical façade of the Reina Sofía Museum. Looks like an oil refinery. What were they thinking? The authors of the Fodor's Guide call them a "playful pair of glass elevator shafts." The authors are jerks.

This museum of 20th-Century works is anchored by three Spanish modern masters: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Miró. The galleries are chronologically ordered so you can follow the development of modern art. I particularly enjoy the works of Dalí, which, while woefully underrepresented here, nevertheless contain some brilliant pieces.

The centerpiece of the entire museum is Picasso's huge canvas depicting the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The museum guide calls it the "greatest modern painting." I don't think so. It isn't even Picasso's greatest—it's not in the same class as works like Three Musicians. But for Spaniards, it's a patriotic piece, and much-loved.

Perhaps the greatest art museum in the world is the Prado. Colonial-era Spain used New World gold and silver to commission works by Europe's greatest artists. Which explains how such an incredible collection came to this country. The Prado, like the Reina Sofía, centers on three great Spanish painters: Francisco Goya, Diego Velásquez, and El Greco.

I learned about Goya's daring portraiture of King Carlos IV and his inbred family.


What at first appear to be stately portraits, turn out on closer inspection to be caricatures.


Carlos's vacuous expression clearly shows the effects of generations of inbreeding on intelligence, and of pampered isolation on character. What, me worry?

Meanwhile, Queen Maria Luisa clearly is in the catbird seat. Hers is the nasty smile of someone who has clawed her way to the top and who dominates everyone around her. Only the pride and cluelessness of his subjects would have allowed Goya to get away with these satyric official portraits.

Given such a wonderful collection, the Prado fails on two accounts. First, the written and audio guides are sparse and unenlightening. The works hung here invite investigation, but their deeper meanings are glossed over. You'll not get your art history education at the Prado.


The other deficiency is poor lighting, evident in this image of Goya's The 3rd of May.

But these defects barely detract from the experience of viewing these superb canvases. Everywhere I turned, I ran into another painting I'd only seen in someone's coffee table books. I expect to return to these museums several more times during our stay here.

(Turns out you're not allowed to take photographs in the Prado or in the Reina Sofía, a regulation of which I was unaware until an angry official confronted me and demanded I erase any images I had captured. A little sleight-of-hand allowed me to conceal the few I've shared with you.)