We have just returned from a few days in Madrid, a city I had visited on business before but had never explored as a visitor. It is a big, bustling city with lots to see and do, and with the urban core relieved by some wonderful gardens including the massive Parque del Retiro. The position of our hotel allowed us to walk through this park on the way to most of the destinations we were visiting.
Although Madrid is an old city it presents itself as unashamedly modern and stylish, with the main shopping districts full of the usual international brands. But a few distinguished old local shops survive, as do a range of markets across the city which combine bars, street food with the traditional market functions.
A principal reason for visiting Madrid was to spend time in the Museo del Prado, perhaps one of the most spectacular collections of pre-C20 European art in the world. During the Renaissance, the extensive Spanish interests in and occupations major parts of Italy and Northern Europe and the massive influx of treasure from Spanish conquests in South America, combined with the artistic sensibilities of successive Spanish kings, led to the Spanish monarchy amassing the most remarkable collection of Renaissance art. This forms the core of the Prado collection and a collection without parallel anywhere else. It is also well-presented and curated with everything fully and helpfully signed in Spanish and English. We had been warned about queuing and over-crowding, but experienced neither.
But the Prado does not stand alone; a few streets away is the equally remarkable Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. The collection was developed over the late C19 and C20 by the Thyssen family, German industrialists. Looking to make the collection more widely available to the public, it was originally loaned to Spain, under an agreement signed in 1988, in return for the provision of a building to house it, but was subsequently sold to the Spanish state. The museum opened in 1992. It is a truly wonderful collection of Western art from the Italian primitives to the contemporary period, covering both Europe and the United States. Recent works in the gallery include, for example, pieces by Bacon, Freud and Auerbach from the UK alone. It is, I think, the finest public gallery I have ever visited. The collection is stupendous and there are works to take your breath away in practically every room. The gallery is beautifully laid out so that everything and everyone has peace to breath and be seen. The curatorial support in terms of information about each work and the guide to the collection is of the highest quality. The hours we spent in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza were perhaps the highlight of our visit.
The third large public gallery in the heart of Madrid is the Museo Reina Sofia which has been established to hold the national collection of C2o and contemporary art. It also holds Guernica, perhaps the best known painting of the C20. It is certainly worth visiting the museum solely for the purpose of seeing Guernica, because no reproductions can prepare you for the sheer scale of the painting or the emotional intensity of the images it contains when seen up close.
But apart from Guernica, the Museo Reina Sofia presents itself as a case study of why modernist art has failed (see my article here). It is confusing jungle of ‘-isms’ filled with impenetrable works. Despite trying hard, I found there was little to engage the viewer.