Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art – Face to Face with Picasso’s Guernica

By Abi King | Spain

Feb 08

The Golden Triangle in Madrid takes three heavyweight art museums as its points and spreads out leafy avenues and tasty tapas bar in its core. Here is a land of war and peace, rags and riches, Picasso, El Greco, Goya and more. It's the perfect place for beginners, with so much arranged into an easy to consume zone. And it's a paradise for aficionados with some of the world's best art on display. Here's the inside guide. 

How to Visit the Golden Triangle in Madrid 

Madrid's Golden Triangle in Brief

El Prado

El Prado is the biggest of the big hitters. As one of the richest art museums in the world, it shows works by the great European masters created between the 16th and 19th centuries. The superstars of the era are here: El Greco, Goya, Titian, Ruben, Hieronymus Bosch, and Velázquez, including the latter’s most famous work: Las Meninas. 

El Prado Address:

Paseo del Prado, s/n, 28014 Madrid, Spain

The Reina Sofia

The Reina Sofia Museum zips along to 20th century and contemporary art, including the world-famous Guernica painted by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. The majority of the works exhibited come from Spanish artists, including famous names of the past century: Juan Gris, Salvador Dali and Joan Miró, as well as artwork by other famous international artists such as Diego Rivera.

Reina Sofia Address:

Calle de Santa Isabel, 52, 28012 Madrid, Spain

The Thyssen

The collection of works on show at the Thyssen-Bornemisza provides a nice complement to the collections of the Prado and Reina Sofía. It displays themes that the others do not, such as Impressionism and Cubism, and work from Italian and German artists. The collection includes Duccio, Taddeo Gaddi, Paolo Uccello, Jan van Eyck, Hans Baldung Grien, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Caravaggio , Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt.

Thyssen-Bornemisza Address:

Paseo del Prado, 8, 28014 Madrid, Spain

If you think you're not an art-lover...

This is an article I’ve tried to write a thousand times. Or ten at the very least and that’s long enough for me. Rarer still, I’ve navel gazed, wondering after drafts one, two, three (and the rest) what it is about art in Madrid that slows me down.

You see, it’s not personal (and yet it is.)

It’s a fascinating subject – and yet I fear it will bore you.

It’s a fact filled subject – and yet the facts are not important.

In reality, it’s nothing short of a total re-examination of the way of the way I thought about art in Spain (or indeed in the world at large.)

And either it will be a revelation for you. Or, it will not, and I will look foolish.

There, that’s the bug with writing this piece. In fact, I think that's what stops so many of us from thinking about and appreciating art overall. Somewhere, quietly perhaps, or blazing along like merry decibels in the sky, we’ve got the notion that art is something we have to be clever about.

Something that has to be taught, something that’s wildly pretentious, something that’s not for people like us.

The spoiler alert for this whole shindig is, of course, that art is exactly for people like us because art is exactly for people. Not certain people, not qualified people. All people. (Although, even I can spot the irony in this rabble rousing paragraph in that it was hyper-qualified art folk who helped me to realise this.)

But never mind. As one guy said (who was good with a paintbrush)

 Art washes away the dust from everyday life. Picasso.

Art may well wash away the dust of daily life, but the art world often washes away ideas, enjoyment and curiosity in those who don't breathe its jargon.

Well, I'm here today to tell you that's rubbish. You don't need to "know" art to like it. But a little bit of knowledge does make more of it come to life.

And when it comes to having so much of it all in one place, there's no better place than Spain.

Madrid, in particular, with a side trip to Barcelona.

 

The Thyssen: The Periodic Table of Art

 

The Eyes of A Wife Killer

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

The Thyssen demonstrates just what happens when scientists are left in charge of curating art. Chemist Thyssen-Bornemisza and his industrialist father before him set about collecting the periodic table of painting: images that represent almost every crucial step of development as art progressed.

  • Thus, you can walk from flat two-dimensional religious paintings and see the development of perspective (hard to believe, but for most of mankind’s history, no-one had thought to draw parallel lines as meeting at a point in the distance.)

 

Art in Madrid Thyssen-1

  • It becomes startlingly obvious when gilded techniques arrive (plus it’s laughable to see patrons snuck into religious scenes from thousands of years ago like celebrity cameos in sitcoms today.)

 

Art in Madrid Patrons

  • You can spot the Flemish masters from the grey outdoor light and flat horizons, the flourish of the Renaissance in Florence and Venice through a blast of radiant sunshine colour. There’s one of the iconic pictures of Henry VIII, much smaller in the flesh: the gilt edged, glint-eyed murdering maniac captured in profile by German artist Holbein.

Art in Madrid lady

  • And then we’re off from the Renaissance into cubism, fauvism, impressionism and all the other isms that confuse the battle-art weary. Yet, in succession, with explanation, they all make sense.

Art in Madrid Thyssen-LondonArt in Madrid Thyssen-BalletArt in Madrid Thyssen-City lifeArt in Madrid Thyssen-Metropolis George GroszArt in Madrid Thyssen PortraitArt in Madrid Thyssen StrikeArt in Thyssen colour gridArt in Madrid Thyssen - WhiteArt in Madrid KandinskyArt in Madrid Thyssen-Broken Mirror PictureArt in Madrid Thyssen-DaliArt in Madrid Thyssen-16Art in Madrid Thyssen-Orange

  • They also help illustrate how no genius nor art movement works in isolation.

 

 

 

Guernica: Picasso's Most Famous Work?

I first heard about Guernica beneath the flowered canopy in the scorched back garden, as citrus scents from orange and lemon trees drifted through the air. In between fumbling with ser and estar (to be for a while or to be for eternity in Spain,) my politically-minded tutor talked about local boy Picasso

In occupied France, Nazis burst into Picasso’s studio, found the work and pinned him to the wall

“Did you do this?” they demanded.

“No,” Picasso replied. “You did.”

 Legend

Though I struggled to confirm the details of that story, the essential points remain true: the painting Guernica reflects the bombing of the place of the same name in northwest Spain. The bombs came delivered by the Nazis (with Italian military support) to help Franco win the Spanish Civil War. The military dictatorship that followed continued in Spain through the Swinging Sixties and Punk Seventies elsewhere until the death of Franco himself in 1975.

Recognition

And I recognised the picture, the jagged, ragged, displaced screams and torment of black, grey and white, women’s breasts, blood, babies and bulls.

But standing right before it, in the Reina Sofia in Madrid was another thing altogether.

The work is vast, which is the first surprise, as it sprawls from left to right and up and down across a purpose built wall.

It also, curiously, was produced not as an impassioned response to fury but as a commissioned piece of work to display at an international exhibition to further the rebels’ cause. In other words: propaganda (although I think we can all agree that the killing of babies is wrong.)

The Reina Sofia

The Reina Sofia itself carries both a surreal beauty and a sense of unease, explained in part, I think, by its former role as a hospital with the rumoured ghosts that flit between the halls.

Amid the “usual” gallery features are well-educated helpers, fluent in many languages and keen to help visitors make sense of this colossal warren of art. My guide is one such example, a brilliant woman whose easy going yet well-informed touch has me enjoying contemporary art (quite possibly for the first time.)

After Photography

It follows the decomposition (I’m sure that’s not the word but perhaps it should be) of art once photography arrived. Once photography completely subsumed the role of producing lifelike images, what was an artist to do but slide into impressionism, cubism, those funny grids and blank panels and then finally abandon 2D art altogether?

Since we can’t yet be teleported into an environment, how else to depict it? Moving pictures and words can do their best. So can photography and stills.

But it’s the arrival of 3D installations that appear to offer something new. They’re not necessarily beautiful (nor even, in many cases, that interesting) but every now and then, they do provoke a thought or two and I suppose that that’s the main thing.

Back at Guernica

Meanwhile, back in room 206, the crowd still stares at Guernica.

Black. Jagged. Grey. Ragged.

Traumatic.

It’s a compelling, captivating piece of work.

But for me, the most interesting part lives behind it – and beyond it.

Behind Guernica

Behind it, the museum exhibits the rough sketches, the drawings, the, let’s face it, rubbish first drafts that fascinate me more. Here is the slightest glimpse at the inner workings of a genius – and it’s a glimpse that should give us all hope. It reveals not unthinkable, unworkable majesty, but the plottings and pressures of a man under a deadline. It echoes my thoughts on Toulouse-Lautrec, poster boy of Moulin Rouge fame, when I wrote about the secrets of success.

And I am grateful to both the museum and to Picasso for letting us witness these embryonic forms.

 The Final Piece of the Puzzle

So that’s what lies immediately behind Guernica. Further behind still are the facts and interpretations about this real life event. How between 150 and 1600 men, women and children were killed over a period of hours. How this was one of, if not the first act of aggression whereby military planes rained down on civilians.

And beyond it?

There’s the legend, in case, like me, you didn’t already know. Picasso vowed that his most famous work should never travel to Spain until democracy was restored.

Art in Madrid: Guernica

He died in 1973, Franco in 1975.

Guernica reached Madrid in 1981.

The crowds, they thronged and waited. And today they are thronging still.

Disclosure

I love Spain and have visited many times and even lived there for a while. On this occasion, I visited in partnership with iAmbassador and Madrid Tourism and stayed at the NH Palacio de Tepa (which, interestingly enough lives in a former 19th century palace in the literary quarter. )As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. And, as is probably obvious, I am not a qualified art historian, just someone with a passion for washing away the dust of everyday life. Cheers!

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.

  • Jenna says:

    I nodded in agreement through the first half of post (and loved all your observations in the second half). It can be hard to know what to say about art. I have a degree in art history and still write about art from time to time on my blog (as part of the ArtSmart group), but I always try to find art topics that any reader would enjoy and to make it interesting or at least accessible. You’ve chosen many excellent examples of what can make art so interesting to everyone–seeing how it changes over time and looking for the meaning that might not be apparent at first glance.

    • Abi King says:

      Ah, Jenna, I can’t believe you found this piece! It was your writing (some time ago) that actually gave me my first taste of art history. I’d really shunned it before then, preferring not to know and just to look. What a small world! So, in terms of making your posts interesting and accessible you’ve succeeded in a massive way with me at least! (Thanks, also, for the reassurance about the examples I picked. It’s a new subject for me and a little daunting… I’m thrilled!) Ps – what’s the ArtSmart group?

  • tea in tangiers says:

    Definitely putting this on fileas I hope to get to madrid this year – great piece.

    • Abi King says:

      Glad to hear it – Madrid’s such an interesting city. There is SO much going on in such a small space. Have a great time (and let me know how many of these you spot!)

  • De'Jav says:

    Once of the best cities that has so much to offer in regards to art. Great post!!

    • Abi King says:

      Agreed. Yet somehow I think that’s less well known than, say, London, Paris or New York. Or, at least, I didn’t know that for a long time!

  • Kirsten says:

    Whether because I am the daughter of an artist, or by my own means — or both; I love art and visiting art museums as I travel the world is one of my favorite ways to discover a new place. Thanks for sharing this, now I must also visit Madrid. Though, I did already want to, now I will just make sure not to miss the art in Madrid!!

    • Abi King says:

      For me, looking back at this, I think the transformation came when looking at it in terms of evolution of ideas…Before, I’d just look at one piece on its own and either find it moving – or not! But these guides really made me see things in a different way – and I’m so glad that they did! Am sure you will get to Madrid soon, Kirsten. There’s a lot of modern stuff going on as well – which I will get to later in this series. But just in case anyone’s heading to Madrid before I manage to write all this up – it’s not all the Golden Triangle and Guernica! There’s more on the way!

  • Rachel says:

    I totally agree with you, and I would admit that I barely know any artists aside from those who are famous, but when I see art, I would totally be struck, amused, having indescribable feeling especially towards abstract arts.. I mean, how would you even know how the artist feel or what he/she’s trying to show? I don’t know.

    • Abi King says:

      With some abstract art, I can’t help but wonder if the artists are laughing at us ;-) But the guide I was with gave me an interesting experiment: she MADE me say something about one picture – about how it made me feel or (when I faltered at that) she asked me about various emotions and forced me to give a yes or no response. Then she repeated the whole thing at the next painting. It was embarrassing at first but then it really got me thinking and feeling about the differences. Who knows if it’s deeply profound or…random. But it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless.

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