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.
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 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 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.
Paseo del Prado, 8, 28014 Madrid, Spain
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 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.
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.”
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.
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 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.)
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.
Meanwhile, back in room 206, the crowd still stares at Guernica.
Black. Jagged. Grey. Ragged.
It’s a compelling, captivating piece of work.
But for me, the most interesting part lives behind it – and beyond it.
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.
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.
He died in 1973, Franco in 1975.
Guernica reached Madrid in 1981.
The crowds, they thronged and waited. And today they are thronging still.
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!
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.
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