Reflections on visiting the Prado and more:

Merely by painting The Spinners, Vulcan’s Forge and Las Meninas, Velazquez earned his place at or near the top of Western Europe’s great artists. His royal portraits are honored next, but it’s hard to say how they would have made his reputation today – especially given the unattractive appearance of his subjects. Two small sketches of the Medici Gardens are arresting, and there are sensitive portraits of non-royals that are warm and engaging. Of these, the full-length paintings of Aesop and Menippus are not only a kind of perfection, they show how much later artists – let’s start with Manet, then on to Whistler and Chase – drew on Velazquez’s model.

Competing with Velazquez for top billing at the Prado is Goya. There is no masterpiece to rival Las Meninas – in fact, his most famous works there, the Clothed and Naked Majas, are more disappointing the more you study them – but the range of his artistic genius is unparalleled. He, also, had ugly emperors and empresses to officially portray; but somehow he did it in a way that apparently satisfied their egos and yet revealed their empty-headedness and treachery to later generations. When painting friends his portraits could be sensitive and original (Don Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos). As a graphic artist, his only peer is Rembrandt: Disasters of War and Los Caprichos are the ultimate expression of human (mis)behavior. Picasso’s Guernica, which I visited at the Reina Sofia, is larger but for me packs much less wallop.

The ultimate Goya is the suite of “Black Paintings” moved to the Prado from his final house. What a world he created: it’s mystical and nightmarish, yet it connects with some deep part of every human psyche. Close to that same place you find Goya’s Third of May, perhaps his most recognizable work, and for good reason. The spotlit Christ-figure in the center, the crumpled Dominican priest, the bloody corpse on the ground, the faceless firing squad – all combine in a scene that is at once historical and symbolic. In person, next to the companion Second of May, it is the highlight of the Prado.

From my first visit in 1970 I have held van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross on my personal Top Ten. It didn’t disappoint on revisiting, but I saw it instead as an old friend, not a revelation – much as I view Monet’s Terrace at Ste-Addresse whenever I pass by it at the Met. The nearby gallery devoted to Hieronymus Bosch was more impressive, for its spacious display and the quantity of his rare works. My favorite: The Haywain, where the fantastical creatures – and Bosch did know and like his birds! – had more room to breathe than in the Garden of Earthly Delights.

Perhaps my most surprising Prado reaction came from the Italian half of the main corridor, where the kind of large Salon pictures I normally breeze by were lined up. Whether they were all great paintings I can’t remember; what was fun was seeing Tintoretto next to Bassano next to Veronese – similar but so different – then Rubens copying Titian.

Across the street, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza had two special exhibitions of French Impressionists. The absence of important Spanish artists post-Goya ultimately says something mildly depressing about Spanish culture. Yes, there’s Picasso, whose museum in Barcelona we skipped, as well as Dali, Miro and Gris, but all their mature work was done in Paris and their connection to Spain is to Catalonia, which is feverishly trying to secede. The only modern Spaniard highlighted in the Prado brochure is Joaquin Sorolla, ‘painter of light,’ whose house/museum was the destination of our only excursion out of Madrid’s downtown arts complex. Nice, but his portraits weren’t Sargents, and his beach scenes were scarcely more exciting than Potthasts. I did quite enjoy Martin Rico’s vedute and landscapes by the Belgian De Haes in the Prado’s 19th-century galleries, but their connections to Spanish culture were also tenuous.

Back to the Thyssen (pronounced TEE-sin), we arrived on opening day for “Intimate Renoir,” a loan show of portraits, mostly of young women. The introductory label made a good distinction: unlike other Impressionists, who observed women as flaneurs, objective admirers, Renoir identified emotionally with his subjects. That may be why his girls and women look so sweet. But sweet they are, and seeing dozens together didn’t make the cuddly, round saccharine sweetness any more palatable or interesting.

Why Renoir is more famous and deemed more important than Gustave Caillebotte is a bigger and bigger mystery, the more Caillebotte gets shown. The exhibit of his work at the Thyssen was unusual in that all but four or so paintings came from private collections and are not in the Caillebotte books from recent years. Most, correspondingly, would be considered minor works, but they were not without interest. There were a variety of subjects, none with Renoir’s intimacy: landscapes, florals, workers and, best, one of laundry fluttering in the breeze. In many you saw Caillebotte playing with perspective: the scene darted off sharply to one side of the canvas or the other. Other times he was full frontal, with no avenue to the rear. Some of his hits were doubles – the home runs are in museums elsewhere – and he almost never struck out.

The Thyssen permanent collection was almost too much to take in in one visit – especially back-to-back with the Prado. It covers more ground than the Prado, adding American masters and 20th century modernism, among other fields. Fortunately, for balance, there is little Spanish art – not surprising for a collection amassed in Switzerland. A visit is also made more confounding by the separate display of the similar collection of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Baron Hans Heinrich T-B seems to have given his wife Carmen everything in his collection that he didn’t give the Spanish state in 1993. She continued collecting, and although it was too late to have access to the masterpieces available to her husband and father-in-law, she seems to have ranged as widely in her choices, including American art. Writing a week or so later it’s hard to remember whose galleries I saw which works in (one set of rooms is numbered, the other is lettered), but the big names, it’s safe to say, were acquired by the two Barons: Caravaggio’s St. Catherine, Piero’s Child (Guidobaldo da Montefeltro?), Domenico Ghirlandaio’s exquisite Giovanna Tornabuoni and Lamentation Triptych by an old friend, the Master of the St. Lucy Legend. On the other hand, in her collection was a small but wonderful William Merritt Chase – In the Park, a Byway – that was my favorite picture of the day and three (3!) works by another old friend, A.T. Bricher.

Speaking of byways, I stumbled into a small show at the Caixa (Bank) gallery of 60 paintings – “Impressionism and Modernism” – from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. It was refreshing, after the darkness of the Prado, to see some high-quality Cezanne, Monet, Bonnard, on through Clyfford Still and Diebenkorn.

The Reina Sofia is another gloomy place to look at art, especially at night, with discreet galleries of modern schools, mostly Spanish, sequenced around a palace courtyard. The highlight for me was a pair of realistic paintings by the 21-year-old Dali, both showing women from behind. Then in the same gallery came The Great Masturbator, Dali’s stab at Bosch, without the charm.

 

The art we saw in Seville was Spanish Golden Age all the way. There was an excellent early portrait by Velazquez and Goya each in the Fine Arts Museum, but that was it for them. Zurbaran and Murillo were the stars of this collection, followed by Juan Valdes Leal and a host of other somber, religious storytellers from the 17th and 18th centuries. (All of these painters could also be found at the Seville Cathedral, although usually at a distance or unidentified or on a side wall hard to see.)

My first time through Spain I preferred the harsh Caravaggesque work of Zurbaran (and Ribera) to the sentimentality of Murillo. This trip I respected Zurbaran, but his hardness and artificiality – almost faux primitivism at times – wore me down. Murillo could be just as formulaic, and his Madonnas can be cigar-box treacle, but when he gets it right there is a charm that you don’t find in Velazquez, Ribera, Goya, Valdes Leal or Zurbaran. The two large panels at the Hospital de la Caridad that weren’t stolen by Napoleon’s troops are wonderfully composed and full of fun characters. And his small, intimate Madonna of the Napkin, which we first encountered at the Fine Arts Museum, kept turning up in copies around town and is appropriately, I came to realize, Spain’s Mona Lisa.