Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seventh and Last Day: Madrid

Next to the Reina Sophia Museum

Our last full day in Madrid is sunny and warm and we set off via subway for the Sorolla Museum. The subway trains are about half the length of those in NYC, but the entertainment is on par with the MTA, the first act being a loud keyboard player who sets up in the middle of the car and plays a whole set, first the immortal “I Will Survive” then a few other similar hits I don’t want to think about. I give him half a euro. Down the line a man gets on with a saxophone and croons some wonderful jazzy tunes – I give him a 2 euro coin in honor of my son Andrew who used to play his sax in the Paris tunnels. By the third musician, we're out of coins, so the karioki-style woman singer gets nothing, sadly.
Leaving the subway, Frank becomes engrossed in the guide book, trying to figure out which is Paseo del General Martinez Campos, and in front of my wondering eyes he blithely jaywalks across the street between lines of cars that have miraculously gone still (it’s the power of the wolf, again) but when I try to follow, a motorcycle screams around the corner making me sprint back to the curb like a scared squirrel. When I catch up with Frank, we calmly and rationally discuss the relative merits of thinking about directions and walking at the same time.
Here is the proper way to look at the guidebook.

The Sorolla Museum is an old mansion that used to house the artist and his family, and also contains his studio, a large wood-paneled room with high ceilings and sky lights. Frank is green with envy. Next to it is his exhibition and entertainment room where people came to look at work and purchase same. Frank gets greener.
The rest of the house is quite wonderful also, marble and tile floors and walls, big sunny rooms, a glassed-in sun room, not to mention the orange trees and fountains - once I recover from almost being RUN OVER AND KILLED, I am quite green myself. Although I wouldn’t want anything quite so formal, of course. And all that marble is a little cold…and one would have to have servants…I’m not sure about having people hoovering, dusting, scrubbing, polishing, running around all day in a vain attempt to make me happy…making me instead constantly tense, unless I'd torqued into some kind of arrogant toff…and what about all those clothes everyone used to wear, even in Sorolla’s day, which was quite casual compared to past eras?
We’ve lately gotten a large dose of silks, satins, velvets and giant skirts the size of VW bugs with little girls sticking up out of themand those ruffs sticking up into your chin making you resemble St. John the Baptist on a ruffled plate.And stays and corsets, stockings and laces - lord, they had to carry that weight a long time! And the time and tedium of getting dressed, not just once a day but several times, a two- or more-person job…and then having no deodorant or tampax or toilet paper…
It’s a good thing those old paintings can’t convey the smell of an age along with its sights. Of course now with so many paintings under glass, the smell would be stifled and squelched along with the spirit and soul of the painting…I swear I can hear those ancient kings and princesses choking, calling out…help, help…we’re dying in here! I expect faces to sprout gray circles of mold, although I’m sure conservators know what they’re doing, just as they’ve always done in the past…they’re only protecting priceless works of art from viewer-gak and phlegm by making the museum experience no different than paging through a glossy Janson.
Amsterdam was very bad about this, some works showing me not only their own merits but also those of the paintings on the facing wall. Even with “glareless” glazing, light reflections still mar and pock the surface. Madrid has been better, which is a great relief, and here in Sorolla’s realm there is almost no glass, all of his paintings airy and full of color and light, but let Frank speak about them – Sorolla is one of his most esteemed artists: “Joaquin Sorolla continues the special genius of Spanish painting, back to Diego Velazquez and forward to today’s Antonio Lopez. His house, now a museum run by the Spanish government, is a delight and an eye-opener. He had a combination of deftness and control equal to Sargent’s ( whom he knew ) and as much soul as anyone who ever painted. His paintings of figures on the beach—naked youngsters, fisherwomen, fishermen, oxen pulling in fishing boats and the ocean itself—are transcendent. His painting tools are on display in the studio where he worked—I noted in particular how long his brushes are, the better for expressive, bravura effects; a truth beyond exactitude.”
I say to Frank, “But I thought you didn’t care for Impressionism” and Frank replies, “That’s because most of it is a self-referential candied bag of slop. But Sorolla has structure.” Aha!

We next tackle the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, a collection of the Baron and his wife, each in their respective half of the museum. They collected in the 1980’s, and it is remarkable what diverse and amazing works they collected, and how expensive it must have been! We find a dark Van Gogh, “Watermill at Gennep”that shows a strange dormancy in the depths of darkness, as if color is ready to bloom out once the sun of Southern France warms its rich soil. We discover several rooms of Hudson River paintings by unfamiliar artists like Hugh Bolton Jones and James McDougal Hart; also a small Munch seascape, and many more. And we come across Anton Mauve who did this beautiful thing:
I also love a Prendergrast “Still Life With Apples” that jumps off the wall,
as does an Arthur Dove called “U.S.”:

After all the dense content and imagery of the last week, Modernism seems so expansive and refreshing. Frank, of course, finds much (most?) of it inconsequential and inept.
Outside, we run into yet another street sculpture:

Our last museum visit is to the Reina Sofia where we see Picasso’s “Guernica” anda room of Richard Serra pieces. The Serra room is long and lit with bright white light that renders his blocks and rectangular wedges of steel shadowless, as if they might levitate and hang in front of our eyes like Borg vessels floating through the cosmos. There are intriguing exhibitions here like “Is the War Over? Art in a Divided World (1945-1968)” but we have pretty much run out of time and concentration – down to our last hours in Madrid – to do them justice. I slow down for a long moment to watch a Moholy-Nagy “Lightplay” film that was like Malevich’s “Black Square” come to life. It was entrancing, and like all good art-video (a rare occurrence), it focuses on visual effects, and one can come upon it at any point in its duration. You don’t need two hours, a plush seat and popcorn to get it.

We end our time in Madrid with a trip to the upper deck of the Reina Sophia which is scary and vertigious, but has a great view,

And last but not least, more moon-over-Madrid.

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