I began this post some days ago while sitting on my rented roof deck in Granada looking out over the Alhambra and listening in somewhat of a cliché to Rodrigo accompanied by the soft cooing of ring doves. Swifts abound here in the evening and sometimes a solitary Blackbird. Of reading, not much of any account. But of pictures? Well, I’m overwhelmed.
Last week, I visited the Prado twice, the Reina Sofia museum, and the Thyssen Museum and Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, The Escorial, El Greco’s House, The Cathedral in Toledo, and the Alhambra. Each visit deserves a full essay, but such, at the moment, is rather beyond my capability. Knowing my time was limited, I wandered the various galleries with no real purpose in mind other than to absorb overall impressions and to stop at works that attracted my attention. On the whole a rather haphazard exercise, perhaps, but I did make notes as I went.
And so . . . ? Well, of course, there are the Goyas and the El Grecos, and I will admit to a slight frisson on seeing Las Meninas in the flesh, as it were, but the personal highlights of the Prado for me were less academic and, I suppose, privately individual. One was the discovery of Sofinisba Anguissola, a female painter who was new to me. Then there was what for want of a better word I can think of only as a somewhat sentimental moment when I came face to face with Antonio Moro’s (Anthonis Mor’s) portrait of Mary Tudor, a portrait so familiar, so often seen as an illustration to history texts of the Tudor period. I was not expecting to see her, and she took me somewhat by surprise. Straight-backed, she looks you in the eye, the hint of a repressed smile, perhaps even of pride. She is a Tudor, after all. This is Mary, queen in her own right, believing herself vindicated, released from the trials of her youth, looking to a future that she does not know will leave her childless and her dreams of a Catholic England unfulfilled.
If I were to be allowed to take a picture from the Prado for myself, I’d actually choose Fortuny’s Hollyhocks as being a painting to be lived with rather than studied, which is not to say it isn’t open to analysis, but it is a painting that speaks to the private response. El Greco’s saints and Goya’s visions seem to be more public, didactic even. In Toledo, my friend and I commented on the similarity of El Greco’s saints. They seem all to have the same nose. It’s as if each picture is a representation of sanctity rather than the capturing of an individual.
Needless to say, the Reina Sofia elicited a very different mood. Here, I felt very much engaged with public, political art, and the highlight of the collection is Picasso’s Guernica. I have to admit I had imagined it larger than it is. Again, it is one of the works that is so familiar in reproduction that its actual self comes as perhaps something of an anti-climax.
Of the three Madrid museums, the one I enjoyed the most was the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Perhaps because it started life as a private collection, it seemed at times somewhat idiosyncratic, not quite coherent. One begins chronologically but then wanders into the new building and shifts time periods. It doesn’t matter.
Here, for me, the highlights were the De Witte interiors and the, I’m afraid to admit it, smugness in recognizing a Mondrian and the pleasure in finding a Rothko. Then there was the discovery of Louise Moillon, another female painter I haven’t, to my knowledge, met before. As you may know, if you’ve been reading this blog for some time, I’m rather fond of still life painting, particularly on black backgrounds. Moillon’s painting of plums and strawberries was intensely satisfying, yet also intriguing. Plums and strawberries tend not to ripen at the same time. But then, this conflation of fruits and flowers from different seasons is not unusual in still life painting.
However, I suspect if I were allowed to take a picture home from the Thyssen, it would be Emile Nolde’s Glowing Sunflowers because it, too, is a picture that could be lived with. Nolde’s sunflowers will never drop their petals or give up their seeds for oil. This is the paradox of art. Nolde’s sunflowers actually withered long ago and Moillon’s plums rotted or became prunes. They are gone. As are most of the people whose portraits hang on the walls of the Thyssen.
Pre-eminent among the portraits is Rembrandt by himself. One of over ninety self-portraits, this one dates from 1642 or 43. It’s often observed that perhaps no other painter has dealt so truthfully with the effects of time on himself, and in this portrait, Rembrandt reveals himself in mid-life. He looks out of the canvas straight at us, but there is something about the pale skin, the slight crease of a frown, and the hint of bags under his eyes suggestive of melancholy, and loss, and we remember that his wife Saskia died in 1642.
The Lucien Freud portraits are similarly evocative though different in execution. However, for me, it was the small portraits of unknown people that were ultimately the most moving. Take away the late mediaeval clothing, and one sees contemporary faces. One might know these people, see them in the street. Yet they are gone.
To see so much in so short a time is overwhelming. One makes the choice: to engage with a little in detail or with a lot superficially. This time I chose the latter option. In doing so, I set myself on a more emotional than intellectual enquiry, and for that I make no apology.
I began this post some days ago on the deck. I am finishing it downstairs listening to thunder rolling around the city. It hasn’t yet begun to rain heavily, but I suspect it might do soon. Tomorrow, our week in Granada over, we move on to Seville. I shall leave my thoughts about Al-Ándalus until another time.
The rain has begun.