Madrid is slowly but surely claiming its rightful place alongside Paris, London, Florence, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg and New York as a paradise for art lovers. Its Golden Triangle of three museums in the Paseo del Prado area covers the full gamut of Spanish (and global) art history, from the classics at the Museo Nacional del Prado to the eclectic mix of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza to the modern avant garde at the Centro Nacional de Arte Reina Sofía. Don’t try to see them all in one day — the museums are best savored as a slow gourmet meal of creativity.
Museo Nacional del Prado
The Museo Nacional del Prado (simply known as the Prado) is one of the world’s great art museums. But as recently as late 2007, it barely had enough space to show even a tiny portion of its more than 8,000 works of art. That year the museum converted its 237,000-square-foot former storage and restoration studios into exhibit space, creating a new wing. “The new wing freed up 25% of the space [not accessible to the public],” said Miguel Zugaza, the museum’s director. “We’re utilizing that space to show more pictures. Now there are 1,000 works on display, and, by 2012 when we’ve completed all the changes, there will be 1,400 to 1,500.”
Before the expansion, the Prado had been criticized for its lack of natural light, its poor displays and its lack of explanatory signage for foreign visitors. And beginning in 2009, the museum reorganized its displays to flow more logically.
“Two centuries ago when it was founded, this was one of the first modern museums,” said Zugaza. “We are now recovering that role.”
The Prado was commissioned by Spanish King Carlos III in 1785 and was originally supposed to be a natural science museum. It’s now known for housing masterpieces by three of Spain’s three great masters: Goya, Velázquez and El Greco.
Amid iconic works like “Las Meninas” by Velázquez and “The Holy Trinity” by El Greco, Goya’s disturbing oeuvre especially stands out. To show his fear of insanity and his view of humanity, the artist illustrated his home’s walls with horrific works known as “The Black Paintings.” When you walk into the Goya exhibit at the Prado, you feel like you are walking into his personal space: These paintings, among them the pivotal “Saturn Devouring His Son,” reveal an artist freeing himself from traditional confines. The works were never meant to be shown to the public. The images of cannibalism, witchcraft and warfare are stomach-churning yet darkly mesmerizing in their bold artistry.
The Prado now welcomes about 2 million visitors a year and is the anchor of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art. The two other museums that make up the triangle’s nearby corners are the Centro Nacional de Arte Reina Sofía (more commonly called the Museo Reina Sofia) and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is on the tree-lined Paseo del Prado just steps away from the Prado. The Thyssen is one of the city’s newer major art museums. It opened in 1992 with what had been the second-largest private art collection in the world (after the British Royal Collection): more than 1,600 works acquired by entrepreneur Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Among the many bidders, the Spanish government snatched up the estimated $1-billion collection for the bargain basement price of $350 million, thanks to Thyssen-Bornemisza’s fifth wife, a former Miss Spain named Carmen “Tita” Cervera, who lobbied her husband to keep the collection in Spain. The Baroness still advises on new acquisitions and even chose its salmon-pink interiors.
When you stroll through the bright and airy museum, you quickly recognize the quirks typical of private collections: Its eclectic array spans eight centuries and includes everything from Baroque to pop art. Leave yourself plenty of time to explore the two halls devoted to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, including many joyful works by Pissarro and several Renoirs, Monets, Degas, Van Goghs and Cézannes.
Centro Nacional de Arte Reina Sofía
The Centro Nacional de Arte Reina Sofía houses new art. This “MoMA of Madrid” is housed in what was an 18th-century hospital but now has glass elevators in front of its granite façade. A 2005 expansion added three adjoining buildings totaling 86,000 square feet, and a 2009 reorganization made the museum more modern as well. Emphasis is now placed on artistic movements and influences instead of individual artists. Cinema and photography take their rightful place in the evolution of art, with works by Goya juxtaposed with some of the earliest films ever shown, created by the French Lumière brothers in 1895.
Many visitors to Madrid head straight to the Museo Reina Sofia to gaze upon “Guernica,” the painting many critics call Picasso’s greatest masterpiece. This huge black-and-white painting is fiercely antiwar. It depicts the 1937 German bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, which had the blessing of the Spanish military general and later dictator Francisco Franco Bahamonde, commonly known as Franco.
Picasso said he would not allow the work to return to Spain until democracy was restored. Luckily, modern Madrid not only enjoys open elections but has in recent years been restored to one of the great art capitals of the world.
– Matthew Link, Brand Publishing Writer