Monday, February 20, 2006

A Visit to the Museo del Prado

Someone on one of the online art forums I frequent mentioned that he would like to see more about museums I've visited over the years. I'm not a big fan of the kind of museum writing I've seen in the past, but I do have some favorite museums and art works, so herewith is a first entry about one of my favorites, the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

I first visited the Prado in the early 1970s. I was in Madrid temporarily owing to military duty and had been reading Michener's massive nonfiction work, "Iberia," so I decided to visit the museum. The nucleus of the museum is the royal collections of paintings amassed by several Spanish kings, including Felipe II and Felipe IV (who was Velazquez' patron).

The museum was and is located near the old city on a pleasant boulevard of sycamores. In those days you entered on the end of the long axis, rather than in the middle of the long side (the way one does at say, the Met in NYC). Ascending the stone staircase, I turned right, into one of the side galleries, and there it was: "The Descent from the Cross" by Rogier van der Weyden. I was stupefied. I knew this painting! Unlike people who grow up in metropolitan and cosmopolitan places, I had never seen this caliber of work, until that moment. And even more fascinating was that I had studied this painting as an undergraduate. Here it was, larger than I had expected, brighter in color, too. Here was van der Weyden's clever and emotional composition, with the dreadfully sorrowful, fainting Virgin echoing the posture of her dead son as his body is being brought down from the cross and the awkwardly but perfectly posed mourning woman on the far right echoing both of them. I stood there, truly stunned, for a long long while. It still amazes me how something produced so long ago can speak to me across the gulf of centuries. That communication, that connection, is one of the essential experiences in art. And it happened to me that day. Long I stood and marvelled.

When I finally went farther into the museum, I found Heironymus Bosch's famous triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights," painted in the 16th century and a bit farther on the pair "Adam" and "Eve" by Albrecht Durer. All in the space of perhaps two galleries or three at most. Not far from the two figures was the penetrating self-portrait by Durer as well; all three were painted around the same time as the Bosch. Five masterpieces in only a few minutes, and I hadn't even seen a Goya or Velazquez yet! And make no mistake, I was there for Velazquez.

The Prado has Velazquez' works in profusion, of course, from early pieces like the "Forge of Vulcan" to his late masterpiece, "Las Meninas." I spent a lot of time with that Baroque master during my first visit, as I have every visit since. The best of Velazquez is here: portraits of kings, queens, royal children, nobles and commoners, studies of dwarves, wonderful genre works. Works like "Las Hilanderas" (The Spinners) and "Los Borrachos" (The Drunks or The Topers), and "Las Lanzas," which is also known as "The Surrender at Breda," show us Velazquez as the acute observer of humanity and history. These three and several others of similar type hang still in the same large gallery. The first time one enters a gallery of that size in a museum like this one is magical, but to see only paintings by Velazquez crowding all four walls was stupendous. One could spend the entire day in that single room. Velazquez was quite simply a genius and a true master.

But even in the profusion of masterworks in the Prado, one Velazquez that deserves special mention: "Las Meninas." Long regarded as Velazquez' crowning achievement, it was at that time I first saw it hanging in a small, separate gallery just off the main axis of the museum, facing a mirror of the same size. In those days, before the crush of tourists descended on Madrid (Franco was still in power), the museum was much less crowded. Today "Las Meninas" is mobbed and has been moved into one of the main galleries. Back then I had this luscious work all to myself.

"Las Meninas" has had other names. It was once called “La familia del SeƱor Rey Felipe Quarto” but after it came to the Prado it was catalogued as “Las Meninas”, which is actually a Portuguese word meaning Maids of Honour. But it's not really about portraiture. "Las Meninas" is a very large painting, perhaps ten feet vertically. As you stand looking into the painting you see Velazquez himself at the easel, facing you, working on a very big painting. To the right are little girls, one of whom is the Infanta (the princess daughter of the King and Queen), plus a couple of dwarves (Felipe had a number of them in his court; Velazquez painted several), and a dog drowsing at their feet. Behind is a nun and another courtier and behind those people a very large room falls away into dimness. Deeper in the huge room we make out very large paintings on the walls, peering out of the semi-gloom, hanging as high as the high ceilings. Even farther away is a light-filled doorway leading to a stair. A male courtier is just departing but has turned to look back at us. Next to the doorway, there is the faint reflection of the subjects who are posing for the painting that Velazquez is working on. And at that moment you realize his genius: the subjects are the King and Queen themselves, and we are standing in their place. The sudden recognition that we are the King and Queen, having our portraits painted, was a delightful shock that added much to the charm of the picture when I first saw it.

Turning to look at the work in the mirror just across the small room, I could see the perfection of Velazquez's draftsmanship and technique. The work is utterly flawless, the perspective and sense of space as awe-inspiring in reflection as on canvas.

Over the years, I have visited that one painting more often than any other I have seen, even in this most sublime of museums. Since then I've learned much, much more about the Prado and about art history, but my memory of those paintings I first saw there is indelible.

If people enjoy reading these, I'll post about other museums, some time in the future. And if you'd like to see "Las Meninas" and read more about Velazquez, follow this link:
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