Madrid Museums and The Great Deconstruction of Art

G-d Tetragrammaton

A friend and I went to Madrid over Christmas break with the intention of visiting the city's impressive collection of museums. We visited the Prado, the Thyssen, the CaixaForum, the Sorolla Museum, the Palacio de Velazquez, the Palacio de Cristal, and also the outdoor Temple of Debod, which was given to Spain by Egypt in appreciation for Spain's helping to save Abu Simbel from the flooding of Nubia to form Lake Nasser, at the same time the Met in New York was given the Temple of Dendur.

Temple of Debod

We were looking forward to seeing Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights and the countless other art treasures held in the Spanish capital's world-famous museums. I expected the Bosch masterpiece to be displayed prominently on some sort of stage set-up, but it was located around several bends in the Prado's interior maze of corridors and rooms, humbly placed behind a wall. It's almost possible to walk right into the triptych - which is placed right at eye level. 

Hieronymus BoschThe Garden of Earthly Delights

Two paintings at the Prado fascinated me. The first, entitled Portrait of a Humanist (Retrato de un Humanista), hosts an enticing interplay between its ostensible subject - a man (presumably the humanist in the title) holding his fingers in what I interpret to be a 'measure' mudra - probably an allusion to some sort of alchemical, proto-scientific, builders' craft - basically proto-Freemasonry -- and what in every way appears to be the Tower of Babel, though it is not entirely devoid of Solomonic elements. Even more intriguing is what very well may be the body of a man being raised as was Hiram Abiff according to Freemasonic legend - two figures are pointing to what appears to be two other figures, one raising and one being raised.

Attributed to Jan van Scorel
Portrait of a Humanist
c. 1540
Oil on panel

The second painting that fascinated me was one entitled The Vision of Saint Peter Nolasco (Vision de san Pedro Nolasco) by Francisco de Zurbaran. In the vision presented to Saint Peter by the visiting angel is depicted what could be the reestablished Temple of Solomon. In any case, it is definitely a depiction of Heavenly Jerusalem, as is stated in painting's museum placard.

Francisco de Zurbaran
The Vision of Saint Peter Nolasco
Oil on canvas. Signed

Francisco de Zurbaran
The Vision of Saint Peter Nolasco (detail)
Oil on canvas. Signed

In the above detail of The Vision of Saint Peter Nolasco can be seen what may be a Knights Templar holy building, or an interpretation of the Holy of Holies of King Solomon's Temple. Pilgrims can be seen ascending the ramps into the openings to the city of Jerusalem. It's fascinating to think that this was a kind of art produced to be seen only in the cloistered environs of the Mercedarian monastery. 

Navigating through the Prado became a bit of a task. Stairways always seem to be just around the corner, but rarely manifest. Despite my being fluent in Spanish I couldn't make heads nor tails of the museum's layout. The city of Madrid itself, on the other hand, is a well planned European city of the highest quality. It radiates out from the Puerta del Sol in a sunburst of sacred geometry (see photo below).

Map showing Madrid's Puerta del Sol sunburst street design -centre photo

Moving on to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemista, we were lucky to find an exhibition dedicate to American Impressionism - a facet of the Impressionist movement to which we had never been exposed. Featured prominently were early works by John Singer Sargent - who I consider to be the greatest painter to have ever lived. I was not aware just how involved he had become - early in his career - with the Impressionist movement. One painting which stood out was Sargent's in situ impression of Monet painting on the edge of a forest. It looked so incredibly fresh that I could imagine myself looking up from the painting and seeing its subjects living in front of me!

Exploring the Thyssen further, I was very happy to stumble upon a Martin Johnson Heade painting similar to one I'd photographed the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. It was called Orchid and Hummingbird near a Mountain Waterfall. Martin Johnson Heade was a member of the Hudson School of painters, and painted exotic scenes inspired by pan-American flora and fauna - usually shown in beautiful faux-Amazonian atmospheres. I find his paintings very inspiring because their beauty somehow defies any accusations of being kitsch, despite their somewhat naive style (I disagree with the label 'naive', but use it here advisedly in reference to a hypothetical supposition that Heade's style might have been kitsch).

Martin Johnson Heade
Orchid and Hummingbird near a Mountain Waterfall
Oil on linen

The Deconstruction of Art



After seeing ads for contemporary art exhibitions being shown at the Reina Sofia (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia), I must confess I was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of going to see current conceptual non-art works (non-art in my opinion). I'd had a bad experience visiting the Astrup Fearnley art museum in Oslo, Norway, last year where I saw what was literally garbage art (see image), which was not shocking or engaging - rather it was just a waste of time and money.

My friend wanted to visit the Reina Sofia so I went along wearily. What we found was a mixed bag. The Reina Sofia turned out to be a treasure trove of Surrealist art. It also has a smattering of Picassos on display - including his so-called masterpiece Guernica - which I found dull and pointless, despite its status as a proto-globalist altarpiece which supposedly bemoans the atrocities of war. But I digress. What the Reina Sofia offered me was a living chronicle of the dismantling of art which happened primarily in Spain or amongst Spanish artist in Paris. From Picasso's early verisimilar, moderately skilled works to Dali's acutely executed surrealist dreamscapes - the former hospital corridors of the museum took me on a journey of discovery of new knowledge. 

Salvador Dali
The Great Masturbator
Oil on canvas

Still from Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou

I discovered that there had been a natural or artificial, deliberate or accidental, planned or serendipitous dismantling of art in France and Spain in the early decades of the twentieth century. Art had gone from figurative and beauty-focused, to chaotic, abstract, and disturbing. "What had changed?" I wondered. I believe it is a phenomenon instilled with both nature and nurture. A path can be traced through the progression from Cezanne's reductive colour work and the impressionists' course brush strokes to Picasso's cubisation of figures and further through to the surrealists utter demolition of naturalistic subject matter. My question upon leaving the Reina Sofia was: Was this deconstruction by design?