Our introduction to Madrid would, I imagine, have a lot in common with the experiences of others who down through the ages have come from quiet countryside and little town for a taste of the metropolis. In the first week of January the city is cold, but crisp and pleasant. It’s a holiday week and Sol, the central square, is crowded with tourists. The melee at nearby San Miguel market, a food destination, is insane and deeply unpleasant. If this place is ever reasonably quiet – merely bustling, say – we’ll come back then. The food looks good.
We dive into what looks like a deliciously kitsch Andaluz bar on the Plaza Mayor – the walls are lined with photos of corrida related gore and bulls’ heads. When we order a glass of wine and a small beer they put a tasty little arroz in front of us and an equally tasty broth of jamon. I begin to relax. Then they manage to upsell us a ración of boquerones fritos.
Then they charge us 19.50 for it.
You can take the one off the beginning of that price and subtract a further two for the going rate in our neck of the woods. Also, it looks like a media to us.
Welcome to the big city, bozos.
It has its upsides though. We wander the Reina Sofia, an impressive collection housed in a huge, stately building near the Atocha railway station. They are running a 30’s exhibition which means a few of my favourites are up. There are Picassos everywhere we turn. You could probably blow your nose with a Miró around here and nobody would miss it. We also see Gris, Braque, Klee and Kandinsky.
I’m pleased they allow non-flash photography because galleries have become a favourite of mine. I pay much less attention to the art on display than I imagine I’m supposed to, instead thieving pictures of people looking at pictures, taking photographs of photographers taking photographs of paintings.
The Reina Sofia is home to Picasso’s great Guernica, the artist’s response to Hitler‘s bombing of a civilian population in the town of the same name, at Franco’s request, that resulted in around two thousand innocent lives lost. The work itself is greyer than reproductions I’ve seen – a kind of gunmetal blue discernible here and there but basically devoid of colour. As is usual with paintings that have been singled out for special attention, there are silly queues and crowds blocking the view and the whole experience is a bit of a farce. It isn’t as if it’s Picasso’s best – the war connection and the chord struck by both the event itself and this commemoration of it with the Spanish public have made it famous. Good to see it though.
It’s one of the few salons where photography is strictly not allowed, to the point where, upon my attempting – in the next room, mind you – to take a picture of the queue with just a little of the painting peeking over the top, a security woman launches herself in front of my lens as though she were taking a bullet.
Upstairs, we meander through some installations: the kind that have you wondering whether you’re an idiot, or an old fogey. And yet my dismissal of so much of this guff is an increasingly confident one – I feel fine about bypassing art that isn’t meant for people, but for art students. Work that relies for its validation on some mysterious matrix of knowing references. A gnostic cabal of artists against the world. But great artists have always been for the world haven’t they? And in it? And of it? Anyway, why should we need our artists to be particularly knowing about art, or our writers about literature?
One of the installations involves some live tropical birds. A plaque assures the public that the poor things have access to excellent veterinary care. I don’t bother to memorise the name although I imagine that being exhibited here, the artist has considerable caché. At the end of the day though, he or she has still chosen to put some winged creatures in a cage so as well as an artist, he or she would appear to be an asshole.
We stroll northwards through the Retiro, Madrid’s pleasure park, and K spots some luckier birds, pecking around on the ground and flitting up and down between it and the lower branches. They’re an incredibly vivid green and we’re sure we’ve never seen anything like them. The gallery was busy and we’re glad of the peaceful space, but when we reach the Puerta de Alcalá at the park’s northern end and walk around it to the beginning of Calle de Serrano, the rows of designer boutiques – everyone from Serge l’Idiote to Marie Vacuité – are enough to induce a near panic attack in yours truly.
I suppose it may be because I have precious little money or perhaps because, as K will confirm, I am a style vacuum, but this is not my comfort zone. Everything I hate/resent/am intimidated by/hold in contempt/object to (pick your verb) has, in Madrid, been put on this street. Ostentatious wealth prowls up and down in fur coat and fine jewellery. Hair of the most enormous proportions. Dizzying surpluses of self-importance.
Do not wear sunglasses here unless Versace is emblazoned on the side of them in precious stones. One is only permitted to look at one’s fellow human beings if one does it down one’s nose, and wearing that unmistakable snarl that comes of too much praying at the Golden Calf – the cruel curl of the upper lip, the you-might-think-I’ve-had-a-stroke-but-actually-I-just-despise-you droop of the lower.
I always get like this in the city – opinionated and cranky and enjoying every minute of it. The following day we go to El Prado. It is of course one of the great world galleries but it loses points with me straight away because they won’t let me take pictures. I suppose I’ll have to look at the paintings then. If I’d known I’d be doing that I’d have brought my glasses.
All the big acts are here – Titian and Carravagio and Rubens and whatever. There’s almost too much. I find my eyes wandering over the paintings in a daze. The main men around here though, without a doubt, are Velázquez and Goya. We saunter through the salons and the former comes first. I try to take a respectful interest but if I’m honest I’m not really in the mood. I shrug my way past Rubens and yawn through the El Greco rooms.
But Goya wipes the smirk off my face. His royal portraits entrance me. The insight in his painting of faces and their expressions. Above all though, the black paintings – dark and grotesque works painted in his later years and perhaps even by his son, Javier, they are astoundingly modern, and none more so than The Dog, at the end of the room. It’s a painting with precious little in it, at which I can’t stop looking.
From the crush of San Miguel and the craziness of the shopping streets to this – stillness.