La Ciudad

In Practice, Presentation on January 5, 2013 at 4:21 pm

La Ciudad

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.


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  1. I keep feeling that I ought to go to Madrid but my natural (and IMO healthy) fear of cities still prevents me. Thanks for the heads-up on photography restrictions in the galleries, worth knowing!

    • I love cities Sue but when you live in one you tend to get into your own little rat runs and routines – as a visitor who wants to see and do as much as possible it can be exhausting!

  2. Few cities frustrate me like Madrid, Robin. To the extent I have no plans, immediate or otherwise, to return. You, however, seem to get a kick out of the city’s tendency to irritate its visitors.

    • We had five days there Matthew and by day three the pleasure had begun to heavily outweigh the pain. It was a shock to the system though. None of the gentle strolls we’ve enjoyed in places like Seville and Granada. And it was a mental week because of the sales…

  3. I love posts like these, Robin, as they tell me what’s happening in the city, but remind me why I don’t live there! Like Sue, I’m not a big city person (any more). The only reasons to go there, in my opinion, are (non rip-off) foreign gastronomy and serious art galleries. Your view of the artists was most entertaining, as ever. I last went to the Prado 15 years ago, and you’ve given me the urge to revisit the Goyas! Spanish Sabores is a great Madrid foodie blog, and Lauren has eating out tips.

  4. Love your line about the security guard launching herself at your lens as though she were taking a bullet! I enjoy an occasional visit to ‘the smoke’, it adds spice to a campo gal’s life and is a good excuse to dress up. Last time I was at The Prado I spent a full 15 minutes studying the Bosch triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights (my favourite). Also went to a disco in a palace near Plaza Mayor, enjoyed it so much can’t remember its name!

  5. It’s a shocking piece of art, especially for its time but really for any time. Yes, Bosch will keep you standing there alright. You should have seen her, Belinda, leaping in front of me almost horizontally and flailing her arms about – it was a little undignified if you ask me and I think she expected me to feel bad, but I didn’t, so there.

  6. What a pleasure to read a well written article. I used to live in Madrid, years before I ever settled in Barcelona, and there are times I miss it. Especially the joy of seeing pure Castilian on street signs and shop fronts, without having to translate a foreign language into another foreign language first. Goya was always my favourite metro station and the memory of Saturdays spent strolling through the Reina Sofía modern art museum still gladdens the heart.

  7. Thanks so much Julie!

  8. I was grinning away at the caricature you paint of Madrid, especially the pijo-ness radiating from Goya storefronts. (I believe you about the way over-priced Plaza Mayor food, though, I’m sure that was no exaggeration.)

    We went to see the 30’s exhibit in the Reina Sofia and enjoyed it, as well! There was another temporary exhibit I didn’t enjoy at all which had to do with paintings of dogs–did you see it? I wonder if the animal theme is meant to reflect those frenzied holiday/rebajas shoppers in Gran Via…

    • Yes, Gran Via was mental wasn’t it, as were all the pedestrian shopping streets No , no exaggeration at all. 19.50 it was. I saw the dog thing, have a few shots of the people in there but the work didn’t do much for me.

  9. Hahaha – this reminded me so much of myself…the part about taking pictures of people taking pictures and looking at art in the galleries and the part about being cranky in the city. I was just in NYC where I used to live and I get so grumpy when I’m there – I’m totally one of those hostile New Yorkers people talk about (even though I’m not a New Yorker). It’s the caricatures and stereotypes that get me…and you know if one of those people moved away there would be another just like him to fill the shoes. Plus the tiny kitchens…

  10. Dublin tends to have tiny kitchens too, at least in the newer apartment blocks. Cities are just very stimulaiing I think and that brings the bad with the good, not to mention the over-stimulating…

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