Modern Art in Madrid: The Charms of the Reina Sofia

Modern Art in Madrid: The Charms of the Reina Sofia

During my recent trip to Spain, I visited several major art collections in Madrid. Among these The Prado, or rather its new exhibition on the work of Hieronymus Bosch, I will be writing about for another publication. In the present essay however, I intend to touch upon why the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia has to be one of the most pleasant, civilized museums I have visited in quite some time. Should you find yourself in Madrid, the Reina Sofia is most definitely worth your time.

Architecturally speaking, the museum is a genuine pleasure to visit: a peaceful, spacious venue in which to quietly examine some major pieces of 20th century art. True, in front of some of the star works on display – Salvador Dalí’s Girl At A Window” (1925) for example – there was some significant crowding. However the cool, white galleries of the former 18thcentury hospital, which are connected by a cloister-like atrium, never feels claustrophobic or jumbled together. The objects are displayed at a reasonable distance from each other, allowing the visitor to circulate easily through galleries that are both self-contained and yet interconnected in a logical sequence.

The 2nd Floor of the Reina Sofia is a sort of encyclopedia of early to mid-20th century Spanish art, augmented here and there by representative examples of the works of non-Spanish artists. Because so many different artistic movements were afoot at roughly the same time, the idea of sticking to a strictly chronological order would have make little sense here. So even though there was a bit of jumping about on the timeline, the curators have nevertheless managed to create a kind of consistent, moving tableaux that tracks the development of Modern Art in Spain.

There are certainly major pieces of international renown in the collection, which require at least a look-see in order to tick the proverbial box. Going to the Reina Sofia without seeing “Guernica”, for example (a painting which admittedly I have never thought much of), is a bit like going to The Art Institute of Chicago and not seeing Georges Seurat’s “La Grande Jatte”. More interesting to me, frankly, are Picasso’s preparatory drawings and studies for the completed work.

However, what really brought my inner nerd joy was seeing old friends, and making new ones. On one wall hung a well-known genre scene by Ramon Casas, showing a young married couple enjoying the sun on the terrace of their newly-built apartment in the Eixample.  On another was an early Joan Miró landscape painting featuring a country house, with the strange, squiggly characters that later came to dominate his work on a monumental scale only just beginning to take shape. Here, too was one of Isidre Nonell’s arresting portraits of a gypsy from the streets, featuring the painter’s distinctively heavy, cross-hatching painting technique. And even with these old familiars, there were new-to-me works, by artists who deserve further study and appreciation.

In Couple On The Beach” (1922) for example, the Catalan artist Josep de Togores created an attractive image of two lovers, and indeed their primordial relationship with the Mediterranean from which they and their culture arose. It is fully expressive of the contemporary Noucentista movement in Catalan art and architecture, which called for the rejection of excessive decoration and fantasy  espoused by the previous generation, in favor of a return to simpler, solid forms inspired by Ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture. At the same time, in both its unusual composition and angularity, the painting recalls the beginnings of the Art Deco period.

In Togores’ work we see two figures entwined on a Mediterranean beach, their location indicated only by the sandy-colored foreground and strip of blue background for the sea. The eye is immediately drawn toward to the flesh of two people who clearly enjoy spending time outside. Prior to this period, having a suntan was associated with being a member of the laboring classes. With the dawn of the Jazz Age, the complicated coiffures, full beards, and deathly pallor that had been the aesthetic ideals of both the Victorians and Edwardians were replaced with bobbed hair, clean-shaven cheeks, and sun worship. From the standpoint of social anthropology, one could argue that Togores could not have painted this picture five years earlier.

It also bears noting that, despite the fact that these two figures are nude, this is an incredibly modest picture. Throughout much of its art history before the 20th century, few nudes of any note were painted in Spain, partly as a result of the Spanish Inquisition, and partly as a result of the rather upright and dignified Spanish character. Paradoxically, enormous paintings full of fleshy deities by Dutch and Italian artists such as Rubens and Titian had been collected and admired in Spain for many centuries. Thus, while a different European artist painting in the 1920’s might have felt free to create a more explicit image, here Togores evokes the sensuality of these nude lovers on the beach, in a way that does not come across as either graphic or gratuitous.    

In a completely different vein, the massive canvas Christ of the Blood” (1911) by the Basque painter Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945) deserves to be better known outside of Spain. Unlike Togores’ painting, this is not a pretty picture, but it is certainly an arresting one. The Corpus is a sickly thing, reminiscent of the work of late Medieval painters who focused on the more unpleasant, visceral aspects of Christ’s execution. Indeed, like in Matthias Grünewald’s work, here the cross is placed quite close to the ground, rather than as is usually the case, where the Crucified is raised high above the heads of the onlookers.

What really struck me when examining the picture was how much it seems to have in common with Salvador Dalí’s famous The Sacrament of the Last Supper” (1955) in the National Gallery of Art here in Washington.

For a start, the very heavy drapery of the kneeling figures in both paintings are related, at least conceptually. Both appear to be referencing much earlier works by Tenebrist painters such as Caravaggio and Zurbarán, particularly the latter’s series of portraits of Cistercian monks. Both also reference events that took place in the Bible in a contemporary, non-historical context, and in a different geographic location. The city in Zuloaga’s painting may remind us of the walled city of Jerusalem, but architecturally it bears a far greater resemblance to Castilian cities like Ávila or Toledo. Similarly in Dalí’s painting, the large windows of the dissolving room reveal that this scene is taking place not in the Cenacle, but rather somewhere along the rocky beaches of the Costa Brava in Catalonia. Thus both of these pictures are set, not in 1st century Judea, but rather in 20th century Spain.

Both paintings also give us clues that they are not attempting to portray events as described in Scripture, but rather the ongoing spiritual significance of those events for the contemporary Christian. Several of the figures in the Zuloaga painting for example, are shown carrying giant tapers, such as those commonly used in the famous Holy Week processions throughout Spain. This tells us that they have come to the foot of the Cross on a Good Friday pilgrimage, and that they represent the ordinary people of Spain, rather than Biblical personages such as Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. In the same way, the men gathered around the table in Dalí’s painting are not supposed to represent the Twelve Apostles, even though there are twelve of them. Rather, they are commemorating the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, and the semi-transparent figure of the Resurrected Christ appears as an evocation of the Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  

There is one significant difference to point out between the two, however, and that is in the way that each artist treats the human form. For Dalí, the figures are part of, but ultimately secondary to, the presence of Christ in the picture: His is the lone face we see clearly, while the rest are all matched pairs of idealized figures, rather than individuals. Zuloaga’s treatment of the figures in his painting on the other hand, is something else entirely. Here, the face of Jesus is hidden, and the people in the picture are all individuals, because each of them brings a different, personal perspective to meditating on Christ’s Passion.

Moreover in Zuloaga’s work, it is clear that these men are both the genetic and artistic descendants of those who appear in paintings of ordinary Spaniards throughout centuries of art, such as in Velázquez’ The Drunkards”. These figures are types, drawn though they may be from real life models in the artist’s studio, and they recur throughout Spanish art, literature, and drama. Perhaps of all the works I paused to reflect on at the Reina Sofia during this visit, this one seemed most in keeping with the long legacy of great Spanish art, particularly when it comes to the kind of humble piety and personal dignity even in poverty which, historically, was seen as definitive of the Spanish character.

These kinds of “discoveries” are what keep me coming back to museums like the Reina Sofia. Most of these institutions possess far more art than they can possibly display at once, or that the visitor can hope to appreciate in a single visit. Between the rotation of these works in the collection, and the exploring of different areas of the building on subsequent visits, the visitor to a truly great museum such as this always has the chance of coming across something new, interesting, and unexpected. While I may not like everything in its collection, in its important core holdings, interesting secondary works, and elegantly simple interior spaces, it is truly one of the world’s great centers for the study and appreciation of art.

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The Author, in front of "Christ of the Blood"

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