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Madrid's Golden Museum Triangle

Mention the Golden Triangle in Los Angeles and they’ll think swanky shops in Beverly Hills. But say it in Madrid, and the three museums in the heart of the city will immediately come to mind. Collectively the Prado, Thyssen Bornemisza and Reina Sofia house perhaps the greatest collection of western art in the world, and they sit just  minutes from one another.  The Prado is virtually across the street from the Thyssen Bornemsiza; the Reina Sofia is a mere ten minute walk from the other two along the Paseo de la Castellana, the broad, leafy boulevard that cuts a swath through this historic city. In the week we spent in Madrid, we visited each several times yet felt we had barely “scratched the surface” – so much is there to see.

Named for the popular queen, the Reina Sofia which officially opened in 1992 is Spain’s national museum of modern art.  Its permanent collection traces the evolution of twentieth century Spanish art both in an international context and in relation to the nation’s own history.  Separate rooms are devoted to towering contemporary figures like Solana, Picasso, Juan Gris, Miro, Dali, Tapies, and Arroyo; there is wide representation of international contemporary art as well.

Court in front of Reina Sofia - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Court in front of Reina Sofia
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

A large and largely unadorned four-story building near the railroad station, the Reina Sofia was once a hospital. Remains of patients buried on the hospital grounds were discovered during construction. It is a gray place of thick stone walls and floors set back from a vast and plain plaza. Only the garden in a central court alleviates an overall impression of starkness. Yet its very austerity provides a fitting setting for the often somber and tortured moods of modern art.  Two glass elevators that hug the façade provide panoramic city views from the upper floors while adding a jarring surrealistic note.
On a weekday winter afternoon, the museum was filled with people of all ages and nationalities. The biggest crowds surrounded “Guernica,” Picasso’s searing anti-war masterpiece the artist created in the wake of  a daylight Nazi attack on civilians in the Basque city’s marketplace. The bombing was ordered by Hitler to demonstrate his alliance with Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  After appearing in the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, the “Guernica”  was brought to the Modern Museum of Art in New York. It remained there until after Franco died and Spain became a democracy. 

Exterior Reina Sofia - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Exterior Reina Sofia
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

In 1993, the mural found its permanent and rightful home in the Reina Sofia. Well guarded but thankfully undistorted by the presence of a glass cover, it remains a powerful, wrenching expression of the agonies of war, universal in its appeal and at the same time particular to a bitter and tragic time in Spanish history.

One of the temporary exhibitions at the time of our visit was a collection of seventy Picasso drawings involving the minotaur, the half bull-half man creature that so absorbed the artist. Some are little studies for “Guernica” – one dated May 1, 1937, another May 20, 1937 – an interesting insight into the artistic processes that preceded the final creation.

When the Thyssen Bornemisza opened the same year that the Reina Sofia was inaugurated, Madrid’s Golden Art Triangle was complete.  This collection of over 800 works of art includes more than a few masterpieces and complements the Prado and Reina Sofia by filling in realms largely absent from these museums. When word got out that the Thyssen-Bornemisza family was going to allow its private collection -- the second largest in the world -- to be publicly shown, cities throughout Europe  clamored for the privilege that was ultimately bestowed on Madrid, originally for a period of nine and a half years. The Spanish state has since purchased the paintings, sculptures and artifacts which are installed in the beautiful 18th century Villahermosa Palace. Its neo-classical façade remains intact; its interior, however, has been modernized and remodeled to accommodate the works arranged in such a way that the visitor is guided through a history of western art that begins in the middle ages and concludes at the present.

You begin your tour on the second floor, walking from room to room around a court open to the floor below following the artistic experience from the late 13th century through the Renaissance, the Baroque period, and up to the 18th century.  As you view paintings from Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain in roughly chronological order, it becomes apparent how perspective, technology, and concepts of what constituted appropriate subject matter evolved. You then descend to the first floor of the apricot-colored interior where 17th century Dutch scenes of everyday life reveal new artistic pre-occupations and new means of rendering. 

Goya Entrance to Prado - Photo by harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Goya Entrance to Prado
Photo by harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

Prado Interior - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Prado Interior
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

From there you move along to the easy-to-love Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the Surrealists, Expressionists, and onto late twentieth century art. Every school you can think of seems to be represented in this staggering collection from Italian and Flemish Primitives to German Expressionists, and nearly every artist as well, from van Eyck to Van Gogh, from Caravaggio to Kandinsky, from Rubens to Rothko.

The third leg of the Golden Triangle is the incomparable Prado, inspired by the opening of the Louvre in Paris late in the 18th century. 

Charles III originally planned it to be a museum of natural history, but construction was halted at the end of his reign and begun again by Ferdinand II who envisioned a repository for paintings from the royal collection. When the Prado opened in 1819, it was chiefly a place of learning for students of fine arts and open to the public only one day a week.  But this changed after the revolution of 1868 when the Royal Museum became the National Painting and Sculpture Museum with extensive hours for public viewing.

The Prado closed down during the years of the Spanish Civil War, its paintings sent to Valencia, then Gerona, and finally Geneva where they remained until the start of the Second World War. After the war, the museum's popularity surged.

View of Prado from the Ritz - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
View of Prado from the Ritz
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

Prado Valesquez Enterance - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Prado Valesquez Enterance
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

Where can one begin to speak of the Prado? They say the holdings are so voluminous, only 10% of them are shown at any given time.  There are the great collections from the Flemish School including Bosch and Rubens, the Dutch school including Rembrandt, the many, many works from the French, German and English schools, the classical and renaissance sculpture, and the most complete collection of Spanish paintings anywhere.  Here are the masterpieces of El Greco  --"a window into the Spanish soul," an acquaintance observed; Murillo with his host of enchanting angels; Valesquez whose complex court portrait of the artist painting the infanta and her attendees consistently draws the largest crowds; and Goya, the artist we are drawn to more than any other.

Several years ago we saw the black Goyas in the basement of the Prado. Now they have been moved up to three rooms on the first floor (there is talk of creating a separate Goya wing). While it seemed more fitting to see these disturbing, grotesque and eerily contemporary-looking paintings hanging on black walls below ground, their present location provides a fitting conclusion to the permanent Goya collection which begins on the second floor with the gorgeous "cartoons" that served as models for royal tapestries and are, for the most part, fanciful pastoral and street scenes in a French rococo mood.  The contrast between these two series is indicative of Goya’s enormous range. But even in the cartoons, the artist's  humanitarian impulses emerge in a number of works which depict suffering from cold, hunger, and injury. The Prado's 150 paintings by Goya include religious subjects, portraits of the nobility and military, ministers, artist friends, even a self portrait. There are the enigmatic and crowd-pleasing Maja portraits, one clothed, the other naked. The mystery of her identity has never been solved, but the appeal of this imperfect yet alluring woman has not diminished in the two centuries she has been exhibited.

The Prado also has 500 Goya drawings and etchings which are displayed in temporary exhibitions. We saw "The Disasters of War," a series of astonishingly modern and deeply moving prints depicting the horrors of the Independence War between 1808 and 1814. Where his contemporaries created propagandistic and commemorative works, Goya saw and depicted war in all its misery, brutality and stupidity.

In its nearly two hundred years of existence, the Prado has gone through many expansions and renovations including the ongoing one which will add a new sub-ground level. But the exterior remains the same lovely classical palace in pink and gray. Its southern entrance opening on to the Botanical Gardens is named for Murillo. Its western entrance facing the Paseo de la Castellana is named for Valesquez.  And its northern and most used entrance across the way from the Ritz Hotel is named for Goya.

A kind of museum unto itself, the Ritz was the inspiration of King Alfonso XIII who returned from his European journeys with an idea for a hotel in Madrid that would equal the Ritz in Paris or the Carlton in London. When it opened in 1910 with the King and members of the Royal family in attendance, the Ritz had four bathrooms on each floor, the latest luxury in hotel accommodations.

Today the Ritz is a member of the Park Meridian chain and 21st-century all the way – except for the fanciful and towered Beaux Arts exterior, the circular marble lobby with its ornate plaster ceiling, the elaborate public room where people have afternoon tea to the accompaniment of a harpist.  These have not changed.  Nor has the spaciousness and luxury of the 150 rooms and 10 suites that once housed guests who traveled with trunks and servants.  Each is unique, still opened by a huge old-fashioned key, and carpeted in rugs of exquisite design. A carpet restorer is a permanent member of the hotel staff.  No employee has more permanence, however, than first concierge Senor Castun. He’s been at the Ritz for fifty years. “The hotel may look very grand,” he told us, “but the atmosphere is very comfortable. Our guests feel close to us, and that is the most important thing."

This was not our first trip to Spain, but it was the first time we flew Air Europa.

Hopefully it won’t be the last. Spain's leading independent airline was far more comfortable and spacious than “big name” airlines. The Air Europa staff went out of its way to see to the comfort of every passenger.

P del Prado s/n. 28014
Madrid, Spain 

c/o Ruiz de Alarcón
23. 28014
Madrid, Spain

Phone: (91) 330 28 00. 330 29 00
Fax: (91) 330 28 56 ...

Thyssen Bornemisza Museum
Paseo del Prado
8 (Villahermosa Palace)

Phone: 91 369 01

51 Metro: 

Banco de España / Sevilla Zone:

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Santa Isabel 52, 28012
Madrid, Spain

Phone: 34-1-467-50-62
Fax: 34-1-467-31-63  

Photos by Harvey Frommer

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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