Wednesday 11 March 2009: gallery-day 3: del prado
The Prado started off well, after an entertaining journey around three of the entrances until we got to one prepared to sell us tickets after which we then had to go round to the actual entrance, get scanned and (irritatingly) surrender our bottles of water. Still reasonably early in the morning despite the delay, we ended up starting in the 16th Century Dutch portraiture section. Lots and lots of 16th Century Dutch portraits but all very good ones which actually looked like real people, albeit people mostly dressed in black against a dark background and wearing odd forms of uncomfortable-looking starched and frilled bonnet. Unfortunately, even in the first few rooms it soon drifted into 16th Century Dutch Picture of the Baby Jesus. Previous galleries' pictures exhibited certain tendencies to somewhat manipulate the appearance of babyhood in pictures of the Baby Jesus, and Marinus van Reymerswaela (at least, so my scribbled notes indicate... I'll try and remember to check when next online) in his Virgin of the Milk has taken things in a more unsettlingly odd than usual sort of direction by portraying the infant Jesus with lots of spare folds of skin all over His body, a bit like one of those wrong-looking dogs you see pictures of people holding up by the skin to stretch them out.
One of the big hitters is obviously the Garden of Earthly Delights; it probably took me no more than a couple of seconds to work out that the sign in the previous room indicating the contents of the next to be "El Bosco" meant Bosch and as this was one of the pictures my dad had mildly raved about after his visit I'd had a couple of pokes at it online beforehand by way of research. Hmmm.... sticking your head up the arse of a giant owl? Not a form of sexual pleasure I'd heard of before, but at least the audioguide contains new and interesting information about the pictures even if it then goes on to refer to another Bosch triptych that I can't see anywhere in the room. There was a diptych nearby but the contents bore no relation to the description given in reference to the painting in that position, though looking for an absent detail is as good a way of carefully inspecting every feature as any other. Also on the popular subject of people dying unpleasantly is Triumph of Death by Breughel (the Elder). Wonder if anyone pointed out to him at the time that he'd perhaps been a little bit heavy-handed with the symbology, though the room after room of mostly religious paintings in the following rooms were all a bit symbologicallerful-than-though. The Baby Jesus draped with beads and holding a thistle? It seems a bit philisitinic to dismiss a subject which could occupy several lifetimes' dedicated scholarship but it annoys me when a reasonably good painting can be minced by the artist dwelling too much on who should be holding what, in which manner (and pointing at what other thing elsewhere in the image) and why. In a gallery-bit attached to a monastery in Cyprus there were endless pictures of endless unidentifiable (and mostly identical) bearded saints that the discerning conoisseur of pictures of bearded saints would have been able to identify instantly from the various things they were holding... bells, variuos plants, obscure decorated metal things and so on. Whilst the note-cards explained which saint was which based on their accoutrements, dress or length and colour of beard nothing gave any explanation as to what the strange hand-gesture almost every painting depicted the subject performing with the hand not holding a lizard, butter-knife or twig. Right thumb and ring finger touching, index and middle fingers crossed in a clearly physically-impossible manner (unless, due to poor diets, index fingers were capable of bending sideways in those days) and the little finger poking elegantly out. The obvious assumption is that it's some sort of representation of a cross or a sign to ward off some sort of devil or something and it wasn't until today that I discovered the sign to be the sign of administration of blessing, assuming the slightly different version described in the Prado (didn't make a note of the precise picture) was a regional variation as didn't have the thumb and ring finger touching.
"Gessaert (maybe.. quite scribbly) may have practised these techniques (using light to enhance volume) during his trip to Italy as part of the entourage of Philip of Burgundy, the Bastard."
Why would someone want to use a picture of Jesus bleeding profusely from the head after being crownèd with thorns as an aid to meditation? A bit different from modern techniques of imagining onesself on a mountain-top or a beach.
Now that I know what the weird hand-symbols in lots of religious paintings mean I ought to try and find out what INRI on the little sign above the partially-crucified Jesis's head actually means. I presume/recall the gist to be "here dangles the alleged Jesus of Nazareth (the place, not the band), alleged king of the Jews" or somesuch with Iesus instead of Jesus but what are the actual four words which achieve this? (Re-typing in internet-world, so I'll do it now: IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDÆORVM. Thanks, Wikipedia. THIKIPEDIA.) Still with Jesus (as is much of the gallery, sadly) it's the first time I've seen a painting dedicated to the removal of His most holy prepuce, albeit only as one panel of a triptych. I wonder how large the Frankensteinian foreskin formed by sewing together (though possibly not attempting to animate using the power of lightening) all the Christ's Foreskins from all the world's reliquaries would be? There are a couple of lines I can't make out enough to do anything with before "someone should persuade Gunther von Hagens to make a real centaur, though joining the two spinal columns might be tricky without making some fake intermediate vertebrae"; there mist have been a picture of a centaur in there somewhere. Finally (for a brief change) the pictures of Jesus dried up and segued into pictures of other biblical personages such as Moses, though again featuring many generic blokes-with-big-beards whose identification is apparently possible by the various things held in their hands, unless they're depicted doing something obvious like parting the red sea, preparing to kill their first-born son or doing something ark-related. I'd never heard of this Tobias bloke before... healing blindness with the application of the contents of a fish's gall bladder? It might sting a bit but I doubt it would restore sight. If only all modern alternative therapies were as stupid it might put people off them, though if all alternative therapies insisted on using bits of animals that can only be extracted by causing the death of the animal the world would be in a much worse state than it is already. Waving crystals over someone's head or twisting their spine might be utterly useless bollocks but at least it's not killing rhinoceroses to powder their horns for some obscure unsupported reason. Yes, practitioners of Chinese tradtional medicine, I do mean you.
There was also a depiction of a rather podgier-than-normal Narcissus; self-love is evidently in the eye of the beholder. The Reine Sofia was definitely better... more of everything, less of the same wallsful-of-16/17c religious-stuff. It's all the same religion, too; a bit of variety would have been better, though this is good as it illustrates the wild variety of meaning and options of interpretation available. It would hopefully make anyone subscribing to the depicted religion think twice about trusting decriptions in their Book just in case it suffered any artistic interpretation or cultural bias/tweaking/censorship on its way to the printed page.
At the sound end of the ground floor there were a few bits of scultpure to break up the increasing monotony of the painting style with a small basement gallery full of highly-ornamented glass, silver and other table-ware which managed to be monotonous all by itself. You don't see chalices topped with enamelled snails every day, though. The gift shops should sell recreations of that sort of thing. More facts from the information cards and audioguide: An ephebus was a generic male youth, which explains Terry Pratchett's made-up but evidently somewhat Greekish state Ephebe in Small Gods. The official name for the Relaxed Lean is apparently the Praxithelean Curve by Praxiteles.
By the 19th room on the first floor I'd given up reading most of the labels; one can definitely have far too much anguished-face saintery. At least the religious stuff finally fizzled mostly out to make way for some Reubens (you can see what he was trying to do, but he mostly made woman look like old pink grannies) and Velásquez (including that one with the princesses and the dwarf where he's painted himself into the picture at his easel), unfortunately hung in a crowded elliptical room where every sound made by every bawling child was reflected back from every surface several times meaning it too several attempts to listen to any thirty-second section of audioguide and making me think seriously about popping back to the apartment for my earbuds rather than trying to jam the speaker of the guide harder against my ear with one hand and sticking a finger of the other in my other ear.
What were the pre-Raphaelites known as at the time? Maybe the audioguide mentioned this at some point but even retreating to a quiter room to attempt to listen to it stopped working as tour groups seemed to be everywhere at once. I'd never heard of Murillo before. He apparently painted lots of Baby Jesuses. Lots. LOTS. A fair few Holy Sheeps, too. Perhaps even FAR TOO MANY. Likewise Maino, though at least they had an interesting style.
If the first and second floors had a tagline then "easy with the Goya" would have suited. It starts out well, with a couple of war-based pictures; gloomy, but with good lighting, especially on the legs. The south end of the first floor is filled with Goya with a couple of other-person tributes but there is some variety of style, subject and quality. Fortunately there were no crowds of shouting childs, though there was a youth-group having the Nakèd and Clothèd Majas explained to them by a bloke with an extraordinarily loud voice for the space and amount of people involved. A sub-gallery on the second floor is also devoted to Goya but only to a number of frieze-type paintings which originally adorned the inside of a house. It must have been quite a tedious house to live in. It was all clouds, cherubs, pink drapey things and so on. Any statistic quoting the number of artworks on display in the gallery should really give the Goyan percentage.
The moral of the story is: if you're in Madrid and get the three-gallery multiticket, go to the Prado first so that it's not a disappointingly tedious final day. Then again, going to it first might spoil the Reina Sofía. Perhaps go to the Prado first but leave a day or so of gap before the Thyssen-Bornemisza and again between that and the Reina Sofía. You wouldn't want to leave the Reina Sofía until your last day, though, just in case you want to go back to it for another day. Also, depending on the length of stay the various shutting-days might affect the order in which you can visit. Also, take a pair of decent 3.5mm-plug earbud noise-blocking headphones with you for the audio-guide (or just some foamy earplugs if you want to wander round in peace but they're handy for any gallery or museum) and don't bother trying to take a bottle of water unless you want to have to leave it in the cloakroom.