Tuesday April 28
With two days left in Madrid, I wanted to pull the cork, tilt the city to my mouth, and gulp it all down. Fortunately, I have developed a few scruples and restraint. I set my greedy impulses aside and considered the time tactically. I wanted to revisit the Prado and wander, wide open, through those hallowed halls and I wanted to explore Fundación MAPFRE, located almost directly across the broad avenue from the Prado. Excellent! I could dedicate my time in the morning to FM and my afternoon to the Prado.
Another gift to myself was to seek out a well-reviewed restaurant. No more lackluster stops for fuel, I wanted the full-on Madrid midday meal experience. I planned to stop my art binge no sooner than 2:30, taxi to my chosen eatery and eat an extravagant and leisurely meal. Sure, I’d return to the Prado in a post-meal stupor, but it might help me settle down, let me focus my gaze in a deeper way. These final two days I didn’t want to hop around like a flea, frantic to sate my appetite for beauty, called away from one painting by the wink and shine of another in the corner of my eye.
With my plans made I ducked into Crusts, the café/bakery around the corner from the Orfila Hotel. I ordered a latte and croissant.
I took out one of my remaining postcards and drew the infanta Marianna of Austria on the back. It was a very pleasant and satisfying way to spend the time before the gallery opens.
When I asked for the check, a busboy nearby scowled and corrected me. “La cuenta,” he admonished in a loud, slow voice as if I was a recalcitrant and lazy student who only fails from lack of effort. He might be right.
I walked to MAPFRE with that heightened awareness of the mundane and the refrain ‘the last time, the last time’ humming below my skin. I threaded my way through clots of tourists, couples arm in arm (a frequent sight here), and men in suits, bent like herons over their phones as they thumbed texts.
I went to the wrong MAPFRE location first, but as long as I’d gone in and put my backpack in a locker, I took the elevator down to the photography exhibition, a retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work. The mirror and metal reflections of the elevator’s interior disoriented me. I took this elevator selfie, trying to identify the control panel through the phone screen.
The exhibition itself was similarly disorienting. MAPFRE’s comment summed it up for me; “During the chaotic 1960s, Winogrand photographed at numerous political demonstrations and his work came to express a sense of national disintegration.” The titles were the geographic locations and the year.*
Fairly quickly I had enough of bleakness and walked over a block to the next MAPFRE outpost to see exhibition done in conjunction with the Musée d’Orsay, Swan Song.
Don’t I know you? was the first thing I thought when I saw Gustave Doré‘s Defeated. Yes, in Paris last year. It stopped me then, and it pulled my eye again, here in Madrid. The sense of numbed despair, the way the world and ephemeral beauty spin on, oblivious.
Another work that fascinated me was a slain Able, Cain’s doomed brother. I still feel a little cultural vertigo when I consider that it was the farmer who slaughtered his brother the sheepherder.
It wasn’t a sense of verisimilitude, death isn’t this pretty. it was the light on his shoulder and thrust of his hip, the out-flung arm. More like a glorious depiction of post-coital lassitude, like the way Bernini jumbled up the erotic with religious ecstasy in his Saint Theresa. All this is lacking is a smirking angel with a spear.
Several of the history paintings drew me in, like Ernest Meissonier’s Napoleon doomed assault on Russia. I was fascinated by the general’s expressions, how many ways the artist made hopelessness visible.
In person, the red lances were these wild exclamations, and the color was richer, and each face has its own particular individual expression, and – well, right here, that’s the reason I chase paint. It’s the difference between the flavor of a bright green snap of a fresh pea, just pulled off the vine and popped out of its shell, and a dreary can of gray-green pea mush. Go find this – it lives at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
For lunch, I taxied to a place heartily recommended by a NYC friend. La Castela http://restaurantelacastela.com
Of course when I got there, at 2:30, the joint was full to the brim. Come back in 30 minutes, said the sympathetic waiter. Instead of giving up and eating another pastry in a coffee shop, I took a slow stroll around the block. They did indeed find me a little table amid those already happily occupied with big groups who had tables pushed together, and four tops with business men in suits. Lots and lots of laughter and talk. They brought me a dish of olives and another dish of bread and my sparkling water. I had a sort of hot sausage appetizer that was either crazy delicious (or tasted fantastic because by 3:45 I was starving). I ordered the hake and it came like this –
I think those are stripes of tomato, kalamata olive, and an olive oil and green herb sauce. So good. Divine. I ate every bite though it was twice what I was used to. I even had dessert, which I ordered by pointing to a nearby happy diner’s plate. That’s a mille–feuille – crackly layers of puff pastry with fresh whipped cream inside- with an apricot sauce with fresh berries on the side. It looks substantial, but it was light with just a moment of crunch before it dissolved on the tongue. Imagine an edible feather that by some miracle is delicious.
From here back to the dear Prado, knowing it was open until 8pm. Drifted around, and now, these many weeks later, I don’t remember every painting I revisited, except I am certain I went back to Velásquez and Mengs.
In the rotunda with the statuary of the Muses I came across a couple that were welded together, head, shoulder, hip, and thigh. It took a moment for me to realize, no, it wasn’t the intimacy of passion, they were sharing an audio guide.Though perhaps that is another kind of shared passion.
On the long, weary but happy walk back to the Orfila Hotel, I came across this ingenious poster for a play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Brilliant graphic art.
At this point in my trip, I finished the audio book Forgery of Venus, by Michael Gruber. http://michaelgruberbooks.com/books/ Well worth your time to read or listen to, and Madrid is the perfect town for it. This should give you of an idea of why I loved it. “Gruber writes passionately and knowledgeably about art and its history- and he writes brilliantly about the shadowy lines that blur reality and unreality.” – Publishers Weekly.
*The thing is, the camera lies. It excels in capturing an expression, or a composed portrait or a candid scene. Those moments could be beautiful or awkward or horrifying. But it isn’t the truth, any more than cable news is the truth. It’s just a forced glimpse, and the lens works both ways – it’s as much a flash of the photographer’s psyche as anything. Having said that, Jacques Henri Lartigue’s work enchants me and has, ever since Barry Lategan introduced me to his photographs in 1972.