I loved our time in Spain. The country was beautiful, and it was so nice to be traveling again. For those of you that follow this blog, you know how much I value traveling. I love meeting people, seeing new places, and letting my curiosity lead me. I knew 2020 was going to be tough, but I couldn’t imagine how much the isolation, screen time, and lack of travel were going to hurt me.
I was nervous about being by myself for two days. In my 20s, I vacationed by myself a few times, but I had not done it in a while. So this was probably the perfect trip to do it because 2020 and 2021 shook a lot loose in my and it gave me time to sit with my thoughts, not at my desk, but in the space I love the most, the one I’ve never been to before. Standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s Drowning Dog moved me unexpectedly, and being alone forced me to sit with that and wonder, “how am I different now?”
Spain provides an incredible opportunity as a history student to look at a place touched by Phoenicians, Arab conquerors, and Catholic supremacists. No one replaces another, and from it, a genuinely fascinating Andalusian society emerged.
Spain was a fantastic way to shake off those accumulating bad vibes and get back to being a traveler. I highly recommend the south of Spain. The towns are gorgeous, the food is delicious, and the wine is free. I cannot wait to return and visit Barcelona and many more parts of Spain.
The Prado is a lesson on why museums are important, and there is absolutely no way virtually browsing these things will ever work. Paintings like The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or the Las Meninas is so massive that the only way to appreciate them is to stand in front of them. Brighter things are already written about the paintings in the Prado, and I have little to add. The following is how I felt being alone in my thoughts with each of these masterpieces.
I was particularly taken by The 3rd of May by Goya. I’ve always loved it. The light seemingly coming from the center of the painting is particularly striking because it frames most of the painting in darkness. The anguish of those on the sidelines seems so genuine, and the lack of precision in painting the soon-to-be victims gives the painting an almost memory quality. It’s almost as if this is how the survivors remembered it and told the story. It’s tragic, and the massive swath of black sky makes it feel so imposing. It is a painting I found myself not wanting to get lost in but to move away after I’d started to take it in. There is a feeling that once you move away, the scene will continue, and everyone will be dead. It wrings the emotions from you like water from a towel.
I was really surprised at how long I lingered at The Martyrdom of Saint Philip by Ribera. Religious agony is never my preferred genre, but the angles created by his arms on the crossbar of the cross caught my eye. It’s a gruesome photo of a man moments away from being crucified, and yet my eyes really focus on the empty triangle formed by his bounds hands body. The influences of visiting the Andalusian palace with intricately designed geometric patterns might have me thinking about this, but I stayed on the painting. And while I was there, other layers began to reveal themselves. For example, the woman holding a baby on the left meets our gaze or the person lost to the background under his left armpit.
In 2014, Sam and I were in Mexico City, and the National Museum of Art was hosting an exhibit focused on the male nude in art. It’s hard for me to describe how shocking this was to me. In almost every museum across the globe, there is art focusing on the female body. Often the focus is on beauty, and I will be the first to admit that is not because the artist wants to honor women, no it’s likely because many artists (or the rich guys paying the commission) were straight dudes who liked thinking about breasts.
However, one consequence is that there are that celebrate the beauty of the male body. When a man is nude or nearly nude (heaven forbid the world knows about a penis), often they are in absolute agony (see The Martyrdom of Saint Philip). Therefore, when we happened upon Hombre Al Desnudo: Dimensiones De La Masculinidad A Partir De 1800 in 2014, my eyes were open to rarity. The male body is celebrated as something beautiful.
The United States (and many other places) has a severe problem with toxic masculinity. We need to do many things to end this, but seeing men as beautiful, vulnerable, and sensitive beings seems to be an obvious step in ending this problem.
Vulcan’s Forge by Velazquez is one painting in which the male body is actually displayed without pain. I also like this painting because it is supernatural without being about Christianity. The god Apollo is telling Vulcan his wife is cheating, and his bros are like, “WTF.” Are they shocked at the cheating or the appearance of a god? Who knows? The ancient mythological world was a wild place.
What I find impressive about this is that the composite of all subjects really created a fully male body. Vulcan’s face and torso, friend #1’s back and calves, friend #2 arms and face in profile, friend #3 knee, thigh, and forearm. It’s beautiful, provocative, and protected by the fact that it’s a mythological story. If your art is retelling an ancient tale, it’s just fine that men are nude. It’s like the 16th-century version of “I buy for the articles.”
I also like that Apollo is not as ripped as the humans. Management guys are always a bit softer around the midsection than those working with their hands.
I thought long and hard about including Las Meninas in this post. It’s a masterpiece, and countless people have written about it. I didn’t expect to spend much time with it, not because I’m too cool for school, but because I’ve seen the image a thousand times. However, when I stood in front of it, there was no one beside me, a true rarity for the most popular piece in the entire Prado. The painting loomed over me, and I found myself looking past our central subject and getting lost in the background. This is a very immersive painting that defies its 2-dimensional limitations. It feels like you are peering into another room. Knowing the couple in the mirror reflection are standing where you are, almost makes you wonder if they are next to you in the gallery. Silly, I know, sitting with this painting is an experience. It is certainly not shocking that this is so impressive, but I found myself truly lost in it.
Before writing this post, I passed my guide along to a friend, but I recall the guide saying that Goya’s The Drowning Dog is very mysterious. That seems right to me, but I found the ambiguity and lack of definition quite unnerving. In addition, the title gives a relatively bright painting (colorwise) among the Blank Paintings a real sense of horror. This painting induced a tremendous amount of anxiety while looking at it. You genuinely do not know what is going on, and although the uneasiness I felt moved me away from it, this painting may have caused the strongest physical response in the entire museum.
I loved The Mancorbo Pass in Picos de Europa by Haes. It’s beautiful and quite simply made me smile while I looked at it. There are no secrets, it’s a landscape. One of the joys of hiking and seeing the world is the reminder of the size of mother nature. In the grand scheme of things, we are a drop in the ocean of nature and history, and there is nothing like a mountain to remind you of that. A scene like this one reminds me to be present, follow my breath, and enjoy the majesty in front of us. It’s an important note for a traveler who likes to plan everything. Make time to think about tomorrow, don’t let those thoughts make you miss what’s in front of you today.
I wonder if I would have stayed with The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day by Bruegel, the Elder as long as I did before COVID-19. I miss crowds and the energy of people celebrating. It was so great to see a village partying on too much wine. The Prado has another Bruegel and several Bosch, which are obviously impressive. Still, the calamity of a party is somehow just as interesting as the supernatural subjects of the other works. You can almost hear the laughing, talking, and teasing while it’s going on. My 3 favorite characters are: 1) the black-haired woman who is bottom center-left. I just want to know her story; 2) the woman giving her a baby a sip of wine. 3) the guy hanging from the barrel pouring a woman some wine with a pitcher. It’s a lovely and busy painting.
I am not sure if I like The Archduke Leopold William in his Picture Gallery in Brussels by Teniers, but it does keep you looking. A painting with lots of other paintings? Cool, I guess. It feels a bit ungapatchka, but it is kind of fun to look at all of the mini paintings.
Sometimes art is funny
Not every painting induced contemplation, reflection, and teary-eyed revelation. Some simply made me smile and laugh at my internal monologue. Take “Saints Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit” by Velazquez. As soon as I saw it, I said, “why’s that bird carrying a bagel?” The painting is an obvious masterpiece, but could I see the people in the cave or the far hillside? Nope, all I could think about was a bird carrying a bagel. Did God tell that bird to get a bagel for these guys? Who knows?
Bronzini by Medici. In real-life (IRL), serious babies always make me laugh, but all I could think was, “this baby is too serious. I bet he’s going to grow up to be a real asshole.”
Finally, Eugenia Martínez Vallejo by Carreno de Miranda. This is funny. I know my laughs perpetuate a bad body-shaming culture, but I laughed out loud at this unexpected portrait. I did take a minute to look up the subject. Eugenia Martínez Vallejo likely suffered from Prader–Willi syndrome.
Originally, we had planned to fly back to the U.S. on Sunday, because Sam needed to do some work. However, plans changed, and he needed to go to Lebanon, and I decided to stay a few days for the trip.
Sam left for Madrid on Sunday morning. We went to a Spanish chain for breakfast called La Rollerie. It was nice. I imagine it to be the Pain Quotidian of Spain. After he left for the airport I decided to start my art pilgrimage to Guernica. This is in Museo del Reina Sofia.
I arrived at the museum as it was opening and made my way to Guernica by Picasso. There were 10 or so people in the gallery, so I had plenty of room to stand in front and linger on it. Usually, I am not a Picasso fan. He’s excellent, I get it, but I struggle with enjoying it. I think Picasso is difficult, and my art brain is simply not sophisticated enough for him. However, when standing in front of a 25′ canvas it is hard not to be in awe. It’s incredible and entirely engulfing. The grey sets a tone of bleakness, but the agony of the figures makes the entire piece rather frenetic. Saying that it is powerful is an understatement. It is art that must be reckoned with and challenges anyone to pass quickly. It has an almost gravitational quality to it that pulls you in. Really breathtaking.
I spent a few more hours at the museum. I was struck by Bombardeo (Air Raid) by Eleuterio Bauset, which is very difficult to find online. It is a reminder that not every piece of art has been digitally cataloged yet. It shows an old man holding a baby during an air raid with a woman (dead or unconscious in the foreground). The look of the old man staring at the bombers seems to display his understanding of the inevitability and his determination to save the young life.
One room has photography from the 1930s with a focus on the photographer, Dora Maar. The photos were of many different subjects, and one of the things that struck me was that the only nudes were of women. Frankly, there were only 2 photos of men, and there were fully clothed. I have a short thesis pinging around about why the modern world rejects the idea that the male body can be beautiful, but it is certainly not fully formed in this post. I’ll write a bit more on this topic in the Prado post. A series of Social Photography by Paul Strand in another room of New Yorkers from 1917 was also a standout.
I spent time with a lot of art and enjoyed myself, but one that continues to stick with me is El mono ermitaño by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto. I am not sure why this sticks with me, but the painting doesn’t feel modern. It feels romantic and like something that belongs at the Prado, except it is not a saint or martyr but a monkey. How odd and yet what commentary. For me, it pokes at the idea that even the most disciplined in their religion are still just animals at the end of it all. Maybe, I am reading too much into it, but it really did stick to me.
After the museum, I decided to wander into neighborhoods that I had not seen yet. I found myself at the Rastro radical flower market. A dozen tables are selling radical left literature, shirts, stickers, and other swag in a plaza. All of this is next to several fresh flower vendors. I would be thrilled if I could surround myself with fresh flowers and Antifa swag all day long. Honestly, these are 2 of my favorite things. I got myself a slice of a Galician empanada and enjoyed the sun.
Monday was dedicated to the Prado. It is truly one of our planet’s most significant collections of art. I bought my ticket online and decided to add the printed guide to help me make sense of everything. I expected a map and pamphlet. Instead, I got a full book! I found myself schlepping this plus Rick Steves around the museum like a scholar. I looked a bit silly, but they helped get me through the museum.
The collection is beyond impressive. This is a link to a post about my thoughts on individual paintings in the collection. Additionally, they had a special exhibit on da Vinci, including a copy of the Salvator Mundi from his workshop. I recently watched The Lost Leonardo, which is all about the actual da Vinci’s Salvador Mundi. Oddly enough, that movie also helped me understand Tenet’s terrible film, as Freeports are an essential plot point. I highly recommend The Lost Leonardo, and I highly discourage you from watching Tenet.
After the museum, I enjoyed El Retiro one last time before making it back to my hotel room for a small rest. Then, I headed out for one last meal, where I had great wine and a mediocre salmorejo. Oh well, not everything can be perfect.
Optional: Museo del Prado
Next: Spain 2021 – Conclusion
We said goodbye to our apartment and boarded the fast train to Madrid. It has the same maximum speed as the Amtrak Acela, but it travels at that speed for far longer. Nevertheless, it was an excellent way to see the Spanish countryside, and it was relatively comfortable.
Before our plans for Madrid changed, I thought we would only be staying in Madrid for a single evening. Because of that fact, I decided to splurge, and I booked us a room at the CoolRooms Palacio de Atocha. It is a very fancy hotel that I ended up sleeping in for 3 nights. It had turn down service every night, which I am a complete sucker for. I loved it and its location.
After we ditched our bags, we decided to take a long walk to a restaurant. The 4-kilometer walk cut us through some of the busiest areas of Madrid, and there were throngs of people out and about. Things are getting back to normal in Philly, but we are not there altogether. Center City is still sleepy during the workday. This was a return to the pulsing energy of a city. Madrid, like Seville, is very pedestrian-friendly, and there are enormous boulevards without a single car. I know that COVID-19 is still here, and I know I was putting myself in riskier situations than I have been, but it was so lovely to feel the energy of the crowds.
We had lunch at a lovely place called La MaMá Restaurante, and it was easily the best meal of our entire trip. We ordered their tasting menu, and it was delightful. We had:
- Artichoke soup.
- Russian salad, pea cream, bluefin tuna
- White artichokes from Tudela
- Prawns, crispy wonton, crudités, and Japanese brava sauce
- Galician free-range egg, potato, truffle, and seasonal mushroom
- Red tuna Thunnus Thynnus, roasted pepper, and piquillo peppers
- Pork sirloin, pumpkin, and red curry
After lunch, we decided to check out Madrid’s most famous park, El Retiro. It’s massive, and it was teeming with people. We used the stroll as a moment to reflect on the vacation and really enjoy the last few hours before Sam had to leave. The sun was out, the air was crisp, and the park had a handful of musicians playing for money. It was a great foundation on which to build a fond memory.
That evening we walked to the Royal Palace of Madrid, past the opera house (where people thought the king was in attendance), and into the bustling Puerta del Sol. Here we came across an anti-racism protest. I’ve been to my fair share of demonstrations over the years, including those in the last 18 months. But, there is something special about a protest in another country in another language. It’s a reminder that we are in one movement, that we’re in it together, and we will outlast every villain that comes before us. Madrid is alive and hopping on a Saturday evening.