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The Walls of Madrid

The walls of Madrid are adorned with paintings, in such an abundance that art lovers around the world regard Madrid as a true mecca, primarily due to a museum triangle in the middle of the city: Prado, Thyssen and Reina Sofia.

Whether interested in art or not, whether a tourist or not, everybody goes to the museums, the soul of the city. The overwhelming number of works is no problem for those who have previous training or specific preferences. Others may run out of steam, but could in that case recover by simply following the crowd which seems to have an instinct for art highlights. 

Although the museums resemble never-failing magnets, they still launch marketing drives to stimulate further public interest, like promoting the International Museum Day, actually today – a Thursday in May – with free entrance. Today’s theme is “young people and the museums”, focusing on the 15-25 year-olds. It gives also me an interesting idea: I will take an art world tour to see how Museum Day works.


Thyssen-Bornemisza is my first stop. A private collection is the basis of this stylish museum, opened 1992 and housed in the neoclassical palace of Villahermosa. The Spanish state has since taken over the majority of the paintings, which are presented in spacious rooms on walls with a touch of red, set off by whitish floors and high ceilings. Starting on the second floor and moving down takes you chronologically from medieval to present-day art. I myself begin on the ground floor where my ally is supposed to be found.

There he is: Harlequin with a Mirror, painted by Picasso in 1923. In an aura of grey and lilac, Harlequin is lolling on a chair, looking into a hand mirror to check his black hat and tight outfit. His facial expression is a sweet mix of contentment and sadness. People do stop to take a look, but very briefly and without enthusiasm, perhaps exhausted after descending through the history of art, from top to ground floor. To avoid the same fate, I decide to proceed once I stored a mental image of Harlequin, in case I need a yardstick in the museum world.

El Museo del Prado
You may forget that Madrid is the capital of Spain, but you’ll never forget that Prado is a museum in Madrid. Waiting to take you there is El Paseo del Prado, a combination of park and heavy traffic. Its trees and fountains cushion your ears from the worst traffic noise, while its lawns and sculptures refresh your eyes, preparing you to face El Prado’s grand neoclassical palace, an art museum since 1819.

A few school classes, waiting outside, receive last-minute instructions for good behavior, with the following security control as a reminder. A friendlier attention awaits them inside; they are after all guests of honor on this special Museum Day. The staff is ready to spoil them through various initiatives; introducing them to The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez is one of them, another is a party invitation to El Prado on Saturday night when other young people are there to answer their questions.

Double Anniversary

A poster at the entrance, “Picasso, Tradicion y Vanguardia”, promotes a 3-month theme exhibition starting in June to celebrate Picasso’s 125-year anniversary, highlighting those works where Picasso related to the Old Masters, on the poster exemplified with his version of Velázquez’ Las Meninas. I wonder if Harlequin is going to participate in the temporary exhibition; a cooperation between El Prado and Reina Sofia but also including pictures from other museums.

Age determines how visitors approach the treasures of El Prado. Kindergarten classes often move fast and loud, challenging the acoustics, others are quiet as lambs, depending on the teacher’s temper. One group of children, sitting on the floor, turn into angels while analyzing angel paintings by Murillo. The energy level of teenage classes  is on the verge of violence; one guy pretends he’s tearing a painting to pieces. A lady teacher knows how to calm down her teenage flock; by parking them in front of The Three Graces by Rubens, with little radio receivers on their heads and speaking to them softly through a sender.

Adult visitors arrive alone or in pairs, many come in groups led by private guides, available at the entrance where you also find the simplest guides: a Museum Plan and a Program of Events. Elderly people prioritize rooms containing benches, which attendants in dark uniforms help them to locate. Young French couples at The Last Supper by Juanes guide each other, whereas an Oriental lady listens to what an audioguide has to say about The Ages and Death by Baldung. Following the crowd leads inevitably to the first floor abounding in the versatile Goya, Velázquez’ realism and flame-shaped characters by El Greco.

Queen of Art
The Spanish Queen is no doubt a lady with humor; lending her name to a museum housed in a former hospital, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Perhaps she had a presentiment that her museum of contemporary Spanish art would complement Thyssen and El Prado perfectly, forming an art triangle renowned across the world. And the actual building appears more welcoming since two exterior elevators of glass and steel were mounted on its facade.

Reina Sofia

What lifts this museum into a sphere of its own is again Picasso, here welcoming you with the Lady in Blue posing in an enormous gown and loads of make-up. Her joyful appearance really contrasts the scene behind her: Guernica, 3.5m tall, almost 8m long, inspired by the destruction of a Basque town in 1937, carried out by German bombers hired by Franco. The black-and-white picture, the museum’s unequalled pride, arrived in Spain only 25 years ago, an anniversary already scheduled.

At the end of Museum Day, I decide to throw a party for my new acquaintances and start with a guest list: Lady in Blue; plus Harlequin of course; Reina Sofia and Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, both adorning the same wall at Thyssen; La Maja Vestida, one of Goya’s ladies; Caballero, a gentleman with a hand on his chest by El Greco; all of them suitably dressed for a party. It would thrill me to see Picasso, now that he’s around to celebrate his double anniversary. He might reveal to us if the Lady in Blue is what some say: a parody of how court painters depicted young princesses.

Being displayed on the walls of Madrid is a great honor. The best locations are for the most famous pictures, and none of those present has reason to complain. There is one problem, though: Guernica. Certain experts keep arguing that it belongs in El Prado, as originally suggested by Picasso. At our party tonight, I hope Picasso will raise his voice and cut through the endless discussions by announcing Guernica‘s final destination, thereby intimating that a Museum Day should be used to create a stir about the walls of Madrid.

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