Madrid, the Golden Triangle of Art

And I inevitably digressed, or did I?

A brief introduction on the Golden Triangle of Art from Wikipedia:

The Golden Triangle of Art is made up of three important art museums that are close to each other in the centre of Madrid, Spain.

The three art museums are:

  • the Prado Museum, (“Museo del Prado” in Spanish), National Museum featuring pre-20th-century art
  • the Reina Sofía Museum, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, A National Museum featuring 20th century modern art
  • the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, private museum, historical through contemporary art

It was a taunting task to visit these three museums in just a few days. Wait a minute, a “task”? That’s how I view the experience of going to top museums in the world? Well, I have to say that a museum visit, especially at the level of those three mentioned above, is tricky.

Should I book tickets online (I didn’t this time, and ended up waiting 15 min for Prado, 10 min for Sofía, and 30 min for Thyssen, all in bitter winter wind.)? Should I go in the morning or afternoon? How many hours to spent there? How about audioguides? Smartphone apps? Start from the top floor or the basement? Should I take notes? Sketches? Learn about the collections & exhibitions before-hand? Review the artworks afterwards?

After visiting many, many museums and struggling with the feeling of not being able to comprehend the value of art, I now have a system for museum visits — works for me, at least.

My system for museum visits

  1. Always book tickets online and get combination tickets if available. This is obvious, cut the line, save money, ease of mind… With a little bit of research, one can easily find sites that sell e-tickets and combined tickets for museums (or book on official websites). Try booking at least 3 days ahead, as tickets do sell out online.
  2. Do not spend more than 3 hours in museums during a single visit. Or take a decent break at the museum restaurant. And I only visit one museum per day, unless they are incredibly small.
  3. Check if there’s official smartphone app before getting the audio guide. I do like audio guides, though sometimes they can be tiring. But if there’s a reasonably well-made smartphone app, I’d opt for that instead — cheaper, no need to carry clunky machines, I can use my won earphones, and I can re-visit them later.
  4. Plan ahead for temporary exhibitions. Temporary exhibitions generally cost extra, can be extremely packed, and there’s visit hour regulation sometimes. Consider just visit the permanent collection if time/energy is limited.
  5. Get a floor plan, start from what you love. I used to always start from room 1, and felt rather hopeless when I reached medieval artworks. Now I’m smarter and only pick those I’m truly interested in — and sometimes I go back to certain pieces at the end of my visit.
  6. Do some work ahead. This goes hand-in-hand with point #5, if you know what’s in the collection and what you love, your visit will be much more rewarding. If not, see point below.
  7. Ditch the floor plan, explore. A museum visit can be an adventure. Encounter interesting pieces, discover artists you never heard of, or just appreciated the space the artworks are housed in. There’s always something to take away.
  8. Remember & reflect (not always). I think if you do nothing after a museum visit, art can still work its magic. But if a piece or an artist truly touched me, I would look it up, think about it, and even write about it.

Prado Museum, Goya, “the Disasters of War”, And there is nothing to be done

Goya’s works often haunt me a long time after I see them. Masterpieces they may be, I’d rather not revisit them again if possible (they are still vividly in my head, though).

Prado is well-know for its collection of Goya, including Saturn Devouring His Son, The Family of Charles IV, and The Third of May (just to name a few). However, the one I liked the most was And there is nothing to be done, from “the Disasters of War” series.

Francisco de Goya, plate 15 from The Disasters of War (Los Desastres de la Guerra): “And there’s nothing to be done (Y no hai remedio),” 1810, etching, drypoint, burin and burnisher, 14 x 16.7 cm
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It was an etching, thus multiple copies exist in the world. The one I saw at Prado was in a smaller frame with less white space around the main content. I walked very close to look at the fine lines of the etch, the thick darkness created by them running into each other, and the stark white areas created by their absence.

The dead man in the foreground with blood oozing out of his head; faceless soldiers executing another person in the background (or they already fired the shots?); and our hero, right in the middle, with his eyes covered and tied to a pole. His white shirt and pants stood out from the darkness, as the distant sky to the left of him.

And now, we inevitably see the three gun barrels sticking into the frame from the upper right — the executioners invisible but their heavy presence unmistakeable — and there’s nothing to be done.

Reina Sofía, Francis Picabia, 291

Reina Sofía was very cool. I liked the cargo-container-like main entrance, its fabulous library, and chic restaurant. Its collections are modern (which is very hard to understand sometimes). I fell in love at first sight with Francis Picabia’s work, which I’ve never heard of before.

Canter, Portrait d’une Jeune Fille Américaine dans l’État de Nudité, and J’ai Vu, drawings by Francis Picabia; 291, №5–6, pp. 2–4, 1915

Picabia, contributor of magazine 291, did several drawings for its 5th and 6th issue. Look at the drawing in the middle, what do you think it is? A spark plug? Sure. But it’s more than that. Look at the title on the top: Portrait d’une Jeune Fille Américaine dans l’État de Nudité — Portrait of a Young American Girl in a State of Nudity. What do you think of it now? And how about the word “FOR-EVER” written on the plug itself? I think the work is quite brilliant. Somehow I just get it.

Of course there could be a dozen interpretations to works of modern art. And I think that’s the fun part.

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Van Gogh, Les Vessenots à Auvers

I’ve loved Van Gogh’s works as long as I could remember, especially the ones with brilliant colors. I was delighted to see Les Vessenots à Auvers at the Thyssen.

Vincent van Gogh”Les Vessenots” in Auvers, 1890. Oil on canvas.55 x 65 cmMuseo Thyssen-Bornemisza, MadridINV. Nr. 559 (1978.41)

The palette is limited: blue, green, yellow, white, and a hint of red. But it’s so vibrant. Van Gogh painted this work in 1890, weeks before his suicide. It seemed contradictory that a man who painted with these luminous colors would shoot himself. I did notice the brush strokes toward the lower right corner became increasingly chaotic. Was this a sign of his underlying agitation?

I believe Van Gogh had immense love for the world. Yet he still killed himself. I don’t think it’s contradictory, after all. He loved the world until he burned out.

Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.

— Vincent Van Gogh