Monday, March 23, 2009

Madrid, Guernica and Tapas (March 21)

After a long series of flights, we arrived in Madrid last night and checked into our hotel.  We did a short driving tour of the city, which is both very crowded and also very graceful. 

Our first stop of the morning was the Royal Palace, which was right across the street from our hotel.  The palace was built in the 19th century, for the Bourbon dynasty, which succeeded the Hapsburgs, and it reflects their French origins.  The architecture and the décor are both heavily influenced by the palace in Versailles.  We walked through dozens of rooms, but saw only a fraction of the palace, which has over two thousand!  Each was decorated in a different style and color theme, with magnificent chandeliers and ornate furniture and frescoes.  The place is very rococo—decorated to the hilt.  Seeing it, I felt more empathetic towards those who launched the French Revolution.  The current Spanish monarchs, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia do not live in this palace, preferring more subdued environs in a more modern palace outside the city.

Next we drove around the city of Madrid for a few moments as our guide, Fernando, offered a capsule history of Spain.  Here, of course, one sees that so much of history depends on the vantage point of who is telling the story.   Fernando noted that Spain really became a nation-state in 1492, with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Of course that date was not such a propitious one for Spain’s Jewish and Muslim populations, whose history on the Iberian peninsula came to an end on that occasion.

Spain is an interesting place to tour as a Jew.  Our people have such a rich history here.  It ended with tragedy, with the expulsion in 1492, but it was full of glory and achievement, too.  I got a symbolic taste of this history this morning.  As we drove, we passed a few anti-Semitic pieces of graffiti, which were not too hard to understand even without any Spanish: “Israel Genocido.”  On the other hand, on the elegant plaza outside the royal palace, people danced while a street musician played Hava Nagillah on his accordion.

One sees this history in the diet, too.  The most popular food here is ham.  There are so many pork products, served at virtually every meal.  Our guide told me that this was a diet consciously constructed by the Church after the Reconquista.  Once the Moors were conquered and the Jews expelled, the eating of pork was emphasized as a way of celebrating that Catholic victory, and also rooting out those who were secretly practicing Judaism or Islam.  Downtown Madrid even features a “Museo de Jamon—the Museum of Ham.”  Rosa took my picture just outside that museum.  Maybe we get the last laugh after all.

We spent much of the afternoon at the Prado, the national art gallery, featuring the work of Spanish masters such as Goya, Velasquez, and El Greco.  Both the art and the architecture of the place were like the Royal Palace—ornate, gilded, lavish.    And overwhelmingly Christian, mythological, and military.  Basically, the collection consisted of room after room of gods and generals, angels and saints.  After a fairly short time, I began to find all of this Catholic art more than a little tedious.  So many crucifixions,  resurrections, annunciations. . .  and battle scenes.  I know that each offers unique perspectives, but still, I can only view so much of it before blurring over. 

I was, however, struck by the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, known here as El Bosco.  They are surreal, and very modern.  The most famous is his triptych, “Garden of Earthly Delights.”  The panel on the left portrays the Garden of Eden.  The panel on the right shows the inferno of hell.  And the middle section shows earthly existence—or at least a kind of surreal version of it.  As I viewed the work, it struck me that Bosch and all the rest of the artists of his time suffered from a considerable problem: they wish to show the torments of hell and the bliss of paradise, and thereby induce the viewer to live morally, in consonance with the teachings of the Church.  But as any actor knows, the evil part is always the most interesting.  The liveliest parts of the Bosch work—and many others in the gallery—all fall on the side of hell.  Paradise is dull in its bliss.  Hell is pulsing with life.  Sin is intense and vibrant.  Goodness is ethereal. 

And what the gallery lacked, almost entirely, was paintings that showed real human life, ordinary goodness as opposed to heavenly sanctity. That’s why I like the Dutch masters better than the Catholic painters: they show such an interest in every day existence—commerce, love, loss.  There is something deeply human, humanistic, about them that I don’t see in the Spanish and Italian masterpieces. 

We finished the afternoon at another gallery, the Reina Sofia, which houses the Spanish national collection of modern art.  I’ve never thought of myself as a huge fan of contemporary art, but after the Prado (and the palace before it) I found it a relief to be in a museum with white walls, clean lines, abundant light.  I wasn’t crazy about most of the work—rooms full of Miro and Dali.  And above all, Picasso.  His most famous piece here is “Guernica,” which he did in response to the bombing of the Basque capital during the Spanish Civil War.

Looking at “Guernica” and the other Picasso works was very interesting.  I found most of Picasso’s paintings of women to be terribly unappealing, to the point of grotesquery.  They reek, to me, of misogyny.  And yet, ironically enough, when I experienced “Guernica,” it suffered from the opposite problem, which is to say it did not seem grotesque enough.  This piece was created as a response to the horrors of war, but it struck me as way too mild.  I suspect this reflects the passage of seventy years.  When Picasso painted the work, war-time bombings of civilians were a new phenomenon.  Over the intervening decades, we have seen so much genocide, destruction and violence that it now takes a great deal more to shock us out of our complacency.  Picasso’s once terribly daring piece now strikes me as a bit naïve.  What a sad fact!

We ended the day by dining at a local-favorite tapas place, in a basement-cave in the center of old Madrid.  I couldn’t eat most of the food—chorizo, kalamari, prosciutto.

But I filled up on eggs and potatoes and loved the atmosphere of the place.  During dinner, a flamenco band entertained us, and we sang and danced along to “Guantanamero” and “La Bamba.”  Tourist shtick, for sure, but really, really fun tourist shtick!

1 comment:

Karen said...

Great to hear from you. I loved the photo outside the Museum of Ham.