Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Shadow Knows--Free Day in Madrid (March 27)

On the recommendation of my Aunt Wendy and Uncle Larry, I spent most of my free day in Madrid in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a world-class art museum right across the street from the Prado. 

This is a terrific gallery.  Its permanent collection offers a journey through the history of European art, from the late Middle Ages until the mid-twentieth century.  It was very enlightening to view so many paintings in chronological order, especially with the insights offered by the audio guide, which I rented for four euros.  I left with a stronger sense of the changing aesthetics, of how one school grew out of another.  I gained a new appreciation for the connections between contemporary abstract art and its more traditional predecessors.

But the highlight of the museum was a temporary exhibit called “La Sombra” or “the Shadow.”  It documents the changing ways that artists have employed and understood shadows in their work.  In fact, legend has it that European painting began with shadows (yes, I know this overlooks a great deal, including the cave art in France.)  As Pliny the Elder tells the story, a young woman of Corinth was filled with melancholy over her lover’s departure, so she traced his silhouette on the wall.  Apparently, in the ancient world, shadows cast over the ground were harbingers of death, but this vertical shadow, captured by her hand, would symbolize enduring life in his absence.  The exhibit opened with several paintings of this scene, with the classical maiden painting her lover’s silhouette by candle light.

The rest of the story followed, in rooms full of fascinating artwork.  During the Middle Ages, it was taboo to paint any shadows emanating from sacred figures.  This changed with the Renaissance, when artists began to employ shadow to lend depth to their subjects, adding a third dimension to formerly flat medieval scenes.  Painters from the Romantic period used shadows as symbols of mystery, moodiness and, above all, mortality.  Later still, the Impressionists were the first to paint shadows in colors other than black, exploring their richness of light and subtly changing hues.  And twentieth century art was highly influenced by the invention of photography, which renewed interest in the shadow as a subject in its own right.

All of this made me think of the first Jewish artist, the architect of the tabernacle, Betzalel, whose name means, literally, “in God’s shadow.”  What does this intriguing name come to tell us?  Perhaps human artistry is a kind of shadow of God’s creative power.  At any rate, artistry is abundant in this city, and nation, and it has been a great privilege to see it with Rosa and her classmates and their families.  I’ve experienced so much in Spain, especially a rich Jewish history that still has much to teach us today.

Tomorrow we will enjoy a quiet Shabbat in Madrid after the rest of the group leaves.  I thought about going to shul, but the only synagogues even remotely near the hotel are Orthodox, and I don’t want to leave Rosa up in the balcony for the morning (and don’t really want to davven where there is a mechitzah anyway.)  So we’ll take it easy and get ready for our departure on Sunday.  We’ll have most of Sunday in Zurich, Switzerland, so my next blog entry will be either from there or Jerusalem.

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