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Friday 8 February 2019

The Prado | Spain’s house of memory

What? The Prado in Madrid is 200 years old. It is still an artistic and political pioneer.

Why? Our great galleries aren’t just a place to hang paintings. They’re a window on our values.

By Giles Smith

Happy birthday to the Prado in Madrid – 200 this year and looking pretty good on it, when you consider what the place has been through. Imperial power, republican uprisings, brutal civil warfare, dictatorship under Franco, emergent democracy – all this has the Prado blithely witnessed from its prime location in the capital city in the two centuries since King Ferdinand VII scrapped plans for a science museum and decided to create an art gallery instead, a decision one can only imagine going in exactly the opposite direction in modern Britain.

And in that time, it would be hard to overestimate the part played by this unique house of pictures in the definition of what we think of as museum culture. It was the Prado that pioneered, in 1899, “monographic rooms” – spaces devoted exclusively to the work of one artist, chronologically arranged. Its first board of trustees, as long ago as 1912, spoke of desiring a museum that was “organically constituted” rather than “splendid but irregular”. The museum was the focus for core debates about heritage policy, national ownership and public access. It engaged as early as anyone with the question of who art was for and to whom it belonged, and answered, in both cases, “everybody”. Meanwhile the building’s very fabric stood firm against whole cycles of political division, an unshakeable repository of the highest cultural values even as bombs fell and a nation grimly went about tearing itself in half.

On the museum’s lower ground floor at the moment, a special exhibition – “Museo del Prado 1819-2019 – A Place of Memory” – reminds us that what Spain knew by way of peril and vicissitude these past two centuries, the Prado knew, too, including exile. On one November night during the Civil War in the 1930s, nine separate incendiary devices landed on the Prado’s roof, making it suddenly seem prudent to ship the museum’s contents to the safety of Switzerland. Of all the images pooled for the anniversary exhibition – even including Francisco Goya’s erotic Maya Unclothed, which has been temporarily brought downstairs from its usual illuminating position alongside the clothed version – perhaps nothing is as visceral in the context as the documentary black and white photograph of the evacuated gallery in 1936. Nothing, at any rate, speaks so voluminously of what is at stake in art’s curatorship. With the paintings headed uncertainly for Geneva, a solitary statue looks on at a post-apocalyptic vision of dust and picture-shaped patches on the walls. The photo invites you to imagine all this, gone for good.

Museo del Prado

A statue surveys the empty room after artworks were evacuated to Geneva

According to the Spanish painter Ramon Goya: “When one thinks of the Prado from afar, it never appears as a museum but as a kind of homeland”. And thus does the Prado, in its anniversary year, invite us to consider the place of a museum in the shaping and, periodically, the healing of a nation’s identity – its role in the formation and maintenance of national self-esteem, its value as “an institution with a proven ability to make us think about ourselves, both as individuals and as part of a collective”.

Of course, the Prado would say these things about itself, especially when buoyed up by a birthday mood. One can contend that these are over-weening claims to make for some unfurnished rooms hung with old pictures, a surprisingly high proportion of them depicting men with beards (and practically all of them by men with beards); one can wonder what “national identity” even means in globally interwoven 2019, and feel a thousand potentially fractious arguments being begged. Nevertheless the core contention seems indisputable: the importance of the Prado, and the necessity of its continuance, is one of a very small number of things these past 200 years that Spain has consistently agreed upon, with the world nodding gratefully just beyond.

But what about the modern tourist? Can today’s visitor experience the Prado as, in Ramon Goya’s words, “a kind of homeland”? And, if so, what kind of homeland? There is only one way to find out, of course – by visiting the place. At the same time, there is more than one way to visit the Prado and, given 24 hours in Madrid, your Tortoise correspondent hatched, after lengthy deliberation, a cunning scheme to enter the building between the hours of 6pm and 8pm when the usual €15 charge is waived and entrance becomes free of charge.

This wasn’t just parsimony. Free entry entirely alters the dynamic of any major gallery visit, removing from the visitor the duty to extract value, which is rarely helpful in this setting and, indeed, is likely to cause him or her to embark on some probably doomed mission to “get it all seen”. Instead, free entry usefully encourages whim and serendipity, which are typically the gallery-browser’s friend, and encourages trust in one’s own absorption, which is valuable when in contact with art. Who cares if you only end up looking at one thing? It’s cost you nothing – and it will cost you nothing again to go back. This is something London’s big culture houses have got absolutely right.

Incidentally, one notes that the Prado, this persuasively democratic institution, offers, for €50, a VIP ticket guaranteeing prestige access to the gallery for an hour from 9am “when it’s closed” – by which they mean when it isn’t closed at all, in fact, but when it’s open solely to people with the right money. But that seems a wrong move for a national gallery from a number of directions. And anyway, if crowd-avoidance was the chief objective, going along at the end of the day surely solved this too, enabling you to enjoy the Prado’s unparalleled treasures in comfort among the dwindled numbers that would no doubt be present on a blank Tuesday night in early February.

So much for that. At 6.10pm the queue for entry stretched some 300 yards down the side of the building, shuffling forwards to a soundtrack of rush-hour traffic pounding along the Paseo del Prado. The hours of dusk turn out to be peak art-loving time for solo romanticists and Japanese coach parties alike. Ahead of me in the line a young German woman summoned Velazquez’s Las Meninas on her mobile phone – perhaps getting her eye in, or maybe saving time.

Open access: Velazquez’s Las Meninas at the Prado

Getty Images

Half an hour later, though, I was in front of the real thing. Velazquez’s indefinitely self-referential court portrait (technically a painting in which a man paints another man painting him) might be to the Prado what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre, but the experience of seeing it could not be further removed: no bullet-proof glass, no heavy security presence and no selfie-taking throngs. (The Prado boldly prohibits photography and also recommends that visitors “speak quietly to contribute to the atmosphere of tranquillity and reflection required to enjoy the works of art”. Discuss. But not noisily.)

I enjoyed equally untroubled access to Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi with its extraordinary collection of expressions – wonder, fascination shading into love, perplexity even. But does the Prado have too many Rubens? By the time one reached the far end of the room, the pale and ample flesh which are his signature had started mounting up a bit. It was a bit like being in the changing room of an especially busy gym.

Expressive Rubens: The Adoration of the Magi

Getty Images

Still, there remained time and space to venture downstairs to the room containing Goya’s Black Paintings. These tormented and tormenting visions were painted onto the walls of the artist’s farmhouse outside Madrid in the early 1820s, when he was in his seventies (he would live to be 84 in an age when few got much above 50), socially alienated, depressed and profoundly deaf. Much later they were levered off those walls, transferred to canvas and quite heavily re-touched before being exhibited to the public – something which Goya had given no indication that he ever intended, though clearly he lost his power of veto. They could now afford a reasonable start and end-point for any trip to the Prado, from the starkly funereal and openly keening gathering in the San Ysidro Pilgrimage on one side of the room, across to the despair-drenched nighttime vision which is Saturn Devouring his Son, in which the central figure is depicted ensuring his hold on power by bloodily eating his own offspring.

Getty Images

Power meal: Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son

The Prado shop, where leather gloves are available at €85 and where a glass sherry decanter will set you back €120, offers Saturn Devouring His Son as a fridge magnet, presumably so that you can be re-traumatised by it every time you get the milk out. This particular exploitation of the work for commercial purposes could be felt to be on the un-classy side, or even a touch crass, but, in fairness, the shop does not offer Saturn as a biscuit barrel, a tea tray or a pair of socks, treatments reserved for gentler images from the collection, so a line clearly falls somewhere.

The law of free entry allowed me to spend more time than I might otherwise have done in front of Jacopo Bassaro’s The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark, a large and teeming, yet fundamentally hilarious, minor Venetian canvas from around 1570, which does not by any means underplay the enormity of the task that Noah set himself on that famous occasion. Balding, with wild grey hair and sinewy arms, Noah is presented from the rear as a kind of King Lear, raging ineffectually at the heart of a seemingly untameable storm of domestic wildlife – a man with too much work on his desk and up against the mother and father of all deadlines. The painting also contains what I would contend is the worst depiction of an elephant in any exhibited art-work in a major gallery. It was good to find it. But soon after this the attendants began the sensitive work of ushering us all out so that the gallery could close.

The following morning I returned, this time as a paying punter among other paying punters, and there was no question that the atmosphere was different – more charged, more purposeful. Las Meninas was thickly barnacled with school groups. A crocodile of pre-school children clutched each other’s blue smocks and threaded through the crowd. One hoped they weren’t bound for the Black Paintings. The American psychologist BF Skinner, who was the mind behind theories of behaviourism, allegedly hung a copy of Saturn Devouring his Son in his kids’ nursery. You would get arrested for that these days.

I was bound for the Black Paintings, and this time I shared the room with two guided Japanese parties, some of whose number wore surgical masks – presumably as a protection against coughs, sneezes and the wider impurities of the Madrid air, though the sight of people with covered mouths, looking on at pictures painted by a sick man in a time of actual plague as if they were still somehow infectious, seemed fairly apt.

But most of all that morning I wanted to see Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, which, waylaid by the sight of Noah herding cats, I had failed to find the night before. For all its overt Spanish-ness, the Prado also houses the biggest collection of Italian masters to be found outside Italy, including this stand-out item. David has clearly been in a fight – though not as much of a fight as Goliath who now lies decapitated, his eyes glassy and his forehead nastily split by the stone that did for him. David’s bent and shadowed head and his pale arm look young to have seen this kind of action, but a boy’s got to do what a boy’s got to do. This was a Caravaggio, meaning you come for the mythical imagery and stay for what’s human about it – the raw knuckles, the dirt under the toenails. I wasn’t sure what this picture had to tell me about national identity – Spain’s, Italy’s or my own. But I was glad I had seen it.

I celebrated afterwards with a stiff cup of coffee and an equally stiff croissant in the Prado’s ample café space, which is sensitively removed from the gallery spaces and which, with its open-planning, its animated hum and its windows offering views of sunlight, feels a bit like the refectory of some forward-thinking media concern in Silicon Valley. Most gallery cafés do feel a bit that way now. Yet the bi-centenary exhibition recalls how, in the 1930s, as part of the Republic’s nationwide educational drive, the Prado took copies of some of its masterpieces around the country and deep into rural areas in order (as it was explained at the time) “to show them to the people who have never seen them, because they belong to them too”. These travelling exhibitions visited nearly 200 towns between 1932 and 1936, carpeting the available territory even more assiduously than Elton John is doing on his current farewell tour. The Prado offers a photograph from this time of shawled women with children in their arms and cloth-capped farmers with their hands in their pockets, crowding in front of a Velasquez. It seems to be a kind of ideal vision of a museum reaching out, actively breaking its walls and moving its community-binding message out far beyond the intimidatingly hushed galleries and the middle-class catnip of the cafés serving lattes and the shops offering phone-cases and tote bags. But that was some 80 years ago. The Prado’s extensive efforts to digitise its collection online would be the modern equivalent, though, of course, it’s not quite the same.

Outside on the broad paths away from the gallery a more limited version of Spanish national identity vaguely attempted to assert itself in the form of a busker on an acoustic guitar and a stall selling knock-off bull-fighting posters. But my mind was mostly elsewhere – back at home, in fact, wondering whether one could seriously envisage a post-Brexit British identity emerging from the current fissures and coalescing around the National Gallery. It felt like a stretch. Too elite, no doubt some would quickly say. Too London-centric. Even so, a date for your diary: the National Gallery turns 200 in just five years’ time, in 2024.