Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Day 41 & 42: The Finish Line: Madrid to San Francisco

We had our last scrumptious breakfast at the hotel's buffet and paid the hotel bill well before the taxi came for us at 8:15.

On the way to the airport we passed the bull-fighting ring, a magnificent piece of architecture. When Dan expressed interest, the driver got out his smart phone and showed us video of a bull-fight he had attended recently, while driving with one hand.

We caught the KLM flight to Amsterdam at 10:20 am, which arrived at 12:55. We had a nice chat with a young Spanish carpenter who was returning to Edmonton, in Canada, after a short vacation with his wife and family.

Security at Schiphol was very tight, starting right at the entrance. We had plenty of time to catch our return flight on Delta at 5:20 pm.

We arrived at JFK in New York at 7:20 p.m., but that was about six hours after we left. We took the skytrain to a roundabout where the hotel shuttles pick up guests. It was about 9 when we arrived at the cheesy Best Western hotel where our room was booked. The lobby was crowded with people waiting to check in. When we finally got settled in our skimpy little room, Dan was ready for a bite to eat and a couple of glasses of wine, but strangely, there were no bars or eateries in the area whatsoever, even though there were 3 or 4 bustling hotels. What a wasted opportunity. Grumpily he piled in bed and was soon fast asleep.

Breakfast the next morning was a disaster, compared to our breakfasts for the previous month. Not only were the breakfast items low in quality, but also low in quantity. There was practically nothing left.

We took the shuttle back to JFK and caught the Delta flight to SFO at 11:20 am.

There was a question about how we would get home from SFO. Captain Dan was appalled by the price we paid for a taxi to the airport when we left. He wondered if we could get a neighbor kid to give us a ride instead. I said, "Let's try Heather's husband, Eric." Heather is my fitness trainer, and her husband is a driver for Lyft and Uber, which we had never tried before. We were unable to contact him by phone, so I left email and Facebook messages with both Heather and Eric with our arrival time.

Minutes after we emerged from the airport with our luggage, a small car whose curly-haired driver was waving, pulled up in front of us. Eric was revved up and chatted vivaciously all the way to our place. We paid him half of what we paid the taxi, and it was still way more than he was expecting, so that was a win-win.

The Finish Line

The journey took 42 days, 8 of which were spent in transit between countries, leaving 34 days for touring. We toured 21 museums of art, 4 royal palaces, 4 royal gardens, 2 cathedrals, 1 monastery, an aqueduct, and two public markets. That's why I called it a marathon. The marathon yielded a treasure trove of art photos that are almost as satisfying as the journey itself. If you actually followed along, congratulations! You've accomplished something, too, and picked up quite a bit about art in the process.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Day 40: Last Day in Madrid

Our last day in Madrid was packed with two days' worth of activities, and fraught with bad research and planning, but it was highly enjoyable.

Our plan called for us to tour the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, but at the last moment (!), I discovered that the museum doesn't open until noon on Mondays. We decided to use the morning to explore Buen Retiro Park.

We got our taxi driver to let us off at the Prado, so that Captain Dan could explore the church behind the museum, called St. Jerome the Royal. For Spain, this church was quite simple and rather plain.

St. Jerome the Royal
Up a block and across a major boulevard is Buen Retiro Park.

Buen Retiro Park

Most great cities have great parks, but none is finer than Buen Retiro Park in Madrid. It is far too big to explore in a day, and its landscaping—with walkways, fountains, and exotic species of trees—is fit for a king because it belonged to Spanish royalty until the 19th century. Here is a sample of the photos I took. The morning was fresh and the sky achieved some unique new shades of blue.

Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010

A sign at the entrance of the park said that there was a Carl Andre retrospective in the Velázquez Palace inside the park. We were aware of this sculptor's work, and had seen some examples on this journey, so we were curious to see a large exhibition.

Carl Andre is an American minimalist sculptor who first came to prominence in the art world in the 1960s, but his work is easy to ignore because it is right on the floor. For a number of years, I would see arrangements of square metal plates lying flat on the floor—people often walked right over them without looking down. More recently we had seen works consisting of stacks of rectangular blocks, such as a highly sophisticated child might make.

The Velázquez Palace is a marvelous exhibition hall, especially for minimal art, because it has large, white, high-ceilinged spaces, flooded with light. Organized by the Dia Art Foundation in New York in collaboration with the Reina Sofia in Madrid, and with the participation of the artist himself, the exhibition was a wonder. The emptiness of the big white space, defined by the simplest possible arrangements of rectangular blocks, was refreshing, calm, and clear.

Originally sculpture was about carving or modeling material into a particular shape. Carl Andre's big idea was to build a structure out of standardized units, like a child's building blocks. This idea had started with the Russian constructivists, but they liked to make complicated, machine-like structures, whereas Carl Andre, and his contemporary Donald Judd, always worked in a linear or grid type format. Andre couldn't build anything complicated because he didn't attach the units to each other; each work could be disassembled for transport, and laid out again in a different place.

Velázquez Palace
Buen Retiro Park
Lament for the Children, 1976
Steel-Aluminum Plain, 1969
Tin Ribbon, 1997
Base 7 Aluminum Stack, 2008
Breda, 1986
25 Cedar Scatter/25 Cedar Solid, 1992
(detail, 25 Cedar Solid not showing)
Pyramid (Square Plan), 1970 
Uncarved Blocks, 1975
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Located in the same district as the Prado and Buen Retiro, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is very large and it has a very important collection. Due to a deplorable lapse in my research, I didn't realize this when I did my planning. Even worse, I failed to notice on the museum's website that the museum was open only from noon until 4 p.m. on the day of our visit. Since we got involved in Buen Retiro park in the morning, we ended up with less than two hours to cover a museum that should have had a full day's attention. Dan and I separated, and I ran around in a panic, with little sense of direction, taking pictures of paintings at a furious rate. Since I had unwisely scheduled our visit for a free day, the place was jammed with tourists and I had to elbow my way up to every well-known painting; only to find, in many cases, that glare on the glass marred my image. I wish I could go back to this fine museum to make a more comprehensive report.

What I can do with what I have is give you a rather arbitrary selection of their most important works.

Christian Stories

In the beginning, painting was about telling stories from the Bible. Here is a very early painting in the history of art, before realistic perspective and modeling had been developed. It depicts a story about Jesus, who was a Jew, having a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a time when that sort of thing just wasn't done. Because he knew all about her past life, she took him for a prophet, and got her friends to come and listen to him. Many of the townspeople came to believe in his message.

Duccio, 1278-1319
Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1310-1311
This painting takes up the story of Jesus at the age of 12, sitting among the elders of his church, listening to them and asking them questions. They were amazed at his learning. The boy looks so pure and inspired; the elders look either scheming or rigid. A circle of hands right in the middle symbolizes their knotty discussions, and shows off the ability of the painter, as hands are considered difficult to paint.
Albrect Dûrer, 1471-1528
Jesus Among the Doctors, 1506
Moving into the middle 1500s, we now have a scene from a very complicated Bible story. The woman on the left, called Tamar, had married one of the son's of Judah, the male figure on the right. When he died young, Judah gave her his second son, following some custom or law of the time. When he also died, Tamar felt entitled to marry the third son, but Judah was leery of losing another one and refused to sanction this. Tamar wanted to marry into Judah's family so that her offspring would be entitled to inherit his wealth. Feeling cheated, Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and seduced Judah himself. This close-up look at the seduction with its dramatic angles and fluid draperies is typical of the Mannerist style. By the way, her trick worked, and she later gave birth to twins. One of them was an ancestor to King David, one of the greatest leaders of the Jews.

Tintoretto, 1518-1594
The Meeting of Tamar and Judah, c. 1558
The appearance of the angel Gabriel to Virgin Mary to announce her impending pregnancy with the son of God is a very common subject of painting in the 1500s and 1600s. El Greco depicted it a number of times, but this version from his twenties is the calmest and most conventional. The composition is actually rather similar to The Meeting of Tamar and Judah, with the female loading the lower left corner while the male looms diagonally above her. Both women are about to be impregnated with future leaders of the Jewish people.

El Greco, 1541-1614
Annunciation, 1567-1577
Here's another conception story from the early 1600s, also about the origin of certain leaders. Because the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah were so promiscuous, God decided to destroy both cities in a hail of fire and brimstone. He gave Lot's family a chance to escape, but in the end, the only ones left were Lot and two of his four daughters, their mother having been turned into a pillar of salt because she turned to look back at the destruction. The two daughters panic. They don't know how extensive the destruction will turn out. They despair of finding husbands under the circumstances. They feel it is incumbent on them to preserve their family line. So they ply their father with wine, which they conveniently managed to carry with them in their hasty retreat, and have sex with him on two successive nights. Theoretically he was so drunk he didn't know what was happening, but could he really be potent in that case? Setting that point aside, both daughters got pregnant; one of them gave birth to Moab, future father of the Moabites, and the other to Ben-Ammi, father of the Ammonites. As Israel had a long history of hostile relations with the Moabites and Ammonites, biblical authors wanted to take a jab at them by recounting their origins as incestuous.

Orazio Gentileschi, 1563-1639
Lot and His Daughters, c. 1623
A common story from the New Testament recalls an incident in which Jesus, after a long day of teaching, was napping on a boat with some of his disciples on the Sea of Galilee when a squall came up that caused the disciples to fear for their lives. When they woke him, Jesus told the wind and rain to calm down and they did; then he chided his disciples for their lack of faith. Painters always use this story as an excuse for a wonderful seascape. This one shows the storm receding before the expanding blue sky.

Jan Brueghel, the Elder, 1568-1625
Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1596
Here's another story about Jesus that used to be painted frequently. On the day of his Resurrection, Christ appeared to a couple of guys who were traveling to the town of Emmaus, near Jerusalem, but they didn't recognize him. They discussed the crucifixion and the fact that Christ's tomb had been found empty, and Jesus explained how this corresponded with prophecies in the Old Testament. It wasn't until the three were having dinner, and Jesus blessed the bread as Christ had done, that the truth dawned on these fellows. This painting depicts the moment of recognition.

Matthias, Stom, 1600-1649
The Supper at Emmaus, c. 1639
Our last Bible story shows Jesus driving the merchants and money-changers from the temple during Passover. Panini specialized in architectural studies, and this painting seems to be more about the proliferation of classical arches than about the story.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1691-1765
The Expulsion from the Temple, 1724

Classical Mythology

Turning from Bible stories to classical mythology, in the next painting Rubens depicted Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, with her son, Eros, the god of Desire, who is assisting her with her grooming by holding up a mirror. Venus is enchanted by her own image. This is a standard subject, and one that Rubens treated a number of times.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640
The Toilet of Venus, c. 1606

One of the first types of painting to emerge from the domination of religion was the portrait, since people of wealth have a common desire to advertise their status.

Although the next painting is a portrait of a real person—in strict profile as was the style at the time—its function is to symbolize purity and virtue. Not only does the woman have a sort of pearlized purity, but the composition is full of right angles, such as those in the window frame, the rosary, and her arm position. The artist lavished great attention on her hairstyle and her costume, both symbolic of luxury. This woman wants to be seen as rich but pious.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1449-1494
Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1488

Next is a painting of a King who was besotted with his own power. The painter shows that he is "full of himself" by making him too large for the frame, shoulders extending beyond it. Here again the artist paid extravagant attention to accurately rendering his costume. The king wants to look invincible, and he does.

Hans Holbein, the Younger, 1497-1543
Portrait of King Henry VIII, c. 1536

Peter Paul Rubens, who painted the sensuous Venus above,  could also be uptight and rigid, and he could render every detail of an elaborate costume with fool-the-eye realism. Here's another woman who wants to be seen as both prosperous and virtuous, and quite formidable.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640
Portrait of a Young Woman with a Rosary, c. 1610

Formal portraiture was offset by character studies. Rembrandt liked to dress up in fancy costumes and paint his own portrait…with penetrating self-analysis.

Rembrandt, 1606-1669
Self-portrait, c. 1643
The prosperous merchant class in the Netherlands during the 1600s was especially fond of group portraits, mainly civic groups, but sometimes the family as well. In this surprisingly informal family portrait, the parents are actually dancing, and engaging each other's gaze in a rather romantic way. The pre-teen boy has that "Oh, Dad" look, and the teenage daughter looks on with a smirk. Emerging from the darkness is a dignified black servant, looking straight at us.

Frans Hals, 1583-1666
Family Group in a Landscape, c. 1648
Jumping forward to the late 1700s, at the beginning of American history, here's a surprisingly democratic portrait of a black man. He was one of George Washington's slaves, but he carried himself with dignity and was obviously treated with respect. If only the painter had used the chef's name.

Gilbert Stuart, 1755-1828
Portrait of George Washington’s Cook, c. 1797
Leaping abruptly into the modern era, here's an image of a thoroughly modern young woman, in a rough and immediate style.

Édouard Manet, 1832-1883
Woman in Riding Habit, Fullface, c. 1882
Many painters were intrigued by the liberated women who were appearing on the cultural scene in the ninetineen-twenties and thirties and strove to depict their style. This painting could almost be a fashion illustration.

Max Beckmann, 1884-1950
Quappi in Pink Jumper, 1932-1934
By contrast, this painting is more like a character study of two women. These women are not fashion-plates or whores. They look respectable, but not married. Perhaps they were entertainers or restaurateurs.

Christian Schad, 1894-1982
Maria and Annunziata ‘from the Harbor,’ 1923
Here's another character study from the same period. Though Schlichter has a much different way of handling paint than Schad, both artists were part of the German school of New Objectivity, in which artists focused on the real world around them.

Rudolf Schlichter, 1890-1955
Portrait of an Oriental Journalist, c. 1924
To represent modern, formal portraiture, we have these portraits of Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who collected most of the art and founded this museum, and the Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, whose much smaller collection was also being shown when we were there.

Ricardo Macarrón, 1926-2004
Baron and Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza, 1987-1989
By the same artist are these much better portraits of the previous king and queen of Spain, parents of the current King Felipe VI. The soft, muted shades of the background make the figures stand out better than the riotous colors behind the Baron and Baroness.

Ricardo Macarrón, 1926-2004
Juan Carlos I, King of Spain, 1992
Ricardo Macarrón, 1926-2004
Sofía, Queen of Spain, 1992

Still Life

During the 1600s, the still life also became an important genre of painting. Flowers and fruit were popular subjects. The market for still lifes was so large that even a woman could become prominent in that field. This example has a homey informality, but the lighting is very stagey, as though all these beautiful foods were stars in a show.

Louise Moillon, 1610-1696
Still-life with Fruit, c. 1637
Landscapes, Cityscapes, and Architecture

As the art market opened to include private collectors—instead of just the church and royalty— paintings of the real world, whether natural or man-made became more popular. During the 1700s several artists specialized in accurate renderings of architecture. Canaletto documented every monument in contemporary Venice.

Canaletto, 1697-1768
The School of San Marco, c. 1765
Hubert Robert specialized in Roman ruins, infusing technical accuracy with a liberal dose of imagination.

Hubert Robert, 1733-1808
Interior of the Temple of Diana at Nimes, 1783
During the 1800s, when Americans were still spreading across the continent, there was a big market in the US for paintings of nature on a grand scale.

Jasper Francis Cropsey, 1823-1900
Greenwood Lake, 1870
Late in the 1800s, French artists were experimenting with bold color and loose brushstrokes in their depiction of rural scenes. The sky in the painting below has similar coloration to the one above, but the rough, personal brushstroke makes the scene more intimate and casual.

Armand Guillaumin, 1841-1927
The Road of Damiette, 1885
In the landscape below, Degas brought the scene into the modern era by populating it with thoroughbreds and jockeys wearing conveniently colorful jerseys.

Edgar Degas, 1834-1917
Race Horses in a Landscape, 1894
Painting techniques and emotional expression became more important than visual subject matter in the 20th century, so that a scene was basically an excuse for making a dramatic display, as in the painting below.

André Derain, 1880-1954
Waterloo Bridge, 1906
In the city street below, Kandinsky bumped up the colors and pumped up the light to show the neighborhood as vibrant and full of joyful possibilities.

Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944
Murnau: Top of the Johannisstrasse, 1908

In the 1900s, many painters went back to story-telling, but instead of referring to standard myths, they made up their own. Here we have a nude woman with 4 horses and a lion in a rural setting. The woman is thinking, the horses are eating, and the lion is roaring mildly. The woman may be dreaming of imbibing power by soaking up natural energy. Each viewer gets to make up his or her own story.

Franz Marc, 1880-1916
The Dream, 1912
In the painting below, the artist stylized the scene so much that color and pattern are more important than subject. In my reading, it shows three nude women under a blooming tree near a bay at sunset. The forms are sketchy but the mood of joyous abandon is palpable.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938
Curving Bay, c. 1914

The history of art is beautiful because it follows a logical progression of thought that transformed artists from church decorators to explorers and experimenters in aesthetics. If you were more systematic than I was, you could follow the outline of the story chronologically from the beginning to the present at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

Beautiful Madrid

When the museum kicked us out—Captain Dan was literally the last person to leave, ushered by a guard who immediately locked the door—we decided to walk back to the hotel so that we could enjoy the beautiful architecture along the route, the splendid Cybeles fountain in the traffic circle, and the balmy afternoon. We stopped for refreshment at a deeply-shaded sidewalk café. Then we slowly sauntered the rest of the way back, carefully keeping to the shady side of the boulevard. Here are the last shots I took in Madrid. I love the architecture there.

We went back to our lovely room and packed up for our journey home.