A Place of Memory at the Prado, Madrid

2nd December 2018

Remembering 200 years of history is no mean feat. Nobody knows this better right now than the Prado Museum in Madrid, which is preparing to mark its bicentenary in 2019, and has launched the celebrations with a new exhibition that looks back over the past two centuries, in an attempt to crystalise the memory of the Prado’s long history in the minds of the public.

Exhibition galleries, “1819-2019; A place of memory”. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado

The exhibition, entitled Un lugar de memoria (A place of memory), features 168 works – the majority of which belong to the museum's permanent collection – leading the visitor chronologically through the various institutional avatars that the Prado has been through on the road to becoming one of the Spain’s most powerful instruments for the preservation of national heritage.

Crucified Christ, Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas 248 x 169 cm, 1632. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

 Christ Crucified by Velazquez (1632), The Holy Family with a Lambby Raphael (1507) and The Vision of Saint Peter Nolascoby Zurbarán (1629) – some of the first paintings encountered in the display – were among the initial works that constituted the collection of what was then known as the Museo Real, founded in 1819 to allow unprecedented public access to royal art collections. 

Museo del Prado, view of the Queen Isabel II gallery. Juan Laurent-y-Minier-Photograph. 1879, Madrid Museo Nacional del Prado

The exhibition then proceeds through several national events that shaped the Prado: the Spanish Confiscation in 1835, which saw the mass seizure by the state of artworks and other items of historical and cultural significance; the Glorious Revolution of 1868, when the museum shifted from a royal institution to a national one; the Spanish Civil War, during which some of the most important works had to be evacuated from the Prado for their safety; and the writing and rewriting of the national heritage law that enabled so many of the museum’s acquisition, custody and preservation functions.

 There are certain artists that a visit to the Prado would be incomplete without seeing. One of them is El Greco – and the exhibition doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Paintings such as The Resurrection (1597-1600) and Christ carrying the Cross(1602) are displayed to signal the origins of the museum’s highly significant collection of the artists work.

The Countess of Chinchón, Francisco de Goya, Oil on canvas, 216 x 144 cm 1800 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Other must-see Spanish masters that spring to mind when one thinks of the Prado – Goya, Velazquez, Sorolla – are all here too. But so are the likes of Edouard Manet, Jackson Pollock and Avigdor Arikha, in sometimes surprising revelations about the Prado’s relationship with modern and international artists.

Indeed, although the Prado is today associated with the the old masters, it was in fact a museum for modern and contemporary art until the very end of the 19th century. It was only after the creation of the Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) in 1898 that the Prado handed over its collection of works by living artists and devote itself entirely to historical art.

Amazon, Édouard Manet. Oil on canvas, 73 x 52 cm, 1882. Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen- Bornemisza

Both before and after this date, however, the exhibition argues that the Prado has always maintained a strong position as a meeting place for dialogue between the present and the past, and a central theme of this exhibition is how the museum has acted as a crucial reference point for contemporary artists – both in Spain and abroad – seeking inspiration and guidance from modern and old masters.

 20th century works by American artists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell sit alongside Spanish paintings from the same period by the likes of Antonio Saura and Equipo Crónica (the Valencia-based collective founded by Rafael Solbes, Manuel Valdés and Juan Antonio Toledo) – all are said to be influenced by the artists’ encounters and dialogues with the works displayed in the Prado. 

 The works of Velazquez, in particular – a large chunk of whose works belong to the Prado – are understood to have been major pedagogic sources for painters and cultural thinkers all over the globe. The structural and narrative complexity of his most famous work, Las Meninas (1656) – which one room of the exhibition is entirely dedicated to – continued to lend itself to contemporary philosophy and culture well into the 20th and 21st century. 

Paintings such as Sargent’s Portrait of Mrs Leopold Hirsch (1902), Sorolla’s Maria Figueroa dressed as a menina (1901), and Manet’s Angelina (1865) and Horsewoman (1882) are all displayed here precisely because of the direct influence that the Prado’s Velazquez collection had on their production, as are written works by the likes of French postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault and Spanish symbolist playwright Antonio Buero Vallejo.

But for all this talk of Velazquez, the flagship masterpiece is noticeably missing from this display – Las Meninas has not been moved from its permanent location in Room 102 up on the first floor of the museum. Instead, what awaits us towards the end of the exhibition, as one of the final centrepieces, is Picasso’s cubist reinterpretation of Velazquez’s work, painted in 1957, and loaned to the Prado for this exhibition by the Picasso Museum of Barcelona. It once again serves to remind us of the Prado’s function of producing successive generations of contemporary artists.  

Las Meninas, Pablo Picasso. Oil on canvas, 129 x 161 cm, 1957, Barcelona, Museu Picasso

Similarly, a 1937 study for Picasso’s Guernica – the monumental painting which sits about 800 metres down the road, at the Museo Reina Sofia – is displayed in the Prado’s exhibition alongside The dead Christ supported by an Angel (1475-6) by Antonello da Messina. One need only compare the woman screaming in anguish in Picasso’s painting with the body and facial expression of Christ depicted by Messina to understand how encountering the 15th century work in the Prado will have inspired Picasso’s composition.

This is the first time the Prado has curated an exhibition on its own history – and with 199 years of work now under its belt, the exhibition leaves no doubt how closely tied the institution is to the history of the nation itself. This isn’t always an easy relationship to hold – one need only look at the section that covers Francoist Spain. Figures ideologically opposed to Franco, like Rafael Alberti, Antonio Saura and Maria Zambrano, are displayed here; and yet any remotely didactic exploration of the systemic silencing, exile or execution of artists under Franco – many of whom produced the era’s most significant works – and what position a national cultural institution should take on the subject, is avoided.

Miguel Falomir – Director of the Museo del Prado, Javier Portús – Curator of the exhibition and Andrés Úbeda – Deputy-Director of Research and Conservation. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado

As debate rages in Spain over what to do with Franco’s remains, it is perhaps still a subject too sensitive to touch – instead, it is left up to the viewer to join the dots. Many argue that Franco was instrumental in selling the brand of Spanish art to the rest of the world; however, in not being forced to confront the repression of artistic freedom at the hands of one world’s most notorious modern dictators, the viewer risks being left feeling that memory can be a fragile thing.

 Words by Agnish Ray

Un lugar de memoria is at Museo del Prado in Madrid until 10 March 2019. Find more information about Museo del Prado’s bicentenary programme here.

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