Spectator's Journal

Lost in the Prado

In Madrid art by day, flamenco by night.

By 4.17.12

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As I have recently written, my wife and I embarked on a combined pilgrimage-vacation to Rome, the Eternal City. We returned home by way of Madrid for what was my first visit. Our main object was to feed our inner culture vultures at two of the world's greatest museums; but we became entranced by the power of flamenco song and dance along the way.

Our hotel, the charming and well-appointed Hotel Catalonia Las Cortes, had been recommended to us by friends of my daughter, one of whom was Spanish, the other German whose visiting relatives had stayed there. It is not a large hotel but an exquisite one, occupying a completely renovated 18th century palace, a four-star establishment near the Plaza Santa Ana. It is within walking distance of the museums we intended to visit and, providentially, a fine flamenco club.

The Plaza Santa Ana is a great public space in which we spent an inordinate amount of time consuming, er, refreshments, while seeing and being seen. This space was much to our liking, being of smaller scale and more neighborly than the famous Plaza Mayor. We enjoyed a delightful dinner with our friends in one of the many restaurants on its perimeter.

Close at hand was the street on which Cervantes lived, the Calle de Cervantes.

Madrid. Whenever I utter the word, I hear a single, sharp strum of a classical guitar. The name embodies a certain dignity or élan, which I always associate with the Spain.

Madrileños are a sophisticated, cosmopolitan set. Like the Italians they are very stylish and fashionable in their dress. Sunglasses are mandatory. They are also eschew any Puritanism in the matter of smoking, which is quite common as it was in Italy.

For the newcomer it is hard to discern the impacts of the current economic crisis in Madrid, or Rome for that matter. Spain is experiencing 25 percent unemployment, 50 percent for those 25 years of age or younger. Our friends confirmed the strain the economic downturn is causing throughout the country.

The Mediterranean climate in early spring is ideal for sitting outside for hours on end. Unlike the summertime, it is cool and refreshing but still warm enough to enjoy the outdoors. Madrileños, like the Romans, are social beings. They can be found enjoying each other's company, not just during the day but late at night, indoors and out, throughout the city. After all, they take siestas in the afternoon and dine very late.

We had trouble finding a reservation at most restaurants before 8:30 p.m. and that was pushing it. Dining that early was simply not done, and restaurants are not usually open at that hour. We went out to dinner one night with my wife's niece who is studying in Madrid. The restaurant started filling up only at 10:15 or 10:30 p.m., just as we were leaving. Still, with enough time, we thought we could learn to like this lifestyle as long as the siestas remained part of the deal.

We had set aside most of two days for the Museo del Prado, one of the world's great temples, and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which was unknown to us but for the strong recommendations of friends for whom we will be forever grateful.

We would start our day with a walk to a nearby church for Mass, and then saunter over to a coffee shop. We sat outdoors and listened to a local group playing American jazz and popular music.

These guys looked like they just got off work from the loading docks. They were talented and spirited in their performance of the classics, very much enjoying themselves. The ensemble included three alto saxophones, two accordions, violin, guitar, bass and a drummer. They even had their own CDs for sale.

Refreshed, we moved on to the ultimate object of our desire.

The Prado is immense. It is the repository for so much of Western art, such as the two great Spanish artists who are very prominent in its collection, Velázquez and Goya. It is a massive neoclassical structure, the 18th century Palacio de Villanueva, with more than 3,000 paintings on display, less than half of the 7,000-painting collection. Notwithstanding its vastness, the lighting and presentation of its paintings and sculptures are fantastic. You may get lost but find yourself in Paradise wherever you finally come out.

The Prado contains art works by Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Zurbarán, and many Dutch painters including Van Dyck and Rembrandt. This list is meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive.

My first name is George, and my grandson is the fourth person to bear that name in our family, So I was naturally taken with Peter Paul Rubens's Saint George Battles the Dragon (Ca. 1607), an imposing painting approximately 14 feet by 10, which portrays the great saint on a mighty steed slashing away at one really ugly beast. I loved this piece by the great Flemish painter.

But one would be hard pressed to name any paintings one does not like in the Prado's expansive inventory of the great Spanish and European masters.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza is a wonderful, smaller museum often overlooked by many visitors to Madrid. The collection is most impressive encompassing the works of Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Canaletto, Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Pisarro, Degas, Constable, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Dali.

This museum exists due to the munificence of modern-day celebrities: Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, a German-Hungarian magnate and world-class art collector, and his wife, Carmen Tita Cervera, a former Miss España and ex-wife of movie star Lex Barker of Tarzan fame (Barker was also a direct descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island).

The Baroness's full-length portrait, along with one of the dapper Baron, can be found in the lobby of the museum. She is a striking beauty and earns my vote.

The Baron died in 2002. His widowed wife proved herself to be an accomplished collector. She and her son have been in litigation over several art works he claims are owed to him. The museum's collections are clearly delineated between His and Hers.

The government restored the family villa to house the collection. Two adjoining buildings and a great deal of renovation has been undertaken to accommodate the growing collection and provide room for major exhibitions.

According to Lonely Planet's guidebook, Madrid Encounter, "When the Madrid City Council announced plans in April 2006 to reroute the traffic lanes in front of the Museo del Prado on the eastern side of the Paseo del Prado so that they ran past the Thyssen, the baroness threatened to publicly chain herself to a tree if the plan went ahead." The outcome of this controversy was foreordained: "The prospect of taking on one of Madrid's favourite daughters proved too much for the council, who quietly shelved the plans."

Flamenco as an art form has its roots in the province of Andalusia going back 500 years. Like starving artists everywhere, the singers, dancers, and guitarists migrate to the big city, Madrid, to make a living in their chosen profession. I am informed that flamenco is a fusion of Moorish (Arabic), Gypsy, Jewish and Spanish cultures,

It is passionate, rhythmic, electric, seductive.

Mary and I were able to attend a performance at Café Patas, a popular tablao (dance floor or flamenco venue), which started at 10:30 p.m. Who would want it any earlier? The stage was slightly elevated and small, the size of a modest living room, illuminated by stage lighting. The audience was jammed into the place on two sides but accessible to the servers from the bar. These cramped quarters actually enhanced the immediacy and intimacy of the performance.

The performance opened with three male singers and two guitarists, all in black, coming on stage and taking seats against the back and side walls on the stage. They commenced a kind of a jam session, alternating back and forth between guitar playing and singing, both solo and in unison.

Soon a male dancer, also in black, came out and began the first flamenco dance of the evening. Next, a lovely young woman appeared, not in red, but in a long, light violet dress and performed to the accompaniment of singing, strumming, clapping and snapping, her own and the men's, sans castanets. Evidently, they are a later accretion to the art form and are not traditional.

As the evening progressed, the artists combined all their skills, coming together, singing, playing, man and woman dancing together, in a passionate crescendo which engulfed the audience in an intense musical and emotional conclusion. And the crowd cried out for more.

We were told that Café Patas is a fine flamenco club, but not the best. We can hardly imagine what "best" is for such powerful and overwhelming artistry. But we hope to learn someday.

In Madrid one can get lost in the Prado and in the depths of the Spanish soul through the alchemy of flamenco song and dance.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.