I don’t know much about art history.
At this point, I’ve been to a lot of art museums, but my knowledge comes mostly from what I read in the informational placards and my own personal feelings. For a while, this seemed like a fine way to do things. Then I had a few chances to overhear a guided tour and realized that, on my own, I don’t really appreciate what I’m looking at. It’s not just art, it’s also history, and boy oh boy is there a lot of it. So what you’re going to read here are my very semi-educated reflections on some of the most important and influential works in western art. I wish I had more to offer, but I’m not being falsely modest when I say I don’t really know what I’m talking about.
That said, on this trip, I had the good fortune to be guided through the museum by my friend Francesco, who is a) Italian (useful for when you’re viewing Italian art), and b) very good with art history. So, for instance, he explained to me the difference between the Italian school of painting and the Dutch, how the baroque style shifted over time, Raphael‘s masterful draftsmanship, Titian‘s attention to color, and Caravaggio‘s influential use of chiaroscuro. At one point, Francesco gestured toward a painting: “This painting is very famous, for no particular reason,” he tells me, which is a characteristic evaluation. Probably the next best thing after a well-informed guide is an opinionated one, and in this instance I was lucky to have both.
For my part, I felt most attracted to the works of El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya. Of the three, Velázquez is the most traditional (although I feel that is not the best word to use here), and his painting Las Meninas is one of the most famous on display in the museum. I only just now learned from the Wikapedia page that it “has long been recognized as one of the most important paintings in Western art history.” Which, again, shows you how much I know: I liked it and thought it was super cool and a bit of a mind-trip. Had no idea it was quite that important.
El Greco came as much of a surprise to me as to his contemporaries. After halls and halls of precise aesthetics, the color and imagination come as a shock to the system. Many of the other artists we looked at shared chains of influence that ran in a direct line from one artist to the next. Meanwhile, El Greco belongs to a group of painters who won’t appear for another two to three hundred years. To borrow commentary from Francesco, when most people talk about such-and-such an artist or this-or-that painting being “ahead of its time” or “a precursor to X movement,” it feels like a bit of an exaggeration. With El Greco, you are without doubt looking at the precursor to Expressionism and Cubism—at the turn of the 17th century. I still can’t wrap my head around that.
Out of everyone, I was most keen to see Goya. He was the painter I remembered most from what little art history I took in high school, and the only one I had read about since. As with everything else on display, El Prado did not let me down. While I greatly admired his portraits, I was mostly interested in his Black Paintings, specifically that of Saturn Devouring his Son. In his lighter or more formal moments, I detect a strong undercurrent of irony running through Goya’s work. His portraits of the royal family are so brutally honest, you almost wonder how he kept his job. Only in a few instances do Goya’s portraits seem to express a genuine admiration for the subject. As a whole, Goya’s paintings seem compulsively sincere.
Perhaps this is why I feel so drawn to his more horrifying subjects. Goya captures humanity, even in the midst of terror and suffering. His Disasters of War series depicting the brutality of the Peninsular War are one such example, as are his paintings The Second of May 1808 and its pair, The Third of May 1808. But his Black Paintings feel like a descent into some of the bleakest recesses of the human psyche, a deeply disturbed and deeply private expression of Goya’s soul. Painted directly on the walls of his house, he may never have intended them for public display. Perhaps that is why they make me feel as if I should turn away and look closer at the same time.
Somehow, even after 6 hours of intense exploration, we managed to miss Bosch, and we ran out of time to check out a temporary Goya exhibit upstairs. Fortunately, the museum is free for the last two open hours every day, so I’ll have a chance to go back.
Which I intend to do, several times. Great art humbles me, places me in a position of awe that very few other things are able to do. There is a deep beauty, even if the darkest subjects, which stuns me. I find myself paralyzed by wonder.