Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Letter from Madrid
by Ysabel de la Rosa
Workmen hanging Las Meninas in the remodeled Velázquez basilica.
Goya's Mayas reclining just before being installed under ultraviolet lighting.
Diego Velázquez
Las Meninas
ca. 1656
Prado redone: An odd job
As part of the Prado's $21-million interior renovation, 22 exhibition halls dedicated to Velázquez and Goya have been relit, remodeled, redecorated and "inaugurated."

For the first time in Prado history, the entire Goya collection is on display -- 145 paintings divided among nine halls on the second and third floors, and 500 drawings displayed on the first floor. The 40-plus Velázquez paintings now inhabit 12 rooms or halls adjacent to the "basilica," the rotunda where Las Meninas hangs amid Velázquez's portraits of dwarves.

The new arrangement of works makes better sense chronologically, and the Goyas now have interesting and enlightening commentaries accompanying them. All of Goya's 65 cartoons for the Royal Tapestry Factory have been placed in the same groupings in which the finished tapestries hung in their original sites in the Escorial, the Pardo and the Palacio Real.

Of the recent overhaul, Prado Museum director Fernando Checa commented, "I don't believe these changes will cause any controversy, because nothing odd has been done."

That last point is debatable. After experimenting with more than 400 hand-mixed paint combinations, abstract painter Gustavo Torner made more than one odd choice to color the Prado's walls.

His most unfortunate choice is the "amarillento" used as background for the Goya cartoons. Amarillento is Spanish for "yellowish" or "sallow." In this case, it falls somewhere between pale celadon and yellowed celery. Torner chose the color to blend with one particular greenish shade in some of these paintings, which it does well. And just as effectively, Torner's amarillento makes Goya's earthy reds, bright yellows and sky blues go quiet -- too quiet. It's a significant viewing loss.

Other odd choices include the swirling, ochre, leaf-patterned damask wall-covering installed in the Velázquez basilica, and the repainting of a once dove-gray sculpture pavilion in a tone that could be called French cheese-buff, a shade against which white marble can neither shine nor stand out.

As for controversy, Spanish President José María Aznar was greeted by placard-bearing protesters on his recent visit to inaugurate the new exhibition spaces. Most of the protests were over a controversial restoration of El Greco's The Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest. Maybe if they move it to a different wall….

Logo of Spain's National Archeology Museum.
The cost of free speech
In accordance with a 1986 government decree, Spain's National Archeology Museum, unlike the Prado and the Reina Sofía, was not granted operational autonomy by Spain's Ministry of Culture. This left the Archeology Museum in a legal limbo, which museum director Martín Almagro claimed prevented the institution from "moving forward."

Seven months after his appointment, Almagro stated his concerns to the press. The museum has no space for temporary exhibitions; a 20-year-old heating and cooling system puts the collections at risk; would-be donors must go to other institutions to find their tax breaks; and last, but not least, the museum is not permitted to pursue outside funding, acquisitions or research projects.

"This museum is as good as bankrupt," he said. "We cannot operate within the legal framework we've been given. The museum board has not even met since 1981."

His boss, fine arts director general Fernando Pendás, countered Almagro's complaints, saying it would cost too much to add exhibition space, and that there was no guarantee that granting autonomy would improve the museum.

"The Ministry of Culture doesn't have a magic wand," Pendás said. "One must do things poco a poco (little by little), keeping in mind the current resources."

Twenty-four hours after making this statement, Pendás fired Almagro by phone. Two weeks later, Marina Chinchilla, former subdirector of promotion of fine arts under Pendás, replaced Almagro. The day before Chinchilla's appointment, the Cultural Ministry Council approved a decree that confers the same level of operational autonomy on the Archeology Museum as that of the Reina Sofía and the Prado. Pendás told the press that Chinchilla would know how to use the "available resources" to the museum's best advantage.

After the firing, Pendás told the press that Almagro should not have gone public with his "criticism." To this, Almagro replied, "I stand by what I said."

Interior view of the Institute of Modern Art, Valencia
IVAM Turns 10
The Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, Valencia's Modern Art Institute, enters its second decade with plans for expansion. Once additional exhibition space is completed, the museum will display all 7,054 pieces in its permanent collection. Valencia is the birthplace of Joaquín Sorolla and Julio González, among other well-known Spanish artists.

Reina Sofía begins design competition
The Reina Sofía Museum recently opened the design competition for its 15,000-square-meter addition. In the first phase, a 13-member jury will choose six to twelve candidates to present design proposals. The addition will include gallery space, a new restaurant, library and auditorium.

Banco Bilbao Vizcaya has donated seven Anselm Kiefer works to the museum, valued at $500,000. Two are paintings titled I Bring All the Indias in My Hand, and Heaven and Earth. The other five are installation pieces mounted on glass cabinets, done between 1995-98.

Spain's National Sculpture Museum.
Marina Saura (right) and her mother Mercedes.
Reforms at National Sculpture Museum
Spain's National Sculpture Museum will spend $8.5 million to fix up its facility, the 15th-century College of Saint Gregory in Valladolid. The Ministry of Culture approved an additional $1.4 million for restoration of artworks in storage, works that will eventually be displayed with the rest of the permanent collection.

Saura battle continues
During his lifetime, painter Antonio Saura (1930-1998) was a unifying force among Spanish artists and intellectuals. His death has produced just the opposite effect. Saura's daughter Marina and his wife Mercedes claim that before he died, Saura lost confidence in the persons organizing a Saura foundation and museum in Cuenca.

"This is a personal project," said Marina Saura, "one that no one should assume is public property. That is exactly what's happening, and it's a vulgar usurpation."

Saura says her father had doubts about the foundation's organizers before he died. She cited a letter from the artist to his executor, Olivier Weber-Caflishch, in which Antonio Saura complained of the lack of "human and financial commitment" on the part of foundation organizers and requested that work on the foundation be halted until everyone could reach agreement, including Marina, Mercedes and the executor.

The letter notwithstanding, the foundation organizers won the first legal battle on Aug. 4, in Cuenca, when they were granted permission to open a Saura museum. Rubí Sanz, cultural counsel for Castilla-la Mancha (the region in which Cuenca is located), has appealed to the Saura family's "generosity" in order to make the Foundation and museum a reality. But he added that should the family not want to participate, there are "other alternatives to make it possible to exhibit Saura's work in Cuenca."

Did these hands do the painting?
The mummy from the San Plácido Convent.
Where's the body?
There's just one thing missing from the 400th anniversary celebration of Diego Velázquez -- his body. Spaniards have searched for Velázquez's tomb for some 200 years. The first excavation took place in 1845. The fourth excavation, or better put, series of excavations, began last May.

Velázquez was buried in 1660 in the church of San Juan Bautista. In 1819, Joseph Bonaparte (King of Spain from 1808 to 1813) had the church torn down. None of the excavations at the site of the former church, however, have yielded a body that could be certified as being Velázquez's.

In June, there appeared to be a "break in the case" when a body (a.k.a. "the mummy") was found in the crypt of Madrid's San Plácido Convent, an institution Velázquez was known to have been familiar with. The corpse is clothed in the same attire described by contemporary accounts of Velázquez's funeral: a cloak, hat, sword, boots and spurs and, the most important similarity, the cross of Santiago, just as it appears on the artist's chest in his self-portrait in Las Meninas.

With the discovery of the correctly clothed "mummy" at San Plácido, researchers hypothesized that the body was exhumed and moved to the convent some time during the first half of the 18th century. They can't be sure, though, because the body's traveling papers are not in order.

San Juan Bautista's meticulous Book of the Deceased states that Velázquez was interred, but says nothing about an exhumation. While a 13-member ecclesiastical and academic committee determines whether or not to commence still another dig in the Bautista site, experts from Madrid's Complutense University are conducting DNA tests on the mummy. Velázquez died of a virus, and the test should confirm if this gentleman is indeed the artist.

Oliva Arauna
Lotta Hammer
Alberto Gironella
Alberto Gironella
Queen of Sausages
Castellana 150's ad
Inside Castellana 150
ARCO changes
The protests filed by galleries not admitted to Spain's international art fair, ARCO, did not fall on deaf ears [see "Letter from Madrid," 3/5/99]. For the first time in its history, the ARCO selection committee includes nondealers -- museum personnel and nine art critics and historians in addition to the representatives of 13 Spanish and 12 international galleries. Fifty percent of the committee members have served previous terms.

Spanish galleries represented include: Gianni Giacobbi (Mallorca), Cotthem, Alejandro Sales y Carles Taché (Barcelona), Trinta (Santiago), Sibony (Santander), Guillermo de Osma, Oliva Arauna and EGAM (Madrid). International galleries include: Gmurzynska (Germany), Ruth Benzacar (Argentina), Camargo Vilaca (Brazil), Giorgio Persano (Italy) and Lotta Hammer (England).

Another first for this selection committee is the presence of new art centers, such as VAL 130 from Valencia and Trama from Barcelona. The committee will choose 220 galleries to exhibit at the next ARCO, scheduled for Feb. 2000.

Alberto Gironella dies at 70
Alberto Gironella (1929-1999) died Aug. 1 after a long illness at his home in Valle de Bravo outside Mexico City. Gironella's father was a Catalán businessman, his mother a native of Yucateca. Gironella's paintings and assemblages clearly reflected his multicultural framework and heritage. The links in his work to Spanish writers Ramón María de Valle Inclán and Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Spanish artists Goya and Velázquez and Mexican revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata were more than visual choices. They were visceral ones as well, and through them, Gironella portrayed the perennial Spanish-Indian push-pull of Mexican cultural identity at its core. Octavio Paz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, called Francisco Toledo and Alberto Gironella "Mexico's two great painters."

Newcomer on the auction scene
Instead of a canvas, there's a savvy-looking blonde in the frame, and the copy reads, "We want to show you art from a different point of view."

The inaugural ad for Madrid's maverick auction house Castellana 150 is not the only thing that makes it different from the local "Casas de Subastas." Castellana 150 is in the north end of Madrid, not near the museums and palaces, but rather next to the Real Madrid soccer stadium. What's more, Castellana 150's director and floor staff are all female. Its doors stay open during the sacred shopkeeper's siesta. Its catalogues are free, and its commission rate for sellers is 10 percent with no additional service charges.

"Too often people are afraid of the 'ritual' of art auctions," says Castellana 150 Director Maribel Casillas. We want to demystify that image and expand the art-buying market in Madrid -- without, of course, diminishing the adrenaline experience of the competition of a lively auction. We welcome newcomers to the art market, and we're willing to take the time to educate and help them." Which is not to say that experienced, knowledgeable art buyers are not also coming to Castellana 150's "subastas" of art, furniture and jewelry.

In April, an 18 x 22-inch oil by Juan Luna y Novicio -- not exactly a household name in 19th-century Spanish art -- sold quickly for $28,000. The small, "loosely painted" oil turns out to be a preparatory sketch for Soldier with Trumpet, which hangs in the Spanish Senate chambers. At all price levels, Castellana 150 is doing brisk business. A painting by Benjamín Palencia recently sold for $630,000. At the auction I attended, a work was auctioned every minute. A sampling of names: Sorolla, Mompou, Brotats, Palencia, Goya, Oscar Domínguez, Saura, Bacon, Miró and Eduardo Arroyo.

"We want to counter the perception that art sells better outside of Spain," commented Casillas. "Our first-year sales indicate that we are changing that perception." She cites a painting that was brought in at Sotheby's in London that later sold at Castellana 150 for $91,000.

Bids are accepted by fax and by email, as well as in person. Castellana's web site is For the record, the Spanish word for bid is "puja."

YSABEL DE LA ROSA is a writer and artist living in Madrid.