Just back from a few days' holiday in Madrid. All in all, very pleasant. I saw friends, dined excessively, saw the sights and generally had a good time. I've been to Madrid a few times before, but it's generally been while in transit, so I've only had a couple of days and so have met up with friends and not done the tourist bit. Suffice to say, Madrid - at least what I have seen of it - is a pleasant city. In winter too cold and summer too hot, but now and in the autumn very agreeable. As with all Eurocapitals, it has the obligatory impressive municipal, administrative and governmental buildings. The art galleries, though, are uncommonly good.

The collection at the Prado is good, although there are some relatively poor pieces that are there for the sake of completeness. Apparently, only one tenth of the collection is on display - and that in a very cramped manner - because of a chronic shortage of space. A major building programme is under way; in the meantime, I'd like to have seen some of the more interesting stuff by obscure artists. I do have a few other criticisms; there are some 'major' paintings (by which I mean the ones everyone wants to see) that you can't see. The work of Goya's dark period is hidden in a corner room of an upper floor and requires considerable map-reading skills to locate, although it was worth the navigation: it kept people away. Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, which I had been looking forward to seeing because of supposed commonalities and atecedents to the work of Dali. There was a great press of bodies. Sadly, nothing to do with the picture, but a large group of people blocking out the picture. Similarly with the Bridesmaids; you couldn't see it because of the crowd in front of it. While I appreciate the desire of the Prado to display as many works as possible, they might be better off putting the very popular works in larger rooms (and limiting the approach to, say, three metres) so that people can see them more easily and group around them without limiting the ability of others to browse the collection. The lighting there is also poor, IMHO; aside from conservation implications (which I addmitedly know nothing about), lights falling directly on oils mean you have to move around to avoid flare on the surface of the paintings.

The Reina Sofia was altogether better. It has Guernica/Gernika, for one, and even the untrained eye (mine) can take meaning from it and about the awful events that led to its creation. Guernika, a town in and spiritual capital of the Basque Country, was the first place where Hitler's Luftwaffe, at Franco's invitation, used dive-bombing and strafing techniques that would form a major part of blitzkrieg tactics, leading to horrible loss of life, not to mention what we would now have to call 'shock and awe'. A few years ago, I went to a museum that had a large collection of stuff by Julio Romero de Torres, which I enjoyed greatly. Sadly, there was only one Romero de Torres at the Reina Sofia, but at the other end of the room in which it hung was a piece by one Angalada-Camarsa called Portait of Sonia de Klamery, countess de Pradère. I'll try and find a decent image of it to post, but it is an intriguing portrait. The countess lies across a fallen tree trunk in a forest-like scene (emphatically not woodland). At first impression, she is young, full of vitality and sexuality. A closer inspection reveals through the general features of the body and particularly the face, that she is at least of a certain age. A firebird off to the right, capturing the colours of her dress, seems to be leaving her behind. I shall have to find out more about the artist and the sitter. The more modern works there were also rather good. They avoided the conceptualist bullshit of Young British Artists that seems to revolve around the bloody obvious in crude pictographic form. Given the nature of a lot of the work - far more political than the equivalent in the UK - it would appear that the transition to democracy had not finished, but rather continued, well into the eighties.

The Thyssen was a somewhat surreal experience. I started in an exhibition on the Russian vanguard of the first two decades of the twentieth century. I know very little about the period, and some of it - particularly Kandinsky, who was one of the few names I recognized - I found unintelligible. The profligate use of red was, however, pleasing. One piece I really liked was Formula of the revolution by Filonov, again for which I will try to find an image. It did effectively convey the positive expectations for a brighter world that the Russian Revolution brought, and the chaos that people saw and the order that the Soviets sought to bring from the milieu. Particularly interesting, though, were the slightly-drawn features focussing on the eyes, lost in the lines of the piece. With the perspective of history, the lines and colours that form the chaos of the revolution - any revolution - become the bars that trapped people in the eventual evolution of the experiment. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, they all thought they were going to heaven, but they were going direct the other way. I also saw an exhibition on the Virgin of the Humilities, centring on a piece of that name by Fra Angelico. More of that later.

On another note, does anyone know what formula means in artistic terms?

I went to one of the famous processions for Holy Week. Quite an experience, and by all accounts not a patch on the big pasos of Andalucia. Nevertheless, it was a strange experience. I've spent a fair bit of time in Spain but I've never been there for Holy Week. I mean to say that I was aware of the concept of the pasos, what goes on and so on. Nevertheless, I was taken aback.

The procession, as I saw it, came from a church. In a very Spanish fashion, my friend and I had been watching the final of the Copa del Rey (the equivalent to the UK's FA Cup) in a bar on the street along which the procession would pass. As my friend said, what could be more Spanish - football and religion. The procession would pass along the street from the church and then on around the area. First came people wearing long white robes with purple headgear, very much in the manner of the Ku Klux Klan. Now, I know on an intellectual level that the KKK took that design from the Catholics in Spain, but the emotional impact is of the KKK and all the attendant pseudo-religiosity. When I was working on the summer camp in Andalucia, some of the other monitors were dressing up as penitents in that manner and I had to point out to them that people would interpret them as dressing up as the Klan; the impact to a Spaniard would not have those particular overtones. This group thus dressed proceeded up the street, some carrying large candles, some large crosses over their shoulders, stopping and starting with the stamping of silver-butted staves that the leaders of the procession, walking between the lines of penitents, carried. Behind them came the municipal police in dress uniform and on horseback and then the figure of Christ carrying on the cross on a large float borne on the backs of people underneath.

I am used to processions carried out by the UK military - indeed, I took part in some when I was in the CCF - and the very ordered manner in which they carried such things out. Not to say that this was disordered; just less so.

The ceremony, with music and burning incense, had an austere quality; indeed, an atavistic quality brought on by the religious fervour of those involved in any way in the act. The use of the term 'Mysteries' becomes more obviously useful in that context. I am told that in some processions people do beat themselves - flagellating and mortifying their flesh - in acts of penitence, and I had already made the link to the depictions of actions of religious fervour in the Muslim world that are shown here with an aghast eye on the television.

I could not help but react by seeing the copious amounts of silver and gold, not to mention the rest of the accoutrements of the procession, in terms of housing, clothing and food. This was a base reaction; the fervour and the continuing association with the Church may be the nearest thing to happiness a lot of people have, and I would not deny them that happiness, but I do wonder if the Church, which I always thought should help people's material as well as spiritual lives, is keeping people close to its breast when it might do better to offer them a different balance. It can be said that the Church offers material help in its charitable works but I wonder now if that is more for the benefit of the giver than the receiver.

This brings me back to the paintings of the Virgin of the Humilities. I am not qualified to comment on its artistic merit, but is considered to be one of the most important works of Fra Angelico and it is unquestionably beautiful. All I know is that no-one who attached to themselves the epithet of humilities would be content to sit covered in blue and gold to be adored by the ill-clad, the ill-fed and the ill-housed. Equally with the Crucifixion; the concept thought for so long to be so horrific that Christians used the symbol of the fish rather than the cross is become a point of adoration and emulation. Christ nailed to the cross died away from God - 'Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani' (Mark 15:34). Encouraging people to carry an image of Christ himself carrying a cross may stoke religious fervour but not Christianity when that fervour is directed to the greater service of the Church.

A few other things. Why did the police need to attend the ceremony other than to control crowds? Why does the military need to muscle in and appear everywhere? Why do we have the word 'civilian' as opposed to 'military' but no antonym for, say, education? Why do we need to dress up in uniforms? That, though, must be a question for another time.

All typed on an expensive phone when I'd been on holiday, been picked up in an expensive car to be taken to my second home to continue my privileged existence.


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