Visual Arts

Las Meninas con las Niñas

We were in Madrid at the end of a long trip that had begun in Lisbon, worked its way through monasteries and castles in Portugal, down to Algeciras, across the Strait of Gibralter to Morocco and back, and finally we were standing in front of “Las Meninas” in Madrid. The year was 1988 and we were showing our two young daughters parts of the world we had seen before but which we experienced quite differently with them in tow.

In those days the masterpiece by Diego Velázquez2 was in a room by itself—a rather small room, but clearly getting royal treatment like no other painting in the Prado. As soon as we found ourselves in front of the painting, Juliet, our 10-year-old, said, “This is my favorite painting! That’s the Princess Margarita in front. You can see the king and queen in the mirror on the door in the back. And that’s Velázquez at the easel. He was painting a portrait of the king and queen3 when he realized the royal children and their servants were standing near him. He decided to paint a picture of the children instead, but added the king and queen in the mirror.” She went on for what seemed like a very long time, her recital based on a slide she had seen at school in New York, and of course, what her teacher had said about the painting. “Princess Margarita was four when Velázquez painted her with her servants, one of whom was a dwarf. The red cross on Velázquez’s chest [the Order of Santiago] was added after he died,” she told us. “…by the king himself. Later Velázquez finished his portrait of the king and queen.”

We remembered seeing the painting before, but hadn’t given it nearly as much thought as Juliet’s teacher apparently had, and clearly it had made a huge impression on her. Perhaps she had fantasized about being a princess herself. We hope she didn’t harbor a secret desire to be a dwarf or a servant! ut this was clearly the highlight of our visit, if not for seeing the painting, one of the most important and enigmatic in Western art, than for hearing its description from our 10-year-old docent.

Our last stop before Madrid had been Granada, where we spent a day touring the ruins of the Alhambra. More than the Prado, our visit there had tied up the loose ends of our trip. Not only had we been overwhelmed by the intricacy and beauty of Moorish art and architecture at every stop in Morocco, we had also seen Mudéjar architecture (the melding of Muslim and Christian elements) at almost every stop in Portugal. One cannot comprehend the Monastery in Batalha, the Convent of Christ in Tomar, nor the Monastery of Jeronimos in Lisbon itself without an appreciation of the Moorish influence (often summarized in the term “Manueline”). We had also climbed to the top of the Giralda in Seville. Built in the 12th century, the Giralda is a copy of the Koutoubia, the minaret that is the pride of Marrakesh that we had seen during our visit to the imperial city (but non-Muslims are not permitted to enter).

More of a surprise, however, was the “Portuguese City” in El-Jadida, with its famous cistern. A tiny enclave in a city of 150,000 people on the coast of Morocco, we were getting a lesson in cross-cultural exchanges that was in our faces and not in a book. Add the French spoken ubiquitously in Morocco to the Arabic influences on Portuguese and Spanish (think alcohol, algebra and coffee) and you have another level of the exchanges.

In all three countries we also visited Roman ruins, another lesson in culture and history–or the history of culture! (“How many Romans had dark curly hair before they brought slaves from Africa?” Pete Seeger sang, so it was more than just cultural.) We also visited churches and synagogues in all three countries, including a beautiful synagogue in Tomar, not far from the Convent. There was even a kosher butcher shop in the middle of Rabat, opposite the synagogue. (But that was in 1988. Old synagogues still dot the cities of Morocco, but the kosher butcher is gone, as are most of the Jews, most of whom fled after the 1956 Suez invasion, long before our first visit in 1970). Mysterious hands maintain the synagogues these days, so on our most recent trip, in May of this year, we were able to visit three, in Fes, Marrakesh and Amazou, a small village near Zagora at the edge of the Sahara. From all appearances, in at least two, of them it seemed the congregation would soon arrive, but that was probably an illusion because I doubt it’s possible to assemble a minion.

(Our older daughter provided one of the other highlights of our 1988 trip, when she married a young, handsome Berber in Marrakesh, in the famous Mamounia Hotel. That we were tourists and this was a show was unimportant. She was 13 and thrilled to be in a Berber wedding, not to mention a Berber wedding dress! But we had the marriage annulled before paying the bill.)

When we were driving back from Rabat to Tangier in 1988, we stopped at one of the myriad rest stops along the main road—a friendly tree. The road was two lanes wide with no services whatsoever and hardly even a shoulder. Spain and Portugal already had a number of four-lane highways by then, but there were no such roads in Morocco. However, what a wonderful place to visit, so we keep going back! (In 2014 there are several modern, limited-access, toll roads in Morocco, but very little traffic, probably because of the cost of the tolls.)

Museums in Morocco are nothing like European or American museums. While there is some ‘art,’ much of what the important museums exhibit consists more of crafts than of art. In Fes, for instance, there is a “Musée des Arts et Métier du Bois” (Woodcarving Museum), which we skipped. The “Dar Batha,” a museum of Moroccan folk art, sounded more interesting, and included some wood carving, but no Goyas!. But most tourists do not visit museums in Morocco. Rather they focus on the shopping–and haggling with the shopkeepers–and they visit the obligatory mausoleums, old palaces, former madrases and similar edifices–even an occasional mosque where non-Muslims can stand in the doorway to view the riad (an atrium with a fountain).

In 1988 it was really impossible to walk in the Medinas of Fes or Marrakesh without a guide; it was too easy to get lost. Furthermore, if one didn’t engage a guide, one was confronted every two minutes by someone offering to ‘be your guide.’ We learned “imshee,’ meaning ‘get away,’ and also chocrun–thank you.’ But it was really impossible. All of the guides wanted very little for their services, but if you don’t actually buy stuff they get quite annoyed because they get a commission for every purchase, including bottles of water, ice creams and the green lipsticks we bought the girls that turned red when you applied them. Magic! Every carpet store wasn’t really a store, according to our guides, but only a place to learn about carpets while drinking free mint tea. The same with the leather shops and every other large store. Even the small stores invited you to ‘just look around.’ But as the day progressed and we hadn’t bought any carpets or brass, the guide got more and more sullen and uninterested. Our favorite guide was the young fellow who said, pointing first to the left and then to the right, “Here is one old mosque and here is one new one.” After that he had nothing further to say.

On our most recent trip we flew from Madrid to Casablanca, the main international airport, and then back to Madrid on our way home. Walking through the Medinas of Morocco is a unique experience, albeit we haven’t been to Algeria or Tunisia or Egypt yet. But the Medina of Fes is one of the largest urban areas in the world that is car free, and in many ways remains as it must have looked 900 years ago (although when looked down upon from the nearby heights, as every tourist is obliged to do, the main thing one sees is 1001 Dish Antennas). But walking around Madrid is also a joy. The damage inflicted by Franco and his fascists has been repaired and the heart of the city is filled with old and beautiful buildings.

We found it hard to identify what makes the architecture of Madrid unique to Madrid. If one was parachuted blindfolded into Paris, I think it would take only an instant to place yourself.  The Mansard roofs, les balcons–not to mention the aromas.  London would be a bit more difficult, but you certainly wouldn’t confuse the two. Nor, I think would you confuse Madrid with any other major European capital. But it isn’t easy (for me) to identify the elements of harmony among Madrid’s architectural gems. Perhaps Wikipedia can describe the architecture of Madrid in a way that we could understand. Though each building is unique, there is a commonality that makes strolling through the city a delight,; it certainly is not like walking up Third Avenue in Manhattan; that’s for sure.

The Prado may be one of the premier buildings of Madrid, but I’m not sure it stands out architecturally except for its size and that it sits on its own site, set back a bit from the traffic and trees. But of course, it is the Prado. In 2006, celebrating the 125th anniversary of his birth, a hundred works by Picasso were arrayed down the center of the main galleries for ‘Tradición y Vanguardia’ (Tradition and Avant-Garde), a retrospective that attempted to show the viewer some of the Old Masters that had (apparently–but there is no documentation) inspired some of the maestro’s familiar canvasses. The exhibition began in the Prado and continued in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

Among the paintings in this unprecedented dialogue between Picasso and the past were Picassos borrowed from museums around the world (to supplement the Prado’s relatively small holdings) interlaced with works by Goya, El Greco, Titian, Veronese, Poussin, Rubens, as well as Ingres, Delacroix, Manet and Degas. Picassos arrived from MOMA, the Kunstmuseum in Basel, the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, among others (all of which I have visited, but if find it difficult remembering which paintings I saw in each).

In the Reina Sofía the exhibition focused, of course, on Guernica and its legacy, since the Reina Sofia has become the permanent home of Guernica after its years at MOMA while Franco was still alive and busy fascistising. And for the occasion, Manet’s “Execution of Emperor Maximilian” was juxtaposed, not only to Guernica, but also to Francisco de Goya’s emblematic work “El 3 de mayo de 1808. Los fusilamientos de la montaña de Príncipe Pío”which was the inspiration for Manet.

But for me, the most exciting moment in 2006, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone, was to find myself standing in front of an opening in the temporary walls down the center of the Prado in which were arrayed the intermingled Picassos, Goyas and Rubens, and seeing “Las Meninas” opposite, hanging in majesty, while inside the central gallery were half a dozen of Picasso’s infamous suite of parodies of Las Meninas borrowed from the Picasso Museum in Barcelona (which had its own commemoration of the 125th). One might think that a parody of the Velázquez was a sacrilege, but if Picasso could get away with paintings of a bull mating with his wife, why not 58 parodies of Las Meninas, a wonderful place to visit.