It’s a short walk—and a large aesthetic leap—from the Prado to the Reina Sofía, which holds Spain’s most significant collection of 20th- and 21st-century works, including Picasso’s Guernica. Opened in 1990, the main museum consists of an 18th-century former hospital designed by Francisco Sabatini, and the post-modern addition by Jean Nouvel that opened in 2005. They house the museum’s collection of more than 22,000 works, as well as an ambitious program of temporary exhibitions, educational events, and talks. The collection is now so large that the museum also uses a couple of palaces in the Retiro park for exhibitions, such as installation art, which require more space. The museum’s three permanent exhibitions are set out in rough chronological order, with various artistic movements grouped by room. Collection 1, “The Irruption of the 20th Century: Utopias and Conflicts (1900–1945)” fills Level 2 of the Sabatini Building; Collection 2 “Is the War Over? Art in a Divided World (1945–1968)” occupies Level 4. Collection 3, on Level 0 of the Nouvel building, is titled “From Revolt to Postmodernity (1962–1982)” and includes a good collection of American pop art.

Current thinking says that in modern art, context is all. That means paintings by Picasso, Juan Gris, Joan Miró, and Dalí are surrounded by photographs, posters, commercial art, and short films describing the world in which the works were created. This approach is particularly effective in the galleries that deal with art related to the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship. If you visit nothing else in the museum, it is worth the admission fee to see Guernica, in room 206 on the 2nd floor. Painted in June 1937, it was Picasso’s response to the unprovoked bombing in April 1937 of the Basque village of Gernika by German and Italian planes at the behest of Franco. Picasso had a commission to produce a large-scale painting for the World’s Fair to be held in Paris that summer; Guernica became his submission. It is hard to overstate the impact it must have had when first unveiled at the Spanish Pavilion. Seeing its huge, violent, black-and-white images in person is a visceral experience, even today. There are also insightful exhibits about the making of the painting, and regular talks discussing it.

On either side of Guernica are two other exhibits that are also well worth your time. Luis Buñuel’s surreal documentary Tierra sin pan (Land Without Bread) is a portrait of Las Hurdes, in the Extremadura region, where in the 1930s people were so backward and poor that they lived in animal-like squalor. Room 205 houses some of surrealist Salvador Dalí’s most famous paintings, including The Face of the Great Masturbator, painted in 1929.

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