Tripping over Art

In this city, art is everywhere.

Spain March-mid April 238.JPGSo we are slowly finding our feet in our new city…and I mean that quite literally. We don’t have a car, and it seems we don’t really need one, so we are walking everywhere we can and using public transit for longer journeys. We start our day by walking to Jon’s place of work , a 45 minute jaunt with the return journey doubling the time and distance for me. The route features the green shade of Retiro as well as the pool of tortugas (turtles) to be found in the rather less picturesque Atocha Station so it’s no real hardship and makes a great, active start to the day.

And at weekends, with more time to explore, we walk for pleasure. Walking is such a wonderful way to make friends with a city, one of my greatest pleasures has always been exploring a new location on foot. Sure, it can  be a challenge here in Madrid sometimes; the traffic is noisy (the Spanish love their horns!), and the streets stinky with fumes, cigarette smoke (many Spanish still smoke) and other less desirable odours – the concept of picking up after your pooch is only just getting going here so you have to watch your step, and peeing in the street after a night on the town is as socially acceptable here as littering. A veritable army of street sweepers emerges each morning to pick up and clean up after the previous night’s carousing.  But, these minor irritations of city living, one of the  joys of walking the streets is the unexpected hidden, delights that you stumble upon that simply cannot be seen from a car. Flamboyant architecture, children dressed to the nines, fascinating little stores, dogs and cats, churches and shoes…this is a footwear culture gone mad…all of these are on display as you walk. And, in the central barrios, like the one we live in, it seems you cannot go far without bumping into art. Art museums, art galleries, art exhibitions, art is everywhere. Madrid is an art-lovers delight. It’s a little overwhelming.

To take last week alone, I visited two galleries and an exhibition in the space of three days and two of these I stumbled across while en route to other places. And these are just the small galleries tucked into out of the way corners of the city.  In previous weeks I have made trips to the both the Reina Sofia and the Prado  – both of these more than once – as well as the Caixa Forum and El Greco’s home in Toldeo. I am tripping over art everywhere I go!

Returning home from my Thursday morning Spanish lesson,  I chanced upon Fundación March, located just at the top of our street, wandered in to see what was on offer and found an art exhibition…a free exhibition, as many are. There are numerous fundacións in Madrid. Founded by large companies or wealthy individuals and families they focus on different ways of giving back to society. Many spotlight the creative arts. The exhibition I saw at Fundación March examined work from various artists and photographers from a variety of countries which was made in the 20 years following Hiroshima. It was disturbing  and was bleak but fascinating, with paintings (many of them abstract) juxtaposed with photographs making it hard to distinguish between the two. The images in general were strikingly monochromatic and angular and although there were that showed the destruction in any detail they all conveyed the emotion of despair. I will have to go back and look in more detail at some of the paintings.

Another place I will be returning to is Museo ABC, a small gem of a gallery  which Jon and stumbled upon on Saturday in the pouring rain (I am just the teeniest bitter about the weather we are experiencing in Madrid which has been consistently cool and wet for the past fortnight in contrast to hot sunny Calgary!) We were in Barrio Centro on a mission to find and join an outdoor club which we had discovered on-line, and so were in search of (as it turned out) a tiny doorway in an old cobbled street behind which was an outdoor enthusiasts dream book-store (assuming you read Spanish!) and a very helpful guy who spoke no English but answered our poorly worded questions with great patience and signed us up as members. Flushed with success we stopped for a quick coffee at a great café, then set out for nearby Plaza d’España and the Temple Debod….and the heavens opened…so instead, we quickly scurried for the nearest shelter where we could spend an hour, and thus stumbled across Museo ABC.

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The Cheshire Cat

This art gallery is dedicated to the art of illustration (storybooks, comics, magazines etc) and featured an exhibition on comic-book superheroes (not my thing but it was popular with the guys!), another on Blanco y Negro, Spain’s first illustrated cartoon political satire magazine (rather like Punch). Given our limited Spanish and even more limited knowledge of the details of Spanish political history at the end of the  C19th, for us, the best exhibition was the one featuring the

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The White Rabbit

history of Alice in Wonderland book illustrations  which absorbed both of us for a long time. It featured many wonderful, contemporary illustrations of the classic text…copies of many of these books were on sale…I had to talk to myself very severely! Examining the original artwork made me me want to rush home and start playing with my art materials. So we will also keep an eye out for exhibitions there and see what else comes along.

Spain March-mid April 236But I have saved the best for last. On Friday (the one sunny day in a cold, rainy week) I walked from our apartment to the Museo Sorrolla. This gallery is actually housed in the beautiful home of the artist Joaquím Sorolla, a contemporary of Claude Monet and the Impressionists, whose work shows many Impressionist features but is simultaneously much more realistic and more energetic. His use of colour and brush stroke was absolutely amazing and I was blown away by picture after picture.  Sorolla is known as the ‘el pintor de la luz’ (the artist of light) because of his ability to portray the play of sunlight on water, clothing and skin.Spain March-mid April 248 Examining his huge paintings (mostly painted ver quickly en plein air) was an incredible experience. In a letter to his wife he said that he ‘painted with his eyes’ and the effects he achieved were quite remarkable; photographic without being in the least like photographs. The pictures of children on the beaches seemed almost alive. The museum housed many of his best paintings still hanging in the locations he chose for them and the tiny enclosed formal gardens with their fountains and shade along with the light-filled house were an oasis of calm in a busy city. Another gallery I will be returning to for sure! And all this without even mentioning the far more famous museums and exhibition spaces; the Prado, the Reina Sofia,the Caixa Forum, The Thyssen and CentroCentro.

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Spain Early days 098Finding a new identity is an interesting process.

Over the last few months we have dismantled our life in Canada piece by piece and now find ourselves born anew as Madridleños – people of Madrid. But this new identity does not yet fit us. It’s itchy, scratchy, a little uncomfortable: we are Europeans, but we are not Spanish; in our new language we are less fluent even than toddlers, we fumble simple adult tasks because we cannot nuance and finesse our understanding of adverts, packaging, or critical documents; we are unfamiliar with our neighbourhood, unable to find our way back to the cafés we like or landmarks we encounter.  In short, our lives are fluid. They shift unpredictably beneath our feet and we are not yet quite sure of who we might  become in this new country.

So it is a small relief in the midst of all this uncertainty to discover and reclaim one part of myself, the part that loves the calm introspective space provided by nature. Retiro and the Rockies, so very different from one another – the one a mannered, manicured park in the heart of a bustling city, the other a wild untamed wilderness – but both but both providing mental sanctuary in a busy world.

Retiro is how we start our day in Madrid. Jon and I wake early and around 7 a.m. we set out along deserted streets for the 50 minute hike to Jon’s place of work. Within minutes are in El Parque Retiro, the 350 acre park in the heart of one of the oldest barrios in Madrid. Retiro means retreat in Spanish and the park was originally built as a retreat  for the Spanish Royal Family in 1561 in the grounds of the church of San Jeronimo. Over the years, under the direction of various kings and queens the grounds were landscaped and the gardens formalised. Grand buildings (now often used for exhibitions) and statues were added. At one time there was even a zoo.

The park became a public space in 1886 at the time Queen Isabella was deposed in ‘The Glorious Revolution’ and has been claimed by the Madrileños as their own.  All that history. Europe is full of history, everywhere you turn. But history is not where I am at so early in the morning. I am too busy watching the small details of  life in the park.

Spain Early days 078At that time of day no one is around and the many feral cats have the place to themselves. These feral cats look unusually sleek and well-fed unlike others I have seen in Spain. We see them scooting like silent shadows across the paths in front of us and watching us furtively from under hedges and behind statues. They are out in force in the evenings as Jon walks home from walk, but at the time I am retracing my steps just an hour later all the cats have vanished, probably because the dog-walkers are out in force, and I am left wondering where they all hide out for the day. Their place is taken by chirring, croooing groups of huge pigeons so fat they can barely waddle along the pathways to peck at the bread that a triad of older women bring for them each day. And just this morning I watched an old man feeding the birds. He was standing in the middle of a small ampitheatre, arms outstretched, with pigeons at his feet and sparrows landing on both hands to feed.

And it transpires that our arrival in Spain coincided almost exactly with the arrival of spring and the attendant spring-cleaning activities in the park! Retiro looked rather shabby and down at heel on our first morning walk but over the last two weeks, an entire army of park staff have moved in and every day I have watched as they have raked dead leaves out of hedges, laid turf, trimmed topiary, cut out dead branches, cleaned out the waterways, rototilled the beds, swept away a winter’s accumulation of city grime and begun planting . The place is looking quite spiffy now and nature  and the sunshine, has responded in kind. The blossom trees are in full bloom, delicate almond blossoms and the triumphant heralds of the magnolia buds. There is a haze of green appearing on many of the deciduous trees and the birds are everywhere – seemingly unfazed by the quantity of feral cats! There are magpies like a plague and blackbirds, sparrows, white ducks and mallards and something I have yet to see, a bird that twitters and chirps melodically making the whole park sound like spring. And yesterday I saw a beautiful bright green bird with a red head that I suspect is some kind of woodpecker digging away in the dirt. And later in the year, when it is warmer, there will be parakeets although, like raccoons, they are an invasive species and regarded by the city as a pest.


And somehow, even though the weather has been cool and blustery most days, the sky above Retiro is  almost always blue giving me a small link to Calgary and a way to find my identity.

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Don’t see many of these in Calgary though!

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