Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ghost Station Madrid

Street entrance to Platform Zero

Platform Zero: Chamberí Station / Andén Cero: Estacíon de Chamberí
08/23/11 - Plaza de Chamberí
I must have walked past the entrance to this small, free museum a dozen times in the three weeks since I moved to Madrid, never suspecting that it led down to the ghost metro station of Chamberí.  In fact, once I learned of the museum’s existence via the internet, I circled all of Plaza Chamberí before I noticed the modern, steel-and-glass structure on the corner.  At the bottom of the stairs I found three helpful guards, who directed me to a short documentary on the creation and social implications of the Madrid metro (in Spanish only).  The Chamberí metro stop was one of eight original stations that opened in Madrid in 1919, on a line running from Cuatro Caminos to Puerta del Sol. The Chamberí stop became redundant and closed in 1966.  Today the Madrid metro system is the sixth longest in the world, even though the population ranks 50th in size.  Back in 1919, the metro was also one of the earliest city agencies to employ Spanish women.  The video contains an interview with one of the first female metro workers, who attests to happy and collegial times below ground.  

After the video I was free to pass through the turnstile and make my way down the abandoned tunnel to the platform.  I spent three seconds in cowardly hesitation before proceeding. Empty subway tunnels with blind corners and faded antique signs are eerie, as Scooby-Doo and Shaggy might attest.  Piped-in jazz music heightens the effect. Classic white subway tiles cover the curved ceiling and walls, and original painted tile advertisements line the platform.  Visitors are prevented from throwing themselves onto the track by a plexi-glass barrier: even though the Chamberí station is not a stop, Line 1 trains still barrel through at regular intervals.

The following day I returned with S1 and S2, who decided that Platform Zero provides ample "production values" for a scene from their crime thriller movie, now in the heady stage of scripting.

Exit turnstiles

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Where the Plunder Came to Rest: Museum of America

Museum of America

The Museum of America / Museo de America
08/21/11 - Avenida Reyes Cat
ólicos, 6
The Central and South American loot gathered by Spanish explorers and conquerors, from pre-Columbian to Colonial eras, is beautifully presented.  With one exception: it was difficult to see items clearly through the wavy glass panes of the reconstructed eighteenth-century “Cabinet of Natural History”—a case of historical accuracy gone too far?  I liked the headgear in this cabinet of wonders, but I wish it had been labeled.  The intricately-woven skull caps with jutting visors may have been Incan, but my only frame of reference hearkens back to Hergé’s illustrations in the Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun

For some reason the majority of artifacts in the collection came from Peru—including ceramic vases in charming shapes: a Guanábana fruit, a potato, a cocoa pod, two sweet guinea pigs that reminded me with a twinge of the pet we gave away before we moved, and a perfectly Disneyesque ray fish (Un pez de raya, Cultura Mochica, 700 B.C.E.-100 C.E.).  The Peruvians were master ceramicists, I must conclude. 

Aside from a Hawaiian chief’s cape of woven feathers from the eighteenth century, Cheyenne moccasins, Eskimo boots, and a few Northwest Indian carvings, I saw little to represent North America in the collection. Looking through the brochure later, I noticed a photo of a reconstructed Teepee. It’s possible that a portion of the exhibit was closed or that I missed a room.  I don’t mind; fine Northern American Indian artifacts can be found in many U.S. museums.

One whole room is filled with The Treasure of Quimbayas (El Tesoro de los Quimbayas, 1000-5000 B.C.E.), pre-hispanic gold ceremonial and ornamental objects dug up in Colombia in 1890.  In 1893, the President of Colombia presented most of the pieces to the Regent Queen Maria Cristina of Habsburg to thank her for helping in a border conflict with Venezuela.  A quick web search reveals that groups in Colombia have attempted to repatriate the treasure since at least 2002. 

I should also mention the Mayan Codex and related items, as well as the paintings covering a range of subjects.  Most interesting was a series of eighteenth-century paintings that attempted to describe various racial combinations in colonial society (“Escenos de Mestizaje”).  The racial definitions, based on family lines and origins, dictated a person’s relative power in society. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The National Museum of Natural History / Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales

08/20/11 - José Gutiérrez Abascal, 2 
In late August, Madrid is 95 degrees in the sun. Coke from a small glass bottle, poured over ice with lemon, and quaffed in the leafy bower of a café outside the Natural History Museum, costs 3 Euros.  For a few Euros more, you can enter the air-conditioned museum (5 Euros) and spend an hour or two pondering the origin of species. 

Pope Benedict XVI is in Madrid this week, and the streets and tourist areas spill over with roving, chanting bands of Catholic youth from every continent.  Very few of them were in the museum, however, to view the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, or ponder man’s evolution from our earliest ancestors in Ethiopia to the Neanderthals of Spain—whose footwear here, incidentally, looked much like the furry après-ski boots of a chic Andorran resort.  I especially enjoyed the exhibit on Mediterranean wildlife, since my wildlife sightings thus far have been limited to pigeons.  A confusing diorama—perhaps left over from the late XIX century? My Spanish wasn’t good enough to suffer the long explanatory note—resides under a huge bell-jar.  It consists of the skeletons of Adam and Eve (she’s holding an apple) amidst specimens of purported fauna from the Garden of Eden. 

If you’re the sort of person who likes to see beetles and butterflies in rows; the largest meteorite that ever landed in Spain; gorgeous crystal formations; the full skeleton of a gigantic cave bear; iterations of the same animal with minor changes and adaptations; and a hummingbird the size of bee!; you will find them here.  My favorite, though, was the reproduction of footprints preserved in some primordial mud, from several million years ago, when ancestors first walked upright on the earth.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Creep Factor - Selected Works at the Prado

The Prado Museum / Museo del Prado
08/06/11 - Calle Ruiz de Alarcón, 23
With the Professor, S1 and S2 in tow, we opted for tapas rather than dinner, including: Goya’s Black Paintings, a few rooms of El Grecos, and Bosch’s utterly insane painting The Garden of Earthly Delights.  In other words, enough to live on for several weeks.

El Greco.  Let me unleash this sacrilegious thought right away.  As a child of a border town (San Diego), El Greco’s color schemes remind me of the black velvet paintings hawked in Tijuana tourist shops of the 1970s.  Even with our unformed and barely critical minds we derided those velvet paintings as tacky; for a brief moment in the 1990s they may have earned a certain ironic cachet.  But what I love about El Greco is his color, unlike anything being done at the time.  A black velvet El Greco would make my day.*

Outside the Prado: Goya the artist, Ritz the hotel
Goya. Between 1819 and 1823, he filled a large room of his house with dark, dark images meant only for his own perusal.  The 14 paintings were discovered after Goya’s death, painted directly onto the walls. The house and its contents then changed hands several times.  One owner tried to auction off the paintings in the 1870s, but found no buyers.  The paintings were finally donated to the Prado, and were transferred to canvas.  For S1 and S2, “Saturn Devouring His Son” is now seared into their brains.  And that is what art is all about.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.  Thank you, reference source of the lazy and undisciplined, Wikipedia: “…in no other painting does he achieve such complexity of meaning or such vivid imagery….20th-century art historians are divided as to whether the triptych's central panel is a moral warning or a panorama of paradise lost.”  Hieronymus, what more can 21st-century art historians say? 

*Not so sacrilegious after all.  From Wikipedia entry on “Black Velvet Painting,” for what it’s worth: “Black velvet paintings originate in ancient Kashmir, the homeland of the fabric. These original paintings were generally religious and portrayed the icons of the Caucasus region which were painted by Russian Orthodox priests.  Marco Polo and others introduced black velvet paintings to Western Europe, and some of these early works still hang in the Vatican Museums.” Accessed 19 August 2011.

Best Small Museum in Madrid

Sorolla Museum / Museo Sorolla
08/10/11 - General Martínez Campos, 37
In the early twentieth century, the Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla lived and worked in house number 37, General Martinez Campos Street.  His paintings are full of light, accessible and beautiful but not bland—the kind almost no one but the most snobbish modernist would object to hanging in their home.  Sorolla was successful during his lifetime, and most of his subjects—the beach, lovely women and children, quaint locals, landscapes—are crowd-pleasers.  

One large canvas, “Mother and Baby” is an expanse of cool, billowing serenity.  Aside from the paintings, the house itself is worth the visit.  The first floor is still furnished as Sorolla left it, with the artist's studio and his inviting day-bed.  

The artist's studio
The Sorolla Museum also has a lovely garden based on designs from the Alhambra.  

The museum is just right for my burgeoning homeopathic experiment. S1 and S2 are ages 15 and 12, and just beginning to build up their tolerance for rooms full of paintings. Their only comment was that Sorolla seemed to like painting naked little boys on the beach.  It’s early days yet.

Hobnobbing with Nadal, and Don't Forget Your Camera

Madrid Wax Museum / Museo de Cera de Madrid
08/19/11- Paseo de Recoletos, 41
Accompanied by S1 and S2, who trundle through musuems as though they have a train to catch, we actually caught one at the start of the Madrid Wax Museum: El Tren de Terror.  As we chugged in darkness past snarling rats (shades of the NYC subway), chomping crocs, the head of a T-Rex, and a smattering of odd tableaux in glistening papier-mâché (scenes from the movies Alien and Star Wars), we arrived at the ride’s apotheosis—a jungle containing a U.S. Army helicopter, soldiers, and Rambo with his machine gun pointed directly at us, shooting merrily away.  We on the Train of Terror did not stand a chance.

The rest of the museum is a chronological pageant of historical, imaginary and contemporary luminaries, in rich costume.  Cervantes at his desk.  Shakespeare hovering behind a dying Juliet. Rafael Nadal preserved for eternity in a very strange facial contortion.  Christopher Columbus spreading the riches of America at the feet of the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.* 

There are four U.S. presidents in the main exhibit—Eisenhower (standing near Stalin and Hitler), and a trio of Obama, JFK, and Lincoln.  Only JFK hit a false note:  I didn’t recognize the man.  I forgot my camera, thus was free to observe which figures were most-posed-with on this particular day.  The Spanish Royal Family and Champion World Cup football team scored high on the list, as did General Franco, Miley Cyrus, Antonio Banderas, and the writer Mario Vargas Llosa.  The upstairs Gallery of Crime (Galería del crimen) was empty of visitors, and all the more creepy for it.  In Spain, tortures of the Inquisition seem like a must-see, and the spiked wheel did not disappoint.  (Not to mention spikes in other forms of torment). 

George Clooney, on this day, stood all alone.

*Note: I’m looking forward to visiting Madrid’s Museum of America / Museo de America, for its take on the age of exploration; according to one description, “The most important pieces of art that the conquistadores found are displayed...” (my italics).