In my journal, on a dramamine-pleading, winding bus ride back to the group hotel lined by yellow stones, I wrote “if there are cities made out of the planet Venus, Madrid is made out of Mercury.” In its gold hues, dry heat, elaborate squares, cobblestone allies, and vivid nightlife, Madrid hosts a beautiful array of galleries and museums worth the visit. In my week in the city, as a part of Temple in Spain, I visited multiple museums and galleries with the group or as a part of solo expeditions. Here is a guide to some of Madrid’s three most popular artistic spaces and what to expect out of them to curate your best museum-hopping experience out of the hustle and bustle.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
C. de Sta. Isabel, 52, 28012 Madrid
This museum I visited independently when I individually visited some of the more contemporary gallery offerings in Madrid that I otherwise wouldn’t have the hours to see. The Reina Sofia is massive, its construction somewhat an extension of an art piece in and of itself. With an intimidating glass exterior, a lush and green courtyard garden with rotating landscaping exhibits, and sunlit and sterile cement hallways, it’s easy to get lost in the bones of Reina Sofia instead of its content.
The pieces are organized thematically rather than by a single era or artist in little marble floor cubicles you enter and exit like multiple micro galleries. Staggered through two-way traffic through arching corridors, the Reina Sofia functions like a labyrinth meant for you to pair with pensiveness and get lost in on your own time.
As far as the pieces go, I definitely recommend exploring the Spanish surrealism section on the second floor. Art historians date Spanish surrealism back to the Spanish Civil War and better depict Spain’s divided political upheaval. One of the most prolific pieces of this time, which falls in a mixture of surrealist elements under the cubism style, is La Guernica by Pablo Picasso; This painting is a massive wall-to-wall depiction of anguish attracting many tourists to this one room of the museum. Out of all the sections in the Reina Sofia, the surrealism section is the only one you can’t take photos in to preserve the gravity of such pieces without endless tourist selfies. Many artists here, like Mexican Artist Diego Rivera and Lithuanian artist Jacques Lipchitz, are not Spanish. I feel like the curation stems from the cubist art style originating in Spain to other examples of surrealism, even if Rivera’s significant greyscale line work represents organized Mexican anti-colonialism from the subjugating Spanish empire.
In my own thoughts and feelings about the museum, I let myself get lost. I was transported through the ornateness of it all in a way that the proud monarchal boastings of the Madrid Royal Palace, for example, never spoke to me. I wandered this museum for four hours total, journaled a babbling stream of consciousness from my brain into my phone’s notes app in the garden, and teared up at Salvador Dali’s famous “Visage du Grand Masturbateur.”
My best tips are to bring a good pair of walking shoes, go at your own pace, and to let yourself wander even if you have no art history knowledge. Follow what you’re drawn to. Also, go after 7pm because the Reina Sofia is free admission after then (come on time to avoid the line!).
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo
C. del Conde Duque, 11, 28015 Madrid, Floors 1 and 2
Situated on the former Conde Duque barracks, this is probably one of the smallest contemporary art museums I’ve ever been to. Still, it was definitely a worthy stop on my day of solo museum excursions. The first floor is a combination of curated works by contemporary Spanish artists varying in themes of immigration to heartbreak on neverending periwinkle walls. One key observation is that many of these contemporary art pieces are derivative of older Spanish art styles, like Surrealism or renditions of famous historical Spanish art pieces. It was interesting to see the evolution of older techniques and theory into modern-day practices.
Upstairs, the museum reconstructed Ramón Gómez de la Serna’s study. Serna was a Madrid-born dramatist and critic with a witty pen and influence creating “Greguería,” or one-liner comedic poetry. The Madrid City Council executed this educational aspect of Spanish art history well by including many chronological walkthroughs and excerpts from the Serna archives, coupled with a fresh burgundy paint and a dim, film noir lounging room so that visitors can stop to read. Along with Serna’s work, there were other examples of Spanish visual poetry, or poetry that utilizes form and other visual mediums to deliver its message, on the walls by contemporary artists to show Serna’s impact on the contemporary art scene.
While these exhibits are also rotating, Serna’s study is a permanent exhibit, and the contemporary curation is definitely worth the free admission to sit and ponder about the depths of Spanish literary arts.
Museo Nacional del Prado
C. de Ruiz de Alarcón, 23, 28014 Madrid
The most well-known of the three museums, the Prado, is Spain’s national historic art museum showcasing art from the medieval period to some temporary contemporary exhibits from international artists. The exterior of this museum is comparable to the palaces and other ornate displays of royal Spanish culture that I saw as part of our group tour led by Temple professors. Seeing some museums through the Temple group tour, which included the art history insight of a professional tour guide, provided knowledge of the context of the historical paintings in Spanish history. Seeing The Prado with the group instead of independently provides the option to get a more in-depth explanation of the historical relevance of the painting versus getting to see the full collection of the museum at your own discretion and pace. While I will say that my time at the Prado was rushed, especially to analyze the pieces in their artistic context, no one day can encompass all of the Prado. The silence of this museum (including the occasional “No pictures!” shushing from the security guards) pairs well with the important tone that the weight of such a famous collection. To fully see everything in the Prado, perhaps bring a tent and camp outside the museum until the next day’s morning hours begin. Then, repeat.
The regal hallways are adorned with opulent architectural embellishments as well as internationally eminent paintings like Las Meninas, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Three Graces, Saturn Devouring His Son, and the Clothed Maja. Downstairs, there are separate rooms organizing painters like Francisco José de Goya with historical placards for the viewer’s education. Overall, this collection spanning across Europe reflects a statement of history rather than sole artistic appreciation in its aesthetic context. Seeing such notorious paintings in the flesh is much different than a postcard or on a screen; for example, in The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, there are so many whimsical characters I didn’t notice before that I got to examine up close.
In my racing notes app, I noted that it is also a testament to Spanish colonial history and the documentation of commandeering, religious revival, colonial wealth, stylistic innovation over the years, women’s sexuality, Catholicism, eating cultures, and wars. You’ll have to go see what I mean for yourself.
My tips for the Prado are, again, be ready to walk until you have blisters, research or ask for a self guide, and map what paintings you want to see perhaps to maximize the time you have available in such a large museum.
Learn about other museums abroad, like in Chile, here!