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Visiting the Prado Museum with Spanish artist Miquel Barceló

The Mallorcan painter discusses his favorite artworks and masters at Madrid’s world-famous gallery, as he wanders its corridors with his friend, photographer Jean Marie del Moral

Spanish artist Miquel Barceló.
Spanish artist Miquel Barceló.

Where should we start? Van der Weyden, for example. I am standing in front of The Descent from the Cross. I often come to look at this painting. One day, after lots of visits, I realized that its intense presence was due to something very concrete – the subjects are enclosed within a very narrow kind of frame. If you look at the corners of the painting, you’ll notice that they are no more than a meter deep. And in front, there is a line that none of the characters cross. So it’s all contained within a space that is no bigger than our table. Imagine all of us, plus a cross, plus a body, plus a fainting woman inside such a narrow space!

Obviously it’s impossible but Van der Weyden managed to get them all in and it is precisely this that creates a visual contradiction and makes it genius. There is also an extraordinary interplay with the hands; all the subjects are touching each other, there is always a point of contact. If we sent an electric current they would all be electrocuted, except for the Virgin and her son, Jesus Christ. They are almost touching each other but there is a centimeter separating their hands. That centimeter is death.

Barceló stands in front of ‘Las Meninas’ (or, The Ladies in Waiting).
Barceló stands in front of ‘Las Meninas’ (or, The Ladies in Waiting).

Let’s move on to Velázquez. Las Hilanderas (or, The Spinners). These women are weaving and the woman who is using the spinning wheel holds the thread in her hand. If we examine this thread, we see how it turns; it is in contact with the bobbin and ends in the tapestry. It is like the thread of life. If we pull on it, it is all there – even absence. And that is the definition of Baroque. Spin and unravel. Make and take apart. Even the paint seems to be unraveling. Everything within his material can disintegrate. I always thought that Velázquez didn’t like painting. That he did it very quickly. He was an extremely dexterous painter, very efficient. There’s no more efficient painter than Velázquez.

Suddenly, we’re at Titian’s Sisyphus. A vulture tears the liver from a man. Sisyphus is a mythological figure that I used myself a lot when I was younger, seeing it as very close to what the life of a painter is – dragging something very heavy and repeating the effort for practically nothing – the painter with the painting on his back like Sisyphus with the rock, climbing the mountain.

Miquel Barceló, pencil and pad in hand, studies the immensity of ‘Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet’ by Italian artist Tintoretto in the Prado’s central gallery.
Miquel Barceló, pencil and pad in hand, studies the immensity of ‘Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet’ by Italian artist Tintoretto in the Prado’s central gallery.

Then we come to Tintoretto’s Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet. I calculated that two kilometers separate the foreground of the painting from the background in a large Tintoretto work. In Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, Tintoretto distinguishes between the saints and those who are not saints with halos. I love this light. It is as if each one of us had a shining halo on our heads that allowed us to see the holiness of one another. It is as if Tintoretto has created a saintliness hierarchy.

Barceló in El Prado’s central gallery.
Barceló in El Prado’s central gallery.

Light, shadow, silence – madness and purity, heaven and hell: my steps lead me to The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch! Several years ago, I was able to visit the Prado Museum with one of the restorers of his work. And I discovered something extraordinary. When we look at the pigments closely, we see that he used almost alchemical elements to paint. For example, they put a little gold in the fire. The chemists were very surprised to find gold in the paint, but I think for Bosch, it was a way of increasing the intensity of his work. And also, if the paint seems very smooth, when you get close, you can see the micro-matter, the raspberries and the small fruits, in relief. It is something that takes us back to medieval times – there’s something almost animist in the nature of the material, which is very interesting. All the rest, of course, is magnificent – his creation, his universe.

I remember studying Bosch a lot when I was very young and always for long periods, but now I am more drawn to Velázquez, Goya and El Greco. Sometimes I think I preferred Bruegel. Really, it’s like music. Sometimes we listen to Miles Davis all day, and then we stop doing so for years. It’s the same with paintings. But when I discovered the gold in the fire, my interest in Bosch returned. He’s a very mysterious artist.

Barceló’s silhouette against Goya’s ‘La familia de Carlos IV’ (or, The Family of Carlos IV).
Barceló’s silhouette against Goya’s ‘La familia de Carlos IV’ (or, The Family of Carlos IV).

I would like to talk a bit about Luis Meléndez. He was a still life painter, Spanish, from the 18th century. He was the Lionel Messi of painting. He was born into a modest family in Naples. He was so good that they thought he was a prodigy and that they would make a great painter out of him. So he was taken to Madrid. His sister and the entire family painted and he put himself forward every year to paint the king and every year he was turned down. In all of his still-life paintings, you can see the edge of a table. And as we progress through his paintings, the edge of the table becomes more broken, with more knocks as he frays his nerves on it. I think that each letter from the king rejecting Luis Meléndez is a new mark on the table edge, like the notches on Billy the Kid’s gun. He is an amazing painter, like Sánchez Cotán. I think he did only six or seven paintings. Possibly Zurbarán, Sánchez Cotán and Meléndez are the great Spanish still life painters of all time.

Barceló in front of a bronze bust of the young Goya, a work by Gaetano Merchi (1795).
Barceló in front of a bronze bust of the young Goya, a work by Gaetano Merchi (1795).

Goya. El Tres de Mayo de 1808 en Madrid (or, The Third of May 1808). It’s a breathtaking, enormous painting, the colors are marvelous, these yellows… It’s incredible how it can be so tragic and so modern at the same time, and there’s nothing melodramatic about it. That light in the center that is so cold – and the soldiers [are depicted as] a kind of mass. There are various versions of this painting: Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximillian and Massacre in Korea by Pablo Picasso. But none has the same level of intensity.

And here we have La Maja Desnuda (or, The Nude Maja). There is another version of her dressed. It’s amazing, particularly when you see the two of them together. It’s very politically incorrect, even today. The gesture of showing the girl naked and dressed side by side is very powerful, very shocking. I think it was the first naked girl I saw in my life – I was very small. It was so modern. I totally understand how Manet fell in love with her. Afterwards, he painted his Olympia

I remember doing a conference on El Greco in the Prado. All his subjects seem to have emerged from water, as if they are wet. They shine. And the wet fabrics stick to their skin. El Greco’s subjects wear clothes with odd colors, lemon green, bladder green, stuck to their skin in a way that can only mean they are wet. El Greco was an artist who was very close to the gothic tradition. Between El Greco and Velázquez, there is a massive cultural gulf.

When I go to a museum, I always try to take a small notebook in my pocket. There is the odd surprise but I am usually focusing on familiar details. I don’t do it to remember; it’s to help me observe. I also have things in these notebooks that have nothing to do with the exhibition, such as shopping lists, odd notes. I approach the notebooks in the same way that I approach my paintings – without an exact goal. They are a driving force. The notebooks are not studies or preparations for anything. I take notes everywhere I go. I don’t take photos. I draw in my notebooks.

Barceló takes notes as he makes his way around the museum.
Barceló takes notes as he makes his way around the museum.

It feels good that there are art forms that I like more than others and while many are in the Prado or the Louvre, they are also in India or Africa. My interests range from the Louvre and the Prado to the caves of Altamira, Chauvet, Lascaux, Egypt, the Himalayas, African art – everything that has nourished me over the years.

The Prado is a very special museum. It is very radical in that it only contains paintings and almost all from the great Baroque period. The Louvre has a universal vocation, exhibiting everything, while the Prado represents a taste for a type of painting that we could call Great Baroque. It’s a very curious museum – with strange and extraordinary painters such as Zurbarán, Velázquez, Goya and El Greco who represent almost the entire museum. In a lot of ways, this gallery is an island within an island.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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