Madrid, myths, emotions

In October I presented a paper at the biennial myth conference at Universidad Complutense, Madrid: ‘Myth and Emotions’. This was my second visit (the first, in 2014, culminated in a chapter in the fine collection Myths in Crisis: The Crisis of Myth, which I covered below). It’s a big conference, from Monday to Friday with papers in Spanish, French, and English, and I wasn’t able to attend the whole week. When I arrived, part way through an afternoon session, my Englishness painfully apparent, the empty bowl of tea-bags was instantly replenished. That’s the sign of some devoted and thoughtful conference organising.

Detail of horse from Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica detail, 1937. Museo Reina Sofia

The Essex myth blog hosts an endearing report on the conference, and I wrote some preliminary remarks there, so here I’ll limit my comments to other matters. In 2014, I planned an afternoon away from the conference to see Guernica at the Reina Sofía museum (it was controversially relocated from the Prado a few years ago). It is, of course, an absorbing work; one detail that impressed me, seeing the painting in the room, was the care paid to the texture and shading of the horse’s teeth, and then the paint being allowed to run. This juxtaposition of painterly verisimilitude and deliberate carelessness creates a rupture: a small piece of artistic violence as a focus for the horror depicted throughout the canvas.

Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child (Prado)
Bernard van Orley, Mary and Child, 1515-1520. Museo del Prado

On this latest visit to Madrid, my gallery destination was, naturally, the Prado. With just a few hours, it is only possible to see a small fraction, hence it became a trip through the greatest hits, taking in Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Brueghel, The Triumph of Death, and whole rooms of Velázquez. I somehow managed to miss Titian entirely. These days I don’t get out much, and I could tell I was missing my family because some of the paintings moved me terribly: Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child, in which the Christ child tugs on a red rosary, symbolising his eventual crucifixion; the geographical scale and quotidian detail of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt credited to a follower of Joachim Patinir, which recalls the Shield of Achilles in scope; the small exhibition ‘Childhood unveiled: Images of children in Spanish Romantic art’ had some wonderfully, delightfully expressive young faces, especially the gentle care in Joaquín Espalter y Rull’s Manuel y Matilde Álvarez Amorós, and the playfulness of Carlos Luis de Ribera y Fieve’s Retrato de niña en un paisaje. But it was Velázquez’s The Coronation of the Virgin which made me shudder. For some reason, the paintings in the Prado made me particularly sensitive to the human emotion of the Christ narrative. Well, the title of the conference was Myth and Emotions, and here I was, profoundly affected by the great numinous tale of the common era. Happy Easter.

Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin (Prado)
Diego Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin, 1635-1636. Museo del Prado
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Visit to Acropolis Museum

Acropolis Museum, 18 May 2012

View of Acropolis and Museum from Lykavitós
View of Acropolis and Museum from Lykavitós, May 2012
Moschophoros (calf-bearer), c. 570 BC.
Moschophoros (calf-bearer), c. 570 BC. Photo: Acropolis Museum.

The forecourt of the beautiful Acropolis Museum is suspended over the remains of ancient buildings, so it imparts a sense of great historical significance before we even enter the building. Visitors follow a path through a sequence of galleries, beginning with the Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis, which itself gently slopes upwards. At the top of the slope is the staggeringly rich Archaic Gallery. Here are the remains of the archaic Parthenon, and all that was buried after the burning of the Acropolis by the Persians in 480 BC. The main room contains many korai and other votive offerings; I particularly liked the Μοσχοφόρος (calf-bearer, c. 570 BC) – a man carrying a content-looking calf to sacrifice: it reminded me of Picasso’s L’Homme au mouton, but a very different style. Picasso’s lamb was sketched, then cast in bronze in 1943 in occupied Paris. The archaic calf is the very image of the assenting sacrifice victim, an implicit blessing of the rite that will see its death. The war-time lamb is an image of struggle, dissent, and anguish, but the construction of the two sculptures reaches across the centuries to each other.

Picasso, L’Homme au mouton, 1943 (Picasso Museum, Paris).
Picasso, L’Homme au mouton, 1943 (Picasso Museum, Paris). Photo: March 2008

The museum route then leads to the Parthenon Gallery, but before encountering the frieze, metopes and pediment sculptures, we are encouraged to watch a short film about the Parthenon (it was nice to sit down, too). The texts in the gallery and the commentary in the film do not mince words when discussing Elgin and ‘his crew’. Upon entering the Parthenon Gallery proper, the reason behind the sniping language is clear. The museum is designed so that the angle of the top floor is parallel with the Acropolis itself, and is glass from about three feet from the floor to the very high ceiling. Visitors are thus encouraged to observe the Parthenon through the great windows, and then turn around to see the sculptures. It is an undoubtedly powerful experience. Duplicates of the British Museum’s collection are pointedly flagged up; some remains are also in the Louvre, and one or two other places. When I first heard about the new Acropolis Museum, and how part of the intention was to ‘shame’ the British Museum into returning the Parthenon Sculptures that it keeps, I thought that such an emotional appeal was a whimsical idea. Once, when I voiced this opinion, I was mocked for preserving a stereotypical British John Bull mentality, but I countered that it was purely sentimental to hope for the re-unification of all the surviving pieces. On my last visit to the British Museum, in April 2011, I had been persuaded to support the sculptures’ retention in London. The ‘Elgin Marbles’ are a part of the world’s shared history, and the British Museum – relic of Empire as it is – should not be compelled to whitewash the sins of the past, but should be encouraged to present the nation’s plunder in as unbiased a manner possible in a state-funded institution. The portion in London tells the story not only of the Greek collective genius, but of the accidents, follies and arguments of the intervening two and a half thousand years. This was my reasoning: that to attempt to recreate a fixed point in the past risks wiping the history – however regrettable or dispicable – of the intervening time. The Acropolis Museum completely reversed that attitude: it presents the sculptures so perfectly in its context that it indeed puts the British Museum’s Parthenon gallery to shame. But there are two levels of argument: the rational or political argument is the one that the British Museum deploys, and, in its documents and public statements, it ties complex legal and pedantic knots. What fails to be acknowledged in public often enough is the real threat of the precedent that the return of the Parthenon sculptures would set. If the British Museum returned everything it has acquired by dubious or dishonourable means (aware of the anachronism of applying today’s standards to historical transactions), it would be largely empty. Art should not attempt to join rational arguments, though – it need only appeal to emotions: something that the present Athens museum does amply.

Dionysos: cast on the east pediment of the Parthenon; cast in Acropolis Museum; original in British Museum. Photo: Ben Pestell, 2012.
Dionysos: cast on the east pediment of the Parthenon; cast in Acropolis Museum; original in British Museum. Photo and collage: Ben Pestell, 2012.