Madrid culture: classic to contemporary

26 Aug 2008 by Sara Turner

From epic canvases to contemporary spaces, the Spanish capital is a paradise for art lovers, says Catherine Chetwynd.

The Prado is in Madrid’s DNA. Even visitors to the Spanish capital who have never set foot inside the city’s equivalent of our National Gallery cannot have missed the large, elegant building on the Paseo del Prado in the centre of Madrid. And it contains a huge collection of the most typical elements of Spanish classic painting by masters such as Goya, Velazquez, El Greco, Murillo and many more.

The museum started in the 16th century with the collections of Carlos V and his son Felipe II, and has been added to by every subsequent Spanish monarch, but the whole was not formalised until the creation of the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture in 1819.

It is best to go with a strategy, since around 2,555 of the full 7,300 works are on show and any attempt to take in everything would be a triumph of optimism over reality. Pick up a plan of the building at the entrance and select just a few artists on each floor to get an idea of the wealth of Spain’s historic artistic talent. Alternatively, two pages of the plan illustrate a manageable 50 of the museum’s masterpieces, encapsulating the best of the collection.

Within walking distance of the Prado, and rather less daunting, is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, named after the family that owned this impressive collection of Western art dating from the 13th to the 20th century. Because the museum is laid out in chronological order, it is easy to choose a period or artist and spend a happy hour or so lost in your favourite paintings. For those who like early 20th-century art, there is an excellent selection of Fauve and Expressionist painters.

Close to Atocha railway station, the Reina Sofia holds one of the most comprehensive modern art collections anywhere in the world. The permanent exhibition and a shop selling designer items are on the first two floors and the second two are devoted to temporary shows. Spanish artists are particularly well represented – Picasso, Miro, Dali and more – and works lead chronologically to the room displaying Pablo Picasso’s powerful Guernica.

Having taken in the bedrock of Madrid’s cultural institutions, there is a raft of museums housed in buildings that are as interesting as their contents. Catalan bank La Caixa sponsors a number of art museums, and diagonally opposite the Prado is Caixa Forum Madrid, housed in one of the few examples of industrial architecture in Madrid still standing.

The former Central Electrica del Mediodia (power station) was converted by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron to considerable effect. The brick façade was restored from near-dereliction, and space added above and below ground. The windows have been filled in and the new upper part has been built with terracotta bricks topped with what looks like rusted lace, making a rich caramel contrast to the softer colours of the original brick below.

The courtyard in front was once occupied by a petrol station and now announces the Caixa Forum with a generous sweep. Inside, concrete walls and staircase lead to the first floor, where the white walls and featureless neutrality of the public areas might induce Kafka-esque paranoia in other circumstances.

Do not, however, be put off. When I was there in June, there was a well-curated and exhibited collection of Alphonse Mucha’s work. It was large enough to be informative but small enough to be manageable and, if this is typical of the standard of events, visitors to the new Charlie Chaplin exhibition are in for a treat. Running until October 19, it consists of photographs, posters, documentary material and excerpts from films, some unpublished.

The restaurant at the top of the building caters for all requirements. The central section is for casual coffee and pastries, look to the right for bistro-style eating or to the left for white-tablecloth formality. The area is suffused with light, even though, from the outside, the building does not look as though it has any windows. Alternatively, for outdoor eating, try the popular and lively terrace bar outside the nearby Atocha rail station.

Close to Caixa Forum is the underground Medialab-Prado, where visitors become a moving exhibit on entry. Halfway down the metal stairs, a camera starts recording your progress from behind, and projects your image on to the wall in front.

The lab is a single room and many of the exhibits are work in progress. This is a digital cultural centre and has been instituted by the City Council of Madrid as a mixture of workshop, exhibition and seminar, plus a space for reflection, research and collaborative work. Because the works are constantly evolving, there is no guarantee that what I saw in June looked the same the following week, let alone in September, but the following gives an indication of what goes on.

Spiral Sunrise is a collaboration between 11 artists who built a solar-powered robot which plots a graph of the rising sun with sand, the idea being to allow night owls to see sunrise – some probably for the first time. Films in the lab show the success of the project, including one graph in the square outside the Reina Sofia, appropriately, bringing contemporary work to the modern art museum. Everything is documented, including the difficulties the group had with the robot, which tended to break down.

Karolina Sobecka’s portable image-recording system (her description) comprises an arc of cameras set by a micro-controller which can assign a time for releasing the shutter of each camera independently or trigger the lot simultaneously. The result records people’s relationship with the space around them and their spatial awareness. When the cameras are triggered simultaneously, they capture one instant from multiple points of view, after which all the cameras are set off in sequence so they can be played back as a video.

I admit to being perplexed by some of the exhibits in Medialab but the creatively abstract results are a stimulating insight into how other people see and interpret things that we take for granted: it is an education and worth a visit.

Innovative use of an old slaughterhouse is an indication of the levels of creativity at work in the Spanish capital. The size and shape of Matadero Madrid has been changed little since its original incarnation, even down to the ribbed tiles, laid alternately vertical and horizontal to create a non-slip floor. Massive spaces lend themselves to all manner of exhibitions, from a design show to video installations, but at the time of writing, no one was able to tell me what would be showing in September, so the descriptions that follow are to give an idea of what you might find there.

The video installations were bewitching, including one which looked like a self-assembling Rubik’s cube, and another comprising stripes which move around and hypnotically melt into each other. The former refrigeration unit, called Intermediae, hosts architectural works that explore the possibilities of rehabilitating a ruin while keeping changes to a minimum. These are also work in progress.

Naves del Espanol, three warehouses at the back of the building, includes a theatre with informal chairs around tables and a small amount of raked seating. Curtains and chairs are covered in rich red velvet, making the place glow, and at the back there is a café-bar.

The space shows an eclectic range of drama, ranging from Troilus and Cressida, presented by British company Cheek by Jowl and directed by Declan Donnellan, to Las Troyanas (The Trojans) in September. A reminder as to how late things happen in Spain and particularly Madrid, Tuesday to Saturday performances started at 9pm.

Further wandering revealed the Design Centre and an exhibition of modern tableware, with eye-catching black and sparkly gold coffee pots, and cups with tubular handles which looked as though they were plumbed into the table. Due to open in September is a floating garden, to which members of the public are contributing plants.

Nearby, close to the Legazpi metro station, there are lots of bars and a mixture of restaurants. Alcobia is a cervezeria (beer bar), Oss 3 sells tapas, and a seemingly nameless cafeteria churreria directly outside the metro serves coffee and snacks such as olives and churros, crescent-shaped fritters that are wonderful with hot chocolate.  

In the northern part of the historic centre is former barracks Conde Duque. The 18th-century building is constructed around three courtyards and houses Madrid’s Cultural Centre, city archives and a traditional printing house. Although the building no longer has any military significance, entrance is via an airport-style security scanner and X-ray machine, manned by two young soldiers who take their job so seriously that my bag and I were thoroughly scanned before they informed me that the building was closed until 5pm.

Exhibitions relating to ancient and modern city life are held here periodically and the current incumbent is an exhibition showing the progress of photography from documentary to art form. The protagonists are Spanish and the exhibition is divided into four parts: the 1970s, 1980s, a journey into the second millennium, and the digital onslaught. A series of Monday evening concerts (7.30pm, except July, August and September) range from Madrid’s music to baroque festivals with musicians from more than 50 countries.

Within walking distance is the Plaza de las Comendadoras, a square that feels like a village and a quiet spot to relax over a drink or a cup of coffee. Otherwise, explore the spaghetti streets, which reveal other open areas. Madrid’s museums cover every subject from the mundane to the arcane and the art museums are typical of this breadth and depth, ensuring a stimulating combination of entertainment and education.


Museums are closed on Mondays unless otherwise indicated. They generally charge e6 for entry except on certain times and days, although some with free entry still charge for certain exhibitions. Check websites for further details. The Madrid metro system is comprehensive, efficient and inexpensive, so getting around is easy.

Caixa Forum
Open Mon-Sun 10am-8pm. Entry is free.
36 Paseo Prado. Metro Atocha, line one.

Visit obrasocial.lacaixa.es.

Conde Duque
Open Tues-Sat 10am-2pm and 6pm-9pm, Sun 10.30am-2.30pm. Entry is free.
9 Conde Duque. Metro Plaza de Espana, lines nine and 11.

Visit esmadrid.com/condeduque.

Matadero madrid

Open Mon-Sat 11am-9pm, Sun 10am-3pm. Entry is free.
14 Paseo de la Chopera. Metro Legazpi, lines three and six.

Visit mataderomadrid.com.


Open Tues-Fri 10am-8pm, Sat 11am-8pm, Sun 11am-3pm. Entry is free.
Plaza de las Letras, 15 Calle Alameda. Metro Atocha, line one.

Visit medialab-prado.es.

Museo Nacional del Prado

Open Tues-Sun 9am-8pm. Entry is €6.
Paseo del Prado. Metro Atocha, line one.

Visit museodelprado.es.

Reina Sofia

open Mon-Sat 10am-9pm, Sun 10am-2.30pm, closed Tuesday.
52 Santa Isabel, Plaza del Emperador Carlos V. Entry is €6. Metro Atocha, line one.

Visit museoreinasofia.es.


Open Tues-Sun 10am-7pm. Entry is €6.
8 Paseo del Prado. Metro Estadio Olimpico-Pueblo Nuevo, line seven.

Visit museothyssen.org.

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