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Agony to ecstasy

John Lanchester returns to the Prado in Madrid, which he first visited as a 19-year-old

John Lanchester | November/December 2015

My engagement with museums has been a game of three parts – so far – and in all three of them the question of children has been defining. In the first third, I was a child; in the second, I wasn’t; in the third, I’m a parent. My sense of what museums are, and are for, has changed accordingly.

Museums are places of education, and childhood is where most of our education takes place, so it’s only natural that museums should have a relationship with children. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, during my childhood, museums were places of torture. It went both ways: my parents tortured me by taking me to them, and I tortured them back by being irrevocably, inconsolably bored. This usually happened on trips abroad, because Hong Kong, where we lived, was short on museums – one of the great things about it, I then thought. When we went on holidays, they would drag me, at times literally, around great museums of the world. The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul was one; the National Palace Museum in Taipei, home of the treasures taken into Taiwanese exile by the Kuo­mintang, was another. I now think these were extraordinary places to have visited, and I salute my parents for their imagination in doing so. At the time, though, for a pre-adolescent boy interested in science fiction, football and chess, these were lower circles of hell.

The switch wasn’t thrown until my gap year. I spent a few months Interrailing and hitchhiking around Europe, and in the course of that trip, at 19 years old, I caught the bug. Or, maybe, I’d been carrying the infection without realising it. Going to look at pictures was partly a practical matter. It gave you something to do. When you arrived in a new city, the first thing you did was find the youth hostel, and the second was go to the main museum. That museum gave a focus and a point to being in a strange city. I saw a huge Picasso retrospective in Copenhagen; I saw Munch’s “Der Schrei” in Oslo, the painting hitting me with all the more force because I came on it unexpectedly, without build-up; I saw Eila Hiltunen’s Sibelius monument in Helsinki; I toured the National Archaeological Museum in Athens; I saw Dürer’s self-portrait in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

That afternoon in Munich was full of wonders. I came out of the museum, found a beer garden, and in it saw something more extraordinary and mysterious than the artworks I’d just been studying: a group of four kids my own age, sitting at a trestle table in front of litres of beer. Then the astonishing thing happened: they looked at their watches, looked at each other, nodded, and got up and left, without finishing their drinks. Each of them left undrunk about a third of a litre of lager. I had never seen such a thing; had no idea it was possible. None of my friends, nobody I knew, had ever not-finished a drink. It was clear that the world was a bigger and stranger place than I had guessed.

The climax of that trip, from the museum-going point of view, was the Prado. It was the last leg of my three-month Interrail ticket; after that it would be a straight shot, Madrid to Calais, then the ferry home. The Prado was also, as it is still, the only museum that is a great city’s uncontested number-one attraction. The Louvre is high on lists of reasons to visit Paris, as the British Museum is for London and the Met for New York, but the only museum which has unique status as the city’s single greatest glory is the Prado. I had changed so much over those months that by then I was really looking forward to it: a trip to a city, just to visit a museum. My younger self (not to mention my parents) would have been incredulous.

The two things I remember with most force from that first visit to the Prado were, first, a strong feeling of the cultural distinctiveness of Spain, and, second, a powerful sense that the heart of the collection was about madness, delirium, sex and death. I was 19, so I thought: great! Anyone with even the faintest interest in art has seen reproductions of Hieronymus Bosch’s great masterpieces “The Haywain” and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. I had looked at a guidebook, so had to that extent encountered the pictures already. The reality of them, however, was startlingly more forceful than I’d expected.

As a teenager, whatever the intensity of your preoccupations, you usually know that you are also trying on ideas and attitudes; sketching versions of the self you might settle down to be. Your engagement with the world outside your head is also an attempt at getting to know yourself, and so it can be both deep and superficial at the same time: you can wear heavy things lightly, often too lightly. I had a great interest in sex, madness, darkness, magic, death, but at the same time on some level knew that I was playing with ideas. Bosch, though: he wasn’t playing. Those inexplicable, flat, horrible pictures – bizarre even in their colour palette, in the crazed pinkness of the Garden – were not a game. That picture is also, in a way every 19-year-old can immediately understand, boiling with sex, though it is also insistently, hysterically sexless, because there is no actual sex in it. These naked bodies are in every kind of extremis except that. The painting is a depiction of excess, abandonment and delirium, and at the same time has an overpowering sense of operating under taboo.

In the same room at the Prado, then and now, is Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death”. This was another picture which even if you didn’t have a clue about painting – ie, were me – you could immediately tell was a masterpiece. Now, revisiting the Prado 30-plus years later, I see that picture as both a record of one kind of war, medieval and religious, and the precursor of another, the modern conflict in which death is a juggernaut, an indiscriminate harvester of mainly civilian lives. It seems to me today a depiction of something that has happened and keeps on happening. On that first visit, though, I thought it was another fantasy, another vision; an appropriate picture for a despotic monarch, Felipe II, to hang in his palace. It was also Felipe who acquired the Bosch paintings and built the black, sinister Escorial palace just outside the city. The mad king in his mad castle with his mad paintings, and in another room a painting of his mad wife, Mary Tudor, her tight, disapproving face radiating fanaticism: the museum felt like a vortex of culture and madness and national identity.

Grim harvester: Bruegel’s masterpiece “The Triumph of Death” depicts war both past and future

The artist I’d been looking forward to encountering was Goya, whom I “knew” about because he was a favourite of Hemingway’s, who was a favourite of mine. I didn’t find what I was looking for. I think that was partly because I made a mistake which it’s easy to make: the Prado layout has the “black paintings”, the psychic nadir and artistic high point of Goya’s last years, on the lower floor, where, if you’re going round the Spanish rooms in sequence (which you must), you will encounter them before you’ve come across the paintings of his early career and middle life. That’s wrong: you need to see them in chronological sequence to get the full impact. On this second visit, I made sure to do it the right way around.

At 19, I hit the black paintings first and couldn’t really see what the fuss was about. After Bosch and Bruegel the horror seemed low-key, merely personal. “The Third of May 1808”, a masterpiece which both depicts and foresees so much, also left me a little flat. I’d read lots of books about Vietnam. I knew about wartime atrocities, thanks, man.

James Fenton observes somewhere that you don’t judge great art, it judges you. I failed the Goya test. Going back to the Prado a third of a century later, Goya hasn’t changed or grown up, because he didn’t need to, but I have, and the power and poignancy of his life in painting seem to me unmatched. The thing that unlocked his work for me was a remark made by a friend, that Goya was “the Mozart who passed into darkness”. Yes: Goya’s earlier work has the sublime grace and power and ease and imaginative fertility of Mozart. Nobody’s formal portraiture is more expressive than Goya’s, achieving as it does the quadruple trick of formal beauty, external realism, psychological realism, and also telling you what the painter felt about the subject. To compare his portrait of Charles IV with his of Ferdinand VII is to know what it felt to be liked or loathed by Goya, and also what each of these men was like. The clothed and naked Maya are a famous set-piece, but his tiny picture of the Duchess of Alba rowing with her Duenna is even more sensually charged, funny and cheeky, her body unmistakably sexy and energetic under her black gown.

What’s eating you? Goya’s depiction of Saturn, the mythological figure who, fearing that his children would overthrow him, ate each one of them at birth

The black paintings, when you come on them in the right order, are about a retreat from public life, from pleasure and sex and company and the world. Their titles, even the fact of their having titles, is misleading. They were paintings Goya made for his own…his own…the right word is elusive: pleasure? use? distraction? self-torment? He had moved just outside Madrid and lived in a house known as the Quinta del Sordo, the House of the Deaf Man. The paintings, made straight onto the walls, had no titles, and that adds to their sense of unease, of having emerged from formlessness and nightmare: faces screaming in fear or anger or reproach (very much a deaf man’s image of horror); a monster feeding on a child, presumably his own; a crowd of brute faces worshipping a goat; hovering witches. To have been as much a creature of the world as Goya, and to have loved the things of the world as much as he did, and to have come to this place, deaf and bitter and betrayed and lonely, and yet still capable of creating art of this intimacy and potency. Only Picasso has as much sense of having painted a whole span of life as Goya: a life in full.

Why on earth would I have been able to understand that at 19? I sometimes joke that art should be strictly 18-rated. At least it would give children a sense that it’s dangerous; that real things are at stake. Also, I’d have been spared many hours of childhood boredom. As a parent, I think that museums are largely wasted on children, that parents risk giving their children a homeopathic dose of culture and the past, just enough to cure them of an interest for the rest of life. At the Prado this year, there were groups of primary schoolchildren sitting on the floor, on the receiving end of lectures about the “Garden of Earthly Delights” and the “Third of May”, paintings of, it seems to me, entirely adult horror. That looks like a mistake, a waste, a misunderstanding of what art is. I wouldn’t do that to my own children. To be fair, they wouldn’t let me. At the same time, I find myself wondering whether, if I hadn’t been dragged around in my childhood, I would now be voluntarily self-dragging. Maybe the conversation of art is, like most conversations, one where you have to listen for a while before you can join in for yourself. I suppose what I’m saying is, perhaps my parents were right.


The Prado open Monday to Saturday, 10am-8pm; Sunday, 10am-7pm; museodelprado.es

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