To Have or To Be?

While in Madrid, we spent time in the city’s three most famous art museums – The Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Each were very different. The most famous among them, the Prado, is full of works by Dutch Masters, Renaissance painters, and finally Spanish works works from el Greco to Velasquez and Goya. Thus, it is heavy on the religious iconography with a mix of royal portraiture thrown in. The Reina Sofia is focused on the modern and post-modern. There are plenty of Picassos, Miros, and Dalis to go around. The Thyssen-Bornemisza consists of work from famous private collections, and thus spans the two.

All were lovely, and yet at the end of the day, left me feeling lacking. I have a hard time with bloody religious iconography, and there are only so many pictures of the martyrdom of St. Jerome that I can take. I find the Dutch Masters incredibly dull (there I said it). Even at the Prado’s best (I’ll admit, I do love Goya’s Black Paintings), it left me feeling a little bit empty. The other museums left me feeling little more. With the exception of the Spanish Civil War room at the Reina Sofia and Picasso’s truly emotional Guernica, I just didn’t feel much aside from tired feet. I wondered to myself – is this really it? Can I really claim to be an appreciator of art when what I am told is great art leaves me feeling so little?

But here is what I realized, I spent three days in museums looking at things that are collect able instead of things that just are. Sure it is aesthetically pleasing, but it is a weak substitute when I spent the prior week seeing beauty in its purest form. This is the kind of beauty that you can’t just look at on a wall and collect in your home, but rather, you must experience. After your five senses experience that, a painting or a sculpture is a pretty weak substitute.

Take for example the day we spent on back roads through the Andalusian countryside.

Driving through Spanish olive, almond, orange, and lemon groves, your entire five senses experience the beauty all around. Some of the oranges were in season and you could taste them too.

You see the pueblos blancos built into the hillsides.

You touch the gnarled old olive trees and see the early signs of this fall’s harvest.

You can feel cool mountain streams and the wind as it whips over the tops of the mountains.

You smell the wild herbs growing along the roadside (in this case sage blossoms and French lavender).

You hear the bird calls (and see the colors) of migratory European Bee-eaters (that migrate from Africa) and Hoopoes.

(You may not see it, but in the center at the bottom of this picture is an Bee Eater.)

Even the smell of the back of the Land Rover is familiar and evocative – the smell of country dust on leather seats reminded me of truck rides with Pa-Paw in the Mississippi of my youth.

After all of that, how can any picture in a museum possibly compete?

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