Since my novel, Oil and Marble, is art historical fiction and was recently translated into Spanish, a lot of fans ask what art MUST they see when traveling to Madrid, Barcelona and everywhere inbetween? And, they say, “what if I’m NOT an aficionado? I want to spend all of my time in the Spanish sun, not art museums, and yet, I want to see the important pieces!”
When YOU return home, and your friends say, “Did you see ______?” You want to be able to say “SI!”
To help you accomplish this lofty goal, here are my picks for the Top 10 Must See Works of Art in Spain:
1. Guernica by Pablo Picasso at the Reina Sofia. Let’s start with the behemoth in the country – Guernica. If you see no other piece in Spain, you must see this. Arguably one of the most famous works of art in the world, this Picasso masterpiece was painted in response to the German bombing of the Basque town, Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War. With its shattered images of people, animals, and light, it is just as powerful of an anti-war statement today as it was then.
2. Third of May by Francisco Goya at the Prado. Arguably the world’s first truly modern painting, Goya’s masterpiece helped inspire Picasso’s Guernica — and usher in modernism. At the time, it was revolutionary in its style, subject matter (Napoleon’s army executing Spanish patriots during the French occupation; an unheroic image of war instead of the traditional heroism), and emotion — it remains one of the most visceral scenes of war in history. This is one of those iconic images that will haunt you for the rest of your life.
3. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch at the Prado. Hieronymus Bosch was Dutch, not Spanish — yet his most famous masterpiece lives at the Prado in Madrid. This fantastic explosion of figures, colors and “earthly delights” was painted around 1500, and yet feels like a modern masterpiece. The left panel of the triptych is Paradise, the right is Hell, and the central panel — the most famous part — is the “Garden of Earthly Delights,” a riotous dream of life’s pleasures. It is such a feast for the eyes no wonder it is often used today as a fashion statement – on dresses, tights, and even shoes.
4. Las Meninas, or The Family of Felipe IV by Diego Velazquez at the Prado. This is Velazquez’ most famous painting — and one of the most widely interpreted works in all of art history. Set in Madrid’s Alcazar Palace, it shows the Spanish Infanta Margarita in the center, surrounded by her “Maids of Honor” — her “meninas.” Look to the left: there you will find Velasquez painting a portrait of the royal family. And reflected in the mirror at the back? The King and Queen, Felipe IV and María de Austria. This painting would go on to inspire countless others — including Picasso’s Las Meninas, a series of paintings in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.
5. Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco in the Church of San Tome in Toledo. If you’re anywhere near Toledo, do not miss this El Greco masterpiece. Filling an entire wall of its chapel, the painting appears as though it stretches up, up, up into the heavens. You can only understand its boundless space when you are standing at its foot. El Greco was born in Crete and studied in Italy, but he settled in Toledo and painted most of his works on Spanish soil. This resplendent masterpiece will not disappoint — and will give you what only El Greco can: a combination of Greek passion, Italian beauty, and Spanish fantasticism.
6. Portrait of King Henry VIII of England by Hans Holbein the Younger at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Hans Holbein was a painter for the Tudor court — if you think you know what King Henry VIII looked like, it’s because of Holbein; he captured Henry in all of his bejeweled, corpulent, unapproachable glory. I am particularly amused that this famous portrait of this famous monarch resides in Spain — home of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, whom he divorced to marry Anne Boleyn. I don’t think Henry would like his portrait living in Spain; which makes ME happy when visiting it in Madrid.
7. The Wait (Margot) by Pablo Picasso in Picasso Museum in Barcelona. For some reason, I love this painting. Is Margot a morphine addict, a prostitute, or both? The way she looks out at me, the colors, the vibrancy — this picture feels alive. She is here with me. I can sense her, feel her, understand her — and therefore understand ME a little better, too. It haunts me. It also happens to be one of the paintings that helped Picasso make a name for himself. Without the mysterious Margot, would Picasso be… Picasso? Maybe. Or Maybe not.
8. Charing Cross Bridge by Claude Monet at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. This is a famous FRENCH painter’s depiction of LONDON, now housed in SPAIN. I love the confluence of Paris, London and Madrid — three of the world’s greatest cities. I also love the diffused light of this quiet winter morning, the blue haze, the shadow of Parliament in the distance beyond Charing Cross Bridge. Monet created this — part of a series of 37 paintings — at the turn of the 19th century. It makes me dream of the day when London was this quiet.
9. Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Wakening up by Salvador Dali at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. How can you travel to Spain without seeing Salvador Dali’s work? The Spanish master’s most famous piece lives in the States (Persistence of Memory at MOMA), but this work is perhaps more fascinating to see in person. It depicts Dali’s wife and muse Gala having a dream of Tigers, bees, pomegranates, and elephants. Dali was open to a wide variety of interpretations. Whatever you think it means — that’s what it means. Need more Dali? Head to the Dali Museum over in Figueres (outside of Barcelona).
10. Puppy by Jeff Koons at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This forty-foot tall, flowering puppy stands guard outside of Bilbao’s Guggenheim. I love Jeff Koons; he strives to break down the barriers between “high” and pop culture and “to communicate to the masses.” And this puppy is a testament to that work. Standing outside of one of the most elite art museums in the world, it is a monument to sentimental puppies and flowers that is literally still growing (it’s covered in live bedding plants). Koons hoped this piece would instill “confidence and security” in the viewer, but it is just as likely to elicit joy.
This is in no way intended as a comprehensive list. There is an enormous amount of art to see in Spain, so don’t let this list limit you. But let it inspire you to explore the creative side of Spain.