It there’s one comfort to be had in the mad scrum of high summer tourism it is that the crowds can still be escaped, even with just a few deft steps or well-chosen road miles. This truth holds for both the wonders of Art and of Nature. Avoid the thundering herds of the Yosemite Valley with an excursion of less than twenty miles to Hetch Hetchy, the narrower gorge to the northwest of the iconic monolights of Half Dome and El Capitan. The damming of Hetch Hetchy in the 1920s ironically bequeathed it a cathedral-like calm free of the motorhome hordes of the park’s main attractions.
Likewis, in the world’s most famous and overrun museums, the tour groups and bucketlisters are sucked into the vortices of the great pictures and stones—the Davids and Mona Lisas—, leaving lesser images and artifacts just around the corner, or even in the same gallery, available for near private enjoyment.
A visit to Madrid’s Prado in July requires mental resolve and a good pair of shoes if the footsore sojourner is to withstand the withering heat and teeming crush of what can take on the atmosphere of a central train station for art.
Having stormed the Prado’s human moat, the siege-maker first feels the intense gravitational force of Diego Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” (The Ladies in Waiting) more powerfully than the building’s air-conditioning. The strength of the picture’s pull on the crowds cannot—and should not—be resisted. The marauding tour groups, dutiful families, American college students abroad, momentarily disencumbered backpackers, and occasional lone art-wolf are all of them sucked into the oblong gallery not much smaller than a tennis court. There are at the far end beyond of the room, beyond the succession Spanish royals depicted by Velasquez in spreading dresses and perched on horses as big as life, is the famed canvas—the supreme embodiment of painting’s potential, as so many of the work’s artistic admirers have effused.
Its immense size helps to absorb the relentless modern-day devotion. The painting was originally more-or-less square, but its flanks were cut down to eliminate the worst damage for an early-eighteenth-century fire: the current dimensions are ten feet high and nine feet across. These physical facts contribute to one of the picture’s many uplifting paradoxes: it is a monumental depiction an intimate family scene—intimate at least by the standards of baroque royalty.
With any luck and a lull in the waves, a viewing position can be staked near the center of the looming tableau and even held for a few minutes against the buffeting tides of humanity. You are tenuously anchored before a Habsburg Princess, the Infanta Margaret Theresa, in her richly-adorned white dress. She stares directly back at you and commands attention as any royal should, even one who’s only five years old. Around her are her attendants, and nearby a pair of dwarves and dog.
You linger in front of this odd group of girls—almost playful, but trussed up in their elaborate court attire—before nightstick-like audio guides and impatient elbows dislodge you.
You drift helplessly with the touristic tide to the side of the painting and are now unexpectedly looking at the stretchers of a canvass occupying almost the entire right margin. This itself is a triumph of trompe-l’oeil imagination and execution: you see the back of the canvas depicted in the picture even as you look at the front of the canvas in the museum. The drama of Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” shows us that court life is an elaborate game, a world of infinite regression, shadows and mirrors.
Peeking around the back of the painting on its easel you see the artist himself in his own ennobled finery, brush in hand, regarding the subject of the painting within the painting—King Philip IV and his second wife Mariana of Austria.
Their faces are visible in turn at the back of the large room in in a mirror hung among in turn are visible near: We see the royal pair looking at us, while they look at Velasquez, who is looking at them and us. It is all wonderfully confusing and clear at the same time.
The royals occupy an imaginary position now taken up by the hoi polloi. Such is the imaginative scope and brilliance of Velasquez, that the allegorical reach of his masterpiece even encompasses the revolution of global tourism some 450 years after the picture’s creation. The Spanish Royal family is fodder for the masses, their inner spaces invaded and laid bare as if on the cover of the glossy tabloid: this might be a tenable interpretation of the present status of the celebrated picture, if it did not retain its immense poise and magic in the face of the onslaught.
But it is true that in the drama of this, the Prado’s most visited gallery, the crowds march past all of the Velasquez paintings the kings and queens, princes and princesses on their horses and in their gowns, and go right to must-see Meninas.
The contrast between the tumult of the main attractions and the almost surreal calm surrounding the lesser-known works can be experienced at its most extreme by simply crossing the corridor that forms the central axis of the Prado and entering a small gallery on whose south wall are arrayed the series of allegorical paintings of the Five Senses: Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch. A collaboration of Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, along with other important members of the famed Antwerp Painters’ Guild, the group of pictures was undertaken in 1617-1618, and thus celebrates its four-hundredth anniversary beginning this year. Within two decades of their creation all of Five Senses had been given to Philip IV, the king seen in Las Meninas.
I spent twenty minutes making my way back and forth along this wall without anyone else having a look, save for the occasional stutter-step and quick glance of a museum-goer rushing from the Velasquez rooms towards the Goyas on the lower floor.
Where the neighboring Velasquez pictures are enormous, each of the Five Sense is small: two feet by three-and-a-half. Though the canvasses are tiny in comparison to that of Las Meninas, the imaginary spaces are much larger, not just the rooms for music, banqueting, pictures, armor, but especially in the background landscapes that in each painting recede towards the horizon.
Most of my attention was devoted to Hearing, a painting I’ve been fascinated by ever since I was a teenager and encountered a detail of it on the cover of the Dover Edition of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.
Rubens painted the naked lute-playing woman and singing child in the center of the picture, while Brueghel filled out the sumptuous musical décor: harpsichord, viols, trumpet, horns, scores. The overabundance of musical instruments propped against chairs and sprawled on the lavish carpet evoke the impossibility of capturing music of humans (and birds) with paint: only the tools of artful sound can be depicted, but not the results of their use. The Hearing is by definition mute.
The Hearing’s paradoxical silence remains magically untouched by the hubbub of the museum, a seemingly undiscovered corner of paradise in the midst of the mayhem.