When I travel some place new, I like to soak up the local culture and get a feel for the place. With just a couple days in Madrid, I found myself searching the internet for recommendations.
I decided to take in a bull fight, even though the event itself is controversial; I wanted to see for myself. The stadium seemed like a gladiator ring, and I felt like I had stepped back in time watching the locals with their suspenders and cigars cram onto the steep steps. It didn’t take long for me to squirm as the crowd cheered when the bull, cornered and angry, was antagonized by at least five men. Yet setting that aside, if I may, the pageantry and bravado was interesting to witness. One particular matador put on a show — he looked up coolly as the bull’s horns brushed past his thighs, he stared down the bull as if challenging his masculinity, he arched his back to show his confidence; a confidence probably formed in equal parts from fighting many bulls and his invincible youth. I left conflicted; impressed and enthralled by both the danger and the lyrical movements of the matadors, yet also saddened for the bulls that enter the ring of inevitable death.
With that confliction in my mind, I moved onward to take in art from Spain’s 20th-century artists at the Reina Sofia Museum. Themes of pain and suffering, juxtaposed with artistry and color didn’t stop at the bull fight. The collection of art from the first half of the 20th century brought you on a journey through Spain’s emergence into modernity and the artists’ movements of expression and employing art to transform society.
And then I arrived at the painting that compelled me to come to the museum. In the midst of the Spanish civil war, Pablo Picasso was commissioned to paint a piece for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair. He found the subject of his emotional work just a few months before the fair. In 1937, Spanish nationalist forces ordered Hitler’s Nazi air force to bomb the Spanish town of Guernica, killing many civilians and leaving carnage in its wake. The museum’s literature described the piece well:
Picasso portrayed the terrible consequences of the war in the light of the electric lightbulb, a symbol of technical progress being honored at the Paris exhibit.
… he recovered the ritual of death and passion of the mythic bullring, in which the protagonists, the women, the bull, and the horse, take on the quality of what is perhaps the most extreme expression of pain of all the history of art.
I stood in front of the expansive painting for a long time, examining the terror depicted. A horse’s tongue shoots out at a severe angle while it’s limbs crumple under him, and a mother cradles her dead child as she screams towards the sky. I’m reminded of the terrors not so different that continue in our world today, and I think of our friends who fled Syria just a few years ago. I try to comprehend the fear and pain, and the worries of my life seem so trivial. Something like compassion for those who have experienced what I can’t comprehend swells up.
I emerged from the museum to Madrid’s blue skies and walked the tree-lined streets as I ponder all I saw.
After such contemplation, I opted for something a bit emotionally lighter to close out my cultural explorations of Madrid; though the history of flamenco isn’t without pain and suffering, and you can almost feel the defiance exude from the movements and sounds on stage. I entered the small, dim auditorium with a glass of Rioja they offered and took my seat. Over the next hour, the artists from Andalusia performed their rhythmic, passionate, sweaty craft on the crowded stage. The guitarists and violinist laid the backdrop for the haunting and wailing live vocals. And the dancers took center stage as they stomped, spun, and clapped with passion. I tried to think of what flamenco reminded me of, but I couldn’t put my finger on anything specific. I found this description of flamenco when trying to learn its origins, and it explains why in part it felt familiar and yet I can’t pin down the art with one comparison:
When the gypsies arrived in Andalucia from India around 1425, they brought with them many song and dance styles that have strong Indian connections. At this time Andalucía was still under Arab rule, and along with the Jews and the moors, the gypsies were soon to be persecuted by the Catholic monarchs and the inquisition.
… Many laws were passed by various monarchs, which forbid them anything to do with their identity. … These laws and restrictions resulted in bands of gypsies, moors, and Jews taking refuge in treacherous mountainous areas, which were too desolate for the authorities to pursue them. These different cultures lived in relative harmony for many years, and the fusion of their music and dances are what we know today as flamenco.
After the final bows, I exited into the still-light summer night and stopped for a last jamon (Spain’s prosciutto) sandwich and churro dessert while contemplating the slice of Spain’s culture and history that I’d taken in these past few days.