Goya´s Dog

15 Sep

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Deceptively cute on first viewing, Goya´s Half Submerged Dog, is anything but. It was one of the murals which Goya painted on the walls of his house, the Quinta del Sordo, on the outskirts of Madrid in the early 1820´s. Known as the Black Paintings on account of their dark pigments and because of their sinister or sombre subject matter,   they were subsequently transferred to canvas and are now in the Prado Museum.

What is this great oblong void of undefined space – earth or sky?

The poor little black dog in the lower left of the painting is half-submerged, “semi-hundido”, possibly trying to keep itself above water, looking up towards someone or something outside the composition.

We see only its head – will it survive or is it doomed?

Art critic, Robert Hughes, writes of it: “We do not know what it means, but its pathos moves us on a level below narrative.”

It is one of the Prado´s most beautiful paintings.

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El Greco and Modern Painting exhibition at El Prado, Madrid

8 Sep

themagpiepress

The screen in the carriage says that we are travelling at 298 kilometres per hour but it doesn´t feel like that. We are not hurtling but gliding along the rails on the high speed AVE train to Madrid. The journey takes only 90 minutes from Valencia to the capital.

We climb first up to the high central plateau, the meseta, which famously endures a climate of “nueve meses de invierno y tres meses de infierno” – nine months of winter and three months of hell.

This summer has been particularly hellish. Parched and dusty, the vines of Utiel and Requena look unlikely to yield a good harvest and, further on, in unfenced fields, stunted sunflowers hang their heads in defeat. Lines of tall windmills stalk the high ground, their blades hanging motionless beneath an unforgiving sun and not a breath of wind. There are scarcely any villages or towns up…

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El Greco and Modern Painting exhibition at El Prado, Madrid

8 Sep

The screen in the carriage says that we are travelling at 298 kilometres per hour but it doesn´t feel like that. We are not hurtling but gliding along the rails on the high speed AVE train to Madrid. The journey takes only 90 minutes from Valencia to the capital.

We climb first up to the high central plateau, the meseta, which famously endures a climate of “nueve meses de invierno y tres meses de infierno” – nine months of winter and three months of hell.

This summer has been particularly hellish. Parched and dusty, the vines of Utiel and Requena look unlikely to yield a good harvest and, further on, in unfenced fields, stunted sunflowers hang their heads in defeat. Lines of tall windmills stalk the high ground, their blades hanging motionless beneath an unforgiving sun and not a breath of wind. There are scarcely any villages or towns up here on the plain but occasionally we pass a crumbling Moorish castle or church tower on a rocky outcrop, and once I spot a distant “pastor”, a shepherd leading hundreds of sheep and goats along one of the ancient sheepwalks or cañadas.

I have come to Madrid to visit the exhibition El Greco and Modern Art in the Prado to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death and to illustrate the huge influence he had on modern painting, particularly on expressionism and cubism.
The exhibition features about 30 of his works, hung alongside paintings by artists who were directly inspired by him, including Cezanne, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and many more. It is an illuminating exhibition, full of surprises and a masterclass in art history and appreciation.

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A Gentelman with his hand on his Chest, El Greco, 1580; on the right, Paul Alexandre in front of a Stained Window, Amedeo Modigliani, 1913

01_dama (1)
Lady in a Fur Wrap, El Greco, c. 1577; on the right Lady in A Fur Wrap, after El Greco by Paul Cezanne c. 1885

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An Old Gentleman, El Greco, c.1587; on the right Portrait of Jaime Sabartés with a Ruff and Hat, Pablo Picasso, 1939

08_resurreccion2
On the left, The Resurrection of Christ, El Greco, c. 1600; on the right, Untitled, Jackson Pollock 1937-1939

resurrection

You see here the figure at the bottom of the painting who is falling backwards in this painting of the Resurrection? Well look how Francis Bacon echoes this pose in the Woman Reclining on a Sofa.

francis bacon reclining woman 1961_0

The exhibition continues until 5th October.
More information on El Prado website here. Avoid the queues and book your time slot on line.

Another thought on the Valley of the Fallen

10 Jan

Since my last post about the report of the commission on the fascist monument and burial place of the dictator Francisco Franco in The Valley of the Fallen on the Sierra de Guadarrama outside Madrid, there have been numerous articles in the Spanish press about its findings.

Essentially, the Commission suggested that the remains of Franco be removed and that the complex should become a permanent interpretative centre, telling the story of the Spanish Civil War, with a memorial to all the republican prisoners who were forced to build it. At first I thought this was probably the best solution.

The historian Santos Julia has a  better idea. He suggests that the Valley of the Fallen can never be given a new meaning: it cannot be other than what it was built as, any more than you can give new meaning to the Nazi prisoner of war camps of extermination. He suggests instead that, since the whole complex is so badly in need of building works at a cost of €13 million, the best thing to do is let time and nature take their course, allowing the whole thing to rot away, to become a ruin.

When in 1940, Franco let a party of falangist leaders, members of his cabinet and the diplomatic corps to the Sierrra de Guadarrama to detonate the first charge of dynamite and inaugurate the construction, he clearly intended to build a monument to his own posterity.

He said: The dimensions of our Crusade, the heroic sacrifices involved in the victory and the far-reaching significance which this epic has had for the future of Spain cannot be commemorated by the simple monuments by which the outstanding events of our history and the glorious deeds of Spain’s sons are normally remembered… The stones to be erected must have the grandeur of the monuments of old which defy time and forgetfulness.

(quoted by historian Paul Preston in his biography of  “Franco” P. 351).

I now think that Santos Julia may well be right – let it all fall into oblivion, neglected, crumbling, a fitting riposte to such hubris.

 

Paul Preston’s latest book on the Spanish Holocaust, Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth. Century Spain, a study of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, will be published in English this March.

A monument to hate and vainglory

30 Nov

The Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos) is the mausoleum which the dictator Francisco Franco built for himself thirty miles to the north of Madrid, near El Escorial. From miles and miles away, you can see the huge ugly iron and granite cross that towers above the basilica where he and his right-hand man, the founder of the Falangistas, José Antonio Primo de Rivera are buried.

It was a megalomaniac project in which thousands of Republican prisoners were forced into slave labour and in which many died.  Their bodies are buried there too, contemptuously stuffed into walls and cavities, their tombs unmarked.

It is a vengeful, grim, cavernous place and for many years, nobody has been sure quite what is the best thing to do about it in the interest of national reconciliation.

Finally, the report of the Commission into The Valley of the Fallen has just been published.

Its main recommendations include

  1. exhuming the remains of the dictator Francisco Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera and re-interring them elsewhere
  2. turning the monument into a memorial for all the civil war victims and the thousands of prisoners who were forced to work on its construction.
  3. Building a new interpretative centre, a museum of historical memory
  4. Creating  a data base of all those buried there.
  5. Building a “meditation” centre

The 12-person Commission was headed by two co-chairmen, Virgilio Zapatero, professor of Legal Philosophy, ex rector of the University of Alcalà de Henares and a former minister in the socialist government of Felipe González  (1986-93) and Pedro González-Trevijano, Professor of Constitutional Law, and rector of King Juan Carlos University since 2002.

The Commission was unanimous in its findings except  for the proposal to move Franco which was opposed by three of its members including Professor González-Trevijano.  Their objection to the removal is that there are no precedents in the European context for the reburial of an ex-head of State,  but especially that exhuming Franco’s corpse is “inopportune” and will contribute to dividing and radicalising public opinion. That is without doubt the case.

Furthermore, since the building itself is considered a place of worship  – it was granted basilica status in 1960 by pope John XXX111 – the Roman Catholic church would have to give permission to disinter Franco and Primo de Rivera.

Some families of the prisoners had asked for their relative’s remains to be returned to them for private burial but the Report says that identifying individual remains is practically impossible, an indication of the respect with which their remains were treated.

What will incoming Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy do with this hot potato?  He will certainly have little appetite for dealing with it, yet something certainly needs to be done.

It is shocking that such a monument to Franco’s arrogance and vainglory still exists thirty years after his death and the transition to democracy.

Another from My Spanish Bookshelf

15 Nov

This is simply a masterpiece, one of the best novels I have ever read – and on rereading it in the last few days, it is even better than I had remembered.

It is set in Lisbon in the late thirties in a blisteringly hot summer with the city “glittering, literally glittering” in the sun – but under the shadow of an increasingly paranoid fascist regime in Portugal and the civil war in Spain.

Pereira, an overweight widower with a heart condition, is the editor of the culture page of “Lisboa”, a second-rate evening newspaper. He spends his time translating French short stories, talking to the photograph of his wife, eating an awful lot of omelettes and reflecting on death.

He meets a young man, Monteiro Rossi, (“about the age of our son if we’d had a son”, he tells his wife’s photo)  and takes him on as his assistant to write obituaries for the Culture page although Rossi only writes unpublishable subversive articles – which Pereira pays for out of his own pocket.  It becomes clear that Rossi and his girlfriend Marta are dissidents, recruiting for the International Brigade to fight Franco, and although Pereira himself has until then been carefully politically naive, he finds himself changing and drawn into committing a devastating act of rebellion.

The book is written in a very unsettling form with the phrase “Pereira Maintains” a constant riff – someone is recording Pereira’s testimony but who? And what has Pereira done?

It is a brief novel – you can probably read it in a few hours and will probably want to – but then you may want to read it again.

The Magpie is back.

31 Oct

I can’t believe it has been so long since I wrote on the Magpie Press but I have just returned home after a month on the move – first of all, in Ireland, doing Children’s Book Festival visits, and finishing up in Madrid with a fun visit to the British Council school in Pozuelo where I met about 120 bilingual seven and eight year olds and their enthusiastic teachers – thank you to the school director Gillian Flaxman and all her staff who made my visit such a pleasant one.

Then it was off to COBIS, the conference of the Council of British International Schools, which was being hosted at King’s College, in Soto, on the outskirts of Madrid. I was leading seminars for KS1 and KS2 teachers but also had the opportunity to meet many of the delegates. I was delighted to hear the opening address by Matthew Syed, the inspirational journalist and author of “Bounce – The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice” and can’t wait to read his book.

I also had the greatest fun I’ve ever had at a conference, sitting in a baby chair in the hall in King’s College in Chamartin with thirty or forty Early Years teachers, listening to Alistair Bryce, a former headmaster and now author and educational consultant, talking about the impact on their attainment of getting children outdoors.

It was inspirational – I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go straight back into teaching or if I wanted to be a six-year-old again. He described how he got them building “small worlds”, like the project where the children first built a pretend toll bridge with construction blocks. Then they had to take to their bikes and pass through the bridge, select the REAL money from a bucket to pay their toll while the toll bridge keepers had to give out the right change. Everyone had a go as a toll keeper and as motorist and had a great day, learning about money and change and mental arithmetic on the sly, while they planned and cooperated on building their bridge. Alistair was brimming with ideas and had us all laughing like hyenas with his accents and affectionate imitations of the children he meets. Could he be Peter Kay’s handsome little brother?

On our shared taxi ride back to the hotel, Alistair told me that he has been commissioned to write a series of non-fiction titles for Bloomsbury over the next three years.

Look no further if you need an inspirational teacher/writer to come to your school or speak at your conference.
There was a nice surprise this morning when the postwoman arrived with copies of the second Witch-in-Training books, Spelling Trouble, which has just been published in Russian in a lovely little pocket edition.

And now it’s time to get back to my abandoned book about the Wrens, the twins who were not at all like one another.

I’ll be back soon.