Goya – Outside The Prado

WHY does anyone ever go to Madrid ? Dios lo sabe!

Of course there is the Prado. And what then ? Well, you can buy lottery tickets. And what then ? Really, I scarcely know.

On the night of my arrival all Madrid was in the streets buying lottery tickets. And the streets were being washed. These two incidents were not peculiar to the night of my arrival. They are the first incidents you will remark on the night of your arrival also. In a world where most things are in course of change they remain two unchanging phenomena. On the eve of the Last Day I fancy that Madrid will be in the streets buying lottery tickets and the streets will be receiving a final cleansing before the ultimate catastrophe renders the process for ever more unnecessary.

It was raining hard. It had been raining incessantly for the last week. The streets were as wet as the ever-weeping skies could make them, but not yet wet enough for a municipal council that has a greater passion for wetness and cleanliness than any other municipal council in the world.

In every corner of the Puerta del Sol—Madrid’s crooked, crowded heart—drenched figures armed with hosepipes were playing their waterspouts with indiscriminating enthusiasm upon the square in general, and upon tramcars, lamp-posts, automobiles, cabs, newsboys and the buyers and sellers of lottery tickets in particular. Surely the municipal street-washers might have been allowed a holiday on this night of all nights in the year !

The traffic in lottery tickets, however, was damped neither by the vertical downpour from the clouds nor by the sidewash from the hose-pipes. The grand prize was one hundred and fifty thousand pesetas, a sum which does not altogether lose its attractiveness even when reduced to pounds sterling and divided by ten—for each individual ticket entitles you but to a tithe of the fortune. The drawing was to take place the next day, a fact which the vendors of the tickets emphasised by frantic cries of ” Para manana, para manana ! “—For to-morrow, to-morrow ! The clock on the Ministerio de la Gobernacion struck the hour of midnight and, redoubling the violence of their vociferation, the ticket-sellers altered their cry to correspond with the alteration of the calendar: “Para hoy, para hoy!”—To-day, to-day! The imminence of the decree of Fate gave a sudden stimulus to the traffickers in the caprice of the god. Tickets were exchanged for pesetas and pesetas for tickets with increased rapidity. The Puerta del Sol was transformed into one vast and feverish lottery exchange. It was impossible to escape the contagion—moral convictions of the reprehensibleness of gambling were powerless to confer immunity. The god was upon us. In face of the most intimidating odds we hesitated not to throw ourselves into his frenzied midnight saturnalia. We were devotees of the omnipotent peseta. We were thrilled, one and all, with the consciousness of the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Why, had Dr Johnson been among us, he would have despised Thrale’s brewery and its beggarly dividends as a mere bagatelle ! We had done with the tedious processes of accumulation and industry—we were to be enriched in the twinkling of an eye, by the drawing of a lot.

The clock on the tower struck one, and two, and three. The loud shouts sank to a huskily whispered “Para hoy,” scarcely audible above the swish of the rain and the hosepipes. The delirium subsided into the vaguely happy quiescence that follows the throes of intoxication. The fever had spent itself. The crowd in the plaza dissipated. Slowly we took our way homeward, soaked but not dispirited, for were we not all of us potential possessors of a hundred and fifty thousand pesetas ? Only a few more hours of penury and then, why then, no other occupation than to devise ways of spending them. A hundred and fifty thousand ! Were there really so many pesetas in the world ? And all for us ! And no waiting ! ” Para hoy ! Para hoy I”

When next I meet a rigid moralist who condemns the lottery, I shall ask him how otherwise he proposes to touch a whole city on a black midnight of dismal rain with the golden rod of dreams and give it a three hours’ surcease from the preoccupation of the conquest of bread.

But my bright-winged dreams fell woundedly to earth in a bleak little street not very many hundred yards from the Puerta del Sol. How dark the shadows were in the doorways ! But were they only shadows ? I looked again and saw that the shadows had a human outline. I saw shrivelled old women lying beside the rain-pools and little bony children with their heads between their knees. Did the angel of dreams visit them too, I wondered. Then I chanced to look up and see the name of the street. It was called La Calle del Amor de Dios—The Street of the Love of God.

It is a pity that the Madrileños go to bed so late. It must be difficult for them to be up and about just when Madrid is looking its best and brightest. Madrid does not often smile. Its aspect is hard and glittering. It is tempting to read into the outward physiognomy of a city an expression of its inner spirit. The soul of Madrid—if it has a soul—may be hard and glittering too, for all I know, but I don’t know Madrid well enough to pass judgment. At any rate it is only just to recognise the part which physical conditions have played in shaping its hard-featured countenance. The stone of which it is built is white and cold—deathly white and bleakly cold on a cold grey day, in the sun sparklingly white like the facets of diamonds. Only a very few of the older buildings, and those continually menaced with demolition, afford a grateful glow of pale pink brick—the modern taste is all for snow-white stone. More-over the air is generally dry, and the light has a peculiarly frosty, crystal-like glitter, which at times gives the solidest structures a curious effect of fragility and brittleness. Mists are rare, twilights are swift, and consequently the tender, pardoning half-tones are lacking. All contours, bereft of veils, lie naked to the eye—a merciless deprivation, for Spain never possessed the Latin genius for form.

But when Madrid does smile, it is usually just a little before eight o’clock in the morning. (I am speaking of the spring, you will understand—I can’t answer for the other seasons.) Perhaps—I hope the suggestion is not unkind—it is the absence of the Madrilenos that accounts for the smile. During most of the day and all the night they crowd the streets, overflowing from the seething vortex of the Puerta del Sol in black torrents down the channels of the Alcalâ and the Carrera de San Jeronimo. It is not a strikingly Spanish crowd, indeed, but for the not very frequent mantillas of the women and the occasional stiff-brimmed hat and bullying, sinister face of the bull-fighter, it does not greatly differ from the crowds of other European capitals. But it is not a feverish and hostile crowd, as I have often felt the crowd of Paris to be, nor a prompt and preoccupied crowd, like the crowd of London. It is passive, apathetic, rather disillusionised. It resembles nothing so much as a march of the unemployed-but that, of course, is just what it is.

Before eight o’clock in the morning, however, the streets are empty or nearly so. A few municipal street scavengers are still at their posts, spraying the spotless paving stones as the priest sprays the congregation at the Asperges. I suppose it is a kind of matutinal benediction. And for incense there is the delicious odour of newly roasted coffee. Outside every ‘café a little fire is crackling in the gutter and the beans are being briskly churned in smoke-blackened revolving globes. Ponies, carrying panniers filled with, milk-cans and a rider perched uncomfortably among the cans, amble in from the country. Nobody is hurrying to the office or running to catch a train. For a brief hour or so Madrid abandons its absurd pretence of being a European capital and becomes what it was really intended to be, an agreeable provincial town.

Madrid is the parvenu of European capitals. It is without lineage. Villa y corte is its style—town and court ; city or ciudad it has never been. It owes its dignity to the pleasure of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, who fixed his residence here, so far as he can be said to have fixed it anywhere, because he liked its airs and disliked the too ecclesiastical atmosphere of the former capital, Toledo. Such comparatively ancient buildings as it possesses are inconspicuous. Cathedral it has none, though it has begun to build itself one. The character of parvenu clings to it. It apes its betters, Paris in particular. It lacks breeding, and I think it does indeed lack a soul.

But the Prado ! Yes, that is why we are here. Let us be going there, then.

The Prado has at least one advantage over the National Gallery—its situation. The National Gallery stands too near ” the full tide of human existence ” which roars down the Strand into Trafalgar Square to allow us peace and leisure for that recollection of the spirit, that abstraction of the mind from a distraught environment, without which we should not enter into the presence of any great work of art. The transition from one atmosphere to another is too abrupt. Our eyes still aching with the confused vision of the hurrying street, our ears vibrating with its myriad discords, we enter the building with senses wounded, as it were, and half paralysed. We are blind to the intimate signals, deaf to the murmured voices of paint.

The Museo del Prado lies aside from the main business of the town—from its noise, perhaps, I should rather say, for I imagine that there is more noise than business in Madrid. As the name by which it is universally known implies, it stands, or at any rate used to stand, in a meadow. The meadow has become a spacious avenue, shaded by cedars, chestnuts and plane-trees, but the grass runs up to the wall of the building still a little untrimmed and meadow-like. The building itself is as reposeful as an Italian villa. The few bombastic columns, without which no enlightened eighteenth – century architect considered any building complete, contrast incongruously with the simplicity of the garret-like storey above the cornice and the rustic, red-tiled roof.

Leaving the crowds which jostle purposelessly on the wide pavements of the Alcalá, you pass along a garden walk with grassy mounds on either side, on the summits of which are planted young and rather infirm palms. Ample-bosomed Galician nurses sit on the benches knitting, and round them play children with long brown legs, in grey check tunics encircled by black shiny belts that have a habit of slipping down just above the knee. These are the only distractions you are likely to en-counter as you approach the gallery, and they do not so much distract as divert. Already before you have reached its portals you will have arrived at a certain tranquillity and repose of mind and body.

I stood for a while contemplating that delicious harmony which a view of the Prado presents on a sunny April morning—the dusty salmon colour of the walls, the shrill young green of the chestnuts carolling against the rich gloom of the cedars, the saffron-tinted church of San Jeronimo, with its jimped silhouette like a wedding-cake in the back-ground, and the crystal arch of blue overhead. And yet I found that the repose which the prospect seemed to invite was disturbed by a vague and unaccountable nervousness, which prevented me from at once entering the building. Not so un-accountable, perhaps, when you come to think about it. Have you never felt anxious and perturbed with indefinite misgivings when you were about to meet a friend or friends whom you had not seen for several years ? Will they have changed, you ask yourself, or have I changed, since last we met ? Shall I be disappointed ? Shall we still understand one another ?

It was six years since I had seen the pictures in the Prado. Presumably they had not changed in the interval, but then I had. One loses every year, I think, something of that finely sensitive receptivity of youth, that quickness of response to new sights and sounds, that enviable capacity of the inexperienced senses to take deep and clear-cut impressions. In the former days the emotions lorded it in the house of the body, and if the still small voice of reason dared to insinuate a doubt or ask a question it was at once shouted down by the loud voices of the blood. But in the course of years the body learns to acknowledge a new master. The senses may be as keen and active as ever, but when they come hurrying in with their messages from the outer world, the emotions, grown stiff and sluggish, no longer respond to their clamorous knocking. Instead the critical faculty stands to receive the eager messengers at the door, gives them a grudging welcome, hears their reports with cold suspicion, and as often as not sends them at once about their business. A somewhat pessimistic view to take of the matter, I know. It leaves out of account the other side of the picture—the perceptions perfected with practice, the critical apparatus adjusted and refined, errors corrected, decisions given with more impartiality and exactitude. True enough it may be, but for my part I can find no adequate compensation in the complacent satisfactions of a maturer judgment for those soul-shattering shocks of crude, uncritical emotion which are one of the too liberal endowments of youth.

After all, is it not the pictures that judge us rather than we who judge them ? They make a call not only upon our senses, or upon our intelligence even, but upon that secret self which lies so far beneath our surface activities. It is not a difficult matter with a slight application to get by heart the cant phrases and formulas of culture by means of which we are able to pass in the world for persons of liberal education and good taste. We can deceive our fellows, but these silent and august inquisitors we may not deceive. They easily pass through our defences. They interrogate us as to what we really know of the deep things of life. We cannot put them off with the facile criticisms we have got from books. They speak to us in their own language, and if we have never learnt its grammar we have to confess that we find them unintelligible. I think that looking at a very great picture is as formidable an experience as interviewing a very great man. The interview no doubt will afford us an unaffected pleasure and a certain glow of pride in the retrospect. ” Yes,” we shall be able afterwards to boast to our less privileged acquaintance, ” I had a talk with him once,” and all the while our conscience will accuse us of suppressio veri, for we shall know that it was he who talked to us and we who were not able to respond. And with the same certainty we know whether or not we are able to respond to words that are spoken in paint.

Somewhat dashed by these reflections, I turned away and walked up and down for a while in the shadow of the cedars, postponing this intimidating interview not with one great man but with a galleryful. Nor were my misgivings diminished when I remembered the stars that illuminate the pages of Baedeker when he arrives at the ‘Prado. Here he leaves a track behind him thick and luminous as the Milky Way. I fell to wondering what every star represented in the psychological experience of the phenomenal Karl. He who had seen everything that is worth seeing, and a good deal that is not, on the whole face of this planet—and of other planets too, for all I know—could it be possible that in his super-Ulyssean travels he had not yet dulled the edge of his perceptions ? What was the secret of that magical energy that enabled him to go on perambulating galleries without end in his tireless Teutonic way, responding to the diverse achievements of every school with an appropriate emotion, carefully registering each individual ecstasy with a star and a few well-chosen words of approbation ? How catholic and tolerant, too, his taste ! How immune he is from the petty, personal likes and dislikes of ordinary, illogical mortals like you and me, who allow our-selves to be at the mercy of every throb of colour and flow of line, who let our judgments wait upon our mood and do not ground them on the solid basis of a discernment between the artists’ “early,” middle ” and ” late ” periods. He is almost inhumanly exempt from prejudices—unless it can be called a prejudice to defer somewhat unquestioningly to the great names, to be, as it were, on the side of the big battalions. And yet he is never disdainful of mediocrity, as is the fashion of those who associate with the great ; he always condescends to encourage modest merit. Familiar as he is with the glories of Raphael, Titian, Michael Angelo and the rest of them, he has still a star or two left to bestow on Jordaens’s ” Family Group in a Garden ” and ” the five small and minutely executed landscapes and interiors of Jan Brueghel.” Was he very exhausted, I wonder, after such an emotional morning in the Prado ? No, some-how I fancy not. I think that he asked the porter at the vestibule quite collectedly for his umbrella (did you suppose that so prudent a traveller ever travelled without one ?) and, after giving him a tip that hit the exact mean between parsimony and liberality, went off without further delay to devote his afternoon to the Academia de Bellas Artes, or it may be that he stopped on the way and lunched at a restaurant, but only after previous inquiry as to price (” advisable and customary “). You and I, dear reader, cannot hope to emulate the exploits of this super-traveller. I fear that we lack the mental, moral and physical stamina of the indefatigable Teuton. In all probability we shall seek repose on a plush-covered settee long before we arrive at those ” five small and minutely executed landscapes and interiors.” In the con-fusion of our unmethodical delight we shall fail to preserve the exact demarcations of these ” early,” ” middle ” and ” late ” periods. Try as we will we shall never be able to train our emotions to express themselves in such apt and communicable phrases as ” charming for its lucid colouring,” “highly attractive and picturesque,” or ” remarkable for its energy of conception.” And afterwards we shall probably be overcharged for our lunch, for I am sure we shall never succeed in remembering that advisable and customary previous inquiry as to price.

” Do you realise that you have kept us hanging about outside the building for an unconscionable time, listening to your impertinences about a gentleman for whose painstaking observations you have probably many times been sincerely thankful ? Would it not have been more fitting to have taken this opportunity of acknowledging your obligations to him ? In any case, may we not now ascend the steps and enter the gallery ? ”

Truly I apologise, injured reader. It is indeed unfortunate that you have to put up with so egotistical a cicerone. But one moment—may I draw your attention in passing to this figure who sits in an arm-chair at the top of the first flight of steps and greets us with a brassy scowl ? A high broad brow, deep-set eyes, abrupt firm nose, high cheek-bones, pursed lips, square jaw—is it the face of a peasant or a thinker, or of one who was both ? His eyes peer out beneath shaggy eyebrows with a fixed, questioning stare which seems to bid the object of his vision deliver up its most intimate secret—the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This is assuredly not a man who would extenuate anything, and yet not one, perhaps, of whom it could be said that he set down naught in malice. Do you not recognise him Allow me to introduce you—Don Francisco José Goya y Lucientes ! Goya in his later years, I need hardly add, Goya irascible, ironical, disillusionised, Goya who had supped long at the feast of life and found that even its sweets leave a bitter taste behind.

In the vestibule we are challenged by a uniformed Cerberus whom we are compelled to propitiate with a walking-stick and a peseta. If the Prado were a limited company- it would surely pay a substantial dividend. The only day on which the entry is free is Sunday, and that is only half a day. But if the authorities are somewhat exacting to the visitor they are generous to the student. They allow him, or rather her, on six days out of six and a half to unfurl her canvases in front of any masterpiece she chooses, and as she is usually a person not without discrimination she chooses precisely those which the visitor has come all the way from London, Berlin or New York expressly to se€. She is moreover exasperatingly industrious. It is in vain that you will attempt to forestall her arrival or outstay her departure. She is also ambitious, and, far from being content to make a reduced copy of the picture of her choice, she is careful to reproduce it in its exact dimensions—perhaps the more careful about this as it is the only feature of the original which she succeeds in reproducing with any appreciable degree of exactitude. It is therefore both more economical and more profitable to visit the Prado on a Sunday, the day on which the student is compelled to suspend her never-ending studies-a day which I trust she spends in contrition for the enormities she has been perpetrating all the week.

And now we enter the gallery—a gallery not in the general but in the literal sense of the word, a long, long corridor, surely the longest corridor in the world. An ill-devised system on which to exhibit pictures, I am inclined to think. Whether it is on account of the exhaustion of the air, or the slipperiness of the floor, a puzzling but never-failing delight to directors, or the absence of seats, which wonderfully stimulates the desire to sit down, a picture gallery invariably induces a special fatigue. But the fatigue is intensified when at the very entrance you are confronted with a vista of canvases converging with a striking perspective to a point in the remotest distance. The spirit, however willing, sinks at once. All this acreage of paint to look at, examine, discriminate, appreciate, digest, comment on, rhapsodise over, carry away and lay up in the memory—it can’t be done ! It takes away your appetite for paint as a table spread with all the courses of a long table d’hôte would take away your appetite for food. The maîtres d’hôtel are wiser in their generation than the directors of public picture galleries. They know how to lead you on gently and expectantly from course to course, setting the dishes before you separately and with a ceremonious deference which suggests the belief that each one-is the chef’s chef-d’oeuvrc. The director on the other hand stuns .you with one stupendous coup d’oil. It is magnificent, and, since the building is there and has to be used, I suppose it is inevitable.

In my dreams I sometimes visit the picture galleries of Utopia. They are designed on the principle of one room one masterpiece, and the room is proportioned to the size of the masterpiece. You do not slip on the floor, neither are you compelled to stand like a prisoner in the dock, for the floors are thickly carpeted, and in front of each work of art are placed a few easy-chairs. No noisily shod person tramples past you, no broad-shouldered person stands in front of you, no weak-minded person quacks ineptitudes in your ear. For the space of a quarter of an hour you are guaranteed the sole possession of the room, accompanied by your friends if you have any. Smoking is not prohibited and cigarettes and liqueurs are provided at a small charge. Thus that portion of your mental energy which in the ordinary picture gallery is occupied in endeavouring to shut off from your consciousness disconcerting sights and sounds is set free to play upon the canvas.

” But this is neither the time nor the place—”

Very well then. Let us pass through the rotonda de entrada, where there is nothing to detain us, enter the ante-room of the long gallery and—La Maja Desnudo ! La Maja Vestida !

” What is the matter ? Why do you talk like that ? ”

The Goyas ! The resounding familiar names ! This ante-room is the goal of our pilgrimage. We are arrived !