When it comes to art, Madrid knows few rivals. The Museo Del Prado justifiably attracts more visitors than any other museum in Spain, while the extensive private collection of Thyssen-Bornemisza and the contemporary masterpieces of Museo Reina Sofía have their own generous share of followers. Yet the Spanish capital’s art scene is so much more than this 'Golden Triangle', with creativity thriving in the shadow of these prolific giants.
Museo Lázaro Galdiano, named after the businessman who bequeathed his vast private collection to the city, may not be as all-encompassing as Thyssen-Bornemisza, but neither does it share its dark past (Thyssen-Bornemizsa’s illustrious collection was amassed largely through Nazi connections). Among Lázaro Galdiano’s 13,000 painting and objets d’art, you can contemplate El Greco, Murillo and Zurbarán masterpieces, and immerse yourself in the dark underworld of Goya’s 'Black Paintings' in solitude.
La movida madrilène, the Spanish counterculture movement that kicked off after Spanish dictator Franco’s death in 1975, saw art in Madrid branching out into different spheres, from graffiti to photography and contemporary art collectives. Galería Moriarty was at the centre of this counterculture movement and remains one of the city’s best contemporary galleries, exhibiting work by Spanish artists, such Luis Bisbe’s installations and photography by Darya von Berner and Mireia Sentís.
Often overlooked in favour of the better-known Reina Sofía next door, the Salvador Díaz art gallery hosts thought-provoking photography exhibitions and encourages all forms of avant-garde art, focusing on contemporary Spanish names such as clothing designer Ivan López or José Manuel Ballester who specialises in abstract sculpture and urban photography. In the same vein, Trama art gallery features outstanding artists such as contemporary landscape painter Eduard Resbier and artist Javier Campano, who is renowned for his monochrome photography of Madrid.
In contrast to such creative interpretations of modern Madrid is a painting that aims to reproduce the city’s appearance from 1561, the year it became the capital of Spain. But you will have to go inside a restaurant to view it. The painting Matritum Urbs Regia by Russian Pierre Schild was painted in 1956 and is based on the detailed drawings of 16th-century Flemish artist Anton van den Wyngaerde, who travelled widely around Spain on behalf of King Felipe II. Thought to be the most faithful painting of Madrid at that period of time, Schild gave it to the Gonzáles family, the owners of restaurant Sobrino de Botín, which claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world.
You do not even need to venture inside Madrid’s umpteen galleries to see some of the capital’s more interesting pieces – many can be found outdoors. The free Museo de la Escultura Abstracta is a collection of 17 abstract sculptures by the likes of Catalan Joan Miró, Basque artist Eduardo Chillida and Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Palazuelo that sit beneath the overpass where Paseo de la Castellana meets Paseo de Eduardo Dato. The works, made of bronze, heavy steel and mirrors, actually seem enhanced by their exposure to the elements.
Open spaces used to showcase art may be nothing new, but a car park certainly is. The vast Vázquez de Mella car park on its namesake plaza has been transformed into its present incarnation by Italian architect Teresa Sapey, who was inspired by Dante’s Fifth Canto from The Divine Comedy. Lines from Dante’s famous work mark the car park walls in red neon, while the theme of the giant, wall-covering photographs is 'love', expressed through the its subjects’ various tender poses. An eye-catching sculpture sits by the entrance – a giant red ribbon, Madrid’s tribute to the fight against AIDS.
Madrid’s streets will often surprise you, too, if you keep an attentive eye on your surroundings and slow your pace. Look up as you pass house number three along Calle de los Milaneses, near the Metro Opera and you will see the figure of a winged man who appears to have crashed headfirst into the cornice, his wings mangled. It has been suggested that the man in question represents either the symbolic fall of Lucifer or the arrogance and folly of Icarus, but the real story behind the sculpture Accidente Aereo by contemporary artist Miguel Ángel Ruiz is that a man, who has been away for 10,000 years, is flying on his back to look at the clouds, unaware that in his absence a vast city has grown in the place of the countryside.
The eternally-damned Lucifer does, in fact, appear in an al fresco sculpture by Ricardo Bellver in El Parque de Buen Retiro. Created in 1877, this was the first statue in the world to be dedicated to the fallen angel alone, his baleful expression and tortured pose inspired by the verses of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book I. Appropriately, the statue stands exactly 666m above sea level.
Finally, one of Madrid’s most unusual sculptures – and one of a non-ecclesiastical nature – is La Abuela Rockera ('the rocker grandmother'), homage to Ángeles Rodríguez Hidalgo, an elderly AC/DC fan who never missed a rock gig or festival in Madrid, earning her local icon status and even her own advice column in Spanish magazine Heavy Rock. She stands on Avenida de la Ciudad de Barcelona, by Metro Puente de Vallecas, and is depicted wearing her trademark leather jacket and seems to be raising a clenched fist; some local residents had her index and little fingers cut off because they objected to her allegedly making the sign of the devil.
This article was first published in May 2012 and was refreshed in October 2012.