MADRID — At the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the great Prado Museum in Madrid faced a terrifying threat--the loss of the heart of its collection.
Some American art lovers had proposed that the United States forgo the Philippines as war booty from Spain and take the Prado's Diego Velazquez paintings instead. But American bureaucrats slapped down the idea, thus keeping the Prado intact.
It is not clear how close the American collectors came to tearing the heart out of the Prado, but it is clear that, for many Spaniards, losing the grandeur of the Prado would have been far more devastating than losing an empire.
Tied to Nation's Identity
No country is as closely identified with its art collection as Spain with the Prado. Imagining Madrid without it is like imagining Los Angeles without freeways.
As a young man in Madrid, Ernest Hemingway would visit the Prado in the mornings before writing.
"A boy who has not had a formal education," he wrote art historian Bernard Berenson many years later, "can get a pretty good one in the Prado if he goes there every morning and takes his time."
The Prado, founded on the collections of the kings of Spain 169 years ago, is not a complete or ordered museum. Alfonso Perez Sanchez, the present director, calls it instead "an impassioned, capricious and accidental museum."
It does not have good examples from every important school of art or era like the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It lacks British paintings, for example, for Britain was once Spain's great enemy. But what the Prado does have, it has in breathtaking abundance and glory.
No other museum has more important collections of Velazquez, Francisco de Goya, Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Bartolome Esteban Murillo and Titian. Visitors to the Prado find one of the great art galleries of the world. Some critics insist that none is better.
The greatness of this museum probably explains why it always seems to be embroiled in controversy and caught under the shadow of politics. Spaniards are so obsessed with the Prado that they feel a need to watch over it and argue about it.
During the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish Republic, in a blatant act of public relations, named famed Spanish painter Pablo Picasso director of the museum. Once appointed, he never bothered to set foot in it--or, in fact, in Madrid. To save them from bombing, the museum's treasures were hidden elsewhere throughout the war in any case.
Now, the Prado exhibits only one canvas by Picasso, but it is the "Guernica," his most famous and most political painting, a symbolic portrayal of the destruction of a northern Spanish city by Nazi German bombers carrying out the orders of Gen. Francisco Franco during the civil war. Picasso refused to let the work be shown in Spain until democracy was restored, so it hung in New York's Museum of Modern Art until it was sent to the Prado in 1981, eight years after the artist's death.
Debate Over Acquisition
At the Prado, political overtones are ever present. Museum officials are now entangled in international intrigue as they negotiate for the acquisition of the choicest part of the collection of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who is married, perhaps fortunately for the Prado, to a former Miss Spain. The Thyssen collection is usually described as the most valuable and important private collection in the world except for that of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.
Even the Prado's $17-million modernization program, due to be finished in 1990, has roots in politics. Fearful that pollution was damaging the paintings, the Prado began to install air conditioning in all of its rooms more than 10 years ago. As part of the program, officials are also installing new lighting, redesigning the walls, expanding to new buildings and offering educational programs for the first time. This kind of work, in the view of many Spaniards, helps release the Prado from the shackles of Francoism.
To be sure, Francoism hurt the Prado in an odd way. Franco's dictatorial regime did not often interfere with the running of the Prado. In 1974, Franco officials did force a reluctant, protesting Prado to stage an exhibition of the works of a friend of the regime, the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali. But this was a rare act. In general, the Prado was hurt by Franco mainly because of its isolation.
Madrid and its museum officials were so isolated during the Franco dictatorship that the Prado remained steadfastly ignorant of all the contemporary ideas about making a museum appeal to the public. The museum did not even distribute a map to visitors. No signs pointed the way. Tourists could spend hours in the dim, crowded and hot museum and fail to come upon the great paintings by Velazquez, Goya and Bosch.
Perez Sanchez--when he took over the Prado in 1983--called it "the great invalid of our culture."