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  • Fiona Prior


What I love about National Museums and National Galleries is that they tend to tell a thousand stories and represent far more than just the contents of their canvases and the forms and uses of their artefacts.

When in the National Museum of Beirut years ago there was a display of melted glass and precious metals. Amongst the many extraordinary treasures from Beirut’s rich history this display reminded the visitor that the Lebanese Civil War literally hit the National Museum of Beirut like a bomb. The museum’s central location proved to be on the demarcation line of Beirut, the ‘Green’ line which split Beirut’s antagonistic factions for nearly 17 years. The melted precious objects on display were a sample of the treasure that the diligent museum workers had not been able to save.

From a different angle of the ‘tellingness’ of our art and institutions was the extraordinary move of France’s Agence France-Museum to agree to a satellite Louvre in the UAE’s Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island. Definitely, a geopolitical moment beyond the loan and transfer of cultural content and curatorial intelligence to the UAE Louvre, significant was that the then French President Sarkozy was also opening a French military base in the area on the very same trip.

That most important Room Twelve of Madrid's Museo Nacional del Prado, containing the works of the artist and court adviser Velázquez tells many stories. Maybe not quite as metatextual as the examples above – or the linked examination to Picasso's Guernica at the end of this page – but revealing of history, society and identity all the same.

In Room Twelve you find the portrait of the young prince Balthasar Carlos on Horseback; the Prince mounted on the sweetest little fat pony which actually would not have been quite so ‘chub’ and with such overly-long hind legs were we to view it installed in a heightened location, as originally envisaged by Velázquez who was totally across the calculations of perspective.

The young Prince sadly died at an early age but he and Mariana of Austria were already promised to one another. This portrait of Mariana in all her opulence depicts the political bride who would eventually marry a man more than thirty years her senior.

The Prince’s father, King Felipe IV, indeed married the 14-year-old Mariana and the product of their union was Margarita Teresa. I can never look at Velázquez’s most famous work Las Meninas (or The Family of Felipe IV) without thinking of Oscar Wilde’s sad little tale, The Birthday of the Infanta.

In Velázquez’s Las Meninas we see the whole family gathered and it suggests that the little princess and her retinue have just exploded into the studio of Velázquez. If you look carefully at the back wall of the painting, a reflection of Felipe IV and Mariana can be seen as a mirror image. Velázquez is to the left of the canvas looking directly at (the imagined location of) the royal couple, paintbrush in hand so that we do not mistake his identity. The little Princesses entourage, ladies-in-waiting, dwarf and even the family dog all being present in Velázquez’s studio reinforce the suspicion that they have arrived unannounced. Just a family snapshot in an unexpected encounter? Well not quite, but you see that Velázquez was definitely pushing the envelope on formal Royal Family depictions and also emphasising his closeness to the ruling family.


And for a little more animal spirit in Spain what could be more appropriate that Picasso’s iconic Guernica – housed in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and not too far from the Prado. With its brutal bull, screaming horse and torn apart humans in an environment of chaos and terror, this work always makes my blood run cold. It is a perfect representation of horror.

Find Andrea Giunta’s interesting coverage of the competitive struggle to interpret this most famous and iconic art work here

Giunta complete's the essay on the competition for the meaning of Guernica: "In the context of the early Cold War, when the world was being divided into two blocks, battles over the meaning of culture and of art mattered a great deal. If the Communist Block had been able to claim the artist as man, Alfred Barr, would claim his work for the Free World. To write the meaning of the painting, to sum it up in a text that, for almost thirty years, would hang next to the work, was to win a battle that, though symbolic, was no less crucial than those fought with other weapons.

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