The Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art facing Atocha station, keeps different opening hours and days from its neighbours-museums, which is fortunate because this leading exhibition space and permanent collection of modern Spanish art, is another essential stop on the Madrid art scene. The museum, a massive former convent and hospital, built in the 18th century, is a kind of Madrid response to the Pompidou centre in Paris. Transparent lifts shuttle visitors up outside the building, whose levels, now extended by the French architect Jean Nouvel, feature a projections room, an excellent art and design bookshop, 2 auditoriums, a superb library, an inner garden enclosed in the porticoed cloister, a restaurant and a café, as well as the temporary exhibition halls (top floor) and the halls devoted to the permanent collection (second floor).
It is for Picasso's Guernica that most visitors come to the Reina Sofía, and rightly so. Superbly displayed along with its preliminary studies, this icon of twentieth-century Spanish art and politics –a response to the fascist bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War– carries a shock that defies all familiarity. Other halls are devoted to Dalí and Surrealism, early-twentieth-century Spanish artists including Miró, Picasso and Juan Gris. The collection maps all the evolution of 20th century art, from the beginning of abstraction through to Pop Art and the present avant-garde.
Inside the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is the restaurant run by Sergi Arola, one of the most famous Spanish chefs. Arola Madrid is located in the new building by Jean Nouvel. The restaurant has an informal spirit in which designer elements play an important role. The restaurant, which aims to recover the essence of traditional Mediterranean has three different atmospheres.
Once the San Carlos Hospital, the remodelling of this building began in 1981 and in 1986 the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía was inaugurated, becoming the principle location in Madrid for national and international exhibitions. It is home to a variety of art-related activities, such as conferences, courses, poetry recitals or contemporary music concerts. In 1990 the collection of modern Spanish art was added to the museum, when it was moved from what was then the Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo (MEAC) which today is the Museum of Anthropology. Not long afterwards a decision was taken to move Picasso's famous Guernica, with its preliminary sketches and drawings as well as a work by Juan Gris into the Reina Sofía, all of which had been previously kept in the Casón del Buen Retiro, a part of the Prado Museum.
This move remains controversial - Picasso had explicitly stated his desire that the Guernica be exhibited in the Prado and although its present room in the Reina Sofía was expressly built for the work, there are often complaints about difficulty in seeing the painting in its entirety, even though it is no longer behind a bullet-proof glass shield. The room in which it is kept lacks depth, and forces the viewer to see it either too close up or from too far away. The are also complaints about poor lighting in the room which houses the preliminary work, which are said to have been better displayed in their previous home.
Nonetheless, the move was made and the museum acquired its current rather long name: El Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, in an attempt to create Madrid's equivalent to London's Tate Gallery or Paris' Pompidou Centre. In this same spirit the museum was given a facelift in 1990 to give it an image more in keeping with its new functions. This consisted of two glass elevators shafts attached to the buildings façade, designed by the British architect Ian Ritchie. More recently the museum has expanded with an addition to the building created by the French architect Jean Nouvel.
This museum is recommended as 'essential' not solely because its permanent collection raises it to the level of the above mentioned Pompidou Centre or Tate Gallery. It can also be deemed essential because it is where Madrid's most important modern art exhibitions are displayed. Also to be praised are the attempts by its directors to provide an interesting and varied programme, as well as the museum's acquisition policies which are to purchase current works rather than try to fill in missing gaps in its existing collection. This would in any case prove impossible because of a lack of both funds and availability of works. These policies could convert the museum into a excellent exhibit of art dating from the 1980s onwards.
The permanent collection in the Reina Sofía is almost exclusively made up of Spanish art from the 20th century, with works by many of the most important artists (Picasso, Miró, Oteiza, Julio González, Tapies, Equipo Crónica, Gerardo Rueda) but with a notable absence of many others. Also on permanent display are the Propuestas (Proposals) where work of international artists such as Barnet Newman, Soto, etc. can be found.
The top floor is home to the museum's library, the largest in Spain dedicated to art. Some of the books came from the old Spanish Museum Of Contemporary Art and others have been acquired since along with audio-visual and electronic material. It is well worth popping up for a look around.
The building itself, the central patio, with its superb mobile sculpture by Alexander Calder, the library, the book shop and the cafeteria all contribute to making the Reina Sofía a museum/art centre which assures that every day more and more people develop an interest in modern art.
If upon leaving the Reina Sofía you still have energy, nearby are some of the cities most interesting art galleries.
Santa Isabel, 52
Zone: Las Cortes