All images courtesy Brian Patrick Eha
WALKING THE GALLERIES of one of Madrid’s many art museums, one sees, inescapably, signs of decay. As paintings age, they face ruin from a multitude of forces. Changes in temperature and humidity cause canvases to expand or contract; exposure to light causes discoloration; physical vibrations can lead to paint loss; air pollutants eat away at varnish; and neglect, combined with these, allows damage to proceed unchecked. Museums, of course, do everything they can to frustrate such forces, and art restorers bring sophisticated tools to bear: hot air pens, heated spatulas, low-pressure suction tables that relax distorted canvases. But there is only so much the experts can do. Some works are too far gone; they will never again be as they were. Present-day viewers behold a Madonna’s alligator arms, her Babe’s flaking halo, and try to piece together, from the beauty that remains, an uninjured, original image.
Madrid presented itself to me initially as a beautiful painting, a tableau Tintoretto could have loved, dramatic and invigorating. But during my time there this past fall, I began to see more and more, in the substance of what was beautiful, the cracks, the signs of distress and neglect, fissures splitting wider in the ancient stones. I had taken up residence in a private room in a marble-floored hostel on Gran Vía, in the heart of the city. Every day the cleaning woman would rouse me with a knock, and I would stumble to the door on half-dreaming feet, trying to sort out the jumbled languages in my head so as to give her a response. Even in tourist-heavy areas hardly any Spaniard speaks English, not even the simplest of phrases. Only a small number of educated young people have anything like conversational English, and many have already left the country for greener pastures. As in much of the developed world, youth here increasingly feel as if they have been robbed of the future. But in Spain it’s more problematic than elsewhere to appeal to the past. The past is all around you, but it is not kind.
In many minds, the fascist Spain of Francisco Franco still lingers. One piece of this past — the memorial El Valle de Los Caídos outside Madrid, which includes the world’s largest cross, and a basilica containing the bones of Franco himself — was reopened to the public in June of 2012. Is there another developed nation that has a standing monument to a dictator, built by the forced labor of the defeated? The bodies of dead Nationalists in the valley below were moved there on Franco’s orders. “Fallen for God and for Spain,” the inscription reads. The Spanish attitude toward the late dictator is not like the anachronistic pride of the French for Napoleon, whose militarism they would not now condone in a leader; it is nothing but revulsion. And yet until 2007, when the Law of Historical Memory was passed which ordered their removal, there were as many tokens of Franco’s legacy in Spain as there are of Napoleon’s in France.
Here the past is more than usually present. Every street and open space in Madrid seems to have been the site of something historic: Lope de Vega premiered his plays in this plaza, Cervantes’s bones rest in that convent, the echoes of Franco’s public addresses linger in another plaza. The liberalization that accompanied the return of democracy has slowed, even reversed sin...read more