Be it Barcelona or Bilbao, Madrid, Málaga or Valencia, Spain ranks amongst the world’s greatest centres of art.
If you were asked to name a famous Spanish artist, chances are you could easily pick half a dozen or more straight off the top of your head. Whether it’s El Greco, Velázquez or Goya, heavyweight hitters of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, or the great names of more modern times – Sorolla, Picasso, Dalí, Miró to name but a few – it’s fair to say that Spain has produced more than its fair share of artistic greatness over the centuries.
And so it follows that the cities of Spain pack a punch when it comes to the prowess of its cultural institutions, with a wealth of great names to rival the top museums across the globe. From the might of the Museo del Prado in Madrid to the Picasso Museums of Málaga and Barcelona, from the Fine Arts Museums of Valencia and Bilbao to the iconic Guggenheim, here’s an overview of Spain’s impressive artistic credentials.
As capital of Spain, it’s only natural that Madrid is rightfully recognised and respected for the impressive wealth of centuries-old, awe-inspiring art contained across its three principal museums, all lying along the Paseo del Prado. The Prado is famed as Madrid’s premier tourist attraction and houses one of the oldest – and greatest – art collections in the world, particularly its Flemish and Spanish collections. Indeed, of the 16,000 paintings, drawings and prints owned by the Prado, only a fraction are on display at any one time. Highlights include the world’s largest ensemble of paintings by Goya and close to the entire portfolio of Velázquez.
Situated in the former Palacio de Villahermosa on the Paseo del Prado meanwhile, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is home to some 800 works of art dating from the Renaissance all the way through to modern art. The cast list of artists is an A-list feast, with masterpieces on display by Caravaggio, Titian, Canaletto, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse and Kandinsky, amongst many others. Located at the southern end of Madrid’s golden art triangle, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and is dedicated to contemporary art from the 20th century to the present day by Spanish as well as international artists. Highlights include excellent collections of Spain’s two greatest 20th-century masters, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, with pride of place going to the museum’s showpiece, Picasso’s Guernica.
There’s also the Museo Sorolla and the Museo Pantéon de Goya in the capital, as well as the lesser-known but highly-regarded Museo de la Fondación Lázaro Galdiano, showcasing works by many of Europe’s old masters from the Spanish, English, Italian and Flemish schools.
Spain’s second city, Barcelona is also renowned for its varied menu of artistic offerings and leading the charge from an architectural perspective as much as an artistic one must surely be the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC). From medieval Romanesque and Gothic to modern art, the museum focusses on art originating from Catalonia and is as impressive for its photogenic setting, housed in the striking Palau Nacional atop Montjuïc with fabulous fountains in its foreground, as it is for its collection of artworks contained within.
Equally as famous is the Museu Picasso, housed in three beautiful stone mansions on the Carrer de Montcada in the Barri Gòtic. The Museu Picasso is Barcelona’s most visited museum and features the most important and complete collection – some 3,000 pieces – of Picasso’s earlier works dating from 1895 to 1904, the years in which he lived in Barcelona. Other artistic institutions of note in Barcelona include the Fondació Joan Miró and the Fondació Antoni Tàpies, dedicated to two Barcelona-born painters and sculptors celebrating their 40th and 25th anniversaries respectively in 2015; as well as the MACBA, Barcelona’s Contemporary Art Museum. And of course, if you like your art in architectural form, you’ll be in seventh heaven, with the works of Antoni Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Muntaner dotted all around the city.
Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum has been hailed as the most important building of its time and is undisputedly Bilbao’s star attraction, thanks to its awesome and utterly distinctive shell of titanium, glass and limestone. Open since 1997, the museum dedicates itself to modern and contemporary art with a collection spanning the mid-20th century to the present day, concentrating particularly on post-war painting and sculpture in America and Europe.
Yet another important cultural attraction in Bilbao is its Museo de Bellas Artes, arguably one of the top-five museums in Spain. Described as a mini-Prado, the city’s Fine Arts Museum displays some 6,000 works from every Spanish school of art from the 12th to the 20th centuries, in addition to French, Italian and Flemish masterpieces.
Valencia abounds in artistic heritage and the city’s Museo de Bellas Artes is in fact Spain’s second largest art museum after the Prado in Madrid. Situated at the edge of the Jardines del Real, you’ll find here a wide mix of modern and traditional art, all the while showcasing some of Spain’s finest painters – Jacomart, Reixach, Ribera, El Greco, Velázquez, Murillo, Goya and Sorolla (Valencia’s most famous artistic son) to name but a few.
Holding the title of Spain’s first modern arts museum meanwhile, the Institut Valèncià d’Art Modern (IVAM) plays host to over 400 artworks in a modernist genre. Its collection contains sections dedicated to 20th-century avant-garde painting, Pop Art, sculpture, photography and European Informalism, featuring a selection of Spanish works by Saura, Tàpies and Chillida.
The southern city of Málaga is enjoying somewhat of a cultural resurgence thanks to a €100 million investment in the arts by the city council over the past ten years. Indeed, 2015 has seen the arrival of two new art institutions in this popular port town. The first, the Centre Pompidou Málaga, is a five-year, pop-up museum housed in a large glass cube on the quayside, hosting a programme of temporary exhibitions and specially selected works drawn from the Pompidou’s permanent collection in Paris. Housed in a former tobacco factory meanwhile, the Museo Ruso also opened this year and is dedicated to Russian art spanning the 16th – 20th centuries.
These two new museums complement the many existing centres of art in Málaga. These comprise the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (CAC), the Museo Carmen Thyssen, an offshoot of Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza focussing on 19th-century Spanish painting, and, perhaps the most famous, the Museo Picasso Málaga. Created in 2003 in direct response to the artist’s desire that his work be permanently displayed in his birthplace, you’ll find nearly 300 works in the collection spanning eight decades of Picasso’s art.