September 21, 2013 - 16:38 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - The Prado may be among the world's most treasured cultural institutions but even this bastion of Spanish culture has not escaped the financial pain that continues to grip the recession-blighted nation. As the government slashed its subsidies, the museum revealed its prediction earlier this year that visitor numbers would plummet by 25% because of its dramatically slimmed schedule of exhibitions – an announcement that was met with grim concern but little surprise, The Guardian said.
But next month, the Prado is banking on a sure-fire winner. Diego Velázquez, hero of Spain's Golden Age, portrait artist to the court of Philip IV, is coming home. His masterpiece Las Meninas is one of the most famous and complex paintings of the 17th century.
Velázquez and the Family of Philip IV, which opens on 8 October, covers the last decade of his life, and will be the first time that many of his most important works have been displayed together. Thanks to hefty loans from the Museum of the History of Art in Vienna and a string of other museums, the public will be able to see his portraits of the Infanta Margarita, alongside his Pope Innocent X, and the extraordinarily austere-looking Philip IV. The Prado is banking on the hope that visitors – both local and international – will arrive in their droves.
The exhibition's curator, Javier Portús, sees this as a chance to witness the flowering of the artist's technical genius.
"Here is a mature artist, sure of himself," he said, sitting in his office a few minutes' walk from the Prado.
When Velázquez returned to Madrid after his second trip to the papal court in Rome in 1651, he was "thinking about his place in history", Portús explained. "This period wasn't a continuation of his previous work, but the culmination of his career. Every painting is a masterpiece."
Portús is particularly animated by the fine details in the background of these portraits – a golden clock, a beatific dog, a vase of flowers, a headdress of butterflies – which draw your eye away from the main subject. By this late stage in his career, Velázquez understood the rules of portraiture and how to play with them.
A big box office success would also, of course, reinforce the Prado's reputation as a world-class cultural institution. The museum's director, Miguel Zugaza, now in his 11th year at the helm, said: "The Prado is a grand institution that has undergone a process of modernisation and expansion, but the beauty of this museum is that it has grown without forgetting its reason for being." Its critical role, he believes, is nurturing a hoard of priceless treasures and showing them off – with care – to the world.
Like many museums in Spain, the Prado no longer relies predominately on government funding but has increasingly been forced to reach out to private sources of income. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (Macba) has also suffered financial pain, with huge cuts to its budget, as Catalan debts spiralled. It is a story repeated in cultural institutions across the country.
It is fitting, perhaps, that the era in which Velázquez lived and worked – 1559-1660 – was one of great decadence in the royal court, but also of crisis. War with England and Portugal and dynastic battles were pushing Spain towards financial ruin. The average 17th-century Spaniard might well identify with modern countrymen, 26% of whom are unemployed, as Catalan demands for independence dominate the headlines.
But any similarities in the social contexts, Zugaza insists, are pure coincidence. "[This show] is not an homage to the current crisis, nor a reflection of our times. It is a celebration of Velázquez."