Dispatches from Madrid: On the Road with Charles Demuth
Editor’s note: Last month, the ASU Art Museum’s Teresa Shannon, assistant registrar (and recent ASU graduate!) headed to Madrid to oversee the safe travel of a Charles Demuth painting from the museum’s collection, entitled A Sky After El Greco. Here’s a firsthand look at her trip:
The Madrid airport, unlike our own Sky Harbor, only has one exit from the international arrivals terminal. While this made for a hectic and crowded journey through customs, at the end it rewarded me with one of the happiest experiences of travel: seeing family awaiting the arrival of a loved one. Gobs of children and adults press themselves against the security barrier and burst into cheers when they glimpse the face of their family member in the crowd of us moving toward the exit. In the midst of all the smiling faces stands a man in a business suit holding a piece of paper with my name spelled out in all caps. I rush over to introduce myself to the man who will escort me from the airport to the Museo Nacional del Prado.
My escort’s name is Guillermo and he works for SIT Spain, a company that specializes in the packing and transportation of art, as well as museum and exhibition conservation and design. Guillermo is here to help me complete my duties as an art courier. This journey started two days before in Arizona, when I began escorting the ASU Art Museum’s Charles Demuth painting: A Sky After El Greco, first to Los Angeles and then to Madrid, for the El Greco and Modern Painting exhibition (on view June 24 – Oct. 5, 2014) at the Museo Nacional del Prado.
This second half of my journey is where the real work would start. Antonio drives to the freight packing area of the airport and I watch as the crate containing the painting is loaded on to a truck and strapped securely in for its drive to the Prado. Following this truck to the museum gives me my first glimpse of beautiful Madrid, where cars darted down tree-lined, one-way streets and people walk briskly on a mixture of well-maintained sidewalks and treacherous cobblestone paths.
We arrived at the museum’s loading dock, and only after showing my passport am I allowed into the building. The crate is taken from the truck and delivered directly into the exhibition space where it will be shown. Many pieces of artwork are already hanging in the gallery and I am able to walk though and view them as I wait. It is a humbling and exceptional experience to get a behind-the-scenes view of how an exhibition of this size is put together. The crate stays overnight in the museum to acclimate to the new environment and I am taken to my hotel.
The night life in Madrid is incredible. Although it is around 7 p.m. when I finally make it to my hotel for check-in, the city is still bright with sunlight and the people are just making their way out for pre-dinner drinks. Never one to buck local customs, I head out for a night of exploring with a fellow courier from San Francisco and a conservator from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. We stroll through quaint alleys to a sherry bar called La Venencia, which was once a favorite haunt of bullfighting-obsessed writer Ernest Hemingway. In the narrow bar we sip a glass of dry white wine and snack on fresh green olives.
Our little group then makes its way to a plaza filled with people just beginning dinner. Madridians are late dinners — I mean late! Most restaurants do not even begin serving dinner until 9 p.m., and then don’t close their kitchens until 1 a.m. The old and the young congregate in the town squares or plazas that dot the city. Street performers, trinket sellers, palm readers and children come together to create a carnival-like atmosphere, not just on weekends but every night. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the fun and before we knew it midnight had come. Though the streets are still full of merry people, we decide to call it a night.
The next day I make my way on foot to the Prado for the unpacking and hanging of the Demuth. I pass lovely buildings and luscious green parks while the sound of people speaking Spanish surrounds me. Before I can feel completely out of my element, I spy a very large Starbucks, and shaking my head at the sight, I cross the street to enter the Prado. The staff at the museum welcomes me and again takes me behind closed doors into the exhibition space. For two hours I stand with other couriers from around the world as the museum’s staff unpack, examine and hang paintings by or inspired by El Greco. The efficiency of this group is amazing and they work quickly yet safely to display the artwork. After an intense examination of A Sky After El Greco is performed by the Prado’s lead paper conservator, the Demuth is hung in a side gallery space dedicated to artists from the Americas. This space, called Area 7 in the exhibition checklist, also features Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton.
After the painting is hung, the staff quickly moves on to the next painting and I exit the exhibition area to explore the Prado. Their collection is astounding. Walking from room to room, I see masters such as Caravaggio, Hieronymous Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez. Never before have I been so completely in love with art as the moment when I walked around a corner and saw the Prado’s Mona Lisa, attributed to a student of Leonardo da Vinci, who most likely painted alongside him and copied his every brush stroke (learn more in a New York Times article on this painting!) With the audio guide to my ear, I learn that this stunning painting is a close copy of Leonardo’s original, which has hung in the Louvre since 1797, but the background behind the figure is more complete.
With my duties as a courier complete, I am now free to explore the city for the next two days. I feel incredibly fortunate to visit this cosmopolitan place, and will use my free time to see the Royal Place, the National Cathedral, the Bibliotheca and the archeological museum — and of course, eat lots of tapas! Madrid is a fantastic place, not only for the vast array of museums and attractions it offers, but also the history, the culture and the obvious pride the people take in their city.
To see more from Teresa’s visit to Madrid and the life of a registrar, search #trs1986travels on Instagram.
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