The Reina Sofia’s collection of 20th- and 21st-century Spanish art is exciting and challenging by turns. The museum, set in a converted hospital, was inaugurated by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía in September 1990 and, besides the permanent collection, stages outstanding temporary exhibitions from around the world. The organization is thematic and chronological, beginning with the Basque and Catalan schools of the early 1900s. While most visitors home in on the rooms exhibiting the great masters of the interwar period – Juan Gris, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, whose Guernica is the centrepiece of the gallery lesser known Spanish painters and sculptors are worth seeking out. Works by the European and American avantgarde provide an international context.
This marvellous Blue-period portrait (1901) by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was painted shortly after his first visit to Paris – he painted the insolent looking courtesan from memory. When the painting failed to win a national exhibition, a disgruntled Picasso discarded it. It was discovered several years later.
Hermengildo Anglada Camarasa (1871–1959) had a sensual style as this evocative painting (c.1913) shows.
José Gutiérrez Solana (1886–1945) loved to record the social life of the capital, as in this 1920 portrait of a literary group. The painting’s owner, novelist and poet Ramón Gómez de la Serna, is shown standing in the centre.
Juan Gris (1887–1927) became one of Cubism’s leading exponents. This 1925 work is an excellent example.
Catalan artist Salvador Dalí (1904–89) was a leading exponent of Surrealism, with its exploration of the subconscious. The figure of the Masturbator (1929) is derived from a weird rock formation at Cadaqués.
In this 1933 painting Benjamin Palencia (1894–1980) evokes the arid landscape of La Mancha, while the animals appear symbolic.
Joan Miró (1893– 1983) encompassed Cubism and Surrealism but he never lost his extraordinary originality. In this 1938 work the Catalan painter is more interested in juxtaposing colours rather than revealing the physical attributes of the sitter.
This 1939 still life by Luis Fernández (1900–73) harks back to the classical traditions of 17th-century Spanish painting. Fernández experimented with abstraction and Surrealism before settling on his own figurative style.
Antoní Tàpies (b.1923) is arguably Spain’s most important postwar artist. His “matter paintings”, including this 1961 work, explore texture and are composed by adding layers of mixed media, such as sand, pigment, powdered marble and paint, onto a prevarnished canvas.
This entertaining 1972 work, in which two suited artists slug it out among outsized tubes of paint, is by “Equipo Crónica”, aka artists Rafael Solbes (1940–81) and Manuel Valdés (b.1942). The duo were inspired by Pop Art.
The entrance to the main Sabatini building is in Calle Santa Isabel. Glass lifts take visitors to the permanent collections on the second, third and fourth floors. Temporary exhibitions are housed in an adjoining glass building designed by Jean Nouvel and accessed via the first floor. To the west and south of a new courtyard are a further two buildings housing a library of art, restaurant, book shop and an auditorium.
Born in Lithuania, Jacques Lipchitz (1891–1973) fell under the spell of Cubism during his first stay in Paris in 1909. This piece (1915) suggests the human form although it is very close to pure abstraction.
Catalan artist Pablo Gargallo (1881–1934) was one of the most important Spanish sculptors during the 1920s and 1930s. He spent nearly 30 years planning this 1933 masterpiece which was sadly only cast after his death.
This beautiful sculpture painting (1933–4) was the fruit of a collaboration between Catalan Salvador Dalí and the leading American Surrealist, Man Ray (1890–1978). Man Ray fashioned the head, leaving Dalí to add the striking painted dream landscape.
Born in Barcelona, Julio González (1876–1942) became an apprentice welder in Paris and his training at the forge had a major impact on his work. This abstract piece from 1935 is very typical of his output.
This arresting 1943 work by Pablo Picasso is a traditional sculpture in the manner of Rodin. Picasso’s studies of the period suggest that the lamb is intended to be a symbol of sacrifice.
British sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986) was a significant influence on Spanish artists of the 1940s and 1950s, and this 1952 piece is a fine example. A devotee of Picasso, he later moved away from traditional work to join the Surrealists.
Jorge de Oteiza (b.1908) is a highly original Basque sculptor, more interested in form than in expressing feelings or symbols. This piece dates from 1958. He made a big impact on the younger painters of Equipo ‘57, also exhibited here.
A prominent member of the Madrid Realist school, Julio López Hernández (b.1930) is noted for his lifesize human figures, such as this wonderfully evocative study of a craftsman and his wife at the workbench, cast in 1965.
One of the most important painters of the 20th century, both in Spain and around the world, Catalan Joan Miró was an equally talented sculptor. In his later work, when he became engrossed in Surrealism, he was especially interested in the qualities and workings of simple objects and materials, such as this 1967 clock.
Eduardo Chillida (1924–2002) is one the most highly regarded sculptors in Spain. This enormous iron construction (1989–90) weighs 8,000 kg (17,500 lbs) special cranes were needed to install it in the museum. Chillida was a founding member of Grupo ‘57, an artistic group under the Franco regime.
On display in Room 6 of the museum is its most precious and famous work. Commissioned as propaganda, Guernica instantly transcended its original purpose. In April 1937, at the height of the Civil War, German bombers devastated the Basque town of Guernica (Gernika) in support of General Franco’s Nationalist forces. The attack, almost unprecedented, on a defenceless civilian population caused international outrage. Picasso completed his huge canvas in just two months and it was first exhibited at the Paris World’s Fair. Ever since, the meaning and content of Guernica have been minutely analysed, to the irritation of the artist. Picasso chose not to depict the bombardment – there are no aeroplanes, for example – but to indict war, with all its senselessness and barbarity, conceived in terms of the artist’s highly individual language of symbols. The preliminary sketches (also exhibited in Room 6) are a help in understanding the painting. Picasso tried eight different versions before arriving at his ultimate vision.