The most narrative Murillo in the most restrained Prado


It is not usual for a public museum to denounce in the texts of a catalog of a temporary exhibition the economic shortage that it is going through. But the fact that the Prado Museum does it, in a scientific article on the art of narrating in the Baroque, is a sign of alarm that the leadership of the most important cultural institution in Spain has not made public so far. Director Miguel Falomir has not yet appeared to take stock of damages in 2020 and 2021 and, more importantly, how he is going to overcome them with such a significant loss of ticket sales. So far we know that in 2020 it stopped earning 19 million euros, 65% of its own income. The salary item alone represents more than 22 million euros to the museum.


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The Prado has started its exhibition season this Monday with the presentation of Murillo’s prodigal son and the art of storytelling in the Andalusian Baroque, an excellent and brief tour of 33 paintings that Javier Portús has organized with the intention of demonstrating the extraordinary narrative capacities of Murillo, claimed almost as a stage director when it comes to putting the protagonists in relationship. The curator himself points out in the catalog that “the health and economic circumstances of this time have forced a certain restraint regarding the physical and economic dimension of the exhibition.”

This “certain restraint” has not been valued or announced so far, although Andrés Úbeda, deputy editor, acknowledges to this newspaper that it is not a good time to move paintings between countries due to the economic limitations of the museum and the skyrocketing prices of these processes. In addition, it indicates that this weekend they have grown to 5,000 visitors on Saturday, a record number since the beginning of the new normal. “Although the capacity has been decreed at 100%, we will maintain 75% to enforce the safety distance,” adds Úbeda. Neither are all the rooms open and it will be in three weeks when the Gothic painting, the flamingos and the tapestries of Goya will return to public life.

No news of the plan

The management of the Prado Museum has not presented the season or communicated its economic plan for the next three years, despite running out in a few weeks, and which should be conditioned by the economic recession caused by the health crisis. The drop in revenue in 2020 was then offset by the remaining cash, which had risen to close to 20 million euros. The remainder is the result of positive budget surpluses achieved by the institution of which there is no record in all of 2021.



In fact, in 2014, Miguel Zugaza at the head of the institution besieged by the consequences of the financial crisis presented a plan to face the most difficult years of the modern era in the center. Years of restriction, cuts and savings. This was communicated so that society was aware of the danger that the art gallery was going through. Then the drop in own income was 7%, much less than the current one. Zugaza spoke of “austerity policies and containment of spending”, of making “a realistic effort” while waiting for the growth of public contributions. “We will fly over turbulence by removing our fuselage”, that was the image that Zugaza used seven years ago. At the start of the new season, it is still pending that Falomir proposes his own simile to know how he will cross a worse situation.

The truth ahead

The exercise of sincerity of Portús in revealing the financial difficulties of the house in which he is the head of Conservation of Spanish Painting (until 1800) is in tune with the analysis that he raises about naturalism and the fondness for the truth of Baroque painting Andalusian. He comments that Bartolomé Esteban Murillo made a marvelous investigation of the “system of emotions and their representation”, as well as the fixation of a naturalism that gave credit and credibility to the scenes. “In Europe there are few artists who reach the descriptive and narrative capacity of Murillo”, indicates the curator of the exhibition that starts from the offer of the National Gallery of Dublin to exhibit the series composed of six different paintings and scenes on the life of the son prodigal (from the time he decided to leave the parental home until his return to it).

Along with it, the Prado has added the series that narrates the life of Joseph in Egypt, painted by Antonio del Castillo, and that tells of his adventures since he was abandoned by his brothers until he granted them his forgiveness as governor of Egypt. There are other examples of Juan de Valdés Leal, Ambrosio Ignacio Spínola or Alonso Cano. Many of the paintings on display come from the museum’s huge warehouses, which are visited every time the institution enters an economic recession.

The art of narrating in which Portús stops is a response to the taste for storytelling in the central decades of the 17th century, in Andalusia, where series of a narrative nature and for private use proliferated. In these sets of canvases characters drawn from civil or sacred history were represented, for a select audience that wants to read and watch entertaining stories in their rooms. It is possible that they find some relationship with the screens of our days. It is here where Javier Portús claims and vindicates a calm vision of these paintings, to delve into the stories and their invisible constructions.



“It is important to draw attention to the fact that the works cannot be seen in half a minute. It is necessary to read and relate them. Painting is not an instantaneous experience, they required time”, exclaims the curator of the exhibition who works in the society of the immediate satisfaction. And points to the box Rebecca and Eliezer (1660), which closes the tour. In it he finds everything he was looking for with this exhibition: the socialization around the well, the development of the presence of the landscape, a multitude of characters to rehearse the management of the protagonists’ affections, the crossed glances that make them dialogue, the contents sacred disguised as profane … And the pulse between characters and stage.

As Portús tells us, all this takes place in a context of appreciation for painting and other arts. “The artists began to develop a strong awareness of their own worth and the honor due to their activity” and placed themselves on a different plane from that of the artisans. The best artists found their place in the societies in which they lived and related to important members (with money) of the Spanish society. “Murillo not only knew how to connect with the expectations of pictorial representation of Sevillian society, but was able to make them evolve towards more sophisticated formulas from a stylistic and thematic point of view”, indicates the curator. Murillo is undoubtedly “the most important case of symbiosis with his environment”, with a wealthy and highly educated clientele. How good a society involved with the sustainability of the collection would do the museum today.

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