Madrid Travel Guide: The Reina Sofia National Museum and Art Centre - Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Occupying an immense, slab-sided building, the Reina Sofía boasts an impressive façade with glass and steel lift-shafts, designed by British architect Ian Ritchie. Now, though, the museum has just as impressive a rear, in the form of three buildings, principally built of glass and steel, arranged around a courtyard and all covered by a triangular, zinc-and-aluminium roof, the work of French architect Jean Nouvel. This ambitious extension project adds almost 30,000 sq m to the already vast art space in the patio to the south-west of the main edifice. It includes temporary exhibition spaces.

The Reina Sofía's great jewel is unquestionably Guernica, Picasso's impassioned denunciation of war and fascism, a painting that commemorates the destruction in 1937 of the Basque town of Guernica by German bombers that flew in support of the Francoist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Certain art historians, sometimes encouraged by Picasso himself, have seen it more in formal terms, as a reflection on the history of western painting using elements from the work of the Old Masters. Picasso refused to allow the painting to be exhibited in Spain under the Franco regime, and it was only in 1981 that it was finally brought to Spain from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Guernica has been in the Reina Sofía since 1992, when it was transferred from the Casón del Buen Retiro amid great controversy. The artist had intended the painting to be housed in the Prado - of which the Casón is at least an annexe - and his family bitterly opposed the change of location. There is no question that the acquisition of Guernica hugely boosted the prestige of the Reina Sofía, but the conflictive saga of the painting's final resting place has continued: Bilbao, capital of the Basque province of Vizcaya, which contains the town of Guernica, has staked a claim on the picture for its Guggenheim Museum. However, since the painting belongs to the Spanish state, any such move is very unlikely.

The rest of the Reina Sofía's permanent collection, which came mainly from the old Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo in Moncloa, has been much criticised. For many, the museum's claim to be an international centre for contemporary art is frankly fallacious. At best, it is pointed out, it is a reasonable collection of Spanish contemporary art, with some thin coverage of non-Spanish artists. It certainly contains works by practically all the major Spanish artists of the 20th century - Picasso, Dalí, Miró, Julio González, Tàpies, Alfonso Ponce de León and Antonio Saura are all present - but even here the representation of individual artists is often patchy, with few major works.

In response, an active acquisitions policy adopted in the early 1990s has sought to fill some gaps in the range of Spanish art and to add works by major foreign artists. Pieces by Donald Judd, Anish Kapoor, Bruce Nauman, Tony Cragg, Ellsworth Kelly and Julian Schnabel were all added, along with Picasso's 1928 Figura. However, the acquisitions budget has been very tight in recent years, especially in the context of the museum's expansion scheme and that of the Prado, but has allowed for the addition of works by Miró, Gris, André Breton, Man Ray, Joaquín Torres García and others.

The director, Ana Martínez de Aguilar, has faced a very tough challenge, given the museum's new dimensions, and the art world will be watching her every move. The experts believe that the museum should bring 'grand' international temporary shows, practically non-existent over the last few years; review and improve the permanent collection; and define a clear acquisitions policy. The possibilities are immense, as are the chances of failure.

The collection
The permanent collection is currently on the second and fourth floors of the Sabatini building and temporary exhibitions have until now been presented on the ground and third floors. However, the opening of the extension will mean changes in this layout in the near future. The third floor will provide additional space and allow the museum to exhibit a wider selection of pieces from the permanent collection, some of which have only ever been on show temporarily, in rotation. The ground floor will continue to be used for temporary shows and also features Espacio Uno, a space for cutting-edge installations and new multimedia work.

As things stand, the second floor begins with a selection of works that look at the origins of Modernism in Spanish art, haphazardly placing together artistic currents from different parts of Spain - Basque painters such as Zuloaga, Regoyos and Echevarría, Catalan Modernists such as Rusiñol, Nonell and Casas - even though they have relatively little in common. Next is the first Avant-Garde Room, with pieces by the Uruguayan Joaquín Torres García and other artists who worked in Spain, such as Picabia and the Delaunays, followed by a room dedicated to Juan Gris. Then comes the major draw for most visitors: the Picasso Rooms, divided into pre- and post-Civil War, with Guernica in the centre.

Miró, Julio González and Dalí have rooms of their own. Paintings by the latter include The Great Masturbator and The Enigma of Hitler. Several of the works by Miró are from his later life, the 1970s. After a room on international Surrealism (Ernst, Magritte), there follows one on Luis Buñuel; the final displays on this floor look at Spanish art of the 1930s, taking you to the end of the Civil War (1939).

The fourth floor runs from Spain's post-war years up to the present day, starting with figurative art and the beginnings of abstraction in Spain, taking in Tàpies, Mompó, Oteiza, Palazuelo and Equipo 57. For international context, there are also works by Bacon, Henry Moore and Lucio Fontana, alongside Saura and Chillida. Later rooms feature Pop Art, figurative work by Arroyo and Minimalism, with pieces by Ellsworth Kelly, Dan Flavin and Barnett Newman. Overall, though, the collection of non-Spanish art remains very limited.

The Reina Sofía serves as a venue for many other activities. It runs the Palacio de Cristal and Palacio de Velázquez exhibition halls (in the Retiro), which are used to present dynamic shows of sculpture and installations. It's also home to Madrid's principal contemporary music centre, the Centro para la Difusión de la Música Contemporánea. This is soon to move into the extension, where there will be a 500-seat auditorium and another for 200. The museum also has exceptional book, music, art and video libraries, and a superior book and souvenir shop.

C/Santa Isabel 52,
Metro Atocha
Telephone 91 774 10 00
Open 10am-9pm Mon, Wed-Sat; 10am-2.30pm Sun.
Admission €6; €3 students;
free under-18s, over-65s. Free to all 2.30-9pm Sat & all Sun

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