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5 September 2017updated 06 Sep 2017 9:50am

How a stranger 700 miles away is showing me the world’s greatest art

An anonymous art gallery staff member is showing me round before opening hours. 

By Christian Donlan

I have never set foot inside the Prado in Madrid, almost a city within a city, as I understand it, and home to Velázquez and Goya, Las Meninas and the Black Paintings. Even so, over the last few weeks I have made brief, dreamy trips through the Prado’s halls and galleries in the mornings. Emerging from sleep just before nine, I am suddenly right there amongst vivid art and surrounded by echoing, distorted voices. I am amongst fellow travellers, too, bickering, grateful, prone to emoji-speak. And all of this without leaving my bed.

The timing has been strangely ideal. Almost a month back, I was in hospital for a short but exhausting multiple sclerosis treatment, which has left me languid and occasionally confused upon waking. With a few weeks off work, I have been stirring late with nothing to do but lie tangled in the duvet and gawp at my phone. Dawdling on Instagram one morning, I saw that @MuseoPrado, the Spanish gallery’s official account, was filming a live video. I tapped on the icon and found I was staring at a vast, intricate arrangement of humanity, arms and legs and bodies clustered together, some terrified, some placid, some monstrous. In the distance, rounded hills gave way to the perfect edge of an electric blue sea. It was arresting, this scene: it seemed so medieval and also so modern.

“El Bosco!” someone in the live chat typed. Hieronymus Bosch. For the next minute or so he was all any of us could see, as the Prado’s cameraman wandered through an entire hall of Bosch’s work, stopping before this painting and that, and sometimes moving in to check out a detail that caught his fancy.

It is all rather illicit: not only to be in a museum before public opening hours, but also to be behind a stranger’s eyes, or so it seems, peering out with no control over where we go next or what focuses our attention. I find it hard to picture the person recording these early morning trips, to decide on whether to imagine them in a suit or a T-shirt. Whatever he looks like, I suspect he had a fairly informal brief from the marketing team: to pick a favourite room each day, and mutter the odd sentence of description as he moves. An artist’s name, a painting’s title, hushed, of course, because he is in a gallery.


Sala XII, “Las meninas” #MuseoDelPrado #Velázquez #LasMeninas

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Is it always the same person behind the phone? I tell myself it is. As these morning visits pile up, I tell myself, in fact, that I am starting to sense a little of his personality, stopping here or there longer than I might, moving in close on a detail that I would have missed. He is quirky. Faced with Tintoretto’s panoramic The Washing of the Feet, a work that seems to stretch across an entire wall, filled with light and sky and human intrigue to pick away at, he moves in on a dog in the foreground, relaxed in the presence of Christ. On another day, he is drawn away from Paolo Veronese and just points the camera at a gallery window for a few seconds. I glimpse sunshine on pine trees.

Every morning, we get whatever takes his fancy. Titian one day, then Rubens, then a hall crowded with statues. Viewers do not have much agency, but we can tap the screen to send up a sort of smoke plume of heart icons, or we can type short messages into the scrolling text. The chatter is fiercely multilingual. Lots of flags, lots of “Grazie” and “Merci”, and Thank You from New Jersey.

Somehow, despite my sluggish head in the mornings, this seems like a particularly vivid way to bring a gallery to life. The echoing voices in the distance, the passing glimpse of a Prado employee standing in a doorway, all of these things deliver the sense of a building that is waking up, getting ready for the day.

The smartphone-eye view, wobbling around, sometimes slow to find detail, manages to capture something very truthful about the way that art galleries appear to us, as well. Not as they appear to us on beautifully staged television documentaries, perhaps, when the pictures are gorgeously framed and wise people pace back and forth explaining Jacques-Louis David’s politics or the strange truth that Nicolas Poussin once pressed his thumb into the drying paint of A Dance to the Music of Time. Instead, this is how galleries appear to us when we’re stumbling around in real life, lost and perhaps going in circles through the same few halls, and left to make up our own minds about what we are encountering. The relative sizes of the paintings becomes oddly important when I see them arranged together on the gallery walls, as do the kind of frames they come in. One portrait next to another suggests a sort of narrative, and I am struck again by the fact that these flat images are also three-dimensional objects. The paint stands out thick in certain areas, while the weave of the canvas adds texture in others. Faces and hands are often shallow pools when the light hits them from the right angle. They are done separately, it seems; maybe they demand a different kind of attention from the artist.

It feels so intimate to visit a gallery like this, rather than clicking through its catalogue on its website or panning down the columns of works in Wikipedia. It is a reminder that galleries are perhaps the most intimate of public spaces, despite the throngs, the echoing marble and parquet, despite the famous images looming down. Galleries are intimate spaces because art is intimate. It is you and the painting coming to some kind of reckoning, but it is also the painter and the subject – the painter’s thoughts and suspicions regarding the sitter in a portrait, their best attempt to capture what they feel they have witnessed in a landscape, or what they have imagined in a scene from the distant past, or from myth.

Every morning I hope for Velazquez. Today it’s El Greco: “Grazie!” says one commenter, “Hola!”, says another, while a third offers: “Elongated bodies, transcendentalism” and then trails off, spent. Towering paintings swim past, those washed-out robes, turquoise and blue, jagged with dark folds, those distorted faces and beckoning eyes. We rove through several rooms together, the audience creeping from the usual 100 or so up to 130, before the camera comes to rest on Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest, a wonderfully compact portrait from the 1580s: a figure in a ruff and dark clothes staring evenly out of the gloom, a study in disinterest, intelligence at rest.

From the 1580s, this gentleman looks at me. The emoji heart plumes seem to stop for a second, the text chat ceases its scrolling. From 2017, I look back at him, at his black eyes, his long fingers spread across the front of his tunic. And when the video feed cuts out I feel like I am returning to my bed even though I have not left it. I feel like I have been somewhere and met someone, and now I am coming back revitalised.

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