Monumento a Velázquez
Aniceto Marinas (statue) Vicente Lampérez (pedestal), 1899
The celebrity fell in love with the Prado Museum. His spirits had soared when he spotted the first ‘museo’ sign. He’d been ready for it: Rubens, The Three Graces, El Greco, The Garden of Earthly Delights. He’d stopped outside in front of the bronze statue of Velázquez to explain the significance to his wife and their nanny. The painter was holding his palette and brush, with his Krusty the Clown tufts of hair and legs spread wide in a power pose. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velásquez. The celebrity read the master’s full name out loud, savoring every syllable. He loved Spanish names. He loved Spain, period. The diversity of regions: Madrid. Catalonia. Andalusia. The Pyrenees. Michael Douglas had a house in the Tramuntana Mountains and he raved about it. The colors, the light.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velásquez, 1632
The first painting he wanted to see was the Crucified Christ by Velázquez. He was a man possessed. His wife hurried after after him, the heels of her boots tapping against the marble floors while the nanny pushed their baby’s stroller. The celebrity had been told it was the most beautiful portrait of Christ, painted to reflect the idea that Jesus was the most beautiful of men.
Crucified Christ was tucked away in the corner of a small room beside a fire hydrant. The gallery walls were forest green and the painting hung in a gold frame and glowed like it was spotlit, drawing a reverent crowd from across the room. He took in Christ’s Apollonian splendor, which brought him to the edge of tears. The baby started to cry and his wife said they’d be in the cafeteria and he waved them away, enchanted. A smaller Crucifixion hung on the other wall. Experts thought it had been painted by an apprentice in Velázquez’s workshop who’d signed his signature, an imitation that might be real.
The celebrity checked his phone. President Obama had called for the release of three Al Jazeera journalists detained in Egypt. The vice president of Google had been named the CEO of YouTube. A German newspaper said US intelligence had monitored Chancellor Gerhard Schröder 12 years ago because of his opposition to the Bush administration’s plans to go to war in Iraq.
La maja desnuda
Francisco de Goya, 1797—1800
La maja desnuda was one of the earliest works of Western art to have depicted female pubic hair. A nude reclining on a green velvet divan, hanging next to a painting of the same woman wearing the Spanish folk dress of the Madrid women known as ‘majas.’ The celebrity listened to an English-speaking guide from a distance. She told her group that the man who’d commissioned the painting had kept it in a private cabinet with his other nudes. It had been sequestered during the Inquisition and had hung in the Prado since 1901 and she used to draw quite a crowd, the old maja, back in the day. The celebrity could already hear himself telling the story of the painting.
‘The way Goya painted her, it’s like she’s looking at you out of the corner of her eye,’ the guide said. ‘How does this make you feel?’
Nobody said anything. A few people shifted back and forth. The celebrity popped the collar on his sports jacket. The last thing he needed was to be recognized by a bunch of Americans.
‘Does it make you feel uncomfortable?’ she tried, ‘Does it make you feel good?’
No response. She was bombing, stepping on her applause moments. He wanted to jump in and save her but he’d learned enough to know it would be the exact wrong thing to do. Everybody had a camera, everybody had an opinion and no one had any privacy. Well the celebrity had realized years ago that the only way to survive was not to give a rat’s ass about other people’s opinions and judgements. He did not give a rat’s ass.
“You don’t have to tell me,’ the guide finished. ‘I just want you to think about it.’
The celebrity checked his phone. Kim Kardashian had put Kylie Jenner in the hospital after a trampoline accident and everyone on his feed was tweeting that it wasn’t actual news.
The celebrity poked the screen on his phone to enlarge a headline in the Times: ‘Republicans Spar on Leaks and Surveillance, Underscoring Partisan Shake-up.’ He wished he could be the type of guy who didn’t care—he wanted to beg a Fortune 500 CEO to teach him how to not care about toxic waste and deforestation. Grab one of ‘em by the collar of their tux opening night at Lincoln Center, get right in their face to scream: Teach me not to care! Teach me not to care like you don’t!
His wife had ordered him a frothy coffee dusted with brown sugar. The celebrity was torn between the ham and watercress on sliced brioche or black spaghetti, garlic, oil and baby shrimp covered in a nest of grated Parmesan. He went back and forth, and his wife looked up at him and shook her head. She suggested a healthier option then dinner at Luzi Bombón as a reward. Smiling, she’d placed her tiny hand on top of his, and he thought of the line of poetry Michael Caine used to describe Barbara Hershey in Hannah and her Sisters: ‘nobody, not even the rain, had such small hands.’ E.E.Cummings. He looked at his wife and their adorable new baby and he thought of that Talking Heads lyric—this is not my beautiful wife—and he felt so lucky. How the hell did he get so lucky?
He checked his phone. Satya Nadella had been appointed the CEO of Microsoft. The Pakistani side had failed to show up for Taliban peace talks. Tom Sizemore had told Radar that he’d hooked Bill Clinton up with Elizabeth Hurley and then recanted and Justin Bieber had smoked so much weed on a private jet the pilots had to put on oxygen masks.
A security guard tapped the celebrity on the shoulder to prevent him from taking a picture of his wife in front of Luis de Morales’ The Virgin and Child. Fotografías prohibidas. The security guard recognized the celebrity when he turned around and—after confirming the celebrity’s identity—clutched him by the elbow and beamed as he pumped his hand. The celebrity insinuated with mime that the tables had turned and it was now the security guard who wanted a photograph— a selfie with the celebrity—and the security guard, the celebrity, his wife, and their nanny all shared a laugh.
Their little group circled the first floor trying to put the baby to sleep, waving every time they passed the original security guard. ‘Mi amigo,’ the celebrity called him. It took some time for the baby to nod off so they walked the Instagram feed of the Renaissance: Rubens, Botticelli, Caravaggio, The Descent from the Cross. Women in dresses of unusual splendor and men in sumptuous velvet suits. The movers and the shakers. The kings and courtiers wore ribbons and medals. The badge of this, the garter of that, and it reminded him of studio heads and executives and their shelves of Emmys and Golden Globes and Armani suits and eventually, after they’d walked for long enough, when he looked at the portraits, he just saw guys.
Some of them were guys like him, with beautiful young wives and incipient bellies hoisted back by cummerbunds. There were guys who looked like the old timers at Sardi’s and young guys in platform riding boots who could have been on their way to Studio 54. He saw human beings dressed in their favorite outfits to have their portraits painted with their kids or their dogs, and he looked at them and he saw himself.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velásquez, 1656
The celebrity had scooped up armfuls of books in the gift shop—la Tienda Prado—which his wife had brought back to the hotel with the baby. He’d have to buy an extra suitcase and pay a fortune to take them back but it would be worth it to sit in his offices turning the pages, as thick and sharp as chef’s knives.
The most famous paintings drew a crowd like any star. The same horseshoe-shaped groups who waited outside restaurants for a glimpse of Jay Z or Sarah Jessica with their phones raised in the air. The crowds ebbed and flowed and bumped into the celebrity, who breathed through some angry feelings while he waited his turn to see Las Meninas, the ladies-in-waiting painted into art history by Velásquez, immortalized alongside the king and queen and the Infanta Margaret Theresa.
The celebrity watched a group of straight-backed Spanish schoolboys in uniforms listening to a guide. None of them were smirking or whispering, none of them were looking at their phones. None of them were even chewing gum. He posted a tweet that a visit to a museum was restoring his faith in humanity and started scrolling. The Olympics were beginning in Sochi. The celebrity could remember when the world stood still for the Olympics, back when the three original networks had an oligopoly and a show could pull in 22 million viewers and people actually trusted and respected news anchors and politicians. Before talk radio and streamers and the Internet and any rube with a phone having an opinion and the coarsening of public life and the corruption of the public sphere, before the media had become an organ he loathed and despised in a way he did not previously believe to be possible. Over ninety people had liked his tweet.
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Jheronimus Bosch, 1490–1510
Jheronimus Bosch had his own room at the Prado. The celebrity noticed a few people got away with photographing The Garden of Earthly Delights but he kept his cool. None of his business. Not his problem the security guard wasn’t doing his job. The Bosch gallery needed the guard from earlier—his amigo. Bosch had painted the triptychs of his masterpiece over the course of twenty years. The celebrity took them in one by one: the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Earthly Delights and the Last Judgement. He zoomed in on every character and detail: God presenting Eve to Adam while newts and salamanders scurried out of the water. A couple encased in a giant clamshell and naked yoga in the Garden of Earthly Delights. Women standing in the Pool of the Maidens with apples balanced on their heads watching a procession of men riding wild animals.
A knife plunged between two giant ears in the Last Judgement, as humanity reaped eternal damnation after succumbing to the temptations which lead to evil. Bosch had looked into the future and painted the hellscape their world was becoming. Cities on fire and mutated animals feeding on human flesh. The skeletons of buildings illuminated by flames looked like a still from an An Inconvenient Truth.
The celebrity was thinking about buying a house in Madrid. In Salamanca or Retiro—they’d check out a few areas. He needed a base in Europe. His wife would be happy because her family lived in Spain. She’d grown up traveling between the two countries, Spain and America. He checked his phone: Pakistan and the Taliban had begun peace negotiations, Jay Leno had just taped his final Tonight Show, and 273 people had liked his tweet.
Louise Phillips was born in Toronto and lives in London. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Columbia Journal, Litro, Requited, failbetter, New World Writing, 3AM Magazine, and her non-fiction has appeared in The Independent, La Rampa, and Blizzard. She blogs at theintermediateperiod.wordpress.com