THE THYSSEN-BORNEMISZA MUSEUM. A journey through the history of art in the centre of Madrid

José María Goicoechea

Magazine issue: 
#4 2015 (49)

The English King Henry VIII, as portrayed by Hans Holbein, lives alongside a Picasso harlequin in the same palace in the centre of Madrid. Canaletto's Venice landscapes mingle with street scenes of Berlin created by Grosz, while self-portraits by Rembrandt and Lucien Freud share the walls. The "Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni" by Ghirlandaio and Lichtenstein's "Woman in Bath" offer different visions of serenity, as Caravaggio's "Santa Catalina" and "Santa Casilda" by Zurbarán try to match one another in holiness. Famous faces by Hopper with El Greco, or Matisse with Cézanne take in the scene.

One of the last great private collections of painting settled in Madrid in the early 1990s, thanks to the decision made by its original owner Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (1921-2002), who had been responsible for acquiring the vast majority of the pieces that comprise it. Since 1993, these exceptional paintings, including many historical masterpieces of western painting, have been the property of the Spanish government and are on exhibit in the Villahermosa Palace (Palacio de Villahermosa), the site of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza). The museum will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2017 and has averaged one million visitors annually in recent years.

Among its nearly 800 works, with an additional 200 pieces added on loan from the collector's widow, Baroness carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, visitors to the museum have the chance to take a journey through the history of western art from the 13th to the 20th centuries in the company of some of the greatest artists of all time: Duccio, Van Eyck, Carpaccio, Lucas Cranach, Dürer, Caravaggio, Rubens, Frans Hals, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Kirchner, Mondrian, Klee, Hopper, and Rauschenberg, to name only a few. The Spanish capital has boasted illustrious venues for showcasing painting for many years, with the Prado (Museo del Prado) and Queen Sofia Museum (Museo Reina Sofia) at the head of an extensive list. The Thyssen Museum makes its contribution by including artistic movements, historical periods and national schools that had not found their space in Madrid's artistic landscape, among them Impressionism, German expressionism and the American landscape tradition.

The "raw material" of the Museum is undoubtedly this magnificent collection that is also used for developing other noteworthy lines of activity at the institution, notably a programme of temporary exhibitions which are almost always based on, or inspired by "house" names and works. Such shows contribute fresh perspectives drawn from artistic research and studies that captivate visitors attracted by the presence of such renowned names as Cézanne, Hopper, Van Gogh, Zurbarán, Gauguin, Chagall, Fra Angelico, Matisse, and Miró.

It was August Thyssen, grandfather of Baron Hans Heinrich, who began the collecting phase of this family saga by acquiring some sculptures by Rodin. August's son, the first Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, would subsequently become a tireless and dedicated collector in the 1920s, with a special interest in the old masters. He had collected around 525 paintings by the time of his death in 1947.

The canvases were dispersed following his death but Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the youngest of his four children and heir to the title, dedicated himself to bringing them together again, even buying works from his relatives. He remained interested in painting by the old masters but from the 1960s on, he looked forward to the modern masters, at first the German Expressionists, followed by artists of the Russian avant-garde and other pioneers of abstract art. He also collected works by the Impressionists, Post-impressionists, and turn-of-the century European painting; postwar English painters like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud; and North American painting from the 19th and 20th centuries. The list of Russian painters in the collection is among the most evocative: Wassily Kandinsky, marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Natalia Goncharova, Olga Rozanova, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Tatiana Glebova, Mark Rothko, Alexander Vesnin, Yury Annenkov, Nikolai Suetin, Mikhail Larionov, Ilya Chashnik...

With the arrival of the 21st century, the Thyssen went digital and currently boasts a varied, appealing offer of apps and an active social media presence: its website is on the verge of being renovated to handle the digital challenges of the future in optimal conditions. A channel directed at tourism professionals facilitates and improves the relationships between businesses, museums and tourists. Such social networks connect the halls and individual paintings with the most distant corners of the world and art lovers who are unable to visit the museum regularly. All these initiatives make the Thyssen a point of reference among museums in its embrace of new technologies.


The Exhibitions

The planning of temporary exhibitions for the museum is a significant driving force in the life of the institution. Both Tomas Llorens, the first artistic director of the Thyssen, and his successor Guillermo Solana have focused on making the museum an active presence on the international scene, maintaining excellent relations with other art centres around the world through the exchange and loans of painting. That has brought some very important exhibitions to Madrid.

Thus, the 2016 programme will start with "munch. Archetypes" and "The Illusion of the American Frontier", while the current season closes with "Zurbarán: A New Look" and the photography exhibition "Vogue: Like a Painting". The most popular shows in the museum's history in terms of number of visitors (each drawing more than 300,000) have been "Hopper" (2012), "Antonio López" (2010), "Van Gogh. The Last Landscapes" (2007) and "Gauguin and the Origins of Symbolism" (2005). Since 1994, the museum has organized exhibitions including "The Golden Age of Dutch Landscape Painting" (1995), "George Grosz. The Berlin Years" (1997), "Paul Klee" (1998), "Morandi" (1999), "Canaletto: An Imaginary Venice" (2001), "Titian-Rubens: Venus in Front of a Mirror" (2003), "Brucke: The Birth of German Expressionism" (2005), "Sargent/ Sorolla" (2007), "The Mirror and the Mask: The Portrait in the Century of Picasso" (2007), "1914! The Avant-garde and the Great War" (2008), "Tears of Eros" (2009), "Monet and Abstraction" (2010), "Impressionist Gardens" (2010), "Chagall" (2012), "Pissarro" (2013), "Cézanne Site/Non Site" (2014), and "Pop Myths" (2014). Fashion and its relationship to art was also featured in the photography exhibition "Mario Testino: All or Nothing" (2010), as was jewellery in "The Art of Cartier" (2012) and creative design in "Hubert de Givenchy" (2014).

Mention should be made of "Russian Avant-gardes" (2006)*, a trip through the birth and development of Russian avant-garde art during the first third of the 20th century. It took as its starting point the search up to the 1910s for a new national art based on popular Russian traditions and continued with the first attempts to connect with European international art, primarily with Futurism. It analysed the careers of powerfully personal artists such as Chagall, Kandinsky and Filonov, and went on to the organic abstraction of the post-war years. The most extensive section of the exhibition was dedicated to the zeal for going beyond traditional art, and converting art into a way of building the new human being, by resorting to media as wide-ranging as painting, sculpture, photography and art in propaganda.

* See:


A Dynasty of Collectors

It all began with a few pieces by Rodin bought by Baron Thyssen's grandfather, August (1842-1926), the creator of the Thyssen family economic empire, who was responsible for sowing the seed of the collection now housed in the Madrid museum. His desire to acquire sculpture came relatively late in life, and he was directed towards Auguste Rodin, the most famous and important sculptor of his era, who created seven marble pieces for him. One branch of the Thyssen family lived in Germany and retained ownership of that ensemble of sculptures until 1956, when they were put on the market and acquired by Baron Hans Heinrich. Four of those magnificent sculptures are currently part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and can be seen in the hall of the museum, where they appear to form a welcoming committee for visitors before they start their journey through the exhibition halls.

Correspondence between Rodin and August Thyssen reveals that Heinrich, the son of the German industrialist, was beginning his own art collection. Holder of a Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of London, Heinrich Thyssen married Baroness Margit Bornemisza de Kaszon, the daughter of a Hungarian nobleman, in 1905. Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza established his residence in Hungary in the Schloss Rohoncz castle that belonged to his wife's family and was the first home for his collection. Béla Kun's revolution forced him to abandon Hungary in 1919 and transfer the centre of his business operations to Amsterdam, the city where his son Hans Heinrich was born in 1921.

Heinrich Thyssen (1875-1947) collected painting very discreetly during the 1920s, so discreetly that when he exhibited his collection for the first time in 1930 - still known as the Schloss Rohoncz Collection after the castle - at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, it proved a surprise to art historians of the period. The success of that exhibition inspired the Baron to continue collecting and he branched out into buying sculpture, furniture, tapestries, jewellery and other works of art.

Supplementing his own good instincts and intuition with advice from distinguished specialists, Heinrich threw himself into an intense period of purchasing art. His initial interest focused on the German primitives and his collection very quickly came to boast outstanding examples of that school, including works by painters such as Hans Baldung Grien, Altdorfer, Dürer, Cranach and Holbein. In keeping with the German collecting tradition, the Baron also felt especially drawn to Dutch painting and his collection expanded with works by major names like Robert Campin, Petrus Christus, Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, Memiing and Juan de Fiandes. But his interest was not confined to the Northern Renaissance, and he also acquired Italian paintings including "Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni" by Domenico Ghirlandaio, "Young Knight in a Landscape" by Carpaccio, and "Portrait of Ferry Carondeiet with His Secretaries" and "Saint Catherine of Alexandria" by Caravaggio. These illustrious artists would be joined over the years by other essential names in painting history: England's Gainsborough and Reynolds; French artists like Watteau, Fragonard and Chardin; and the Italian painters Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepoio, Canaletto and Guardi.

Heinrich settled in Switzerland, the only country in Europe that appeared to guarantee peaceful surroundings in the historical context of the 1930s. With that in mind, he purchased in 1932 a villa on the banks of Lake Lugano that had long been known as Villa Favorita, a palace originally built in 1687 that had been owned by Prince Leopold of Prussia. While he continued acquiring works for his collection, Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza began construction of a gallery in the courtyard of Villa Favorita in order to house and pubiicly exhibit the paintings in the finest, museum-quality conditions.

The Villa Favorita Gallery was completed and opened its doors to the public in 1936, but the outbreak of World War Two interrupted the project and it was forced to close again in 1939. It would be another decade before it reopened, this time definitively, thanks to the determination of his son Hans Heinrich, who had inherited the property following the death of his father in 1947.

The collection of 525 art works that the first Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza had by then assembled was divided among his four children following his death. The 26-year-old Hans Heinrich was the only one who decided to continue the tradition initiated by his father and also took over the family businesses. In the difficult circumstances that were a result of the war years Hans Heinrich managed to keep the bulk of the collection intact, albeit not all of it given the need to pay financial compensation and other sacrifices.

The challenge of recovering the works that had belonged to his father was his greatest priority in those early years. It wasn't until 1956 that the heir bought his first painting from outside the family, the "Portrait of a Man with a Ring" by Francesco del Cossa, from the Jan von Pannwitz Collection.

In reality Hans Heinrich went far beyond that, centring his attention on artistic periods that had not awakened the interest of his father, primarily 19th and 20th century painting. In those early years, he added major pieces by old masters including "Christ and the Samaritan Woman" by Duccio, "Still-life with Nautilus Cup" by Willem Kalf, "The West Facade of the Church of St. Mary in Utrecht" by Jansz Saenredam, "La Toilette" by Frangois Boucher and "Asensio Julià" by Goya.

The great change, and the introduction of the personal stamp that would subsequently characterize the collection, occurred at the beginning of the 1960s, when Hans Heinrich began to collect modern art. From that point on, and with an already legendary sense for recognizing the exceptional quality of pieces, its range grew even further to encompass all the significant movements of modern Western art. The first 20th century painting, a watercolour by the German painter Emil Nolde, was acquired in 1961, followed in the same year by a group of major expressionist canvases. That particular art movement, persecuted by the Nazis, was the first to draw Hans Heinrich's attention towards modern art. His interest in German Expressionism could not be reduced solely to its artistic value - another key factor was the historical context in which the style had developed. Declared "degenerate art" by the Nazis, it was relentlessly persecuted, prohibited and confiscated. Interested in the human and testimonial values of these pieces - it was precisely "the colour and freedom of expression" transmitted by the expressionist paintings that most attracted him to them - the Baron obtained a very representative sample of such works, bringing together a notable collection considered among the best in the genre.

This special fascination with the German Expressionists gradually led him to acquire pieces that covered the full spectrum of modern painting, with particular emphasis on Impressionism and Post-impressionism, and early 20th century European painting. They were complemented by a significant representation of Russian and central European avant-garde artists, works by Picasso, Braque, Léger and others, the post-war British artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and even reached as far as Pop Art and Hyperrealism.

Another important facet of the collection focuses on 19th and 20th century North American painting. The Baron began to acquire these canvases, primarily of the 19th century North American school, when they were still of little interest in art markets, even in the United States. However, it is a style of painting now very highly regarded, not least in Europe: this section fills a major gap among European museums and makes the collection an essential reference for anyone interested in this style.

With all these new acquisitions, the Lugano Gallery could no longer house more than the old masters section of the collection and occasionally other works by more modern masters. That prompted the idea of organizing temporary exhibitions in other countries, thus promoting its international profile at the same time. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection has always shown a willingness to travel: if the Baron's father expanded the Villa Favorita in order to exhibit the collection to the public and also organised its first travelling exhibition to Munich in 1930, Hans Heinrich pushed for a policy of openness, access and exchange. The underlying idea was always to favour bringing different communities closer together through culture.


The Villahermosa Palace

The Villahermosa Palace is one of the most architecturally impressive buildings among Madrid's palaces. Built in the early 19th century, its origins go back to the 17th century, when the first buildings were constructed around the junction of the Prado Viejo and the Carrera de San Jerónimo. Over the course of the 18th century, that area would come to form the new Court district of Madrid, across from the Palacio de Buen Retiro. Very shortly, seeking access to the Royal Family, the high aristocracy linked to the Spanish crown would build their recreational villas there. That was how the Villahermosa Palace appeared, with the Duke of Lerma's palace (later the Duke of Medinaceli's and the present site of the Palace Hotel) as its neighbour to one side and the Duke of Bejar's palace (today home to the Bank of Spain) on the other.

In 1777, the Casa de Atri was purchased by Juan Pablo de Aragón-Azlor, the 11th Duke of Villahermosa. Natives of Aragon and descendants of John II of Aragon, the Villahermosas were one of the oldest, most important families of the Spanish aristocracy and major landowners, with holdings primarily in Aragon and Navarra. Associated with the Court and the diplomatic service, erudite and an encyclopaedist - he had lived in Paris in his youth, where he took part in intellectual salons and became friends with D'Alembert and Voltaire - the Duke and his wife, Maria Manuela de Pignatelli, wanted to renovate the house to enlarge it from the beginning. But it wasn't until 1805 that they were able to undertake the renovation and expansion of the Palace, adding the facade that greets visitors to the palace today. The project was directed by Antonio López Aguado, a student of Villanueva, the chief architect of the Madrid city government and author of such major works as the Gate of Toledo (Puerta de Toledo), the initial project for the Royal Theatre (Teatro Real) in Madrid and the final completion of the Prado Museum following the war of Independence. The renovated palace, built by the now-widowed duchess of the 11th Duke of Villahermosa and her son José Antonio de Aragón-Azlor, the 13th Duke of Villahermosa (1785-1852), nearly doubled the floor space along the Paseo del Prado and added a third floor. The facades followed the characteristic neo-classical style of the Madrid palaces.

In addition to their relationship with the Court, the Dukes of Viiiahermosa had a great interest in the humanities. The palace housed an extensive library, and they would also establish a literary salon led by Tomas de Iriarte. Jose Antonio de Aragón-Azlor also played an important role at Court, especially by serving as an ambassador, and maintained the family tradition by establishing relationships with such writers, painters and architects as Aguado, Vicente López and Madrazo, all of them his classmates at the Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando (Academia de Nobles Artes de San Fernando).

In 1846, the Dukes rented out the main floor of the palace as the site of the Artistic and Literary Lyceum (Liceo Artistico y Literario) of Madrid, an institution created a few years earlier that remained in the palace for 10 years until its closure in 1856. Given the long relationship of the Villahermosa family with artists and intellectuals, it was not surprising that they would heartily approve of that arrangement. The Lyceum was one of Madrid's landmark cultural institutions during the Romantic period, with some of the most important artists, writers and musicians among its members, along with journalists, politicians and aristocrats. Well-known personalities such as Esquivel, Zorrilla, Pérez Villaamil, Gutiérrez de la Vega, Ramón Mesoneros Romanos and the Marquis of Molins, to name just a few, were Lyceum members. Artists and aficionados alike met there to take part in informal debates, workshops and other cultural initiatives. Lyceum activities were reported not only in its own magazine but in all the daily and weekly newspapers of the era as well. It was extremely important in the cultural and social atmosphere of the period, and although they declared themselves apolitical, they openly supported the Queens Maria Cristina and Isabel II, who regularly attended to take part and preside over events. Along with their other cultural activities, they held annual Fine Arts (Bellas Artes) exhibitions that were the source and inspiration for the National Fine Arts Exhibitions (Exposiciones Nacionales de Bellas Artes), first held in 1856, the very year that the Lyceum closed. Their masked balls were also famous and were later continued by the Fine Arts Circle (Circulo de Bellas Artes).

Lyceum members included Marcelino Aragón y Azlor, son of the Duke of Villahermosa and heir to the title on the death of his father in 1852. Both he and his daughter Carmen, the future Duchess of Villahermosa married to the Count of Guaqui, continued the family tradition of cultural patronage during their lives, even after the Lyceum ceased its activity. It is worth mentioning the Duke's close friendship with Zorrilla, who was accustomed to staying at the palace whenever he came to Madrid. Marcelino set up a pension for the poet, one continued by his daughter Carmen and maintained for Zorrilla's widow after his death.

One of the floors was rented by the Marchioness of Squilache at the end of the 19th century, who inaugurated one of the most important salons in turn-of-the-century Madrid, the heir to the informal debates of previous years. The Marchioness brought together personalities from the worlds of politics, high society and international diplomacy in her salon. Without being a literary salon per se, it was quite famous and frequently mentioned by the major journalists of the era, particularly the writer Emilia Pardo Bazan.

The Villahermosa family continued to live in the palace during the first half of the 20th century. Considered one of the major palaces in Madrid, it was the subject of an extensive 1966 report published in "Blancoy Negro" (White and Black) magazine, an exceptional graphic document of its interior that preserved the original spatial layout at the time, its expansive ballroom, chapel and main staircase particularly impressive.

In 1973, it was acquired as the central headquarters for the López Quesada Bank, and the interior was remodelled by Moreno Barbera to adapt it for such use. Practically the entire interior except the corridor leading to the garden was demolished. After the collapse of the bank, the building was declared part of the official state Culture Heritage (Patrimonio del Estado). It was assigned for some years to the Prado, which used it to organize exhibitions (the entrance was from Carrera de San Jerónimo) and for various office activities like the Friends Foundation (Fundación de Amigos, entrance via the garden). Finally, in the course of negotiations for the arrival of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Spain, the building was designated as the site of the future Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in 1989. The interior of the palace was completely remodelled by Rafael Moneo.

Its programme was clear, its purpose being to house a collection of nearly 800 paintings characterized by their wide variety (from the Flemish and Italian primitives to contemporary art), and it was conceived from the start as a museum that would adapt itself to the palace's architecture. But could the layout of the facilities left behind by the bank meet the standards required by the temporary assignment contract of the collection?

Some way to answer such questions had to be found. Restoring the building so that it would become close to the original Villahermosa Palace, while providing it with the services required for a modern museum, implied a profound transformation. First, it was determined that the main entrance should be from the garden opening on Calle Zorrilla and not Carrera de San Jerónimo. Working in favour of that decision was both the desire to restore what had been the north facade and to provide museum visitors with a peaceful, relaxed entrance by making use of the garden. The decision involved reversing the direction of the entrance and giving a whole new orientation to the Palace: it meant the north facade became the starting point for the new structure. The new floor plan, the new Palace, therefore had to take as its starting point what had been the final chapter in the Palace's evolution over the years.

The frontal view of the facade now reveals the depth of a covered gallery or patio illuminated by natural light entering from the palace roof to permeate all three floors of the museum. Around that central patio, various exhibition halls are linked together in sequence, producing a sense of circular movement. The remodelling provided the upper floor, where the collections of the oldest painting are located, with abundant natural light. The other two floors housing the remaining collections have a few openings overlooking the Paseo del Prado to enable visitors to enjoy characteristic and lovely views of Madrid around the Prado and Los Jerónimos.

The desire of the architect to incorporate an element of modesty in the building is evident. Great care was taken in the design of floor surfaces, the treatment of wall thickness, the delicate plaster works and other such questions, to ensure the proportions were very close to what they had been in the original architecture of the Palace. Thus, any visitor who comes to the Villahermosa Palace today will be able to enjoy both its architectural splendour and the magnificent paintings that hang on its walls today.





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