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LGBTQ rights

Spain’s Prado Museum opens the closet for Madrid Pride

To mark popular event, famous gallery stages exhibition of works representing sexual diversity

The ‘Castor and Pollux’ group, which dates from the 1st century AD.
The ‘Castor and Pollux’ group, which dates from the 1st century AD.

When the Florentine Renaissance artist Baccio Bandinelli insulted his rival Benvenuto Cellini by calling him a “filthy sodomite,” Cellini replied that he obviously hadn’t been singled out by the gods and that those who engaged in sodomy were just imitating those higher beings – a reference to the free sexual practices of the Olympians.

This is just one of the stories that visitors to Madrid’s Prado Museum have been able to discover since the gallery on Thursday opened its new exhibition, The Other’s Gaze. Spaces of difference. Timed to coincide with the World Pride 2017 event in Madrid, it contains 30 works of art, most from the museum’s permanent collection and in their usual positions.

This is not a homo-erotic recasting of the Prado collection. It is based on solid, historical evidence

Exhibition curator Carlos G. Navarro

The exhibition aims to get visitors thinking about the historical reality of relations between people of the same sex and also about the nature of sexual identity.

“This is not a homo-erotic recasting of the [Prado] collection,” says Carlos G. Navarro, co-curator of the exhibition with Álvaro Perdices. “It is based on solid historical evidence. For example, the use of the world ‘homosexual’ is not appropriate to some eras as the term did not appear until the 19th century.”

Navarro told EL PAÍS that he has read news coverage about the project that stated: “‘The Prado turns gay.’ And yet no one says that it has turned Catholic when we put saints on display.”

A detail of the The Bearded Lady by Spanish master José de Ribera.
A detail of the The Bearded Lady by Spanish master José de Ribera.

The museum remains unfazed in the face of such criticism for its decision to hold the exhibition, with Prado director Miguel Falomir highlighting that the institution is called the National Museum of the Prado: it belongs to everyone and is inclusive, not exclusive, he stressed.

Visitors to the exhibition can hear stories like that of Bandinelli and Cellini – recounted next to the former’s Venus bronze – using an audio track or during guided visits held every Wednesday at 11am and 5pm until July 26. Other stories center on the Prado’s copy of the Mona Lisa from Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop, and Botticelli’s Scenes from the Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, with those paintings serving as an excuse to recount how the personal and professional lives of the two artists were affected by accusations of sodomy.

The exhibition aims to get visitors thinking about the historical reality of relations between people of the same sex

The exhibition is divided into themes including a section on artists who went on trial and another – located in the museum’s sculpture room – on “immortal friendships,” which explores the nature of relationships between men in classical times where love between equals was considered a superior state to love between a man and a woman.

Also included in the Prado exhibition is the painting The Bearded Lady, by Spanish Golden Age master José de Ribera, and the stunning bronze by Matteo Bonuccelli of the two-sexed child of Hermes and Aphrodite, better known to us Hermaphrodite – a name that gave birth to a term used pejoratively at that time to refer to cultivated women.

While curators looked for lesbian relations and found several examples, there is no question that homosexuality among women was far less visible than its male equivalent – and the art of earlier times reflects that. However, the painting El Cid by French painter Rosa Bonheur was chosen by curators to give greater visibility to the subject. In the second half of the 19th century, Bonheur asked for permission to wear trousers and to be allowed access to areas traditionally reserved for men, such as livestock auctions, so that she could paint the animals there.

Other LGBTQ exhibitions in Madrid

Various museums and galleries around Madrid will be staging exhibitions with LGBTQ themes around the time of World Pride Madrid 2017. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has organized an exhibition called Amor Diverso (Different Loves), which includes works by Caravaggio, Manet and Tiepolo among others. Meanwhile, at the Museum of Decorative Arts, visitors can see the Queer Cabinet collection of contemporary artist David Trullo. Finally, the Spanish capital’s Museo de America has a show focusing on transsexuality throughout history.

English version by George Mills.

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