Spain’s National Museum of Contemporary Art houses works by all the major 20th-century Spanish painters and sculptors. The new collection breaks from the traditional habit of grouping works by major artistic movement and individual artist: instead, the current director has chosen to contextualize the works of the great modern masters—Picasso, Miró, and Salvador Dalí—into broader narratives that attempt to explain better the evolution of modern art and put these works into their historical context. This means, for instance, that in the first room of the collection (201), you'll find a selection of Goya's Disasters of War engravings (the proto-romantic and proto-surrealist great master serving as a precursor of the avant-garde movements of the 20th century) next to one of the first movies ever made, Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory, by the Lumière brothers. And you will find that the Picassos or Dalís are not all displayed together in a single room, but scattered
around the 38 rooms of the permanent collection. You'll also find works by other big local names, such as Juan Gris, Jorge Oteiza, Pablo Gargallo, Julio Gonzalez, Eduardo Chillida, and Antoni Tàpies.
The museum's showpiece—and a must-see—is Picasso's Guernica, in Room 206 on the second floor. The huge black-and-white canvas, suitably lighted and without distracting barriers, depicts the horror of the Nazi Condor Legion's bombing of the ancient Basque town of Gernika in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The work, something of a national shrine, was commissioned from Picasso by the Republican government for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World's Fair in an attempt to gather sympathy for the Republican side during the civil war. The museum rooms adjacent to Guernica now reconstruct the artistic significance of the Spanish participation in the World's Fair, with works from other artists such as Miró, Josep María Sert, and Alexander Calder. Guernica did not reach Madrid until 1981, as Picasso had stipulated in his will that the painting return to Spain only after democracy was restored.
The fourth floor in the Sabatini building is devoted to art created after World War II, and the Nouvel annex displays paintings, sculptures, photos, videos, and installations from the last quarter of the 20th century.
The museum was once a hospital, but today the classical granite austerity of the space is somewhat relieved (or ruined, depending on your point of view) by the playful pair of glass elevator shafts on its facade. Three separate buildings joined by a common vault were added to the original complex in 2005—the first contains an art bookshop and a public library, the second a center for contemporary exhibitions, and the third an auditorium and restaurant-cafeteria. The latter, although expensive, makes an excellent stop for refreshments, be it a cup of tea or coffee, a snack, or even a cocktail, and in summer there's also a popular snack bar set up in the gardens.