Inside the explosive gunpowder-filled work of the Prado’s first ever artist-in-residence

The smell of gunpowder still lingered in Madrid's Prado museum on Tuesday, just hours after China's Cai Guo-Qiang, famed for his explosive art, put the finishing touch to an exhibition inspired by Spain's greats.

Inside the explosive gunpowder-filled work of the Prado's first ever artist-in-residence
Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang's new exhibition at El Prado. Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP

Better used to the work of long-dead painters, this is the first time that the museum has welcomed an artist-in-residence, whose internationally-acclaimed contemporary work stands in stark contrast to the centuries-old masterpieces normally on show.

In his exhibition, some of which was produced on-site using his trademark gunpowder, Cai sought inspiration from famous artists such as El Greco, Spain's Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez, as well as other painters in the collection like Peter Paul Rubens.

The result? A literal explosion of colour and darkness that reveals silhouettes, faces and landscapes, at times obvious and imposing, other times small and discreet.

It's a “dialogue between today's art and the art of the past,” the 59-year-old told reporters.

Cai makes his work by sprinkling gunpowder over his canvases and over stencils of whatever scene or figure he wants to create or re-create, sometimes mixed with colour.

Then he sets fire to the powder. Sometimes, he says, he covers the canvas and gunpowder with cardboard and bricks to make the explosion more powerful.

Two women look at Cai Guo-Qiang's “The Spirit of Painting”. Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP

Valencia gunpowder 'really powerful'

For the eight works created on-site at the Prado, he used gunpowder from a company in the eastern region of Valencia known for its annual, firecracker-mad Fallas festival — and that gave him a few scares.

“Valencia gunpowder is really powerful, really strong,” he said, smiling.

IN PICTURES: Valencia's spectacular festival of fire, Las Fallas

Cai only finished his last, 18-metre-long (59-foot-long) work of art called “The spirit of painting” on Monday evening, which explained the lingering smell of gunpowder.

A burst of colours and darkness, the painting re-creates classic scenes or figures from past artists — but with a modern twist.

Cai Guo-Qiang standing in front of “The Spirit of Painting” at the Prado. Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP

Goya's “The Naked Maja,” an image of a reclining Venus in the nude, now appears at the top of the canvas pulled by a plane flying through a brief burst of light, as if on an advertising banner.

Rubens' “Diana and her Nymphs surprised by Satyrs,” which features what is considered one of the most sensual nudes in the Flemish artist's entire oeuvre, also appears in Cai's 10-canvas painting.

Above the classic, stencilled scene appear stencils of trouser zippers opening up — an illustration of “carnal desire,” says Cai.

The exhibition is on until March 4 next year.


Madrid police end escaped camels’ night on the town

Eight camels and a llama took to the streets of Madrid overnight after escaping from a nearby circus, Spanish police said on Friday.

A camel in a zoo
A file photo of a camel in a zoo. Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

It was not immediately clear how the long-legged runaways managed to get out but Quiros Circus, which owns them, blamed sabotage by animal rights activists.

They were spotted at around 5:00 am wandering around the southern district of Carabranchel close to where the circus is currently based.

“Various camels and a llama escaped from a circus in Madrid overnight,” Spain’s national police wrote on Twitter, sharing images of eight two-humped camels and a llama hanging around a street corner.

“Police found them and took care of them so they could be taken back safe and sound,” they tweeted.

There was no word on whether the rogue revellers, who are known for spitting, put up any resistance when the police moved in to detain them.

Mati Munoz, one of the circus’ managers, expressed relief the furry fugitives — Bactrian camels who have two humps and thick shaggy coats – had been safely caught.

“Nothing happened, thank God,” he told AFP, saying the circus had filed a complaint after discovering the electric fence around the animals’ enclosure had been cut.

“We think (their escape) was due to an act of sabotage by animal rights groups who protest every year.”

Bactrian camels (camelus bactrianus) come from the rocky deserts of central and eastern Asia and have an extraordinary ability to survive in extreme conditions.

These days, the vast majority of them are domesticated.