Cai's explosive art inspired by Spanish greats

The smell of gunpowder still lingered in Madrid's Prado museum, just hours after China's Cai Guoqiang, famed for his explosive art.

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

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 color 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 said.


China’s artist Cai Guoqiang, famed for his explosive art

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 color.

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.

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.


A visitor looks at the artwork “The Distant Clouds” by Chinese artist Cai Guoqiang during the presentation of his exhibition “The Spirit of Painting” at the Prado Museum in Madrid. 

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

A burst of colors and darkness, the painting recreates classic scenes or figures from past artists — but with a modern twist.

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.

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