Friday, October 28, 2016

Miro, Picasso & the Essence of Catalonia

It is that white star in a blue triangle that changes the Catalan flag into a separatist flag. You see them often, as it had been our intent to visit the two regions of Spain that don't really want to be a part of Spain: Catalonia and the Basque Country.
Barcelona has long been the vibrant heart of Catalonia. It's currently one of the "it" cities of Europe, full of energy and personality. It was that cultural energy that drew 15 year old Pablo Picasso to Barcelona in 1896 from his native Malaga and kept him anchored to Spain as he maintained residences in both Barcelona and Paris until his self-exile in 1939 when Francisco Franco prevailed in the Spanish Civil War (remember Picasso's 1937 painting of Guernica?). From exile he donated hundreds of his early works and some works of his final years (The Pigeons series) to a dedicated Picasso museum in Barcelona which Franco forbade to bear Picasso's name. Picasso never saw the museum because he died before Franco met his own end. Our visit (no photographs allowed) was somewhat disappointing. The early works clearly show his gifts, but the collection somehow seemed as if it were comprised of all the paintings that didn't sell. So, it was interesting, but not inspiring.
We went up to the Monjuic neighborhood to visit the Joan Miro Foundation out of a sense of obligation to check out another museum dedicated to another acknowledged modern master, even though we had low expectations. We had a different kind of experience. We liked it. This 1919 painting (Miro was 26) of the village of Mont-roig captures Miro's interest in primitivism, his Catalan roots, nature and the objects of everyday life.
From there on the canvas continues to loosen.
Miro often thought of his art as "anti-painting," although he also said: "I make no distinction between painting and poetry."

He was fascinated with body language and graffiti. He was also influenced by Japanese art and the approach to calligraphy characterized by rapid execution following a period of intense concentration. He visited Japan a couple of times, as well as the United States where he met with the abstract expressionists, including Pollack.

The beauty of the Miro Foundation museum is that it actually does provide such as wide perspective on his work that you begin to have the illusion that you understand him.

From the Miro Foundation we walked over to the National Art Museum of Catalonia with its commanding view of the city (hi, Catherine!).

Among other things, the Catalan museum houses the preeminent collection of Romanesque Art in Europe, featuring murals and panels from rural Catalan churches from the 11th - 13th centuries. In the early twentieth century, a mass purchase of the art was being orchestrated by American institutions. The Catalan government stepped in and organized a conservation effort to preserve them for Catalonia.

It's again a very impressive collection that, makes you reassess how you feel about an entire epoque in art.

Our heads filled with art, we headed down towards the Placa d'Espanya
And the heart of Barcelona.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Modernist Masterpieces of Barcelona

It was thanks to a street demonstration (no one could tell us why) that we had a view of two of the modernist masterpieces of Barcelona, unobstructed by trucks, buses or cars whizzing by.

Nearby our apartment in the Eixample neighborhood, on Passeig de Gracia, two masterpieces of Antoni Gaudi (on the right) and Joseph Puig i Cadafalch stand side by side. The ubiquitous "A's" in the Puig window ornamentation commemorates his client, the Amattler family. Two doors down, but difficult to photograph, is a gorgeous house by Lluis Domenech i Montaner (otherwise, well-represented, below).

We toured Gaudi's La Pedrera, an apartment building whose current tenants must tolerate large crowds gathering out front and touring parts of the building and the roof, where functional components continue to get the Gaudi treatment.

From the roof, Gaudi's most famous work, La Sagrada Familia, can be seen under construction (as always) in the distance.


The exterior of the cathedral has a few artistically restrained features.

But, not many. The exterior is exuberant beyond description and a reminder of how we got the English word "gaudy."

The interior, on the other hand, is an intensely spiritual space, even though packed with hundreds of awestruck tourists craning their necks, transfixed by the magic.

The soaring verticality of the space fulfills Gaudi's vision of the interior as being like a woods to invite prayer, introspection and the taking of the Eucharist. Both inside and out, every detail has a meaning, every architectural feature a liturgical or religious significance. The central tower represents Jesus, four towers surrounding it represent the gospels, when completed (projected for 2026, nearly 150 years after construction commenced) there will be 12 towers representing each of the apostles. You can't help but feel that Gaudi has created a temple without equal in reflecting the magnificent nature of God. It is no still small voice. It is the heavens opening wide in their glory.


Barcelona's temple of music is the Palao de la Musica. We took a short taxi ride there from our apartment for a performance of flamenco music and dance by a troupe from Malaga.

The Palau de la Musica was designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner, another master of Catalan Modernisme.

As with most of the modernist architecture we saw, the ornamention on each surface (for instance, each pillar or column) is unique and designs are not repeated.


Inside the hall, performers should be happy that the lights are turned down. Otherwise, patrons would be distracted by the dizzying array of what there is to see. Fortunately, the performance was quite good. The low wooden platform accentuated the percussion from the performers' feet.

Back in 1401 the Barcelona's Consell de Cent ("Council of One Hundred") merged six hospitals into one to improve the free care provided to the city's poor as the Hospital de la Santa Creu. By the turn of the 20th century, the facilities had become inadequate and a wealthy banker (Pau Gil) stepped up with a very large donation and a commission to Lluis Domenech i Montaner to design a new hospital to modern standards. His only demand was that the hospital be renamed to honor his patron saint, Saint Paul, so that it is now the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. Of course, the architect did frequently include the donor's initials as decoration. We didn't mind.

The hospital is comprised of many individual buildings linked by tunnels. The buildings are absolutely beautiful.

They have also been restored in an ongoing project.

By the turn of the 21st century, it was clear that the hospital was again inadequate. It had been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, but it was time to move. In fact, the hospital continued to serve as a hospital until 2008 when a new hospital opened that had been built on a portion of the same large tract of land originally set aside.

So, now the hospital is a museum with spaces that can also be rented out for functions. It's new on the tourist circuit, but well worth a visit, as is Barcelona for its architectural treasures alone.