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Some of the greatest Romanesque and early Gothic art in Europe is collected in this stunning museum housed in the Palau Nacional. The collection of Romanesque murals, in particular, is unmatched. Most of them were discovered at the beginning of the 20th century in crumbling ancient churches in the Pyrenees. When one such church was sold to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, it set off a storm of outrage over losing Catalunya’s cultural patrimony. So church after church was purchased by public institutions. Mural paintings were detached from the walls and ultimately moved to this museum. MNAC displays more than 100 pieces from the churches, including wall painting panels and polychrome wood carvings. They date from the 11th to 13th centuries, a fundamental period in Catalan art. The museum chronicles other eras, but the collections are a little thin until they reach Modernisme. As part of the Europeana Partage-Plus project on Art Nouveau, MNAC has been digitizing images of more than 2,000 Modernista objects in its collection, now available at www.partage-plus.eu. The Modernista gallery exhibits have such treasures as the Gaudí-designed furniture from Casa Lleó Morera a 1907 fireplace by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and paintings by second-generation Modernista artist Joaquim Mir and by Catalunya’s only noted Impressionist painter, Marià Pidelaserra.

A Bicycle Built for Two -- One of the star pieces of the MNAC's moderniste collection is a self-portrait of Ramón Casas and fellow Barcelona painter Pere Romeu riding a tandem. They both achieved fame in the early 1920s moderniste era. This iconic work was originally executed for Els Quatre Gats, the tavern that served as a fraternity house for moderniste movers and shakers, bohemians, intellectuals, and poets. A young Picasso designed the menu (and held his first-ever exhibition there), and various other works donated to the owners still adorn the walls, although now most, such as Casas's pedaling portrait, are reproductions. The colorful Casas, who spent years in the artistic circles of Paris's Montmartre, was a perpetrator of the city's new-found modernity as well as a seminal artist. He specialized in portraits, caricatures, and political subjects such as street protests; his interpretations of fin-de-siècle Barcelona provide valuable insight into this heady time. Romeu was an extrovert and lively animateur at cabarets but a lesser artist, although his themes were similar.