Barcelona's Art

From the cave paintings discovered at Lleida to several true giants of the 20th century—Picasso, Dalí, and Miró—Catalonia has had a long and significant artistic tradition. Today it is the Spanish center of the plastic arts and design culture. One of Catalonia's leading 21st-century designers is Barcelona-born Alfredo Arribas, who has won a variety of international prizes. His work varies from creating striking bar and restaurant interiors to collaborating with Sir Norman Foster on innovative city piazzas in Germany.

The first art movement to attract attention in Barcelona was Catalan Gothic sculpture, in vogue from the 13th to the 15th centuries and producing such renowned masters as Mestre Bartomeu and Pere Johan. Sculptors working with Italian masters brought the Renaissance to Barcelona, but few great Catalonian legacies remain from this period. The rise of baroque art in the 17th and 18th centuries saw Catalonia filled with several impressive examples, but nothing worth a special pilgrimage; the great masters El Greco and Velázquez worked in Toledo and Madrid, respectively.

In the neoclassical period of the 18th century, Catalonia—and particularly Barcelona—arose from an artistic slumber. Art schools opened and foreign painters arrived, exerting considerable influence. The 19th century produced many Catalan artists who followed general European trends without forging any major creative breakthroughs.

The 20th century brought renewed artistic ferment to Barcelona, as reflected by the arrival of Málaga-born Pablo Picasso—Barcelona is today the site of a major Picasso museum. The great surrealist painters of the Spanish school, Joan Miró (who also has an eponymous museum in Barcelona) and Salvador Dalí (whose fantastical museum is along the Costa Brava, north of Barcelona), also came to the Catalan capital.

Many Catalan sculptors achieved acclaim in the 20th century, including Enric Casanovas, Josep Llimona, and Miquel Blay. The Spanish Civil War brought cultural stagnation, yet against all odds many Catalan artists continued to make bold statements. Antoni Tàpies was one of the principal artists of this period (the Fundació Tàpies in Barcelona is devoted to his work). Among the various schools formed in Spain at the time was the neofigurative band, which included such artists as Vásquez Díaz and Pancho Cossio. The Museum of Modern Art in the neighborhood of El Raval illustrates the various 20th-century Catalan artistic movements, including the Dau al Set, the surrealist movement started in the 1940s by the "visual poet" Joan Brossa. His art and many other works by leading sculptors dot the streets of Barcelona, making it a vibrant outdoor museum. Watch out for Roy Lichtenstein's Barcelona Head opposite the main post office in the Plaça d'Antoni López, Joan Miró's phallic Dona i Ocell in the park of the same name, and Fernando Botero's giant cat on the Rambla del Raval.

Today many Barcelona artists are making major names for themselves, and their works are sold in the most prestigious galleries of the Western world. Outstanding among these is sculptor Susana Solano, who ranks among the most renowned names in Spanish contemporary art, and the neo-expressionist Miguel Barceló. Design and the graphic arts have thrived in Barcelona since the heady days of modernisme. It seems that nothing in Barcelona, from a park bench to a mailbox, escapes the "designer touch." Leading names include the architect and interior designer Oscar Tusquets, and the quirky graphic artist Javier Mariscal, whose work can be seen in many of the city's designer houseware stores. The most important plastic-arts schools in Spain are located in Barcelona, and the city acts as a magnet for young European creatives who flock here to set up shop.

Picasso & Les Demoiselles—Biographers of the 20th century's greatest artist, Spanish-born Pablo Picasso, claim that the artist was inspired to paint one of his masterpieces, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, after a "glorious night" spent in a notorious bordello on Barcelona's Carrer D'Avinyó.

The Pooping Catalan (Caganer)—When you visit December's Fira de Santa Lucia , look out for one particular personage among all the Magi, farm animals, and other pessebre figurines for sale on the stalls. The caganer is a small fellow, usually dressed as a peasant farmer (but who can be seen in anything from formal attire to the Barcelona Football Club uniform). He is squatting with his pants down, and a stream of excrement connects his bare buttocks to the earth. His origins are lost in folklore, but it is generally believed that he sprang from the Catalan philosophy of "giving back to the earth what one takes from it." Catalan artist Joan Miró placed the caganer in La Granja (The Farm), which is on display at Barcelona's Miró Foundation.

Barcelona's Architecture

Like many other cities in Spain, Barcelona claims its share of Neolithic dolmens and ruins from the later Roman periods. Relics of the Roman colony of Barcino can be seen beneath the Conjunt Monumental de la Plaça del Rei (and more are being found all the time), as can monuments surviving from the Middle Ages, when the Romanesque solidity of no-nonsense barrel vaults, narrow windows, and fortified design were widely used.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, religious fervor swept through Europe, and pilgrims began to flock to Barcelona on their way west to Santiago de Compostela, bringing with them French building styles and the need for new and larger churches. The style that emerged, called Catalan Gothic, had harsher lines and more austere ornamentation than traditional Gothic. Appropriate for both civic and religious buildings, it used massive ogival (pointed) vaults, heavy columns, gigantic sheets of sheer stone, clifflike walls, and vast rose windows set with colored glass.

One of Barcelona's purest and most-loved examples of this style is the Basilica of Santa María del Mar, northeast of the city's harbor. Built over 54 years, it is the purest example of Catalan Gothic in the city. Other examples include the Church of Santa María del Pi, the Salódel Tinell (part of the Museu de la Ciutat), and, of course, the mesmerizing Barri Gòtic itself. The Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) forms the central part of the Ciutat Vella (Old City) and is the largest, best-preserved medieval urban district in Europe.

In 1858 the expansion of Barcelona into the northern Eixample district provided a blank canvas for moderniste architects. The gridlike pattern of streets was intersected by broad diagonals. Although it was never endowed with the more radical details of its original design, it provided a carefully planned, elegant path in which a growing city could showcase its finest buildings. Today L'Eixample boasts the highest concentration of moderniste architecture in the world.

Modernisme is a confusing term, as "modernism" generally denotes 20th-century functionality. It is best known as Art Nouveau, a movement that took hold of Europe in the late 1800s in the arts. In Barcelona, it shone in the city's architecture, and its shining star was Antoni Gaudí.

The modernistes were obsessed with detail. They hailed the past in their architectural forms (from Arabic to Catalan Gothic) and then sublimely sprinkled them with nature-inspired features employing iron, glass, and florid ceramic motif, all of which are seen in dazzling abundance in the city. Other moderniste giants were Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch, whose elegant mansions and concert halls were perfectly suited to the enlightened, sophisticated prosperity of the 19th-century Catalonian bourgeoisie. An economic boom coincided with the profusion of geniuses who emerged in the building business. Entrepreneurs made their fortunes in the fields and mines of the New World and went on to commission some of the beautiful and elaborate villas in Barcelona and nearby Sitges. There were also lesser-known designers, such as Pere Falqués, whose wrought-iron lampposts line parts of the Passeig de Gràcia, and José María Jujol i Gibert, responsible for the beautiful trencadis (colorful broken mosaic patterns) that adorn Parc Güell.

Consistent with the general artistic stagnation in Spain during the Franco era (1939-75), the 1950s and 1960s saw a tremendous increase in the number of anonymous housing projects around the periphery of Barcelona and, in the inner city, eyesore-ridden decay. But as the last tears were being shed over the death of General Franco elsewhere in the country, Barcelona's left-wing intelligentsia were envisioning how to regenerate their city after decades of physical degradation under the dictator.

When Barcelona won its bid to host the Summer Olympic Games in 1992, work on their vision of "New Barcelona" accelerated. City planners made possible the creation of smart new urban beaches, a glitzy port and marina, traffic-reducing ring roads, daring public sculptures and parks, plus promenades and squares weaving through the Old City. The area has successfully evolved thanks to planners dividing it into small zones and developing each of them so cleverly that they blend into a seamlessly united whole.

The objective was to rejuvenate the barri, the distinct village-neighborhoods of Barcelona that denote income or political stance (sometimes even the language or the soccer team) and make up the city's peculiar territoriality. This radical and ingenious approach did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world. In 1999 the Royal Institute of British Architects presented Barcelona's city council with their Gold Medal, the first time a city (as opposed to an architect, such as previous winners Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright) had received the accolade. Barcelona is now used as a model across Europe for town planners wishing to overhaul their own downtrodden cities.

Over 15 years after the city's Olympic Year, the physical face of Barcelona is still changing in leaps and bounds. With an engaged local government still at the helm, broad swaths of industrial wasteland have been reclaimed north of the city for parkland, a new marina, and the emergence of dot-com areas such as 22@Barcelona and ritzy residential neighborhoods. A new city nucleus in the north has been created around the new AVE high-speed train terminal that links Madrid to Barcelona in a 3-hour journey. Still a city that's not afraid to take risks with its architecture, Barcelona's skyline has been enhanced by French architect Jean Nouvel's daring and controversial Torre Agbar in the outer suburb of Glòries, which has become the towering symbol of a city embracing the future with bravado.

The inventiveness continues unabated, although some modern projects have been temporarily held up for economic reasons. These include Norman Foster's ambitious plan to remodel and expand the city's Camp Nou soccer stadium, and Anglo-Iraqi Zaha Hadid's steel and glass Torre Espiral (Spiral Tower), which is aimed to dominate the coastline just north of the city. Both are tentatively expected to be given the green light by 2011.

My Place Is Here, with the Poor—June 7, 1926, started much as any other day in the life of the architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet. Leaving his humble studio at his work in progress, the Temple of the Sagrada Família, the old man shuffled through the Eixample district with the help of his cane, on his way to evening vespers. He did not hear the bells of the no. 30 tram as it came pelting down the Gran Vía. While waiting for an ambulance, people searched the pockets of his threadbare suit for some clue as to his identity but none was to be found. The great architect was mistaken for a vagrant and taken to the nearby public hospital of Santa Creu.

For the next 3 days, Gaudí lay in agony. Apart from occasionally opening his mouth to utter the words, "Jesus, my God!" his only other communication was to protest a suggestion that he be moved to a private clinic. "My place is here, with the poor," he is reported to have said.

Gaudí was born in 1852 in the rural township of Reus. The son of a metalworker, he spent long hours studying the forms of flora, fauna, and topography of the typically Mediterranean agrarian terrain. "Nature is a great book, always open, that we should make ourselves read," he once said. As well as using organic forms for his lavish decorations (over 30 species of plant are seen on the famous Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Família), he was captivated by the structure of plants and trees. As far as he was concerned, there was no shape or form that could be devised on an architect's drawing table that did not already exist in nature. "All styles are organisms related to nature," he claimed.

Apart from Mother Nature, Gaudí's two other guiding lights were religion and Catalan nationalism. When the moderniste movement was in full swing, architects such as Luis Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch were designing buildings and taking florid decoration and detail to the point of delirium. Gaudí, in the latter half of his life, disapproved of their excess and their capricious, outward-reaching (that is, European) notions. He even formed a counterculture, the Artistic Circle of Saint Luke, a collective of pious creatives with a love of God and the fatherland equal to his own.

He never married and was close to 50 when he moved into a house in the Parc Güell, the planned "garden city" above Barcelona, with his ailing niece and his housekeeper. After they both died, his dietary habits, always seen as somewhat eccentric by the carnivorous Catalans (Gaudí was a strict vegetarian), became so erratic that the Carmelite nuns who lived in the park made sure he was properly nourished. His appearance took on a bizarre twist; he let his beard and hair grow for months, forgot to put on underwear, and wore old slippers both indoors and out.

What became apparent by the end of his life was that Gaudí was one of the greatest architects the world has known, whose revolutionary techniques are still the subject of theory and investigation and whose vision was an inspiration for some of today's top architects, including Spain's own Santiago Calatrava, designer of Montjuïc's Torre de Comunicaciones. In 2002, Año Gaudí (the year of Gaudí), the celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth, saw an equal number of tourists flock to Barcelona as to Paris for the first time ever. 

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