The Spanish Artmada


I murdered Picasso. The occasion, decades ago, was his retrospective filling every floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As a young art student I went to see it, and in a dream that night I was making my getaway in the museum’s elevator, having assassinated the artist (posthumously, as it turned out) in the exhibition’s last room.

I murdered Picasso (blame my nascent feminist consciousness), but that guy keeps coming back. His paintings are scattered throughout “Barcelona and Modernity,” an alternately fascinating and tedious show devoted to the cultural ferment of the Catalonian capital where, as an 18-year-old, Picasso got his professional start. And wherever his works are, they tend to dominate.

That’s true in the opening galleries devoted to the city’s turn-of-the-century avant-garde, Modernistas who worshipped at the altar of Paris. They had their favorite cabaret (the Quatre Gats), crowded with absinthe drinkers and poétes maudits. Among their canvases, Picasso’s scene at Le Moulin de la Galette stands out—bathed in an insalubrious nocturnal glow, the denizens of this watering hole fairly burn with bohemian energy. (Only the painter Ramon Casas gives the younger artist a run for his money; his self-portrait with the art world personality Pere Romeu shows two gangly, bearded men furiously pedaling a tandem bicycle, as if fleeing the 19th century.)

And it’s true (though to a lesser extent) in the exhibition’s remarkable final room, filled with the works of eminent artists and designers responding to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). There, Picasso’s depictions of his mistress Dora Maar’s face, fractured in anguish, come to stand for the political trauma of a generation.

Bracketed, on the one hand, by fin-de-siécle artists eagerly anticipating the future, and on the other, by mid-20th century practitioners mournfully surveying the ruin of their utopian hopes, this overly diffuse show still makes a compelling case for Barcelona as a cosmopolitan center whose advances, particularly in the fields of architecture and design, rivaled or surpassed those of New York and Paris.

“Within every Catalan there is an anarchist,” the poet Joan Maragall observed. Was there something in the region’s character that made it fertile for artistic revolution? Known internationally as “the city of bombs,” Barcelona had witnessed its share of sectarian violence, its legions of industrial workers rising up periodically against their bourgeois masters and the Catholic Church (seen as a tool of the wealthy), then being subject to crushing reprisals.

Artists straddled both sides of the divide. The painter Isidre Nonell made a specialty of depicting society’s dispossessed: blind beggars, village cretins, and gypsies. (Picasso’s miserabiliste Blue Period owes much to his influence.) But when Ramon Casas portrayed the public execution of a murderer in The Garroting (1894), he was more interested in the vast, jostling crowd of onlookers attending the event—modern descendants of the spectators at medieval autos-da-fé.

Was there a hint of the old Catalan anarchist spirit in Joan Miró’s vow, in the 1920s, to “assassinate painting”? He made good on his promise with a homegrown Surrealism, forged between his family farm in rural Mont-roig and his Parisian atelier.

And though idolized by the Surrealists, architect Antoni Gaudí stood firmly in the conservative camp. His astonishingly expressive forms drew their primordial force from seemingly contradictory impulses: close study of the arid terrain of his native Tarragona, a fervent Catholic mysticism, a quasi-Moorish sense of ornamentation, and a militant Catalan nationalism, bent on reviving the region’s medieval glory.

His designs, along with those of his lesser-known contemporary, Lluís Doménech i Montaner (creator of the extravagantly ornamented Palace of Catalan Music), and of his disciple, the wildly imaginative Josep Maria Jujol, are among the exhibition’s highlights. Jujol’s hanging lamp for a church, for example, made of recycled wood and metal cans and looking at once Gothic and raggedly postmodern, speaks volumes about his spiritually transcendent approach to materials. But their works (despite Adolf Mas’s exquisite archival photographs of Gaudí’s constructions) are not particularly well-served by the museum context. To get to know buildings, you have to walk around them.

How could the same metropolis have given us Gaudí’s uncannily hairy, unfinished masterpiece, the church of La Sagrada Familia, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s luxuriously minimalist Barcelona Pavilion? In fact, the latter building, which represented Germany in the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929, had little to do with the city as such, though its influence extended to Catalan architects like Josep Lluís
Sert, who were bent on developing a local variant of the International Style.

That Barcelona exerted a considerable pull on its artists, even abroad, is confirmed by photographs and models documenting the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. This extraordinary undertaking was thrown together in four months by a handful of artists working in exile to support the cause of the beleaguered Spanish Republic against fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Sert’s radical architecture housed works by Miró and Picasso (among many others), the latter painting his chef d’oeuvre Guernica for it in a fever pitch of inspiration.

One of Miró’s contributions, the design for a postage stamp intended to raise money, portrayed a boisterous Catalan peasant with his enormous arm raised in a show of defiance. The city had been a bastion of resistance to fascism, and after Franco’s victory, it would pay a heavy price. But these works ensured that the Barcelona of the spirit would live on, decades after its geographic cousin had foundered during the dictatorship’s long night.