Picasso Blue and Pink, in Paris

Picasso Blue and Pink, in Paris

I have often said –not always to everyone’s agreement– that if Pablo Picasso (Malaga 1881–Mougins, Provence 1973) had died in 1904, before moving permanently to France, he would still be in all the history of art textbooks in the world, without having had his enormously creative posterior career, during which he invented Cubism, and was leader of the twentieth century Avant-garde movement, among many other things.

Pre-1901, Picasso had already created his own style: a kind of incipient, yet very vigorous (in 2901) and colourful Fauvism made his own, and later he would re-create a very personal symbolism in his Blue Period (1901-1904), in a pathetic and extraordinarily sober style which he sweetened to drift towards what is known as his Pink Period (1904-1906). After that, and having spent a brief period in Gòsol, in Berguedà, Cubism would burst forth.

If we add that before 1901 the artist had already spent around two years as one of the most talented young painters of Catalan Modernism – in fierce competition with others – we can see that over seven or eight years he had a broad career that was comparable in both quality and output with many of his contemporaries both here and abroad, since they had already credited him with an exceptional place in world painting at the beginning of the twentieth century.

View of the exhibition.

However, in Paris – at the Musée d’Orsay – there is palpable proof of my affirmation, in the exhibition Picasso bleu & rose, which opened on 18 September and can be seen until 6 January 2019. This is a completely rounded exhibition of some 280 pieces distributed in 16 rooms – all of them with their own particular meaning, and where visitors can find most of the mythical works that appear repeatedly in specialist books about Picasso at that time and in many more generalist art books covering the early twentieth century. For that reason, the number of visitors to the exhibition, which only covers five or six years of Picasso’s long artistic life, on the day I went there was huge, with some of the rooms full to bursting point.

In fact, the exhibition offers quite a bit more than its title suggests, since 70 of the pieces are prior to the Blue Period, meaning that a good part of his Catalan Period is well represented. The only works that are missing are those from his early training where he evidently showed promise but had not yet cranked up his incredibly original creative machinery.

The works exhibited are mainly by Picasso but there are also some from his immediate surroundings such as Rusiñol, Casas, S. Junyent, Nonell, Max Jacob and Apollinaire, as well as photographic, archive and printed documents related to him. Some of these works by other people are surprising, such as the magnificent oil portrait that the sponsor and advisor to the young painter made of him, posing in front of La Vie (1903, Cleveland Museum of Art), the large format oil painting that Junyent had bought from him. And I found out how they agreed to include this work – as a document but also as a work of art – because it has practically not been shown and because the painter was not a well-known name in France. The great anthologies tend to be rather clichéd, wanting to show the public what the public already knows, and looking at new things is just a nuisance.

In the exhibition, visitors have the opportunity to see a huge number of the most famous works. It hardly need mentioning that Picasso was one of those artists who didn’t follow the trends of the time but created new trends which later generated – or not – a large number of followers.

In the middle of 1901 the Picasso who could almost be described as Fauve turned to Symbolism. But not the symbolism of the pre-Raphaelites, or that of our own Riquer or Adrià Gual, but a language of his own which showed that he was thinking about Puvis de Chavannes – as was Torres-Garcia at the same time – and that he had known the works of Nabís and had allowed himself the freedom to unleash his own creativity. But he did all that without thinking about it because for a true artist the work has to come directly from their experience, pure expression, and not form any learned or preconceived theory. However, it is true that the sadness of that time affected Picasso – largely the result of the shock of Casagemas’ suicide – and made the themes that he expressed at that time in this painting serious, meditative and shadowy.

Personally, seeing once again the La Flor del Mal (Hakone, Japan, Pola Museum of Art) from that period (1902), which presided the dining room of my grandparents when I was small, or Picasso’s first sculpture, the clay figure Femme assise (Paris, Musée National Picasso), which he made in the now-disappeared family mansion in the Carrer Pàdua in Sant Gervasi de Cassoles, under the supervision of my great uncle, the sculptor Emili Fontbona, was the only justification I needed (subjective, of course) for my trip to Paris.

Afterwards, thinking about it, the Pink Period wasn’t really anything else but the optimisation of the Blue Period. Aesthetically they were very similar, but in the ‘Pink’ – also fundamentally symbolistic – the colours lost their darkness, the night turned into daybreak, and the subjects – pretexts for painting more than anything – became more amiable. They were no longer figures in contemplation, affected by possible traumas, but travelling players, with children happily engaged in their games, discreetly promising young girls, and even loving embraces, without the bright laughter and explosive liveliness of the oils in the 1901 exhibition at Can Vollard, but with the new proximity of imminent wellbeing. And that truly delicate sensibility of the figure that would burst forth later in the “neoclassical” era of the 1920s, when it seemed that the turbulence of the Avant-garde that he created himself had died down appears here some fifteen years before – in the Retrat de la senyora Canals (Barcelona, Museu Picasso) or in the Femme à l’èventail (Washington, National Gallery of Art), both from 1905, for example. Because in Picasso’s full and complex baggage, the elegance of the stroke and of the concept within, flowed when all kinds of circumstances allowed it or when his body demanded it of him.

Picasso’s aesthetic yet ever-coherent presence can be seen, for example, in his dry-point Le bain (Paris, Musée Nationale Picasso) from 1905, unmistakeably from his Pink Period even though the work is not in colour. The same work had been published as a proof in June 1911 in the emerging iconic publication Almanach dels noucentistes but only appeared later in a definitive series in 1913.

One of the 16 exhibition rooms – number 10 – is dedicated to Picasso’s erotic art. A successful choice since among other things Picasso is hedonism, among other things. This section includes a star series of drawings of explicit sex, from 1902-1903, which are held in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and are from the Garriga i Roig collection.

The exhibition counts on a complete team of curators, people from the D’Orsay museum but also from the Picasso Museum in Paris, but they also have the benefit of working with scientific advisor Eduard Vallès (it would be hard to find someone who knows more about Picasso as a person and about his work), as well as one of the first people to project Catalan Modernist art internationally – American specialist Marilyn McCully.

Later would come Cubism and another exhibition, also in Paris at the Centre Pompidou, is currently offering a monumental exhibition which includes an extremely extensive anthology, including Picasso, naturally, but also Braque, Gris, Gleizes, Metzinger, Léger, the Delaunays, the Duchamps, Chagall and all the others, as well as sculptures by Brancusi, Laurens and Modigliani. This exhibition runs from 17 October 2018 to 25 February 2019.

Treasures on paper

Treasures on paper

Just as Jep Gambardella, the star of La grande bellezza, loved the smell of old houses, there are people that are fascinated by auctions of old books and manuscripts.

Why? Well, there are many reasons: I am fetishistic about beautiful objects, obsolete calligraphies, objects abandoned between the pages of a book, receipts, notes, a particular elegant typography. And also, the feel of different types of paper –their texture and the way they wrinkle and fold prove especially voluptuous for my fingertips. But most important of all it is the direct contact (no middle men) with pieces of history that eliminate the famous six degrees of separation and lead to the unity of time.

On the eleventh of September 1802, the leaders of Barcelona pulled the carriage of the King of Spain, like horses.

If you are still not convinced, here is a final reason: until approximately the mid nineteenth century, paper was made from rags that had previously been cloths, or sheets, and so on. So, it is very probable that our ancestors actually wore what we now have in our hands.

On 8 November at Soler y Llach in Barcelona there will be an extraordinary auction of books and manuscripts. You can consult the catalogue either on paper or on the website, for descriptions of the lots and enlarged images. If you want to touch the paper or have a more studied look at the lots you can do so from 5 to 8 November until midday at Soler y Llach, number 13 Beethoven Street.

There are 887 lots in all, of which 600 belong to the “Ausiàs March” library –a euphemism to conceal the real name of the collector, who is one of the bigwigs of the bibliophile world.

If you are interested in buying any of the lots you can make your bid at any time by internet or telephone, or directly at the venue on the afternoon of the auction. Remember that you will have to add a 20% commission charge to the price of each lot you buy.

However, having said that, there is something for all budgets, and sometimes you don’t even need to buy the lot to enjoy it. Just look at it in situ, in the catalogue or on internet.

Some of the items at the auction are as curious as a receipt for 80 sous, issued in Barcelona in 1347, written in Catalan on parchment, for work carried out by one of the master builders during the construction of the church of Santa Maria del Mar. It is available for 90 Euros.

Or a really curious document which is like an Excel before Excel existed! It is a spreadsheet produced by the Real Casa de Hospicio y Refugio de Barcelona, the poor house, on 1 January 1796: there were 890 poor people on the register. Some worked at home (557), others were apprentices or maids (88) and there were also children (64) and the sick (197) who didn’t work. The hospice was financed by the money generated by this employment and taxes, but mostly came from donations. You will see that the total is 906 souls –the difference between the two figures being, according to the account, that the remainder “joined the army or the navy”. This is lot 102 and has a starting price of 35 Euros.

One of the pearls of this action is the section dealing with the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1713) and the subsequent fall of Barcelona: 42 lots made up of books, leaflets and manuscripts. Constitutions, chapters and acts of court, homages to Philip IV of Catalonia and V of Castile, reports of events, descriptions of the siege of Barcelona in 1706 from an English point of view, the text of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713)… and other lots of interest such as a ban issued by the Council of One Hundred of Barcelona in March 1714 regulating food prices, which were spiralling out of control as a result of the siege.

In the ban there are the prices of oil, pork and beef, pulses, dried fruits, cheeses from Holland, England and the Balearic Islands – and lots of fish: cod, tuna, herring and sardines.

For example, a dozen large English Herring at 3 sous. The “home-fished small herring” at 1.4 sous. Salted sardines at 1.4 sous the dozen. “Home-fished” anchovy at 1.6 and Italian anchovy at 1.2 sous. The document has a starting price of 400 Euros.

Within the “Ausiàs March” library there is an extraordinary section dedicated to the Gothic and incunabular book printed in Gothic type and/or before 1500. Included are such marvels as Com per ordinació de les Corts Generals del Principat de Cathalunya… fos ordonat… que los usatges de Barcelona e Constitucions de Cathalunya, fossen col·locats en propis titols e en lenga vulgar, printed in Barcelona in 1495. This was the first –or at least one of the very first– printed versions of the Catalan constitutions. With a modern Brugalla binding the lot is auctioning with a starting price of 4,500 Euros.

There is also a beautiful edition of the Llibre apellat Consolat de mar, of 1518 (lot 709, from 1,800 Euros); a curious version of the Blanquerna qui tracta de sinch estaments de persones, by Ramon Llull, a rifacimento –o adaptation– written by Mossèn Juan Bonllabi in 1521 (lot 710, from 6,000 Euros). And a translation of the works of Ausiàs March in Spanish –Las obres del famosissim philosopho y poeta mossen Osias Marco… cavallero valenciano de nacion catalan– printed in Valencia in 1539 (lot 712, from 1,500 Euros).

And finally, there is an image which is strangely contemporary. Lot 205 corresponds to the Relación de los festejos públicos, y otros acaecimientos que han ocurrido en la ciudad de Barcelona… con motivo de la llegada de SS.MM. y AA a dicha Ciudad; y del viage a la Villa de Figueras (starting price, 600 Euros). It describes all the events of the last visit of the Spanish royal household to Barcelona before the fall of the Ancien Régime. Charles IV and his wife Marie Louise, accompanied by Godoy, went to Barcelona to celebrate a double wedding: that of their son Ferdinand, the future Ferdinand VII, with the Princess Maria Antonia of Naples and Sicily; and the heir to the throne of Naples, Francis Genaro, with the Princess Maria Isabella of Spain. The king and queen of Etruria would also attend.

The city put in place a number of works of infrastructure – as it did on other great occasions (1888, 1929, 1992, etc.) that were to mark the beginning of a period of economic expansion. And the most elaborate event was the royal reception. This is shown in 13 splendid engravings in the book by Bonaventura Planella. The first example carries the text: “Triumphal carriage offered by the College of Guilds of Barcelona to its Venerable Sovereigns Charles IV and Marie Louise, for their public entrance on the afternoon of 11 September 1802 in testimony to their faithful love and vassalage and accepted by Their Majesties. They were driven from the city walls to the Royal Palace by individuals from other Corporations, with the accompaniment of their commissioners who surrounded the carriage”. So, on the eleventh of September the leaders of Barcelona pulled the carriage of the King of Spain, like horses, from outside the city walls to the palace that had been prepared for them…Just a few kilometres away, in France, this matter had been resolved somewhat differently.

Toulouse-Lautrec and New Technology

Toulouse-Lautrec and New Technology

An exhibition has just opened at the CaixaForum Barcelona with a misleading title: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Spirit of Montmartre. What comes to mind is a pile of oil paintings by the pint-sized artist from Albi and some or another poster. But no. Of the 345 incredibly varied pieces on display in the exhibition –prints, posters, book and press illustrations, drawings and, of course, painting– only 61 are by Toulouse Lautrec himself, including six oil paintings and a drawing.

But do not despair, because the exhibition is magnificent. It narrates a brief period (from the late 1920s) in a small area –the neighbourhood of Montmartre– where one of the most important revolutions in the history of culture took place.

Jules Grün, La chanson à Montmartre, 1900. Test lithograph for a book cover. © Private collection.

There is a fundamental link between Gutenberg and the world wide web: the development of colour lithography and the appearance of photoengraving. All of this, of course, occurred in the second phase of the industrial revolution, with rail lines that connected the main cities of Europe (Barcelona to Paris in just 24 hours!) and a new social class –the proletariat– stacked up in giant metropolises.

Everything was changing at a rate never seen before. Brands appeared –previously products had been sold loose, with neither containers or labels– and leisure.

There was gas streetlighting in the cities which allowed an emerging nightlife. And running water and a sewerage system to stamp out epidemics.

Georges Tiret-Bognet (1855-1935), Caricature of Rodolphe Salis in Le Chat Noir, c. 1890. Collection of Phillip Dennis and Isabelle Cate. © Collection of Phillip Dennis and Isabelle Cate.

It was within that context that a group of artists began to get involved in the world of cabaret in Montmartre, Le Chat Noir. People such as the Les Art Incohérents, predecessors of the Dadaists, offered absurd and anti-bourgeois, humorous monologues, which they referred to as fumiste.

At Le Chat Noir, Henri Rivière set up a sophisticated shadow theatre with highly elaborate productions including up to twelve operators, scriptwriters, singers and musicians, among others.

Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec (1864-1901), Moulin Rouge, la Goulue, 1891. Lithography. © Private collection, courtesy of Galerie Documents, Paris.

The dances and cafés concerts could hold a public of between 500 and 1500. The Bal Bullier attracted students and the Moulin de la Galette –painted by Casas i Rusiñol– was frequented by the poorer workers. Each dance cost 80 cents for each pair of dancing partners. The Moulin Rouge was for the wealthy and entrance cost between two and three Francs. That was where the famous can-can or chahut was performed.

In fact, when Jules Chéret, the father of the poster, which was considered part of the Fine Arts during the Belle Époque, designed the poster for the newly opened Moulin Rouge in 1889 a thousand copies were produced! In 1891 it was Toulouse-Lautrec’s turn: his poster for the Moulin Rouge was so successful that he decided to abandon the academic tradition and the conventional art market.

Imagine an artist who until then had been tied to selling paintings with complete dependence on a gallery owner. His works hung on the walls of the homes of the bourgeoisie. But the posters could be acquired by almost anyone and provided him with a great source of income. Also, the new technology for reproductions means that the drawing went from being a simple preparatory procedure to becoming one of his own works. The replacement of the three-dimensional solutions, naturalism and realistic colours by two-dimensional, schematic designs with a smaller range of colours was the result either of the limitations of the technique or the coherence of the composition.

Jules Chéret (1836-1933), Exposition Universelle des Arts Incohérents, 1889, poster. Lithograph. © Private collection / Photo: Elsevier Stokmans Fotografie.

The new press law of 1881 gave much greater scope to freedom of expression and photoengraving techniques enabled reproductions of satirical drawings to be published. They were lapped up in Barcelona in magazines such as Le Rire, La Vie Parisienne and Gil Blas Illustré.

When Picasso and so many other Catalan artists travelled to Paris, they had already been influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen, Adolphe Léon Willette and many other of the French magazine artist. Art travels fast: in the Picasso Museum of Barcelona there is a piece of paper on which Picasso himself scribbled masses of imitated signatures of Steinlen –admiration or falsification?

At the same time in Montmartre initiatives such as La Revue Blanche, L’Estampe originale –by André Marty– and Eugène Delâtre’s etching studio were appearing, all promoting the limited edition printed image. It was within this curious counterbalancing act that graphic works were born.

If you go to the CaixaForum and you find that there are far more printed works on paper than oil paintings, don’t turn up your nose. Consider that these modest, often poor quality, papers are privileged testimonies of a revolution that took place over a very small area and during a period that is not so different from our own.

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Spirit of Montmartre can be seen at the CaixaForum Barcelona until 20 January 2019.

MACBA. 34th Time Lucky?

MACBA. 34th Time Lucky?

Since the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) finally opened its doors to the public in November 1995, there have been 34 presentations of its collection.

So, anyone who visits the museum regularly could not say that these acquisitions (which now number exactly 5,248) are not more or less well known. However, the critical fortune of the MACBA Collection, which has been expanded from the public collections of the Catalan government (the Generalitat), Barcelona City Council and the MACBA Private Foundation, has also been the victim of the origins of the institution itself.  It might seem that the image of Richard Meier’s white container with just 14 works exhibited during the open doors weekend at the end of April 1995 to present the architecture of the museum has badgered the MACBA ever since. But nothing could be further than the truth.

The four directors of the museum – Miquel Molins, Manuel Borja-Villel, Bartomeu Marí and now, Ferran Barenblit – have always been clear that the collection should be the mainstay of the museum since it has been presented regularly during all of their mandates, even though the criteria and selection have changed over the years. During its first years, starting with the opening presentation, the exhibitions of the collection were chronological, albeit with a particular focus on some more specific aspects. The first show emphasised the 1980s and the second the works of the Dadaists and Surrealists. At the third exhibition in 1997, curated by the person who had been the head of the collection since its beginnings, Antònia Maria Perelló, a more thematic criterion was introduced, reflecting on concepts of existence and death. In the autumn of that same year, there was a return to the chronological approach in a show that occupied the entire museum. With the arrival of the following director Manuel Borja-Villel, the exhibitions continued regularly, with some really ambitious presentations such as that of the autumn of 2002 which also occupied all three floors of the museum.

The same happened again in the summer of 2009, when Bartomeu Marí chose to reflect on the integration of music, dance, film and theatre in contemporary art since the 1960s. Once again, the MACBA Collection occupied the whole of Meier’s building. However, all of these shows only tended to last a few months, as if they were yet another temporary exhibition.

Exhibition view. Photo: Miquel Coll.

This new presentation of the collection aims to change that and make the word “permanent” a reality. For the first time in the history of the museum the exhibition of the collection, for the moment housed on the first floor, will not be put up and taken out every three, four or six months, but will remain for as long as is necessary. Of course, there will be changes from time to time in the actual works, to progressively present new stories and microstories.

Under the title A Short Century: MACBA Collection, the exhibition includes 194 works and 165 documents, distributed in a clear, linear itinerary for the viewer. The show offers a temporal historic and artistic journey through almost a century, since the iconic year for the city of Barcelona in 1929, when the International Exhibition opened, on the eve of the Second Republic, to the current day. The historical events, exemplified in the chronological story which viewers can read on the walls of the corridors, is a crucial part of the exhibition route, and shows that artists never work outside the context of their own situation and that their work engages with it, either as a reflection, a denouncement or direct action. Art is a product of its time. This connection, which is very well explained at the beginning of the route, is possibly the greatest virtue of the exhibition.

Exhibition view. Photo: Miquel Coll.

With generous spaces between the work which helps contemplate them as objects in themselves, the exhibition goes through eleven significant moments of this short century, with more or less one per room. The moment of the Civil War is exemplary, with references to the art of the Republican Pavilion at the International Exhibition of Paris in 1937, with whole walls covered in some of the most important posters of the Republican government and projections of films made by the Union for Public Performances of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. The next room, which represents the art of the 1950s is aesthetically very pleasing, with the fantastic ceramics of Antoni Cumella (quite a surprise in a museum like the MACBA), and works by Tàpies, Dubuffet, Gego and Palazuelo. However, it is maybe the least successful conceptually because it gives the idea that all that wealth of the new artistic movements came from nowhere. For example, where is Dau al Set to show the links with art from before the war? This moment in Catalan art will probably be included in future partial exhibitions.

Exhibition view. Photo: Miquel Coll.

There are similar gaps in the next rooms, so visitors should not expect any kind of artistic canon in this presentation, which is made up more of specific moments and themes. One example is the selection of the subject of property and architectural speculation from the 1960s in the second room with works of direct action by Hans Haacke and Gordon Matta-Clark; or the focus on such specific aspects as the maritime economy in the last room of the exhibition and the Hydra Decapita installation by The Otholith Group in the Torre room, at the end of the route.

Despite the fact that the exhibition never offers the museums master works, it does offer pieces of great visual impact which interact more with the viewer’s experience. This is the case of the works of Miralda, the expansive presentation of Juan Muñoz’s installations, The Nature of Visual Illusion (1994-1997), and the emotional Reserve of the Dead Swiss (1991), by Christian Boltanski, which has been unexhibited for too long. And now that the paintings and the character of Jean-Michel Basquiat are “de rigeur” it could be interesting for the public to know that the museum holds pieces by him, including some of the greats like his self-portrait. The museum has many more works in its vaults which could be used to build its image for the public, without having to lower the intellectual or documentary level of the things it wants to talk about. The hybrid between the visual object and works which invite the participation of the viewer, and the more documentary elements provide be the formula, now that the collection has a fixed space, to help consolidate the image of the museum.

Despite the acceptable quality of the way in which the exhibition has been set up, it leaves a certain feeling of coitus interruptus when you reach the end of the first-floor corridor. It has never been so evident as in this 34th presentation of the MACBA Collection that the museum needs more space. Was this a deliberate move by the directors of the museum now that any future expansion to neighbouring buildings such as the ‘Convent de la Misericòrdia’ seems uncertain? I do not have the answer, but in any case, the evidence of this need marks and will continue to mark all future shows of the MACBA Collection where there is a chronological and historicist intention.

Stories of Antiquarians and Fame: a brief autopsy

Stories of Antiquarians and Fame: a brief autopsy

An antiquarian is a hunter of art works, somebody who seeks or chases pieces obsessively until they are bagged. They are not killed, they are sold. I am here in the Mirador to tell you about some of the adventures that do not take place in on lion hunts in the African savanna but in flats in Barcelona and the surrounding area, where art works lie dormant, forgotten, buried under the tyranny of what is useful and modern.

Stories of antiquarians and fame, to paraphrase the great Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar, who wrote his legendary Historias de cronopios y de famas in 1962. These fantastic, surreal tales, in which fame embodies power, the upper middle classes who manage the banks and –in other words– the world. The cronopios are the figures on the edge of the system –asocial, romantics and almost even poets.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Via Apia and Via Ardeatina, from Le Antichita Romane, 1756

So, isn’t it true that the antiquarians are the cronopios of today? Characters in search of lost time, obsessive compulsives collecting works to later get rid of them, species in danger of extinction like the Siberian tiger or the Arabian leopard.

We cronopios or antiquarians enter homes through phonecalls. When the body of the family man who with the questionable joy of collecting is still warm, the widow, sad but always efficient, and the children, more in need of cash than keepsakes, hurry to call the antiquarian so that he can see the works that have been left. One arrives with his rucksack, which should contain at the very least a notebook, pen, a self-retracting tape measure, a torch and a small UV light like the doctors at the local surgery have. But here we don’t need to visit the patient because he is already dead. We do, however, need to view his works, the works he collected, testimonies to a vice that was never shared. The flats smell of human putrefaction and cheap air freshener which leave the rooms full of grief and nostalgia.

After a brief introduction you get to work. Every time you swallow, small dust particles gather in your throat, tickling and making you cough. A glass of water would be welcome, but it is never offered. Social conventions are at a minimum. You are not a friend of the family, and neither are you a stranger – you are a suspicious character, someone not to be trusted, although they always make out that is not the case. When I was on that TV programme it was so much easier to get into the flats. I was there before my competitors through the image projected on the small screen. I had been there before, I knew it, and they trusted me. I had already won before we’d started.

There will be plenty of time to tell you in future episodes or posts what happened next: how we found the pieces, how we conducted the negotiations, about the difficult path from anonymity to attribution, the envy of other colleagues, the scams, and the lies that form the driving force of the human comedy that is hunting works of art in modern times.

macaparana-barcelona or ethereal sensuality

macaparana-barcelona or ethereal sensuality

In 1957 Jorge Oteiza won first prize for sculpture in the 4th São Paulo Biennale, an award which he shared with the Englishman Ben Nicholson in the painting category. Looking back at it now it doesn’t seem strange that the two artists won the best prize in this prestigious biennale, because their delicate and austere geometry was already evident in those countries both in terms of architecture and art, in the face of the American abstract expressionism and European informalism that was breaking down barriers internationally.

It was precisely there and at that moment that the Brazilian Neo-concrete movement, founded by the poet and art critic Ferreira Gullar was consolidated, together with Hélio Oticica, whose work featured in a retrospective in the Tàpies Foundation in 1992. Alongside him were Lygia Pape, Amilcar de Castro and Lygia Clark, who also featured in a retrospective in the Tàpies Foundation in 1997. Other members of the neocroncrete movement were Willys de Castro and Hércules Barsotti.

Macaparana, Verano en Barcelona, February 2017.

The geometry of the Brazilian movement is the legacy of De Stijl, with Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, and the later movements of the groups Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création, founded in Paris at the beginning of the thirties, or the experiences of some of the members of the Bauhaus movement such as Josep and Anni Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and its continuation with figures such as the architect and sculptor Max Bill. But if the geometric non-figuration was often immersed in increasingly theoretical ideas, the neo-concretism offered a more intuitive and sensual interpretation.

Macaparana, Suite para Sophie Taeuber-Arp, n. 5, October 2013.

In 1972 José de Souza Oliveira Filho, better known as Macaparana –the village where he was born in 1952– moved to Rio de Janeiro and met Ferreira Gullar, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape and Amilcar de Castro. Later, having moved to São Paulo in 1983, he met Willys de Castro, who would become a lifelong friend. His closeness to Castro led him to leave behind his surrealist beginnings to place himself in neoconcretism. Ever since then, Macaparana has maintained the spirit of this movement and its antecedents, and also the geometric abstraction of Malevich and of the Russian constructivists from the first avant-garde period, with constant references and homages to them from a very personal viewpoint and an exquisite workmanship.

Macaparana, Suite para Sophie Taeuber-Arp, n. 1, October 2013.

For the first time in Catalonia, Galeria A/34 is showing the work of this Brazilian artist (who regularly exhibits in the Galerie Denise René, in Paris). Macaparana is one of the most important artists in the world to make geometric art and this exhibition in Barcelona, in the perfect space in Carrer Aribau, also includes a series dedicated to Sophie Taeuber-Arp, whose work Macaparana describes as “intelligent, elegant, sophisticated and, at the same time, simple, able to capture play and humour, but with a great formal freedom” And these are the traits that also can be applied to his own production, which is highly subtle, mainly made with cardboard, paper and cards, perforated or  embossed, sometimes with collage, with touches of colour, normally primary to fit in with the neoplastics, and a radical persistence of black and white. A quiet work, almost ethereal, but always intimate and serene.

macaparana–barcelona exhibition can be visited at Galeria A/34 until 26 November 2018.

Uncertainty, flickering… and a Dramamine to boot

Uncertainty, flickering… and a Dramamine to boot

Dalí grumbled in front of a work by Alexander Calder: “if there is one thing you can ask of a sculpture, it is that it shouldn’t move”. On the other hand, he was a great lover of op art and all kinds of optical effects that produced flickers in the eye of the viewer.

I can’t help thinking about Dalí, art in movement and tortured eyeballs as I float through the rooms of the main floor of La Pedrera: an opera aperta avant la lettre which houses the exhibition Open Works. Art in Movement, 1955-1975.

We are received by a projection of Anémic Cinéma (1925) by Marcel Duchamp, a series of discs that are more hypnotic than optical and signed off under the pseudonym of Rrose Sélavy. And just a few metres later, a sculpture by Calder, Typographie (1972) is a warning –like a signalman– of the jolts that are about to be experienced by our most precious sense: sight.

General view of the exhibition.

Under one of the most curvaceous ceilings in the history of art, he curators of the show, Jordi Ballart and Marianna Gelussi have brought together the work of thirty-seven artists who took part in an International revolution that burst forth during the 1950s and 1960s in Europe. According to the press release “the works revolve around the concept of opening, of moviment and of space, distancing themselves from the traditional categories of painting and sculpture and the conventional object, through experimentation and research into new materials and media, and the opening up of the artistic space”. I transcribe this literally because I could not say it any better myself.

This is an exhibition that brings together sister works of their time, evidently, but also Works that are urgent and vertiginous: the acceleration of the historical tempo, and the evaporation of dogmas and truths, the invasion of technology in the most private aspects of daily life, a reaction to the romantic component of abstract expressionism and the deification of the artistic experience. And despite the fact that all of this frenzy happened over half a century ago, most of the pieces have aged with dignity (except Calder, of course).

Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2018.

The choice and classification of the works is arbitrary, but within the realms of possibility that is involved in setting up an exhibition. This is no “imaginary museum”. There is a budget and works with greater or lesser availability.

But at all times the viewer is threatened by the concept of the opera aperta first named by Umberto Eco in 1962, a concept that is so open that it might be interpreted in more ways than there are combinations on the Rubik cube. Ars combinatoria with no place for metaphysics.

Marina Apollonio, Spazio ad attivazione cinetica, 1966-2018.

Our peripheral view is activated before works by Vasarely, Le Parc, Dadamaino and Marina Apollonio; we are reminded of old friends from the Empordà, such as Jean Tinguely and François Morellet; local heroes such as Leandre Cristòfol and Eusebi Sempere, we climb up and down the shaky staircases of Gianni Colombo, rediscover the conceptual beasts of the likes of Hans Haake, the magnetic juggling of Takis…and finally, we cross a maze of colour in the form of the Chromosaturation (1965-2018) by Carlos Cruz-Diez, an artist capable of turning the Pantone into Wonderland.

Opera aperta. Open work…if you think about it, this is a concept close to Schrödinger’s famous cat. Anything goes, as long as you don’t open the box.

Open Works. Art in Movement, 1955-1975 can be seen at La Pedrera until 27 January 2019.

Brushstrokes of the Opera

Brushstrokes of the Opera

The Liceu opens this new season with the last opera by Bellini, I Puritani, considered by many critics and musicologists to be his best work. This is an openly romantic work set in distant seventeenth century Scotland. Although the libretto mentions Plymouth Castle in south-east England, forget that harbour town and imagine a Scottish castle in the full throes of the English Civil War between Cromwell’s Roundheads and the King’s Cavaliers: the perfect setting for a beautiful love story with a happy ending.

For the staging of this opera it is not enough just to have a great production and a fantastic cast, you need an excellent tenor and an extraordinary soprano. The tenor’s famous High D-flat and the unsingable High F (both off the stave) have to be heard to be believed. There are very few tenors who achieve them without ending up in A&E!

Pretti Yende and the Choir of the Liceu. Photo: A. Bofill.

At the Liceu two exquisite casts alternate: the first headed by Javier Camarena, one of the most sought-after voices of our time, who sings almost without a break in the very best opera houses in the world. At his side is Pretty Yende, a South African soprano whose name is on everyone’s lips and who has made her place among the five best lyric colorata sopranos. Next to them are Celso Albelo and Maria José Moreno, two of the Liceu’s resident artists and much loved by the Barcelona audiences.

The production at the Gran Teatre del Liceu includes a change to the ending and sets the opera in the thick of the religious conflict in Belfast in 1974. We see how Elvira’s madness takes us back to the seventeenth century and then returns us to the twentieth. This is a very daring production of an opera which can have different readings.

An exhibition “From the Inside”: Des de dins

Whoever goes to see I Puritani can also enjoy the exhibition in the theatre’s Foyer Balcony. This time it is the artwork of the one of the people who work at the Liceu – Fernando Jiménez, also known as Sacris. Sacris (Barcelona, 1969) is in charge of the material and has spent 17 years in the wings of the Liceu.

Sacris, Effects of the imagination.

As he watches the rehearsals and performances from the darkness of the back stage, Sacris makes sketches which he later turns into “unfinished” works in oil.

This exhibition, entitled “Des de dins”, allows us to see Sacris’ colleagues, especially the members of the choir, hard at work in the middle of the productions. Many of the regulars of the Liceu will easily recognise recent productions such as Macbeth, Carmen and Rigoletto. Sacris invites us to discover life on the stage. Like Schubert’s 8th – the famous “unfinished” symphony – the inner scents that these oil paintings exude set us before scenes which are inaccessible to the public, whether they are seated in the stalls or the gods.

The Friends of the Liceu also welcome the new season

Since its foundation thirty years ago, the Friends of the Liceu organisation has always celebrated the beginning of the season. Each year it presents a publication with illustrations by great contemporary artists such as Josep Guinovart, Luis Gordillo and Carmen Calvo. This year the chosen illustrators are Brigitte Szenczi and Juan Antonio Mañas, an artistic duo who paint separately but always exhibit together.

Juan Antonio Mañas, Tosca II, 2018.

Their work is modern-day Baroque, recreated with precise realism and references to metaphysics and philosophy.

Each of the ten operas of the 2018-2019 season is illustrated with three images. In each of these oils on paper the essence of each title can be appreciated: Szenczi and Mañas have captured the magic that every composer wants to transmit with their music and offer it to us directly. Even if you don’t know the titles of the works that they have illustrated, you will be able to imagine the scene and the music. You won’t have to read the plot summary – just take a careful look at the images.

Brigitte Szenczi, Katia Kabanova I, 2018.

Of course, you don’t need to be a member of the Friends of the Liceu to enjoy these works. They are exhibited at the Sala Parés, just five minutes’ walk from the opera house until 11 November.

Art for After the Shipwreck

Art for After the Shipwreck

Beyond the convulsions, crises and catastrophes caused by humans, nature always opens up new paths. That is the message that the latest works of painter Vicenç Viaplana (Granollers, 1955), included in his first exhibition at the Galería Marc Domènech, seem to emit. The supposedly natural forms, whether they be the simple suggestion of leaves or flowers on the veilings of the paint, invade around twenty large works on paper in a play on the border between abstraction and figuration. Ambiguity is intrinsic in the work of Viaplana but in this large series of work on paper it is manifest and uninhibited.

Under the title The Solo Recording Sessions – which evokes the musical superimpositions in the studio recordings – the works­ that make up this great visual symphony with variations are the indirect result of the economic disaster of 2008. Literally. In a large-scale recycling operation, one day Viaplana came across a collection of 200 serigraphies which had been abandoned in his Studio, after the publishing house that had commissioned them went bankrupt before the last piece was printed.

Vicenç Viaplana, The Solo Recording Sessions 16.

The artist decided to reuse them by adding graphic work, photography and painting. So, the papers passed from oblivion at the back of the storage area to a new life of colour and transparencies.  Celebrating the concept of non-permanence, life is expressed freely on paper with the splendid greens of vegetation or cosmological blues. Random played a very positive part in the mix between the silkscreen backgrounds and the later interventions. Despite the fact that part of the original pieces can be seen in many of the works like, for example, the separating bands which show through or the grainy backgrounds, each of the old serigraphies has become transformed. They are the jetsam from the shipwreck that has become reborn in new luminous and translucid shapes and lines and in patches and splashes of paint on the paper.

Vicenç Viaplana, The Solo Recording Sessions 3.

Viaplana, who in his previous gallery exhibition (Tot és possible, Carles Taché 2013) had already assured that the works came from a strong feeling of unconformity and rebellion as a result of the deliberate evasion of clarity that we suffer, has exorcised his current malaise in this long project, which is made up of four chapters. This exhibition shows works from the first and the second. When it is completed, with photographs of the full 200 works, the artist intends to make a film to close the circle. A reinterpretation of the reinterpretation as a byword for hope.

The exhibition The Solo Recording Sessions can be seen at the Galería Marc Domènech until 23 November 2018.

“Vitriol” versus “Tàpies protector”

“Vitriol” versus “Tàpies protector”

French sociology in the nineteenth century established that the “events” (not the truths) are stubborn. So, although time passes again we stumble across a “fact” that seems to have taken place around 1974 between the moralist caricaturist painter Ferran Martí Teixidor (Sabadell, 1930), and – without prior notice – Antoni Tàpies, unarguably the master of ‘Art informel’ and ‘Matter painting’.

At the time mentioned above Martí Teixidor painted in the pre-Raphaelite symbolist style, under the inscription Glory to the acute sensitivity of Antònia Muro and her shat-on knickers and in caricature, a pseudo-portrait of a haloed Antoni Tàpies, dressed as Christ (or rather the “Virgin”, iconically) with the blue shawl wrapped round him (in the style of the Gothic virgin), which covered a red robe belted with a penitential cord. The cloak shrouds, warms, connects a series of stupified fools who, smiling and grateful, look admiringly at their protector.

Martí Teixidor, “Vitriol”, Glory to the acute sensitivity of Antònia Muro, c. 1974.

This is the iconicity of the painting. In the lower right part, glued to the canvas, there is a cutting from the newspaper “El Ciero” with illegible but visible text, under the general heading of Cruz y Raya. It is by Manuel Vela Jimémez, and the title of the printed text reads: Arte Pobre. A previous photograph of all this was found in the desk of the Rafael Santos Torroella, art critic for the “Noticiero Universal”. The same year, Tàpies published L’Art contra l’Estètica, (action against the rule; he had previously published La pràctica de l’art, where he also promoted action). All in all, it was an argument against figurative art, understood as an anachronistic and regressive expression of the bourgeoisie. The facts were a kind of summary which more or les showed Tàpies, already recognised and celebrated as a great Informalist painter who, in part, owed his international success to the need for an exterior liberal image of the Franco regime, propitiated by the curator Luís González Robles. M. Infiesta, the creator of the Museum of Realist Art (MEAM), in Barcelona, commenting on the art of Martí Teixidor, has recently affirmed this.

Up to here we have the facts. Now we will see the sense and meaning of all this. On the face of it, they affirm that society is not a clear, transparent, intercommunicated and flexible thing, but quite the opposite: obscure, compartmentalised, sclerotic, cheating and, above, all, immoral, lying outside every rule and principle that was not the sacrosanct principle of private property (up to now, untouchable worldwide).

Looking back, but still relevant today, what Martí Teixidor (who had received the Wagner Prize in 1955, awarded in the [reconstructed] city of Dresden) seems to be saying is that in the case of Tàpies as an Informalist, art had lost its justification in the moral consciousness, as seen in the work of Hogarth, Goya, and Daumier, who used drawing and painting to “represent the Passions, and through the Epidermis, evoke the interior Soul” (Mitchell, 1731), … “while I describe them you would paint their features: you would do ithem so like you saw thenm that I assure you you would not have to make a caricature; you shape them such that just looking at the face you can see the soul” (Swift, 1736), … “it is said that the best praise you can offer a painter is to say that his figures seem to be breathing; then it is even better praise to say they seem to be thinking” (Fielding, 1742). ith the obvious addition of the thesis on the physiognomy and representation of Lavater (1780). I offer all these contributions in an attempt to say that Martí Teixidor, through a painting of the academic (or not academic) concept of “otherness”, through (albeit invented and personal) stereotypes of the ways of another contemporary Catalan painter,  Ramon Calsina, and Riu Serra, or the abovementioned English, Aragonese or French, shows that art can be made, not for popular consumption like the  Dutch Teniers or the artistic Costumbrismo of Andalusia at the end of the nineteenth century, but as art that is snagged on the hook of comic  deformation and sarcastic cynicism and ridicule, without abandoning, however, the executive licence of surrealism (this could justify the part of the allusive border in one of Dalí’s painting where there is a figure with shat-on pants). The art that Martí Teixidor proposes is like a medicine for the soul – Tàpies also wanted it for the body, under the influence and acceptance of Orientalism. Martí criticises what he believes is the anaesthesia with which contemporary art has steered reality. (At the end of Francoism, Cirici even said that the art of Tàpies was equivalent to the figurative emblem of the annihilation of reality). It would seem that the only person to be let off was Francis Bacon.

It is strange how things turn full circle, however. If you want to interpret the criticism of Tàpies and his “coryphes”, now it seems that Martí Teixidor – who has also had his own dealers and buyers – in another criticism of the painter Manzoni and his “artistic shit”, blames the abstract artists (all forming everything that is negative for a healthy moral culture) for a counterculture driven by perverse and perverted instructors. Art would become a panacea either for salvation or death. The fact is when one wants to cure the body and the other wants to save the soul.

It seems to me as if the world has turned on its head: where the good are the bad and the false, depending on your perspective. Here, Costumbrismo is brushing up against moralism to become a satire of social behaviour.

Just thinking about who could be the seven “coryphes” that come under the umbrella of the Informalism of the Great Master, they could be the “seven” of the “Set” del Dau; if anyone sees any others, they could be René Metras, Lluís Maria Riera or anyone else close to them.

However, the aforementioned founder of the MEAC has said of the art of Martí Teixidor – and rightly in my opinion – that it has the morality and imagery that would is seen in the novel and the film “Lord of the Rings”.

For the moment this observation and reflection is an invitation to reconsider the role of art in the present day as a whole. In such a controversial society the “roles” of anything could be “those of a cartoon strip”.

The Real Cathedral of the Sea

The Real Cathedral of the Sea

Just like the people today who go down into the underground station, sure in the knowledge of finding an escalator and the imminent arrival of transport to another place, in the 14th century you would go up the steps and into the church of Santa Maria del Mar.

This is the most beautiful church in Barcelona – as enormous, arrogant and splendid as a cathedral, made from host of signs and symbols that whisper to the four corners; made according to precise mathematical formulae, calculations as solid as the stones that holds it up next to the sea, firmly anchoring it in the sand. The Cathedral of the Sea.

Interior of the central nave of Santa Maria del Mar. Photo: Josep Renalies CC BY-SA 3.0

The temple is a true marvel, as wide as a mouth open in admiration. Above all it is functional, designed to hold large congregations, in the same way a well is designed to hold water or a shipyard to build the tall ships and galleys that will set sail on the high seas. Or, even better, we should see this maritime church as a bridge to cross, a sumptuous passage which rises in the middle of the city like a miracle; a station between heaven and earth, between time passing and the eternity that remains. Santa Maria del Mar is also like a sea port, even though Barcelona, at that time, had been left without a port and managed to continue its feverish trading activity thanks to the numerous boatmen loading and unloading the goods from the beach to the ships in their small craft.  The port of Barcelona is no longer there but it is as if it were. Everything was provisional in the medieval city and the temple was like a port offering protection from the inclemency of the weather, the privileged spot from which to set out on the ascendant journey of religion, in accordance with the new architectural style that we now call Gothic. Perhaps that explains why the master builder was Berenguer de Montagut – a famous civil engineer and an authority on the bridges and the rec comtal irrigation channel of Barcelona; a rationalist builder specialising in utilitarian works such as the new cathedral of Manresa or the cloisters of the cathedral at Vic. During the Middle Ages the church of Santa Maria del Mar projected by Montagut was a port in the same way as the port was Barcelona and Barcelona was Santa Maria del Mar.

Façade of Santa Maria del Mar. Photo: PMR Maeyaert CC BY-SA 3.0 ES

There is no other church in Barcelona like it – not even Gaudí’s interminable Sagrada Familia which you cannot tell whether is being built or taken down.  Santa Maria del Mar was a cathedral before cathedrals existed and was erected in just 55 years from 1329 to 1384, in the Ribera neighbourhood at Vilanova del Mar, outside the city wall. It managed to bring together the harmony of a host of different intentions, efforts and desires of the capital city of Catalonia, as an ornament of the rich – the owners of the palaces in the Carrer Montcada and the people of the grand houses in Carrer Mercaders, but above all of the little people rushing around the spider’s web of ordinary, narrow streets; the people meeting in the Born neighbourhood, in the squares of the Encants and the Llotja, or in the porches. These were the women and men who were baptised, married and buried at Santa Maria del Mar. They were the women and men who filled the church during mass, mainly people of the sea: sailors, fishermen, dragnetters, skippers, port labourers, artisans of fish conserves, plus numerous new and second-generation immigrants, mainly from rural Catalonia.  Add to these the workers from the warehouses, the corn exchange, stables, workshops, bakers, butchers, fishmongers, and the money changers. And the people who stored the wheat delivered by sea to the New Porch, transported ropes and fishing lines, nets, baskets, boxes, basins and pitchers. All around was the incessant movement of grain, wine, oil, milk, cheese, vegetables, fruit, fish and livestock. Locks, arms, saffron, coral, alum, wax, copper and slaves. Also luxuries from afar such as silk, pepper, cinnamon, lacquer and incense. And even trafficking of illicit coses vedades hotly pursued by the king’s bailiffs. It was from the wealth and the labour of every part of the city that moved that the supports which would hold up Santa Maria del Mar began to rise, precisely towards heaven.

If we are to believe the words of Francesc Eiximenis, the sea offers wealth, but also happiness, prudence, knowledge and diversity, the main urban qualities that find shelter in the church of the people of the sea.

Receipt for 80 sous for work carried out by one of the guild members during the construction of Santa Maria del Mar, dated 6 October 1347. Original manuscript currently under auction at Soler y Llach, Barcelona.

In the 14th century you entered Santa Maria del Mar to receive all of those things. The calm of the gateway to heaven, the uncertain journey of the soul, the possibility of another mysterious dimension, all dearly wished for. You could leave behind the bustle of daily life and, once inside, stand upright to feel taller and closer to the protection of the All-powerful, the divine comfort, which is the only thing that is sure and infinite.

Like a broad horizon, like a seascape unfolding suddenly in front of longing eyes, spacious and diaphanous, the spectacular interior of Santa Maria del Mar spreads wide open. This colossal church whose three exceptionally high naves seem like one because of an optical illusion, with its open chapels between the buttresses that run its full length, is the perfect structure of the master de Montagut – an unexpected yet brilliant solution which pleases both those architects in favour of a single nave and those who favour three. The music of the mass led the medieval congregation to raise their fearful eyes in search of some intercession by Our Lady Maria. On one of the keystones of the vault of the central nave and also on the glass of the great rose window she appears crowned by God himself, in such magnificent colours and with an invisible majesty that is only revealed at that particular spot. The beauty is audible. Monodies of Gregorian chant take a hold on the faithful like a spell, but not as much as the polyphony of Magister Perotinus, Pérotin. It is the most powerful music of all, and takes greatest advantage of the giant echo chamber that Santa Maria del Mar also is. The whole place is built so that the precious stones – probably painted orange with dark green contrast – can also sing, so that they can break out and proclaim who really is the way, the truth and the life, and so that the experience of God is even more resounding through proportion and balance, not only rising up to heaven but spreading throughout the whole temple like a great tide, like a powerful wave of purifying water.

Santa Maria del Mar exalts the Mother of God of the waters in the same way that other temples exalt the Mother of God of the earth – Mother Earth. The female divinity of water in past pagan beliefs, conveniently Christianised and invigorated, offers Barcelona a religion that is more friendly and cordial, more maternal, more urban and complex, more charitable and more individual, like that understood by Saint Bernat de Claravall, also known as the Knight of Maria, the founder of the Cistercian order of monks, Doctor Mellifluous, or he with the honeyed voice. This was the great predecessor and promoter of primitive Gothic art. Since he died in 1153, he obviously could not have seen the Cathedral of the Sea, but the temple nevertheless respires his conceptual and eminently practical spirit, his love of functionalism, architectural rationalism and the simplicity of its construction. Perhaps because of his markedly rationalist character he was greatly admired by Le Corbusier. Santa Maria del Mar is an arrogant work in its asceticism and plainness, in its categorical paucity, with the enormous space given over to worship and, compared with the other great Christian churches, built on a relative shoestring. The great space of three naves which appear to be one is only held up by eight octagonal pillars with a radius of one metre sixty, making them slim but strong as they rise 26 metres off the ground … just eight of them set 15 metres apart as if by art of magic. With the ritual ambulatory and no crossing, the interior structure of the temple is a miracle of construction technique, privileging lightness and efficiency to give central importance to the rotundity of the naked space, to the immensity of the volume, evoking the greatness of creation. It is able to move you with its pure beauty, and with the simple harmony it emanates, thanks to a balance of proportions which are both symbolic and practical.

Tranverse section of a cathedral in the “Ad Quadratum” style. Author: José-Manuel Benito. Public document.

In fact, the proportions are those that appear in ancient architecture known as Ad Quadratum, a building method that takes the geometry of the square as the basic unit and fundamental module for establishing the particular logic, needs and ideology that, as we will see, underlines even more the importance of Santa Maria del Mar as one of the most outstanding examples of European medieval art. The square established the proportions of the temple both as a whole and in terms of its individual parts. Berenguer de Montagut decided that the height of the Cathedral of the Sea should be exactly 33 metres from the base of the nave to the keystone of the vault, and the lateral naves and chapels should also be the same height. So the entire plan of Santa Maria del Mar is set out as an enormous imaginary square measuring 33 by 33 metres, or, what amount to the same thing, one which fits into a perfect circumference with a diameter of 33√2. It is a deliberate representation of the cosmos. But if you take into account that the basis for the geometrical calculations of the master builder was a 33-centimetre foot, which was the normal size here in the 13th century, you can see that through the eyes of the Middle Ages, Santa Maria del Mar is an surprising  temple of a hundred feet, identical in its incredible design to the hekadompedon of the Greek temples. Even though the word which best represents society at the time the Cathedral of the Sea was built is ‘risk’, alongside the risk of innovation, this temple has shown the survival over the years that is typical of the Greek and Roman tradition. Ad Quadratum architecture, which combines the circle and the square, shows that medieval Barcelona has been preserved, probably by inertia, by simple customs but also by design, by professionalism, the general architectural lines as understood by Vitruvius, the sense of harmony, regularity and proportion. And, of course, by the human dimension – the relationship of the measurements of the buildings to the model of the human body and its parts. From this perspective, the truth is that there is no esoteric or magic significance in the numbers involved in Santa Maria del Mar. There are no scatalogical or mysterious messages. The number 10 is a perfect number simply because we have 10 fingers on the hands which do the work, the fingers that build the buildings. The Cathedral of the Sea is a grid of square modules, set out in lines of 10 by 10, linking it to Roman architecture. This is an architecture that will remain, it will continue in the baggage of knowledge of the masters of medieval works, completely stripped of the symbolism that Vitruvius gave them. Southern Gothic architecture, the architecture of Santa Maria del Mar, so unlike that of northern Europe, has walls that do not lose consistency or focus all the attention on the windows and the exterior light; one that prefers buttresses to flying buttresses, and does not undervalue the horizontality of its buildings in favour of an austere verticality. It is, in fact, an architecture which continues to be convinced by the by the efficiency of the Roman tradition. It was in this permanent foundering that medieval society navigated its way between the risk of maintaining the inertia of tradition and the risk of change and innovation.

Interior of Santa Maria del Mar, looking towards the pews and the rose window. Photo: Lohen11 CC BY-SA 3.0

Looking at the extreme height of the towers, true skyscrapers of their time, you can see the artistic representation of the audacity of urban dynamism in 14th century Barcelona. Risk is undoubtedly a word that has come from the sea, from maritime expeditions, unorthodox merchants’ voyages in search of new routes, new fortunes, new ideas. Scholars think that the word could come from the Arabic and Persian; it is the risk of the most unsettled trading economy, the nerve of a society that refuses to give in, that wants to grow thanks to competition in the world of business, that will not resign itself to death when the war comes, or when the rose window is destroyed by earthquake, or even when the scourge of the most terrible tragedy that medieval society had to bear appears – the Black Death. The risk of building and maintaining Santa Maria del Mar was the same as the risk of living, the same as the terrifying risk of getting caught by the most deadly epidemic. From the fear of the risk of dying, on the western side of the church, there is a sign, one of the few anthropomorphic decorations in the whole building. On one of the marble capitels you can still see today the macabre words Encontre dels tres vius i dels tres morts – meeting of three live and three dead men – a literary reminder of the teachings on the fleetingness of life and the vanity of worldly glory. It reminds the visitors, the passers by, that they need to prepare for death. Of course, as well as being a sacred place for a religious burial, Santa Maria del Mar is also a monument, or what amounts to the same thing, a memory, a lesson and a comfort. A hope. Could it be that the Cathedral of the Sea, with all its arrogant presence, does not show the victory of the spirit over the material?

The Photographic Revolution of the “Fifth Generation”

The Photographic Revolution of the “Fifth Generation”

Valentín Roma has been the director of La Virreina Centre de la Imatge since October 2016. Since then, the centre has ceased to be a space dedicated mainly to photography. His proposal to interpret the “image” from a broader point of view was criticised in the media and caused a certain malaise among photographers who saw his decision as a threat to one of the few exhibition spaces in the city in favour of other cultural sectors. “Creative” photography in Catalonia (1973-1982) must have pacified those featuring in the exhibition and who are actually more or less the same cultural activists that have been photographic militants for over forty years.

The exhibition includes more than five hundred photographs by Manel Armengol, Lluís Bover, Lluís Casals, Toni Catany, Enric de Santos, Manel Esclusa, Maria Espeus, Jordi Esteva, Joan Fontcuberta, Pere Formiguera, Ferran Freixa, Jordi Garcia, Juan José Gómez Molina, Jordi Guillumet, Tony Keeler, Manolo Laguillo, Bigas Luna, Eduard Olivella, Marta Povo, Pep Rigol, Humberto Rivas, Miquel Sala, America Sánchez, Jordi Sarrà, Marta Sentís, Manuel Serra and Manel Úbeda accompanied by more than three hundred documents selected by Cristina Zelich and Pep Rigol, who are, respectively, the curator and collaborator of the exhibition. This show places us in the ten-year period of the so-called “creative” Catalan photography, which ran from the opening of the Spectrum gallery – the first in Spain to specialise in photography – which opened in 1973 to the first Primavera Fotogràfica in 1982.

Manel Esclusa, Els ulls aturats, 1978. From the series “Els ulls aturats”

This exhibition in the Virreina has as its reference the show entitled Centre Internacional de Fotografia de Barcelona (1978-1983) which took place at the MACBA in 2012 and was curated by Jorge Ribalta and Cristina Zelich. That exhibition highlighted the importance of the Centre Internacional de Fotografia de Barcelona (CIFB) and Spectrum gallery for the history of photographic culture in the 1970s and early 80s.

Pere Formiguera, La meva amiga com un vaixell blanc, 1975. Photographic folder tribute to Salvat-Papasseit.

The exhibition La fotografia “creativa” a Catalunya (1973-1982) is structured chronologically and presented in different fields. At the beginning, as one of the main strands is the magazine Nueva Lente, published in Madrid from 1971, and how its influence on the photographers of the time contributed to a new photographic discourse. Spectrum gallery – a pioneering space in Barcelona, opened in 1973 by Albert Guspi, the Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia at the Joan Miró Foundation in 1980 and the first Primavera Fotogràfica a Barcelona in the spring of 1982 also form part of the introduction to the exhibition.
Throughout the visit there are other areas distributed in sixteen rooms. The biggest is the “Galleries and spaces dedicated to photography” which occupies eight of the rooms and especially highlights Spectrum, Aixelà, Fotomania, Forvm and educational centres such as the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya (IEFC) founded by Miquel Galmes in 1972 and the Centre Internacional de la Fotografia de Barcelona (CIFB) directed by Albert Guspi from 1978 to 1983. Three other rooms are dedicated to “Artistic spaces and photography” and include the Joan Miró Foundation, Eude gallery and the Sala Vinçon, among others. And finally, the rest of the rooms, showing “Les Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia de 1980 i el Col·lectiu Català de Fotografia”, “La Primavera Fotogràfica de 1982”, and “La difusió de la fotografia creativa catalana”.
Under the clear influence of the events of May 1968 in France, a few years later, toward the end of the Spanish dictatorship, a new generation of photographers emerged reclaiming photography as an art in its own right and demanding its inclusion in museums and public art centres, as well as in the educational curriculum, private galleries, reviews and the publishing circuit.

At that time, Catalan photographers were looking to Europe and, in particular, to France. Our neighbour was experiencing everything that had to do with world culture. For example Les Rencontres internationales de la photographie in Arles, a festival established in 1970 by the photographer Lucien Clergue, writer Michel Tournier and historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette and held every summer in that beautiful Provençal town. The proximity to France meant that many of the Catalan photographers were able to attend the event, giving them contacts and exchanges with galleries and specialist foreign magazines. The young artists could also meet some of the international photographers such as Robert Doisneau, André Kertész, Franco Fontana, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Hockney and Lucien Clergue, himself.

Catalogue of the exhibition “Creative” photography in Catalonia (1973-1982)

The magazine Nueva Lente opposed pictorialism and the neorealist photography which was current in photographic circles, in a move to leave aside the more documentary angle of photography to open doors to experimentation and creative freedom. The magazine launched a special edition in August 1974 under the title “Fifth Generation”. The idea was to show the work of the young photographers who had been born at the beginning of the 1950s, and that gave rise to the Fifth Generation who wanted to change everything and internationalise their photographic work.
Meanwhile in France Beaumont Newhall, a photographic historian wrote in his book 50 ans d’historie de la photographie, number 3 of the collection “Les Cahiers de la photographie” published in Paris in 1981: “It gives me great satisfaction to see that in these last few years there has been unprecedented interest in the history of photography as an art form. After years of indifference the museums are actively bringing together in the present photographic collections, publishers are launching one special edition after another on photographers who until now have been virtually unknown, the art market is offering artistic photographs for sale and there are more exhibitions than we have ever seen”. Here, up until the nineties the panorama for photography was grim. Joan Fontcuberta commented on it in the Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia, in the catalogue for the exhibition La fotografia “creativa” a Catalunya (1973-1982) saying: “The Congress of Catalan Culture lamentably overlooked photography, neglecting its role as a cultural fact, as the shaper of the conscience and sensitivity of man (sic) in our time”.

At that time the public institutions paid no attention to photography, whether from a technical, artistic or socio-historical perspective. There were a few isolated initiatives which tried to structure and organise the incipient history of photography, but that was all. Significant examples are the works published by Josep Maria Casademont, “La fotografia”, in L’Art Català Contemporani d’Edicions Proa (1972) and “Per a una història de la fotografia a Catalunya”, in issue 27 of Qüestions d’art: la revista catalana d’art actual editat per Galeria AS (1973). Josep Maria Casademont, the editor of magazines Imagen y Sonido and Eikonos, ran the Sala Aixelà from 1958 to 1974. This exhibition space, which set itself apart from amateur photography groups, was situated in the shopping centre of the same name close to Plaça Catalunya and became one of the principle means of diffusing photographic production in the 1960s. Although it was not linked to the new photographic movement it did exhibit and promote the work of some of the members of the Fifth Generation.

At the beginning of the 1980s two major works were published which would become a reference for all later studies and publications on photography. The first is the Historia de la Fotografía by Marie Loup Sougez published in 1981, where chapter 9 is dedicated entirely to Spanish photography. The second is the La Historia de la Fotografía en España desde sus orígenes hasta 1900 by American historian Lee Fontanella and published in Spanish by El Viso in 1982.

Josep Rigol, Camí de Sitges, 1978.

During the Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia there was strong criticism of the cultural policies of the country and the universities compared with the help and resources afforded to Fontanella for her research into nineteenth century photographic history in Spain. There was even talk of cultural colonialism.

As the exhibition in the Virreina showed, photography in Catalonia had a before and an after the Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia conference held at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona in 1980.

The talks given during the conference were prepared by four teams of people from different areas of photography (photographers, gallery owners, teachers, critics, etc.). The texts were published in a dossier of the same name the following year and their content highlighted the precarious situation of photography in Catalonia and provided a warning to the institutions of the need for an action policy for the recovery, conservation, diffusion and study of the photographic heritage. In one of the talks there was a proposal to create a photography museum in Catalonia which would coordinate a network of photographic archives around the country. In the closing speech, the authorities underlined the salvation of the photographic heritage in announcing the creation of the National archive of Catalonia, which would manage the Photographic Archive.

We then had to wait until 1995 for the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) included photography as part of the cultural heritage of Catalonia. That year a Department of Photography was set up in the Museum with the aim of bringing together a collection that was representative of the history of photography in Catalonia. It would also be another 35 years after the Jornades before the Department of Culture of the Government of Catalonia, the Generalitat, presented the National Plan for Photography in December 2014. The plan established instruments for the protection, preservation and description of Catalan photographic heritage. The plan, which is currently operating, forecasts the creation of a National Photography Centre which will be the space for exhibition and conservation of the National Photography Collection and will depend on the MNAC.

The collective work in the process of artistic legitimation and institutional recognition of photography culminated in 1982 with the Primavera Fotogràfica a Barcelona.

Eduard Olivella, From the series “L’home i l’obra”

This photography festival was sponsored by the Generalitat and included 35 exhibitions and a number of related activities. The event aimed to recover the photographic memory and to that end included an anthological exhibition of photographs by Pereferrer, Tomàs Monserrat, Pla Janini, Zerkowitz and Merletti, curated by Pep Rigol and Cristina Zelich. In second festival, which was held in 1984, it was recognised as the Primavera Fotogràfica de Catalunya biennale, and after many successful years it came to an unexpected end in 2004.

In La fotografia “creativa” a Catalunya (1973-1982) I would point out that the photographs by “artists” are treated, paradoxically, as documents. In other words, the historiographic weight is very evident in all the photographs and I think that two visits, or different readings, are necessary to fully appreciated this splendid exhibition.

Perhaps the exhibition does not give enough importance to the centres for learning photography, since these have been a huge platform for the diffusion of the new photography, and at the same time they provided economic support for the young photographers that taught in them. Many of them would continue to teach throughout their professional lives, sometimes as a complementary job, but one which permitted and still permits them to continue as photographic artists. The centres of reference are the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya (1972), the Centre Internacional de la Fotografia de Barcelona (1978-1983), IDEP Escola superior d’Imatge i Disseny (1981) and the GrisArt Escola Internacional de Fotografia (1985).

Despite the enormous push the Fifth Generation gave photography many of their initial objectives have not been achieved. You only have to see the tiny numbers of people working with images in the public centres that hold and manage the documents. Subsequent generations of photographers have not taken up the baton and it has not been easy for them either since the “Fifth” acted as a sort of generational lid, as has happened in other fields. The proof is that the photographers of the 1970s continue in the front line when it comes to showing us their own history.

La fotografia “creativa” a Catalunya (1973-1982) has been extended until 14 October 2018. It is accompanied by a catalogue which exhaustively documents the whole period. The publication was presented at the Virreina on 19 September.

The Case of Saul Leiter

The Case of Saul Leiter

I came across the work of Saul Leiter (Pittsburgh, 1923-Nova York, 2013) in a bookshop in Berlin in 2012. So, rather late as is often the case with so many lovers of photography who knew little or nothing of this incredible photographer until years or even months before his death. In my case it was thanks to three postcards and a book which I had bought, although the book which brought Leiter back from a long period of anonymity and launched him onto the international stage was a different one, now out of print: Early Color, published by Steidl in 2006.

On the postcard – seen in the photo – entitled Taxi, New York, 1957 you could only see a hand, two half-silhouettes travelling in a yellow and red New York taxi and a blurred area towards the bottom of the shot, seemingly insignificant, but which anyone who knows anything about abstract painting would describe as a field of shadow and colour, with photographic textures. What is expressed in that empty section is, for me, much more than that, maybe because reality also includes anodyne or apparently unimportant zones which can also be used to frame image and highlight more intense appearances, just like what happens with memory. So, this image seemed in a kind of revealing and realistically photographic way to be like life itself –and the memory of life- where places offer incomplete, neutral or fleeting elements at the same time as elements, figures or fragments that are memorable.

Saul Leiter, Taxi, New York, 1957. ©Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Gallery Fifty One

Images of photographic events

Taxi, New York, 1957 was a realist image, but it was also a metarealist and somewhat abstract image. It was also a pretty pictorial image, but one which was radically photographic. In fact, like most of Leiter’s work, it managed to partially evoke and express the photographic act, its production –with intentional distortions – while producing the image of that act in itself. That kind of synthesis of the representation and reflection on the very means of expression seems to me basic in different art forms, and especially in photography and cinema. It is a line of work that I have personally explored in my own photographic and cinematographic work from 1977 until now, and it can be seen in the experimental cinema of Michael Snow and in the work of contemporary photographers such Manel Esclusa, Manuel Serra, Mariano Zuzunaga , Joan Fontcuberta, Alejandro Marote, Jordi Guillumet and Mònica Roselló, to name but a few leading artists on the Catalan and Spanish scene.

Saul Leiter, Through Boards, c. 1957. ©Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Gallery Fifty One

The other postcards and, in particular, many of Leiter’s photographs published in the Photofile book published by Thames & Hudson confirmed to me that this unknown author was an exceptional photographer and a pioneer in one aspect especially: the conscious and perfectly judged use of colour as an element of expression. Photographic colour, with its special texture, is different and no less suggestive than the colour in painting.

Photographs such as Green Light, c. 1955, Through Boards, c. 1957, Canopy, c. 1958 and Harlem, 1960 make me think that sometimes photography is capable of achieving and surpassing the greatest successes of other arts considered more prestigious. I would love to know what the pioneers of modern collage (Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters) would have thought if they had known and taken notice of this kind of “ready-made collages” that Leiter was able to achieve in his photographs. On the other hand, some of his images anticipated the arrival of American pop art. The difference is that Warhol was in the art market from the beginning and Leiter was not.

A long period of oblivion and a late revival
Two incredible presentations of Leiter’s work have coincided this year in Barcelona: the exhibition Saul Leiter. In Search of Beauty, in Foto Colectania from 21 October 2018, and the publication of the book All about Saul Leiter by RM. Both of them offer the opportunity for many reflections and in this text, I will outline a few of them.

First is the question of the incredibly long period during which he was forgotten – around 4 decades – and his late revival. The main agent responsible for that revival is Margit Erb who had helped the chaotic photographer to organise his extensive work and found him an excellent editor: Steidl. Another of his rescuers is Roger Szmulewicz, the curator of the Foto Colectania exhibition. It is true that Leiter always gave priority to his creation and neglected the promotion of his work.

Saul Leiter, Red Umbrella, c. 1955. ©Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Gallery Fifty One

However, we could say a lot about oblivion and revival in photography, but for the moment I will just mention that a true “History of Photography” is a work as yet unwritten. English- and French-speaking historians take note: a little humility is due when it comes to establishing a closed and egocentric canon! If Leiter was ignored for so many decades, and if that could happen to someone who was living in the world capital of art (New York from the mid- twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty-first) and someone who, in the 1950s and 60s, had exhibited at the MoMa and published in Harper’s Bazaar and in Life magazine, how many forgotten and undervalued brilliant photographers are there in countries where neither the market nor the institutions are adequate, like Catalonia, Finland or Peru, which scarcely make an appearance in their respective and influential history books.

B/W v colour

Between 1948 and the mid-1960s Leiter “made slides” (in colour) – just like the Kodachrome slides being produced by thousands of amateur photographers. In the 1960s it was considered that photographic art had to be in black and white, and only in black and white. This prejudice which was enforced by the powers that be stated confirmed that this was the case and that photographs in colour were for postcards and family albums. The sort that Paul Simon sang about.

Personally, I think that colour could not have been a fully manipulable expressive element until the advent of digital photography. However, I do agree with Leiter in that the possibilities of photographic colour were and are magnificent. I even think that it could be more difficult – and therefore a more interesting challenge – to take good photos in colour than in black and white. The big mistake for many photographers is that they were not able to achieve the level of their work in black and white when they used colour. They used the same expressive consciousness as they had in their previous work.

Saul Leiter, Scarf, c. 1948. ©Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Gallery Fifty One

Leiter’s black and white photographs sometimes look like those from the “street photography” genre – a specifically photographic genre – which best represented his photographs in colour. And at different times they seem to go beyond other genres: portrait, female nude, fashion photography. But most of his best and more personal works are in colour, since it is only colour that allows him to achieve the best possible synthesis of pictorial composition and photographic expression.

Saul Leiter, Harlem, 1960. ©Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Gallery Fifty One

Saul Leiter’s colour photography makes me think of a statement by Danish film director Carl Th. Dreyer, who having filmed all his work in black and white said in an interview that he had no doubt that if one day he could make a film in colour, it would be he and not chance that chose and applied the colours. Leiter was possibly the first photographer to have a full awareness and understanding of the breadth and depth of expressive possibilities of colour photography and to know how to use them. He chose his colours like a painter or like a composer choosing his notes. In fact, I believe that photography and music have a profound but little studied relationship.

Photographic composition v pictorial photography

I think the photography of Saul Leiter – who was also a painter and a friend of the expressionist and abstract painters – represents a kind of photographic ideal that is free of the two main vices of this means of expression and communication. It does not limit itself merely to an objective photographic document (like a robot) but neither does it fall into the pretentious and self-conscious imitation of other arts considered to be more noble or admirable, such as painting. The mistake of pictorialist photography was to limit itself to imitating painting using superficial aesthetic means. First impression and later other styles and means including those of conceptual art. Leiter, on the other hand, managed to compose and produce images that were as good as the best paintings but expressed using specifically photographic means: focus, out of focus, depth of field, colour density, greater or lesser exposure, grainy film, etc.

Mystery around the corner (or the image as a fragment)
Saul Leiter made the largest and the best part of his work without having to leave his adopted city New York. To take his street photographs he didn’t have to go much further than four blocks from his neighbourhood in East Village. There was the odd trip to Harlem. Leiter said, “I think that mysterious things happen in familiar places” and that “We don’t always need to run to the other end of the world”. His way of seeing things and his focus enabled him to find and feel the mystery in his own daily space, whether rounding the corner or in the reflection of a window, in images which reveal a certain distortion in the transparency and reminding us that the act of seeing takes place through the elements that filter our perception: the glass or the fabric of an awning in the same way as the eye and the eyelid, and the lens and aperture of a camera.

Saul Leiter, Red Curtain, 1956. ©Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Gallery Fifty One

He often managed to express this metarealist displacement towards an uncertain, suggestive or mysterious view through a fragmentation of the image, with sub-framings within the main frame or even by just showing half faces or silhouettes of people, making them as anonymous as they were memorable like the drawings of Guillem Cifré.

This fragmentary way of seeing and representing things can be seen as a spatial equivalent of those who use photography to capture a moment in time. The temporal equivalent of the fragments of places and figures that Leiter photographed would be the rear-lit image of a fleeting moment.

The significance and the sense of Leiter’s work, and above all that of his street photography from 1948 to 1960, which begin with and then transcend life as it is, can be considered a rare synthesis able to combine and fuse views of reality which are supposedly very different, but which are in fact complementary. His work is realist and abstract at the same time, expressionist and pop, metarealist and, finally, profoundly baroque in the sense that he reminds us that we can only know reality through signs and fragments. The same signs and fragments that Leiter was able to discover, capture and represent in his work in a radically photographic way.

The Jewel and the Siege

The Jewel and the Siege

In the final phase of the siege, walking through the old town of Sarajevo, I walked past a jeweller’s shop: Fahrudin Sofić. In the window I was taken by a pin with the fleur de lys – the historic symbol of Bosnia. I went in and asked how much it cost. The jeweller told me that it was not for sale, and that he had created it during the siege, working the silver and mounting the stones with artillery as the background.

What he said made me even more keen to own that piece that had been made in the throes of war. I used all my powers of seduction –and it worked! I took it away and ever since I have felt that owning that flower is, in a way, owning myself, owning the beauty and the uselessness of wars and jewels.

Jeroni Cànoves drawing made in July 1699, as part of his test to become a member of the Jewellers’ Guild of Barcelona.

This story is somewhat genetic. My great, great, great, great grandfather –Josep Vilarrúbia– was also a jeweller who also suffered the brutal sieges of the French and Spanish in Barcelona –in 1652, 1697 and 1705– during the whole of his life: as a simple apprentice and then the head of the Silversmiths Guild. Nothing, neither the massive assaults on the bastions of the city not the indiscriminate attacks on the city, were capable of stopping his workshop from functioning.

Pin with the fleur de lys created by jeweller Fahrudin Sofić during the siege of Sarajevo.

His son inherited his name, his trade and also the sieges. He suffered the final onslaught of 1714, probably fighting in the battalion of the Silversmiths Guild. Just like his father he had also suffered the sieges of 1697 and 1705, during the former as an apprentice in the family business.

What must it be like for somebody learning how to set precious stones while being bombarded by cannon fire?

Drawing by Josep Vilarrúbia made in July 1699, as part of his test to become a member of the Jewellers’ Guild of Barcelona.

Two years after the siege of 1697, Josep Vilarrúbia junior took the official exams to become a jeweller. He did so along with other young men, after the obligatory six-year period of training in the workshop and with several masters of the Guild as his examiners. They had to present a drawing of a jewel –the drawings remain conserved five centuries later– as well as the jewel itself. The candidates tended to present the drawings of the jewel surrounded by angels, flowers or saints. And that is what he did with his ring, just like his father before him and, for the next two centuries, his grandchildren and great grandchildren.

That day, the candidate who went just before him –Jeroni Cànoves– did not adorn his jewel (also a ring) with angels or flowers. He drew his wedding ring against a heavenly sky, hanging from a lace and floating over the scene of the siege that they had suffered two years before. The jewel presided over burning bastions, bombed rooftops and explosions killing many people.

Detail of the drawing by Jeroni Cànoves, 1699.

ENG: What is the meaning of the ring? The talisman of the siege? Or the most sublime of the bombs?

The Resurrection of Gustau Violet

The Resurrection of Gustau Violet

It cannot be said that Gustau Violet (Thuir 1873 – Perpignan 1952) was a popular artist in Catalonia. Neither can it be said that he was an unknown: in the bibliography on twentieth century Catalan art he almost always appears, and he is present is some museums.

But the man in the street would be none the wiser. Probably because he was from Roussillon and not the Empordà or the Garrotxa, for example. However, now there has finally been a strong revival of interest in Violet, and not only in Roussillon. This time in southern Catalonia too.

Gustau Violet, by Ramon Casas (1905), charcoal with patches of colour (MNAC)

Violet was a truly original artist and his work bore no resemblance to conventional art. He actually qualified as an architect in 1897 but is much better known for his work in different areas of the arts, mainly sculpture. He had his own style, which didn’t resemble that of the official sculptors such as fellow Roussillon’s Raimon Sudre, or the more modern artists such as Rodin or his friend Maillol. Violet carved out his own path, lined but not mimicking modernity. He broke with the tradition of the successful academic sculptors of northern Catalonia, who had become incorporated in the official movement of Paris, such as Alexandre Oliva and Gabriel Faraill.

Gustau Violet, Les tafaneres [The gossips] (c1905-1910), patinated terra cotta. Thuir Council.

For many years now in Prada, where Violet lived, Ramon Gual has been constantly promoting him. In the summer of 2014 he commissioned a solo exhibition of the artist in the spacious premises of the Pau Casals College – the headquarters of the Catalonia University Summer School. His latest initiative is the publication of an extensive catalogue (over 550 pages) of the works of Violet (Gustau Violet. Catàleg de les obres d’un artista català, singular i plural, testimoni del seu temps, Terra Nostra, Prada 2018), which was produced in collaboration with his wife Mònica Batlle and published in a bilingual edition in Catalan and French.

Gual is no academic – he is an activist. You only have to see how, at over eighty years old, he still plays football on a full-sized pitch. His monographs and other initiatives are basically the result of his great enthusiasm, in this case for Violet – an artist that has always motivated him to the limit.

In this highly illustrated volume there is a huge collection of works by the artist (sculpture, drawing, illustration, ceramics, ironwork, architecture, and more) as well as documentary and family photographs which bring him closer to the reader. These are not only small pieces but entire monuments, tombs and works applied in architecture. The book is the result of pure fieldwork and, as yet, there is no bibliography – something which will appear, according to the author, in a second volume. Violet was very prone to duplicating his work and making series without numbering them for exhibition. In the note for each piece Gual & Batlle mention the number of known works but they do not tend to give the particular locations.

Violet has also received attention at the universities, In her doctoral thesis, L’invention d’une Méditerranée: patrimoine, création et identité en Roussillon. Fin XVIIIe siècle – Entre-deux-guerres, by Marie-Hélène Solère-Sangla, presented at the University of Toulouse-Languedoc in September 2011 (and later published by Presses Universitaires, Perpignan, in 2017), Violet stands out in this context of increasing awareness of the collective cultural personality of North Catalonia, which has possibly never been analysed in such depth until now.

 

In fact, in the final chapter of the original thesis (which I have easy access to having been on the viva panel) just before the conclusions, Violet is the clear protagonist. For around thirty page the author draws from magazines such as the Revue catalane, La revue du Palais, La Veu del Canigó, el Bulletin de la Société Agricole Scientifique et Littéraire, La Tramontane, La Clavellina and the Bulletin catalan testimonies that help to sketch out the thoughts and activity of Violet. There is evidence of an exhibition of Fina Art in Béziers in 1901, the first time Violet exhibited his work in public and where he had the opportunity to see Joaquim Sunyer, and to forge links with the modern catalan art of southern Catalonia. Sangla also underlines the call that Violet made to the other artists of Roussillon in 1907 that art had to be “regional”, alongside other details that gave the artist a place in the unveiling of contemporary Catalan art, and more specifically that in Roussillon.

One of the most recent events to herald Violet as an artist is the anthological exhibition in Sitges this year L’escultor Gustau Violet. Art, pensament i territori, which will be open until 21 October in the Palau de Maricel, which is accompanied by a highly-illustrated, extensive new catalogue of 215 pages (also available in a bilingual Catalan-French edition) and several original texts analysing his character from different angles by Ignasi Domènech, Ester Barón (the two curators of the exhibition), August Bover and Eric Forcada.

The choice of the Palau de Maricel to host the exhibition could not be better since Violet already had work there and, as a friend of Miquel Utrillo, he should have been the sculptor of the medallions which were to be incorporated in the connecting bridge over the Carrer de Fonollar – a commission that did not see the light because the outbreak of the First World War meant that he had to enlist as the French subject that he was.

The exhibition also embraces the role of Violet as a man of letters, since aside all his other artistic specialities he was an active writer, especially remembered for his two-act play La font de l’Albera (1922), written with Josep-Sebastià Pons. The play should have been set to music by Déodat de Séverac but due to his early death it was finally scored by Enric Morera. This section of the exhibition has been curated by August Bover.

 

Unfortunately, among the Catalans on either side of the Albera Massif, political circumstances made a logical relationship difficult. In the field of the arts, however, Violet was one of the exceptions. He was in contact with Rusiñol, Utrillo and Casas, and was aware early on of the work that ceramicist Antoni Serra i Fiter was making in his studio in Poblenou. He also exhibited alongside other artists from Roussillon in the Sala Parés in Barcelona in 1905; he invited brothers Miquel and Llucià Oslé, also sculptors, to his studio in Prada in 1906 and worked with ceramicist Francesc Elias. He was also in contact with the Marco brothers who worked as ceramicists in Quart d’Onyar and the sculptor Borrell Nicolau visited his studio in Prada. He was also in contact with the Noucentista painter Joaquim Sunyer and assisted photographer Adolf Mas in his photographic projects in North Catalonia. He had a solo exhibition at Santiago Segura’s Faianç Català in Sabadell in 1914 and was good friends with the painter, art historian and caricaturist Feliu Elias. He would also form a great relationship with the exiled Pau Casals – an aspect of his life which I cover in my book Pau Casals col·leccionista d’art (2013), and which has hitherto remained unhighlighted. In short, the link between this great artist from Roussillon and southern Catalonia was constant.

The exhibition does not only show the work of Violet but also work by his contemporaries from Roussillon, such as Monfreid, Terrús, Bausil, Fayet, Auberge de Garcias, and, of course, Maillol, all members of a consciously anti-academic and at the same time anti-provincial group, although some of them still took advantage of the platform that Paris offered. Examples would be the younger artists such as Marcel Gili, and the abovementioned artists from southern Catalonia and others such as Casanovas, Manolo Hugué, Pere Jou o Miquel Paredes.

Violet was an artist in the fullest sense of the word, nurtured by Gauguin’s idea of seeking in primitivism (without falling into the rudimentary, however) the source of a new path for art. His friendship with Daniel de Monfreid, a close friend and executor of Gauguin, was clearly a positive influence in this aesthetic criterion. But the result of his work was a personal line in which he often seemed to align (without fitting precisely) in the Noucentisme of the artists of his generation in southern Catalonia, and some of those from the North such as Maillol who were rapidly achieving prominence. In the same say, towards the nineteen twenties his work became a personal interpretation of the Art Deco style.

Gustau Violet, Monument to Jules Lax (1925), at Coll Rigat in Saillagouse.

Violet always maintained a strong sense of Catalan belonging, demonstrated when he declared to Pau Casals in 1946 that they were compatriots and that the artificial border would never separate the two countries; that they shared the same roots, which, for those from Roussillon, was a great source of pride.

All of these efforts and contributions, quite different in themselves from Gual to Sangla and the exhibition in Sitges, have curiously taken place without much contact between them. It is probably the case that there are few of us and we do not know each other, but the positive outcome is that today we know much more about the outstanding artist that Gustau Violet was, and that from now we will be much more aware of him and his work.

Gala Dalí, Valls and a Madeleine from Kazan

Gala Dalí, Valls and a Madeleine from Kazan

This summer there were two apparently unconnected events: the exhibition: Gala Salvador Dalí. Una habitació pròpia a Púbol, a National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC), and the World Cup, in Russia.

Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, better known as “Gala”, was born in 1894 in the city of Kazan, capital of what is now the Russian Federal Republic of Tatarstan. And Kazan Arena was one of the main stadiums for the World Cup competition.

On 30 May 1970, Salvador Dalí visited the city of Valls, Capital of the county of Alt Camp. But things became complicated…the city council received the artist with a display of their famous group of human towers, the Colla Vella of the Xiquets de Valls. In a few minutes Dalí drew them a picture of an eagle, and in exchange, he walked off with the Eagle of Valls, the wooden figure that is always brought out for festive occasions.

A photograph by Josep Postius shows the lorry which had come from Valls arriving at its destination. On one side of the lorry is sign saying “The Eagle of Valls for Gala, the wife of Dalí. A gift from the city for the castle at Púbol”. On the far left of the photograph we can see Gala with her back to the camera –she didn’t like being photographed – and on the far right is Dalí, who was always ready for a photo opportunity.

The current Eagle of Valls. Photograph: Cuereta. Llicència Creative Commons 3.0.

Gala had asked her husband for a castle so that she could get away from the frenetic, noisy, crowded world of Dalí. In May 1970, just when they had finished the refurbishment work at Púbol, Gala was seventy-six years old. She wanted the peace that somebody of that age deserves, but she also wanted privacy; the kind of privacy that allows you to find yourself and recover some beloved memories.
So, why did Gala want a wooden eagle that was two metres tall? She never said. But a glance at the flag of Kazan provides a clue. Look at the figure on it. It is Zilant, an imaginary beast with the head of a dragon, the body of a bird, chicken feet, the neck and tail of a snake, the ears of a dog, red wings, feathers and dark grey scales. Zilant appears in the story of the origins of Kazan and has appeared on the coat of arms since the eighteenth century at least.
There is no other relation between the Eagle of Valls and Zilant of Kazan than their appearance, but the popular Catalan image must have been like a “madeleine moment” for Gala.
We will leave Salvador Dalí’s fascination for the human towers of the Xiquets de Valls for another time, and the two occasions that they appear in Dalinian homages or happenings.

The flag of Kazan. Author: AlexTref871. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

We will stay with the sad anecdote that brings the story full circle: the Eagle of Valls ended up in the Dalí Museum-Theatre in Figueres. It has a piece of the artist’s work on its breast. In January 2017 a Russian tourist leaned on the wing and it broke off…Let’s hope they weren’t from Kazan!

The exhibition Gala Salvador Dalí. Una habitació pròpia a Púbol, can be seen at the MNAC in Barcelona until 14 October.