If you wanted to set “The Da Vinci Code” in Catalonia, the main scenario would have to be the Víctor Balaguer Library and Museum in Vilanova i la Geltrú.
Imagine Vilanova in 1884. The railway line from Barcelona arrived just three years ago. The “Indianos” have returned with their considerable fortunes and invested in a lands known as “Little Habana”.
Jan Brueghel de Velours, The archdukes Isabel Clara Eugenia and Albert in the palace of Tervuren in Brussels, c. 1621. Deposit of the National Museum of El Prado.
One particularly special character was the politician, historian and Barcelona chronicler, romantic writer and notable freemason and member of the Spanish parliament for the constituency of Vilanova i la Geltrú. His name was Víctor Balaguer.
In gratitude for being able to represent the town over the years, beside the railway station he erected a true temple to knowledge. The Víctor Balaguer Library and Museum was constructed under master builder Jeroni Granell in the form of a neo-Greek and neo-Egyptian temple, full of details in the masonry. Balaguer donated 25,000 volumes from his personal library and around 400 works of art. To this modest collection he managed to achieve donations from his contacts, and having been a minister twice these included illustrious personalities such as Eduard Toda – the Catalan Indiana Jones. He also obtained a major collection from the Prado Museum.
A copyist in front of works from El Prado Museum.
Imagine, then, an imposing museum in Vilanova, years before Barcelona was occupying the empty palaces of the 1888 Exhibition, with the first collections to be housed in a building worthy of that name.
Today, at the Víctor Balaguer Library and Museum there is a magnificent collection of nineteenth-century Catalan art, paintings by great local artists such as Joaquim Mir and Enric Cristòfol Ricart, the great and the good of Catalan art from the first thirty years of the twentieth century in small format works (the “legacy of 56 which” is in itself worthy of a novel) and the remains of a contemporary cultural shipwreck: the collection of the Contemporary Art Museum founded as a public initiative in the Dome of the Coliseum Theatre in Barcelona.
El Greco was an artistic abomination around the year 1880.
There is also pre-Columbian, Filipino, Chines and Egyptian art (the small Nesi mummy stands out in particular) but the Prado deposit, which has been there for 135 years in this the bicentenary of the Prado Museum, is unrivalled. There are works by Domínikos Theotokópoulos “El Greco”, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, José de Rivera, Jan Brueghel de Velours, Juan Andrés Ricci, and others… 38 of which are currently being exhibited in the commemorative exhibition The Presence of the Prado. Chapters in a Story.
From 1986, the current deposit of the Prado is relatively recent. In the original deposit there was an exotic treat: The Annunciation (1597-1600) by El Greco.
Domínikos Theotokópoulos “El Greco”, The Holy Family with Saint Anne and Saint John, c. 1600. Deposit of the National Museum of El Prado.
In around 1800 El Greco was considered an artistic abomination; a strange artist who painted figures that were unnecessarily elongated with inappropriate colours. But some of the modernist artists rediscovered him and did all they could to get him better known. For example, Santiago Rusiñol, travelled to Vilanova to admire The Annunciation. From the train he discovered Sitges and decided to stay there. His enthusiasm for the painter was not quelled until he had obtained his own Greco.
On the night of 30/31 August 1981 the criminal band of René Alphonse van den Berghe, known as Erik the Belgian, broke into the museum and stole a number of works, especially from the Prado deposit. As a demonstration of their good taste, they blocked the door with one of the eight volumes of the spectacular Le Antichità di ErcolanoEsposte (1757-1792). And they did not steal the Greco because they confused a thermo-hygrograph on the side, with an alarm.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Saint Jerome reading, 1650-1652. Deposit of the National Museum of El Prado.
The paintingwere recovered by the police but they were not returned to Vilanova. They remained in Madrid and in 1986, once a series of measures to increase security and the conditions for the conservation of the works had been carried out, the new deposit that is in the museum today was agreed on.
Normally there is a room showing a selection of the Prado deposit, but on the occasion of the bicentenary two rooms have been made available to be able to show the whole collection, with descriptions of the circumstances and content of each of the works. These studies will soon be available in a special catalogue.
José de Ribera, Saint Philip 1630-1635. Deposit of the National Museum of El Prado.
Most of the works in the deposit are by Spanish and Flemish artists of the twelfth century. Religions themes are dominant but there are also landscapes and portraits. There is the outstanding Saint Jerome reading (1650-1652), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and a sinister portrait of the apostle Saint Philip (1630-1635) by José de Ribera. The difference between the Mannerism of El Greco – seen her with the Holy Family with Saint Anne and John the Baptist (c. 1600) and Saint Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death (1600-1614) – and the backlighting revolution of Murillo and Ribera is clear.
There are two extraordinary compositions by Vicente Carducho on the life of the founder of the Trinitarian Order: Return of Saint John of Matha with the Slaves freed from Tunisia (1634-1635) and Saint John of Matha Bids Farewell to his Parents (1634-1635).
Juan Andrés Ricci, Saint Benedict destroying idols, c. 1662. Deposit of the National Museum of El Prado.
Another incredible piece on a religious theme is Saint Benedict Destroying Idols (before 1662) by Juan Andrés Ricci. Recently, this piece formed part of the exhibition on Velázquez at the CaixaForum Barcelona.
One landscape painting with architecture, by Jan Brueghel de Velours, The Archdukes Isabella Clara Eugenia and Albert at the Tervuren Palace in Brussels (c. 1621) explains very well how this daughter of Philip II of Spain came to govern the Netherlands. Also from the Netherlands is the Landscape with Sheep Shearers (1613-1616) by Jan Wildens, and the Fable of the hare and the Tortoise by Franz Snyders.
The Sorolla’s Dos de mayo in the Víctor Balaguer Library Museum.
This magnificent deposit of works is completed with Juan Pantoja de la Cruz – Unknown Woman, Juan Carreño de Miranda – CharlesII, 1673, Juan García de Miranda, Juan Bautista Maíno and Ramon Bayeu.
Incidentally, the only work from the first deposit that was not returned to the Prado is the staggering Defence of Monteleon Artillery Park (1884), by Sorolla, popularly known as the Second of May. Given that it measures 400 x 580cm it is obviously difficult to transport.
The case of Valls is so unusual that it smacks of poltergeist. In the capital of the county of Alt Camp there are 24,000 inhabitants. And in the museum there are 2,000 works of art.
What is the secret of the Museum of Valls? A group of patrons? A cash-rich town council gone mad on cultural spending? Sponsorship? No. It was a case, on the one hand, of a persistence, of never lowering their guard, of achieving it by other means (basically through human relations) where money didn’t come into it. And, on the other, by staying within their means, making extraordinary use of meagre resources and by applying the saying “if you don’t save when you can, you won’t eat when you’re hungry”.
Joan Brotat, El carrito de flores, 1953.
All of these, without forgetting the human factor which in this case was personified in Jordi París. París came to the museum in 1987 before the art collection was opened to the public in the house of Culture in 1993. And he is still the sole person responsible for it. Call him the director, curator, caretaker…or the one-man band.
Jaume Mercadé, Cases de Valls, 1918.
The Museum of Valls has benefited from generous donations, such as that by Dr. Joan Estil·las, businessman Francesc Rodon and the art historian Daniel Giralt-Miracle. The latter has just completed the donation of a collection of 512 works, 300 of them works on paper.
Carles Collet, Guerrer, 1925.
It is true that it is a modest museum, occupying the second and third floors of the House of Culture. There are no luxuries here or museum glitter, the lighting could do with an update, and lets not even start on the website. But the collection is a magnificent summary of Catalan, and Vallenc, art from the late nineteenth century to the present day.
Joan Ponç, Blues, 1951.
I personally remember at the end of the 1990s when, for just 1,500 euros, Jordi París acquired an ink drawing by Joan Ponç at the Soler y Llach auction where I directed the bibliographic section. The work was Blues and was a cover image for the Dau al Set magazine. París studies the market, calculates his meagre resources, recognises the gaps in the museum collection and if everything is favourable, he goes ahead with the purchase. Most of the works acquired over the last twenty years have not cost more than that work by Ponç, which says a lot for the acumen of Jordi París, but also about the state of the Catalan art market.
Domingo Soler Gili, Vista del carrer Gran de Gràcia.
Currently showing is the exhibition “Works of the collection. The Acquisitions of the Museum of Valls”, open until 26 August. The end of October will see the opening of the travelling exhibition “Realism(s) in Catalonia (1917-1936). From Classic Picasso to Surrealist Dalí”, from the Maricel Museum in Sitges. For this, or any other exhibition, it is always worth a visit to the Museum of Valls.
Francesc Galofré Oller, Nens jugant, c. 1900.
“Works of the collection. The Acquisitions of the Museum of Valls” occupies the entire exhibition space in the museum and is basically divided into seven sections: it starts with a preamble of pre-nineteenth century works from Valls and goes on to the local generation of works in the nineteenth century: Bonaventura Casas, Francesc Guasch Homs and Galofré Oller. In fact, there are two oil painting by Galofré Oller which he reused for his famous Bòria avall (1892) which depicts the shameful parading of a prisoner through the city street. This painting is now held in the museum.
Modest Urgell, Carrer II.
There is a great selection of Catalan landscapes by painters from Martí i Alsina to Josep Obiols, the artist from Tarragona, Ignasi Mallol, and from Valls, Jaume Mercadé. Worthy of a special mention are the View of the Carrer Gran de Gràcia, by Domingo Soler Gili, and two delightful small works by Modest Urgell.
Joan Navarro, Jove regant una planta.
The decades of the 1920s and 30s are represented with a glorious gallery of portraits by Antoni Vila Arrufat, Marià Pidelasserra, Josep de Togores, Pere Pruna, Francesc Domingo, Josep Obiols, Manuel Humbert, and more. Avantgarde works also have their place here with a sculpture by Carles Collet – Warrior, from 1915 – and the incredible Cubist Composition (1916-1917) by Olga Sacharoff. Young Woman Watering a Plant, by Joan Navarro, is a good example of the return to order which dominated from the end of the First World War.
Olga Sacharoff, Composició cubista, c. 1916-1917.
And now that post-war art is finally being done justice, the corresponding section in the Museum of Valls proudly presents works by Joan Brotat such as The Flower Cart (1952), Marc Aleu, Francesc Todó, Joan Vilacasas, Jordi Curós, Maria Girona and, obviously, Joan Ponç.
Francesc Artigau, La garita, 1973.
An example of “opportunism” by the Museum of Valls can be seen in the photography section: when the Cultural Network was disbanded and its works auctioned off. París jumped in to buy works by Pilar Aymerich, Leopoldo Pomés, Xavier Miserachs and Toni Catany at very reasonable prices.On another occasion works by Pere Català Pic were bought to complete the collection of works donated by his son, the prodigious Francesc Català Roca. The Museum of Valls is a key institution in the history of photography in Catalonia.
Perejaume, Migdia a Valls, 2009.
The exhibition concludes with the new figurations of the 1970s and the generations of artists who came from postmodernism: Francesc Artigau, Miquel Vilà, Gerard Sala and Serra de Rivera are closely followed by the irony of Pep Duran Esteva, the new abstraction of Joaquim Chancho and Santi Moix and neo-Dadaist composition by Marcel Pey. Another artist whose presence is essential in this show is Perejaume, whose performance work Midday in Valls closes a show that is an example of careful management, good practice and unconditional love for Catalan art.
If you still haven’t discovered the genius of Buster Keaton, then are in luck. And if you have, you are also in luck: on 21 August at the CaixaForum in Barcelona the December Quintet will offer live musical accompaniment to the film The Paleface.
But this is not a simple illustrated concert or a projection with a live soundtrack. Paleface (1922) can be seen in good quality resolution (with a good soundtrack) on YouTube.
The secret of the “Listen to the silent movies” at the CaixaForum Barcelona (you can reserve tickets here) is in the December Quintet, the indie jazz band which, apart from playing the soundtrack, offers a great lesson in the relationship between music and film. In this case they use different jazz styles such as swing, bebop, ragtime and Latin jazz.
Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Harry Landon were the kings of Slapstick, that highly physical comic sub-genre with its frenetic action and hyperbolic violence. Slapstick movies normally lasted around twenty minutes and were the supporting feature for the main film. With sound, the slapstick shorts would be substituted by even shorter, more violent and more frenetic cartoons.
It is no coincidence that jazz and cinema were born at almost the same time. Two future geniuses, Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel dreamt of locking themselves into a cinema for days, surviving only on jazz music, tins of preserve and Buster Keaton films. Slapstick and jazz – two symbols of contemporaneity.
During the session “Listen to the silent movies”, the December Quintet will explain who the soundtracks for silent cinema were made. Film is a succession of still photos and the process of mounting them is very similar to musical composition. It’s not only your body that’s dancing – your eyes are too!
“Listen to the silent movies” is aimed at family audiences and provides a fun space for learning how music affects our perception of the movie. For example, the leitmotifs help us to recognise each of the characters; the instruments can marc special effects, underline mood, moments of action, etc.
Buster Keaton denounces abuse against the native American tribes.
After our information session, we will watch The Paleface with the live jazz music of the December Quintet. How is it that almost one hundred years on and this film is still so funny and so current? And even more, how is it possible that from his apparently banal humour, Buster Keaton was able to denounce the abuses of the native Americans at a time when everyone else was doing the opposite? Even in that Keaton was a true pioneer.
By the way, if after this magnificent session you want to know more about Buster Keaton you can see many of his films on YouTube or see the cinema documentary The Great Buster, which opened this summer.
The Abelló Museum in Mollet del Vallès is one of the artistic treasures that you have to rediscover from time to time. It is constructed around a pretty interesting figure: the painter and collector Joan Abelló i Prat (Mollet del Vallès, 1922-Barcelona, 2008).
Abelló brought together over 10,000 pieces, among them Picassos, Dalís, Mirós, Sauras and Sorollas. But perhaps the most interesting works were those pertaining to the great names in Catalan art which, at the time of their acquisition, were not considered to be of great value. For example, when in the 1960s Abelló approached the widow of the sculptor Manolo Hugué, he was already a half-forgotten figure in the world of art. Currently, the “Manolos” collection in the Abelló Museum is one of the most important in Catalonia.
Photograph dedicated to Joan Abelló by Dalí, in the bedroom of the Ritz Hotel where the stuffed horse given by Abelló to Dalí was installed.
Abelló was not a wealthy man, but he was enthusiastic and had a great sense of striking a good deal. That is how he managed to expand his collection with big names in Catalan art such as Marià Fortuny, Joaquim Mir, Isidre Nonell, Modest Cuixart and Antoni Tàpies.
And it was precisely thanks to Marià Fortuny that Abelló was able to become friends with one of the most universally recognised Catalan artists. In 1965, while listening to the radio, he heard an interview with Dalí in which he declared his love for the works of Fortuny.
In 1962 Dalí had painted and exhibited in the Saló del Tinell his own particular version of the Battle of Tetuan. Abelló had a sketch of the Battle…by Fortuny which the artist from Reus had made around 1860 during his first trip to Morocco.
Without thinking twice he went straight to Portlligat where he found Dalí sunbathing. He introduced himself and presented Dalí with the sketch. Dalí told him to come back the next day and returned the favour with an ink portrait of Abelló with a “Cervantes”-style collar.
From that moment on Abelló became a collector of Dalí’s art and the supplier of some of his most capricious demands: a stuffed horse or a giraffe, a two-metre paintbrush, etc.
Abelló acquired some of the pieces directly from Dalí but most of all he would feed from the youthful writings that were in the possession of Dalí’s sister, Anna Maria. The Dalí collection in the Abelló Museum is composed of an early oil painting Landscape of Cap de Creus (c. 1918), several drawings dedicated to him from 1965 to 1973, numbered ceramics, graphic work and a major collection of manuscripts dated pre-1928.
Everyone wanted to open a museum, and both Dalí and Abelló did so “in their own way”.
From among those manuscripts we can highlight two extensive fragments of stories: Summer Evenings (c. 1920) and The Great Maria (c. 1926), an extremely interesting notebook about his work from 1918 to 1922; Doodles. Essays on painting. Catalogue of Paintings with Notes (1922), and the originals of articles published in magazines such as La Gaseta de les Arts and L’Amic de les Arts. As well as poems, there are essays on artistic theory and letters from Dalí to his contemporaries such as J. V. Foix, Federico García Lorca, Joan Xirau, Juan Vicens and his uncle Anselm Domènech; and there were also letters sent to Dalí by Sebastià Gasch, Luis Buñuel and Joan Subias. Many of these manuscripts contain drawings and sketches.
Dalí and Abelló had a common goal. They both wanted to open a museum. And they both did so “in their own way”. In the case of Abelló, he bought and refurbished adjacent houses in his native Mollet, thereby managing to construct his own Museum-House-Maze in which he showed anyone who was interested the 10,000 works of his collection, a true cabinet of curiosities. In 1999 the pieces became part of the Abelló Museum – Municipal Art Foundation, hosted in a different building which was more appropriate to their museographical needs in the centre of Mollet.
One of the best-known contributions by Abelló to Dalí was made in July 1971. Dalí wanted to give his wife Gala a white horse as a gift. Abelló, wanting to please the artist, contacted the owner of the Monumental bullring, Pedro Balañá. He bought a white horse and took it to the slaughterhouse in Terrassa. The taxidermist Joaquim Jover Roig then embalmed it without removing its internal organs.
Workers with the stuffed horse in the foyer of the Ritz Hotel, 1971.
Why did he leave the organs inside? Because the commission had to be done in a hurry. There wasn’t time. Dalí had hired a suite on the fifth floor of the Ritz Hotel (the most exclusive in Barcelona) in which to place the horse. But with its organs intact the horse weighed 300 kilos and didn’t fit in the lift and it had to be carried up the stairs by a team of hotel workers who almost fainted from exhaustion. The following day the equestrian-Dalían spectacle appeared in a number of national and international newspapers. Dalí, proud of it, christened the horse “Rocibaquinante”, in memory of Babieca the horse of El Cid and Rocinante which was Quixote’s horse. It is now housed in the Gala Salvador Galí Castle Museum in Púbol.