For more than a decade now when we talk about art institutions, we do so in complacently: there’s no money, people aren’t interested in art or in heritage…as Barça’s van Gaal used to say: “always negatif”.
And now, precisely a decade ago, well aware of these difficulties, the Art Museum of Cerdanyola (MAC), has made a huge effort to overcome them and turn them into something positive.
MAC’s modern style room. Photo: Llorenç Conejo-Llorco.
On 11 September 2009, at the height of the economic crisis, the MAC opened its doors for the first time. It is a small space – a Modernist building which has housed a casino, been a summer residence and the headquarters of a pharmaceutical laboratory. And the team is even smaller – just the director Txema Romero and his assistant.
There is no money for acquisitions, but in ten years the collection has gone from 300 to 3000. All donations. And most of them private. This, along with the disinterested collaboration of the two prestigious art historians: Josep Casamartina, Fina Duran and Joan Maria Minguet.
Night view of the MAC. Photo: Xavi Olivé.
And even if the MAC is pressed for space, a glance at the activities it offers makes it seem much bigger. The soul of the museum is its collection, of course, but if a collection isn’t explained, if we don’t get the opportunity to find out more about it, if it doesn’t provoke dialogue between different thinkers then it cannot help us to understand our role in society, or promote values such as gender equality or intergenerational collaboration, and runs the risk of becoming a sterile space.
Ismael Smith, Manola, c. 1907. Glazed porcelain reproduced by Antoni Serra Fiter. Col·lecció Nacional d’Art de la Generalitat de Catalunya’s deposit.
Take two examples who are almost contemporary: postmodernist draughtsman and sculptor Ismael Smith (Barcelona, 1886-White Plains, Nova York, 1972) and painter Josep de Togores (Cerdanyola del Vallès, 1893-Barcelona, 1970). Each has a room dedicated to them. Smith was Jewish and homosexual: Sogores deaf from the age of thirteen. These factors somehow marked their lives and their work.
Finestres de les roses. Property of Domènech brothers. MAC deposit.
The permanent collection which occupies the first floor is divided into four sections: the route begins with a section dedicated to the two architects of the building. Gaietà Buïgas, who built the theatre-casino in 1894 for the summer visitors; and his nephew Eduard Maria Balcells, who was commissioned around 1910 by the indiano Evarist López, to turn the building into a luxury summer residence.
Ismael Smith, “Enceinte ‘grossesse’ Enfin, je puis me reposer!”. Pregnant Mona Lisa, 1912. Enrique García-Herráiz donation in memory of Paco Smith.
The route ends with a room dedicated to the colony of artists working in Cerdanyola from 1920 to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. They were creators working within the second wave of noucentisme and Art Deco such as Italian mould-maker Alberto Lena, sculptor Josep Viladomat, painters Manuel Humbert and Marian Anton Espinal and illustrators Valentí Castanys and Josep Coll.
The room dedicated to Ismael Smith contains drawings, prints, ceramics, jewellery and sculptures by this great artist who we are still in the process of discovering; a rich collection brought together thanks to the donations by Enrique García-Herráiz – the artist’s chosen heir, the Artur Ramon Gallery and the collection of Marie Christine Vila, daughter of the painter Joan Vilacasas.
Josep de Togores, Femme avec raisin (Woman with bunch of grapes), 1926.
In the room dedicated to Togores there are works that pass from noucentisme, to magic realism, surrealism and more traditional realism such as the epic The Drunk (1911) or the sensual Woman with Grape (1926). There are also works by other noucentistes, such as the sculptor Manolo Hugué, with his bust of Togolo’s daughter, Tití’s Head (1927).
Josep de Togores, Portrait of Manuel de Togores, 1918.
But the biggest and lightest space in the MAC is the Modernist Room, with a painting by Anglada-Camarasa, sculptures and ceramics by Josep Llimona, Marian Burgués, Modernist furniture…all bathed in the light shining through the original stained glass windows of the building: the Dames de Cerdanyola.
Irises, tulips, oranges, peonies, lotus flowers, passionflowers, daisies, roses…behind these compositions lies a rich symbology of love and beauty.
These panels were installed during the refurbishment carried out by jeweller Evarist López when he bought the building and turned it into his summer residence round 1910. The works are attributed to the Alsatian glassmaker Ludwig Dietrich von Bearn, and no it is not known for certain where the ideas came from for their composition (possibly the architect Eduard Maria Balcells, who ran a glass shop jointly with his sister) or who did the original drawings.
Dames del gronxador (Swing Ladies)
When Cerdanyola City Council wanted to buy the building, the glass panels had already been removed. They remained in private ownership until they were acquired by the Urban Planning Consortium of the ‘Centre Direccional de Cerdanyola’, and they were returned to the MAC in 2009. Between 2013 and 2014 they were restored by specialist Jordi Bonet, with the support of the Diputació de Barcelona and the Centre de Restauració de Béns Mobles de Catalunya. And last year they were declared Items of National Cultural Interest.
Dames dels cignes (Swan Ladies).
The Dames de Cerdanyola work is made up of two scenes: the Dames del gronxador (Ladies on the swing) and the Dames del llac (Ladies at the lake). The second scene is made up of two glass panels: the Dames dels cignes (Ladies of the swans) and the Dames de les tulipes (Ladies of the tulips). Iconographically the three glass panels show two female figures in a floral setting.
Dames de les tulipes (Ladies of the Tulipes).
Irises, tulips, oranges, peonies, lotus flowers, passionflowers, daisies, roses…behind these compositions lies a rich symbology of love and beauty.
The ladies in the central scene are feeding the swans with peonies, the spineless rose. Do they symbolise love without pain? Do they allude to the myth of Leda and the Swan? Or perhaps they are praising restful love, without all the initial frenzy?
If you want to find out the meaning you can always go to the MAC and ask. Better still, if you go on 19 September at 7pm you can join the 10th anniversary celebrations and the declaration of the Item of National Cultural Interest. Why not go and enjoy a toast to the museum yourself?
It is never easy to really see the works in a museum for what they are. Normally we get a bit of an overview, from a distance, like looking at clouds, or the sea, or a constellation of stars, or looking at somebody’s geranium on their balcony.
That’s why you really need a good guide – someone who can explain what needs to be explained as it needs to be explained. Somebody with a knowledge of history and art, but above all, someone with the power of conviction and seduction.
Sala femenina del Museu Marès. Foto: Museu Frederic Marès © Patrícia Bofill.
So, some museums have been trying out some clever tricks to offer better and more convincing explanations. The night visits for example bring out the adventurer in the visitors as well as their imagination, perhaps helped by the darkness. Actors have sometimes been hired, also for their capacity for fiction, allowing the visitors who want to be carried along by the fantasy of a certain character straight out of the past acting as their guide.
It is from this perspective that the Marès Museum has begun to organise guided tours using the evocative, transformative power of literature. On this occasion we are not accompanied by actors on the routes but by the voices of some of the great writers who lived in times that will never come back, of which there are just a few remains, a few testimonies of life and art like those that have been so proudly accumulated by the museum. The visit is called A Museum out of a Novel and takes us around the cabinets of curiosities with the guidance of some great literary fragments from the or about the turn of the twentieth century. Sometimes simple curiosity can offer us knowledge in the same way as wisdom emerges from modesty. Jacint Verdaguer called it “that voice of those who are absent”, the voice of those who are no longer here but who evidently continue to be present, the plasticity and the ideas of a contemporary literary language juxtaposed with the objects we look at in the museum and which have lasted as evidence of the passing of time over us.
The Marès Museum is one of Catalonia’s greatest treasures – a gathering of extraordinary pieces which unsettle and fascinate us.
Frederic Marès collected antique collections, he preserved objects from destruction in the same way as literature keeps alive for us a past that we do not want to disappear – the Barcelona which would be changed by the Universal Exhibition of 1888, the Barcelona of Pitarra, rough and hand-crafted, the dramatic Barcelona of Guimerà, both of whom filled the city’s theatres; the Barcelona of a fabulously wealthy Catalan bourgeoisie who made their money during what Narcís Oller called Gold fever. This was the great city that broke, stifled, out of its own walls to grow unrestrainedly, described by Joan Salvat-Papasseit, the Barcelona of the tireless manual weaving of the hives of women and the fiery furnaces where the men, half hidden by the smoke, hammered away. This is also the city of people who smoked tobacco and still used snuff and spoke excitedly about Paris, as the books of Santiago Rusiñol assures us. It is the Barcelona in which Josep Pla became a writer and the hub for Marian Vayreda, Joaquim Ruyra and Prudenci Betrana. The city of modernity which, like in the novels by Mercè Rodoreda, sees everything and wants everything to be a part of it.
The Marès Museum is one of the great treasures of Catalonia and a gathering of extraordinary pieces, of presences that unsettle and fascinate us; the more we look at them, the more we understand them.
The activity A Museum out of a Novel. A literary walk through the “sentimental museum” will take place on Saturday 21 September at 11am at the Frederic Marès Museum. You must book a place. Groups can request the same activity on a certain, here.
The website of the Manresa County Museum warns: “The museum has embarked on a major refurbishment project and as a result we have had to close most of our exhibition rooms”.
Currently, the warning continues, there are just two exhibitions that can be visited: Paintings by Antoni Viladomat i Manalt (Barcelona, 1678-1755) and the Little Museum exhibition with a small collection of pieces from our collection.
View of the exhibition “Little Museum”.
But if you still want to see the museum’s treasures, click on the red “Enter” button and you can experience, in all its encouraging virtual presentation, the past, present and future of a space which brings together archaeology, history, memory and art – lots of art.
The museum’s director, Francesc Vilà, explains that the current museum building, the monumental thirteenth century College of Saint Ignatius, built by Jesuit monks, is being transformed to meet the requirements of the twenty-first century, taking advantage of the 500th anniversary of the conversion of the founder of the Company of Jesus at the Cave of Saint Ignatius in Manresa.
Antoni Viladomat, La primavera, c. 1730-1755. MNAC. Llegat de Ramir Lorenzale, 1918.
It may sound strange but Ignatius of Loiola was one of the heralds of the Counter-Reformation: a doctrinal, mental and spiritual reform in the Catholic church which forms the basis for Baroque art and even the modern concept of propaganda.
Vilà wants to take advantage of this refurbishment to expand the exhibition space of the museum to 1900 square metres and reorganise the content. The first floor will be entirely given over to the baroque – a style which has been erroneously identified in Catalonia with a period of economic, social and artistic decadence. The rest of the space will be dedicated to the region: archaeology, medieval art, the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. I would say this is one of the most ambitious refurbishments carried out in a Catalan museum since 2008.
Plan of the cave of San Ignacio de Loyola, 1731.
If you still want to visit the two small exhibitions that are currently open in the museum, your journey will not be in vain. On the ground floor there is a room of around forty square metres with a selection of the contained that is currently held at the museum. From a tenth century lipsanotheca, or small reliquary, from the church of Santa Maria de Lillet to a wayside cross from Crulla (14-15 century) and an original plan of the Cave of San Ignacio (1731) showing what the cave looked like in the eighteenth century.
Servidora de l’harpia, s. XIV. Medieval pottery.
But maybe the most typical pieces of the museum collection are a high altarpiece relief of the Rosary (1642-1646), from the old church of Saint Peter the Martyr – a paradigmatic work by one of the main Baroque sculptors from Manresa, Joan Grau. There is also a vitrine with decorated medieval ceramics from the fourteenth century. Chronologically this is the first known luxury Catalan tableware and it was discovered during the demolition of the Church of Carme during the Spanish Civil War. Finally, there is a large painting by Antoni Viladomat, The Assumption of Mary with all the Saints (c. 1728-1750).
Antoni Viladomat, L’assumpció de la Mare de Déu amb tots els sants, c. 1728-1750.
One the first floor there are fourteen more paintings by Viladomat, most of them deposited on loan from the MNAC, and an Apparition of Christ to Saint Ignatius in Rome (c. 1700-1755) in both rough and final versions, on loan from the Sant Jordi Academy of Fine Art. This is the space where you can see most work by Viladomat who gained his greatest recognition during the War of the Spanish Succession. For example, there are three works from the “Four Seasons” series: Spring, Autumn and Winter (c. 1730-1735). Viladomat covered all kinds of subject matter: religious compositions, portraits, still life and genre scenes.
Antoni Viladomat, Aparició de Crist a Sant Ignasi a Roma, c. 1700-1755. Sketch.
The renewed Manresa County Museum aims to be the most important museum for Baroque art in Catalonia. In the seventeenth century the city of Manresa experienced a population boom. Also, there were so many religious order that the demand for art grew exponentially to make Manresa one of the most outstanding centres for the production of Baroque sculpture. Dynasties such as the Grau family (Joan and Francesc), the Sunyers (Pau and Josep), Josep Generes, Jaume Padró, Jacint Miquel i Sors mean that today we can talk about a Golden Age (1630-1730) of art produced in Manresa.
As well as the Baroque, we should also remember the twentieth century when Manresa was home to interesting names such as painter Alfred Figueres, scenographer Josep Mestres Cabanes (soon we will be able to see his sets for Aida at the Liceu Opera House) and the painter, restorer and art dealer Josep Dalmau, who introduced styles such as French Cubism (1912) to his Barcelona gallery, as well as supporting artists like Joan Miró (1918) and Salvador Dalí (1925).
While 2022 seems like a long way off, we can always get a taste of the aperitif at the two rooms that remain open at the Manresa County Museum. The time will fly by.
If we think we know about Catalonia, we cannot ignore its medieval roots. And once of the best places to see the material and artistic culture of Catalonia is at the Episcopal Museum of Vic (MEV).
The MEV is both medieval and digital at the same time. It dates back to 1891, in the midst of the Catalan Renaixença, when a group of intellectuals and clerics from Vic organised themselves to recover the artistic heritage of the region. The museum was renewed in 2002 with the opening of a new building designed by architects Federico Correa and Alfonso Milán, both of whom studied under the incredible José Antonio Coderch. This is not one of those iconic buildings destined to be shown on postcards or fridge magnets, but a mass of irregular geometry inspired by the great Catalan palaces of the modern era, and exclusively designed for the content.
La Nit dels Museus 2019 al MEV.
There are several collections in the MEV but the most outstanding for their originality and quality are the Romanic, Gothic art and textiles. But just being exceptional pieces of art is not enough. They need to be explained, with the details of each one and the context in which they were created.
It wouldn’t hurt to know a bit about the new Testament and the stories of the lives – and miracles – of some of the saints and martyrs that appear most often in Catalonia. Beyond faith, this is an exercise in basic knowledge which will offer us a better understanding of Catalan culture. In any case, the brief explanations placed at the side of each of the works suffice for understanding what we are looking at.
But what makes the MEV an example to be imitated within the Catalan museum scene is its website. In the Collection section you can explanations of all of the works in more detail than in the rooms where they are exhibited, with short, well-made videos, and a “gigaphoto” of the piece allowing us to see it significantly enlarged.
In the section My MEV you can organise a custom guided tour with an audio guide which you download to your phone. There are three recommended routes to choose from: Masterpieces, The Museum in 45 Minutes, or A 360º Virtual Tour. Or you can choose one of the numerous tours designed by the users. Honestly, if anyone ever had to design the teaching function of a museum, this magnificent initiative would certainly seem to be the way to go.
Master of Erill, The Descent from the Cross from Erill la Vall, first half of the 12th century.
The museum space is designed specifically to house the pieces. At the beginning of the route visitors come face to face with the Descent of Erill la Vall – a set of wooden sculptures from the first half of the twelfth century. This is a really exceptional work: there are very few sculptures of its monumental proportions conserved in Catalan Romanic art, and even the art of the period was not as expressive as this in expressing pain, the pathos of the two figures shown. Also, the figures are articulated, suggesting that they were used in liturgical dramas. The set was discovered, in disuse, in 1907 at a church in the Vall de Boí. The main part of the set was acquired at the antiques market by Father Gudiol, the curator of the MEV, in 1911. Two more figures, the Virgin and Saint John, were acquired by the collector Lluís Planidura and are currently held at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona.
The defeated, lifeless body of Christ, the penitent thief, dead with his tongue hanging out, Nicodemus taking down the body of Christ while Joseph of Arimathea supports the corpse…even today we can feel the pain and resignation of the scene.
La Seu d’Urgell workshops, Mural painting with the scene of the Saint Supper, 1242-1255.
A Mural Painting with the Scene of the Last Supper (1242-1255) is a great example of the transition from the Late Romanic and Early Gothic periods. In the centre is Christ, facing forward, celebrating the Eucharist as the act which the Christian liturgy is centred on. Beside him, a described in the gospel, Saint John leans his head on him. The only figure facing away from the viewer is, of course, Judas the traitor, receiving the host from Jesus. It is a delicate composition.
Gothic courtyard of the MEV.
Without being a criticism of other museums exhibiting large altarpieces inadequately, Room 8 of the MEV allows us a close up and also a distant view of a first-rate piece: the Altarpiece of the Franciscan Order (1414-1415), by Lluís Borrassà.
Lluís Borrassà, Massacre of the innocents. Altarpiece dedicated to Saint Francis, 1414-1415.
This work is one of the masterpieces of European painting from the first international gothic period and is characterised by a naturalist aesthetic based on dynamism and use of brightly coloured pigments. The naturalism is highlighted, for example in the violent scene of the slaughter of the innocents, with a sinister heap of dead babies.
Bernat Martorell marked the second period of the International Gothic.
Curiously, Borrassà’s death in 1425 coincided with the start of the artistic activity of Bernat Martorell. Martorell marked the second period of the International Gothic, with less gesticulation and a calmer feel reflecting early humanism. The influence of Flemish painting is evident.
Bernat Martorell, Scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist, 1427-1437.
At the MEV there are parts of an altarpiece with scenes of the life of Saint Eulalia, and a predella with scenes of the life of Saint John the Baptist by Martorell, from the Cathedral of Vic. Martorell is a poet of terror as we can see in images such as the horrific adolescent Saint Eulalia put to death on the cross as the snow protects her modesty on the lower half of her body. Or Salome carrying John the Baptist’s head on a tray while behind her a soldier has just decapitated the last of the prophets. Not even Tarantino could have done it better.
The collections, but especially the work of the museum team, have meant that at the MEV Catalan art from other centuries can speak to us without the need for glosses or intermediaries. When applied in museums, technology is often a kind of mirage or bottomless pit of resources. But in Vic they have understood and made the best use of it, aware that any tool, without adequate handling, can be a firework.