Thursday, January 19, 2012

Modern Barcelona of Catalunya

If you had a chance to read my last blog Old Barcelona of Catalunya, you might have recognized that there is a good historical reason for a strong Catalan identity which has been the case indeed.  In fact, I have been carefully using Catalan language for all the names as what locals do.  Although the official Spanish (based on Castilian spoken in the Castile region) is closely related to Catalan, people in Catalunya refer refer to it as castellano as an equal to Catalano

Generalitat de Catalunya (Government of Catalunya) has been in existence as early as 1283 under the Crown of Aragon.  It was abolished in 17th century at north when northern Catalunya was ceded to France by Spain in the Treaty of the Pyrenees, and in the 18th century at the south when Philip V—the first Bourbon king of Spain won the War of the Spanish Succession and began the rein of a centralized Spain.

Catalunya government was restored in 1932 during the Second Spanish Republic but it was short-lived when the rebelled Nationalists commanded by Francisco Franco defeated the Republicans in 1939 in the Spanish Civil War that began in 1936.  Catalans paid a heavy price during and after the Spanish Civil War as a main pillar of the Republic, fighting against Franco’s dictatorship.  Catalunya regained its autonomy under the Spanish Constitution of 1978 after Franco’s death in 1975 when the current Parliamentary Monarchy was formed.

Today, Catalunya is one of the 17 autonomous communities (and 2 autonomous cities) of Spain.  It enjoys the highest degree of autonomy among them.  It has its own Parliament, President and Executive Council.  It controls its education, law enforcement, and budget etc. but not nearly as much for the revenue which creates a lot of complaints especially among the Catalan nationalists. The recent debt crisis and austerity measure of Spain that requires the budgets of autonomous communities be approved by the central government first has deepened the worries of the Catalan nationalists.  Just as an indicator of how strong the belief in autonomy, Catalan language, once banned from public schools under Franco, is now taught in primary and secondary schools in Catalunya with Castellano (official Spanish) as the second language.  It took us a while for us to realize that we will never find museum brochures in Spanish; they are marked as Castellano, next to those marked as Català. 

With this long introduction, we are now ready to see Fundació Joan Miró designed by Josep Lluís Sert, which was first open in 1975 to honor Catalan’s own son - the internationally renowned artist Joan Miró (do make sure you pronounce it as Catalans do: [ʒuˈam miˈɾo]).  The museum is within a short walk from MNAC on the Montjunic hill I described in my last blog.

Joan Miró was born in 1893 in Barcelona and grew up in the Barri Gòtic neighborhood (introduced in my last blog as well).  At this moment, there is a major special exhibit Joan Miró. L'escala de l'evasió (The Ladder of Escape) where 170 pieces of his life time works are presented. His early work, while more traditional and realistic, do suggest his awareness and sensitivity in culture and social political issues.  Among those paintings, the most important one is The Farm (see photos at right) that marks his first transition in his long career.  

Miró started this painting of his parents’ farm in Mont-roig del Camp (in southern Catalunya) and finished it from memory as he settled in Paris.   The details and visual effects conveyed can captured his deep feelings with the Catalan life in his unique style.  As the Wikipedia article quoted, Ernest Hemingway, who later purchased the piece, compared the artistic accomplishment to James Joyce’s Ulysses and described it by saying, “It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. No one else has been able to paint these two very opposing things.”  The painting was a gift to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C by Mary Hemingway, widow of Ernest Hemingway.  

Miró had never really left Catalunya in his life.   When he was in Paris, he returned to Mont-roig every year till Spanish Civil War broke out.  He developed his symbolic language and sense of nationalism which appear in much of his work.   His 1925 painting Head of a Catalan Peasant is an excellent example.  In this and many later paintings of his, the presence and the abstraction of barrentina, the traditional red hat worn by Catalan people and peasants, is more than obvious (see below for the photo of the painting along side with a photo of people wearing barrentina from Wikipedia).

Later he developed further his symbolism with ladder as the connection between earth/reality and the heaven (sun, moon, stars) which appeared in many of his work (see e.g. The Dog Barking at the Moon to the right), thus the title theme of the special exhibit.
Miró eventually made the island of Majorca, his wife’s hometown, his home where he died.   Residing in Franco’s Spain, he was never shy in expressing his disdain for the dictatorship government as shown in e.g. his 1974 paintings of The Hope of a Condemned Man I,II, III.

Living through turbulent time in Spain and Europe of early 20th century, Miró has always had war and chaos in his mind as can be seen in his 1938 painting Woman in Revolt (photo to the right) where a woman is running away from her burning village. It was completed right after Miró work The Reaper (aka Catalan peasant in revolt), the mural commissioned from the Government of the Republic for the 1937 Paris International Exhibit.  Unfortunately it was lost after the exhibition and can only be seen through photo record.  It nevertheless is yet another strong accusation of the atrocity against his homeland by the Fascist.  The Reaper was exhibited right next to the famous painting of Guernica (of Basque Autonomous Community of Spain) in a similar vein by none other than the great Spanish/Barcelona artist Pablo Picasso who needs no introduction. 

Picasso was also anti-war and had taken strong stand against Franco’s dictatorship including vowing never to return to Spain as long as Franco was alive (another famous Catalan who made a similar vow was  the famous cellist Pau Casals).  Unlike Miró’s however, Picasso's works were largely devoid of political or nationalist emotion.  In the old city of Barcelona, there is the Museu Picasso (Picasso Museum) that has been attracting attention with growing popularity since its opening in 1963.  The museum now occupies five consecutive grand palaces with 22 rooms around beautiful courtyards with palm trees, following the architectural plan by Jordi Garcés.  Here one finds excellent collection of Picasso’s early work before he changed the world, supplemented with some of his later works.   

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was born in Málaga in Andalusia (an autonomous community in southern Spain) and was not a Catalan.  However his family moved to Barcelona when he was 13 years old and he spent his formative years as a student of arts and protégé in Barcelona where he considered as his true home.  Until his self-exile from Franco’s Spain, he divided his time in Paris and Barcelona.  Among the most important collection of the museum is the complete series of Picasso’s 1957 work of his interpretations of the 1656 master painting Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez.  Of course Diego Velázquez is considered one of the greatest painters ever and is the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age.  The painting Las Meninas can be seen at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.  With the photos below, you can contrast Picasso’s with Velázquez’s original work.  By the way, the photos of all the paintings here were sourced from Google Image database since neither museums allow photography.

When it comes to architecture, Barcelona is a city of wonder and second to none in the world.   Modernisme català, the Catalan Art Nouveau movement from late 19th century to early 20th century in search of the Catalan identity was centered in Barcelona.  One great example is the Palau de la Música Catalana near Plaça de Catalunya.  Designed by the famed modernist Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850–1927), it seats over 2,000 and is tugged away in the back of alleys.  With natural light shines through the enormous stained glasses skylight and around the three story theater, great concerts and performances have been and continue being enjoyed by people almost daily.  

For most, however, the modern Barcelona is synonymous with Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), one of the greatest architects of all time, with quite a few of his work being on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  As one travels in and around the city, one just can’t help but noticing some of the most astonishing structures with unique designs and façades; there is simply nothing like it anywhere else.

One of the reasons why we find so many architecture treasures probably has much to do with the prosperity of Barcelona.  It has been a significant economic and geopolitical center of Mediterranean Sea for a very long time.  Although there was a setback when the political center of Spain moved to Castile after the Catholic Monarch was established in late 15th century, it enjoyed the fruits of early industrialization that created many wealthy individuals and families who could afford to build enormous mansions and commissioned architectural genius like Gaudí.  One such a rich and influential Caltan in the 2nd half of the 19th century was Count Eusebi Güell who had commissioned Gaudí to design his mansion Palau Güell near La Rambla of the old city and Parc Güell, the failed housing development that was never completed and became public park (see photos at right).

Another example is the Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera meaning the 'The Quarry') was built for the wealthy and flamboyant Catalan couple Roser Segimon and Pere Milà.  The story goes that Gaudí’s condition for accepting the job was that he would have a free hand to do whatever he wants without budget limit.  You can see for yourself the result of it as the photos show below.   When we were there, the building was closed to tourists for whole week due to maintenance.  I wasn't able to take photos of interior and the roof; you can however find many such photos from web sources by searching e.g. the Google image database.

Yet another incredible work of Gaudí's is the Casa Batlló which is only a short walk south of Casa Milà on the same street - Passeig de Gràcia which is the most expensive and boulevard of Barcelona full of high end shops.  The house was built for the textile industrialist Josep Batlló.  What soon becomes obvious to visitors when entered is that you will hardly find a single straight line in this 6 story mansion. Countless varying artistic details are being carefully integrated into functions of every room and floor with their distinct purposes, from fireplace through main reception room to attic and chimneys on the roof.  The building is simply one piece of art and you feel like you live in and are a part of a sculpture. It is not a collection of nice looking decorations; it is a one gigantic piece of art with shape, color, lights, atmosphere, all included.  To be honest, I have never experienced anything like that before.  For once, I felt I finally understood the dream of every inspired architect – to build a structure that is the integral of best arts and engineering.


Looking to northeast when on the roof of Casa Batlló, you can see the completed towers of the Basilica de la Sagrada Família (Basilica of the Holy Family) a mile away.  Sagrada Família is the crown jewel and the life-long project of Gaudí’s that he started in 1883 at age 31.  While the design and architecture plan was completed before his unexpected death in 1926, the construction of it has been continuing at varying rate for the last 130 years, depending on the level of private donations (including ticket sales) as an expiatory church.  The church was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI on 7 November 2010. It is hoped to be completed by 2026, in time for the commemoration of the 100th year of Gaudí’s death.  From the design and the symbolism used, this is the best place to see and understand Gaudí’s expression of his belief as an extremely religious man. 

The Basilica has three grand façades.  The Nativity façade to the northeast is about the birth of Jesus and was constructed between 1894 and 1930 inclusive of four towers.  The Passion façade to the southwest is about the suffering of Jesus during his crucifixion.  Its four towers were completed in 1976 and the work of the details of the façade were begun in 1987 by a team of sculptors, headed by Josep Maria Subirachs.  The construction of the Glory façade to the southeast began in 2002 and is still ongoing.  It is about the celestial Glory of Jesus and represents the road to God: Death, Final Judgment, and Glory.

When completed, Sagrada Família will have 18 spires/towers.  The cross on top of the main tower will rise to 170 meters (560 ft) high soaring into the sky to become the tallest church in the world, symbolizing the connection of heaven and earth.  The interior of the Basilica is even more breath taking.  The central naïve vault is at 60 meters high supported by columns that resemble tree trunks and branches signify God’s creation of nature.  Sunlight passing through the large stained glass windows of the Basilica projects colorful lights on the columns and floors.  Most importantly, when visiting Sagrada Família, one feels the humility and selflessness that is not coming from the altar, the immense size and elaborate sculptures of biblical figures like many churches do.  Rather, it is coming from the expression of respect for nature and god of the heart and soul of a genius architect who stretched his human talents to the limit.  Below are some photos of the interior of Basilica de la Sagrada Família and a 3-D model picture from a project by Toni Meca which shows what it would look like when it is completed.

A four day visit like what we just did is too short to appreciate Barcelona and Catalunya.  We will have to go back sometime to visit it along with neighboring areas like Montserrat (Gaudi’s major inspirations) and Figueres (Salvador Dali’s hometown).  Adéu (Catalan for goodbye), Barcelona!  We will be back. 

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