Discovering Modernisme in Barcelona
By Barbara Rizza Mellin
Forget old world charm; I was looking for Modernisme, and I found it in Barcelona, where modern art and architecture permeate the city and infuse its atmosphere.
This fiercely independent capital of Spain’s Catalonia region is a cosmopolitan city crowded with people who seem to fully enjoy themselves. After all, you just can’t take life too seriously when your surroundings resemble dreamscapes.
In Barcelona, famed architect Antoni Gaudi created a wonderland of buildings, and artists Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró contributed to the city’s character. Here also, Lluis Domenech I Montaner designed one of the world’s most beautiful music halls, Palau de la Música Catalana. Completed in 1908 and still used today, it reflects the exuberance of Modernisme, with an elaborate stained glass ceiling, colorful mosaic columns and elegant sculpture, including Wagner’s Chariot Ride of the Valkyries, which charges out from atop its stage. While attending a concert, I couldn’t decide if I enjoyed the music or the setting more!
Gaudi’s Casa Mila at the corner of Passeig de Grácia and Carrer Provença exemplifies this architect’s distorted genius. Twisted tangles of metal form balcony railings on a façade that undulates in a ripple of stone. Known as La Pedrera (the quarry), this one-time apartment building contains no sharp edges, no right angles, no straight walls. Gaudi was definitely thinking outside the box – in fact, there is no box at all! Instead, eight stories surround courtyards, and a rooftop is “guarded” by sculpture-like air ducts and “masked” chimneys. Inside, curved walls wrap around you like a comfortable cave.
Further along Passeig de Grácia, Gaudi’s Casa Batillö, with mask-like balconies and dragon-scale roof, vies for attention with three other Moderista dwellings on the block known as Illa de la Discordia (Block of Discord).
Across town along Las Ramblas, the city’s wonderful pedestrian walkway, you’ll find au Güell, the residence built for Gaudi’s benefactor, industrialist Paul Güell. On the outskirts of the city is Parc Güell, a fantasy park, where a roof-top plaza encircled by one of the world’s longest benches is decorated in trencadís, a mosaic of tile shards. Perhaps Gaudi’s most famous structure, however, is Sagrada Familia, (Holy Family Church), the unfinished cathedral that was his life’s focus. Begun in 1882, it remains a work in progress.
Barcelona also claims two icons of modern art: Picasso and Miró, each with his own unique museum. Museu Picasso is incongruously located in the old Gothic district where a young Pablo lived with his family. The museum houses an intriguing collection of 3,600 items, including many early works lovingly saved by his mother, such as a drawing of Hercules, done at age nine, and accomplished portraits from his teenage years, as well as a later series of 58 canvasses based on Velásquez’s Las Meninas.
Opposite in almost every way is Funcació Joan Miró. Designed by the artist and his friend, architect Joseph Lluís Sert, this gleaming white building sits high atop Montjuic, Barcelona’s highest section, rising 699 feet above the rest of the city. Like Gaudi, Miró mixed the colorful traditions of his Catalan heritage with the individualism of this new art. His bold sculptures and Freudian-inspired abstract paintings are beautifully displayed in this uncluttered setting. I especially enjoyed a vibrant, multi-story tapestry that dominates one room, and the glistening slow-moving liquid of a mercury fountain, designed by Miró’s close friend, mobile-artist Alexander Calder. In addition to the museum, you can view Miró’s art scattered throughout the city. A 72-foot high, multi-colored sculpture Dona I Ocell (Woman and Bird) towers over Parc de Joan Miró.
My quest for Mondernisme was superbly satisfied in Barcelona, where it influences architecture, embellishes public spaces, and saturates its culture with a presence that is not so much imposing as integral.
Barbara Rizza Mellin is a writer, artist and world traveler. She invites you to her solo exhibit, Lasting Impressions (Printmaking), June 1- July 28, Hiddenite Arts Center, Hiddenite, N.C. All photographs by Bruce Mellin.
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