Barcelona’s Modernisme

ArtSmart Travels: Barcelona’s Modernisme by Barbara Rizza Mellin

Forget old world charm; I was looking for Mondernisme. My quest led me to Barcelona, where modern art and architecture permeates 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, inspired by the city, contributed to its character. Here also, Lluis Domenech I Montaner designed one of the worlds’ 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 mosaics 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. I’m glad I didn’t have to choose.

    Gaudi’s Casa Mila at the corner of Passeig de Grácia and Carrer Provença exemplifies his distorted genius. Twisted tangles of shapeless metal form balcony railings on a façade that undulates in a ripple of stone. Known as La Pedrera (the quarry), the one-time apartment building contains no sharp edges, no right angles, no straight walls. Guadi, influenced by the Catalans’ free-spirited nature, was definitely thinking outside the box; in fact, there is no box at all.  Instead, we find eight stories surrounding courtyards and a rooftop “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 on Las Ramblas, you’ll find Palau Güell, the residence built for Gaudi’s benefactor, industrialist Paul Güell, and on the outskirts of the city, Parc Güell, a fantasy park, where a roof-top plaza encircled by one of the world’s longest benches is decorated in trencadís, the Catalan use of tile shards for mosaic ornamentation. 

    Perhaps Gaudi’t 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, with four of the proposed 12 towers soaring above the city in an unofficial tribute to its most unconventional citizen. 

    Barcelona also claims two artists who are 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 childish drawing of Hercules, done when he was nine. There are also remarkably accomplished portraits created during his teenage years and 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.


The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin