Barcelona

Artists' Ambitions by Jeannine Cook

Ramon Casas, an ambitious, innovative artist from Barcelona who straddled the nineteenth and early twentieth century, frequented many notable artists from France and Spain - from Toulouse-Lautrec to Jaoquin Sorolla and Pablo Picasso. Considered a modernist, he excelled in portrait drawings and paintings, as well as graphic art for art nouveau posters. His self-portrait from 1910 is revealing.

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Romanesque art in Barcelona by Jeannine Cook

One of the highlights of a trip to Barcelona is the collection of Romanesque art in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC) - fittingly, you climb up to Montjuic mountain and enter the impressive, domed Palau Nacional, with its frescoes, huge spaces and wonderful diverse collections of Cataluna's art.

The Romanesque collection of art, however, is reputedly the best in the world assembled in one place, and it is astounding in its breadth and depth, its presentation and its relevance to all the other art that one can see in the same museum.  It is a wonderful reminder of how the 10th-13th century world in Spain was so closely linked with that of France, Italy and Northern Europe.  As a young woman, I used to travel from Paris to Barcelona by car, meandering through France to all the major Romanesque sites.  This Barcelona collection is the perfect continuation of the wonders that one can see in France in the famed churches and chapels.

Taller of La Seu d'Urgeuell

Taller of La Seu d'Urgeuell

Apse of Sant Climent de Tauli, c. 1123

Apse of Sant Climent de Tauli, c. 1123

Frescoes, tenderly rescued from chapels and churches all over Cataluna but mostly to the north, are beautifully mounted in domed reproductions of the churches, or incorporated into arches.  The domes are created from wonderful wooden structures whose complex beauty and carpentry are works of art in themselves, seen from behind the display of each fresco.  Colours are as vivid, in many cases, as if the frescoes were executed yesterday - their directness is arresting, details astonishing.

Detail of the Nativity scene from the front of the Avia Altar

Detail of the Nativity scene from the front of the Avia Altar

Santa Julitta

Santa Julitta

Many of the frescoes are done in colours that seem so modern, as can be seen in the excellent presentation on the Museum website. In a way, this religious art is fun - it is imbued with religious fervour, yes, but also with a fresh reflection of life and the things that mattered to those contemporary worshippers.  Details are wonderful and well worth looking at closely as you wander through the beautifully presented rooms (many redone in late 2011).

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There were delicious cattle, cockerels, other beasties amid the details of everyday life.  Many of them are the direct link to Antoni Gaudi, for instance, when you look at details of the Sagrada Familia sculptures.  Then when you turn to the rooms of Romanesque sculptures at the Museum, the simplicity and power of the wooden or metal crucifixes were memorable and haunting, especially as they are superbly presented and lit.

This small and gauntly exquisite Christ is from Serdanya in Cataluna (image at right).

This small and gauntly exquisite Christ is from Serdanya in Cataluna (image at right).

This wonderful polychrome crucifix is the Batllo mid-12th century Crucifix.

This wonderful polychrome crucifix is the Batllo mid-12th century Crucifix.

In similar fashion, the fabulously simple, wooden figures, arrestingly displayed, are very powerful. Some are almost Oriental in the serenity of their faces and expressions, their surfaces beautifully worked and smooth.

Figures from the church of Santa Eulàliain Erill la Vall (Boí Valley, Alta Ribagorça)

Figures from the church of Santa Eulàliain Erill la Vall (Boí Valley, Alta Ribagorça)

As a counterpoint to all the polychromed frescoes, there are rooms of carved capitals on pillars from cloisters and churches, the stone wonderfully worked with saints, plants, fanciful beasties... and in the final room, there was a selection of enamelled religious objects, many in champleve, many from Limoges.  Again, the reminder of how close were the religious communities of France and Spain.

Anyone with an hour or more to spare in Barcelona should do themselves a favour and see this remarkable collection of Romanesque art - it takes one into a world of powerful, direct emotions - joys, sorrows, deep beliefs and hopes, seasoned with humour and respect for life and nature.

Same Exhibit, Different Venues - how to see Miro by Jeannine Cook

Sometimes one is lucky enough to catch the same exhibition at different venues, and it is then extremely interesting to see how the different presentation affects the exhibits feel.

This happened to me when I had first see Joan Miro. The Ladder of Escape at the Tate Modern in London last year, and found that the same exhibition is now showing at the Joan Miro Foundation in Barcelona until 18th March.

Of course, in my personal opinion, the actual buildings cannot be compared, with the Joan Miró Foundation, white, elegant and sprawling along the hill crest over down town Barcelona as an eloquent evocation of the Mediterranean world, being the far more compatible venue. Nonetheless, it is when you enter the exhibition that its presentation becomes interesting to observe.

The Tilled Field,   Joan Miró, 1923-24, Image courtesy of the  Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum

The Tilled Field, Joan Miró, 1923-24, Image courtesy of the  Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum

In the Tate version, the early Miró paintings of the Mont-roig world, near Barcelona, in which he grew up and which marked him so deeply, were spread out far apart, even in different rooms. In Barcelona, the Mont-roig world was powerfully evoked by grouping all these wonderful early, seminal paintings together in the same, rather intimate area. One of the most evocative, and important as the first of Miró's Surrealistic paintings, is The Tilled Field, painted in 1923-24.

Santiago Calatrava's Communications Tower, Barcelona

Santiago Calatrava's Communications Tower, Barcelona

As an aside, this painting also fascinated me because it contains a wonderful herald to Santiago Calatrava's sculpture-communications tower that takes flight into the air nearby in the Montjuic heights of Barcelona, near the 1992 Olympic stadium. Depending on the angle at which you view the Communications Tower, it has very much the same feel as the left-hand symbol in Miró's painting above.

The Miró Foundation grouped together all the Catalan Peasants paintings, with their wonderful shorthand that Miró used to express his feelings about Catalonia, the peasants with guitars, his tussle between voids in the painting and the need to fill these voids or leave them free. The effect was far more powerful and interesting to see these works together, with their progressions and differences, as compared to their spacious presentation by the Tate Modern.

The same intimate, interesting effect was achieved in Barcelona by a much closer juxtaposition of the wonderful Constellations series. Beyond, the presentation was more reminiscent of that done by the Tate, mainly because the later Miró canvases became much bigger, bolder and fewer in series - that meant that they could be hung in rooms, series by series. Nonetheless, there were interesting pauses and changes in pace as at the Miró Foundation, there are Miró sculptures, many small and whimsical, in addition to his single marble sculpture, the Solar Bird and some of the wonderful ceramic ones out on the wide terrace with the Barcelona cityscape as the sunlit backdrop.

This fascinating exhibition travels next to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It would be so interesting to catch it there too and see what differences can be achieved and nuances explored at yet another, different venue.

Art in the Supermarkets by Jeannine Cook

I read of a wonderful, imaginative initiative for handicapped people to create art for supermarkets in Valencia and Palma de Mallorca, Spain. I think it is an example that bears copying, no matter where.

This was a report written by L.R. in the Diario de Mallorca on 19th February about about 200 people with learning disabilities who are creating a special Catalan form of mosaics (trencadis) for murals for the different branches of the supermarket chain, Mercadona. The idea was first put forward in Valencia by someone involved with polishing ceramic tiles: there are inevitably broken tiles and these have traditionally formed the basis of trencadis. The most famous exponent of the use of the irregular tile bits, set in mortar, was Antoni Gaudi. He began to use the brightly coloured, broken pieces of tile in his adornment of architectural elements in Barcelona's hillside garden, Parc Guell at the beginning of the 20th century.

Part of entrance to Parc Guell, Barcelona

Part of entrance to Parc Guell, Barcelona

This is part of a dragon at the entrance to the Parc, done in these broken ceramic pieces. Beyond, all over the Parc, there are wonderful combinations of brilliantly coloured tiles juxta-posed in joyous - often sinuous - configurations. One of the advantages of this trencadis form of ceramics is that the surfaces can indeed curve, something much more difficult with regular whole ceramic tiles.

Below, these are two other images of Gaudi's use of trencadis in Parc Guell, Barcelona.

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Various non-profit organisations involved with caring for people with Down's Syndrome or other learning disabilities got involved in the Mercadona supermarket murals venture. The first mural was done for the fish section in one of Mercadona's supermarkets in Valencia. It was so well received that the meat sections were soon chosen as the next destinations for murals. From there, the idea has snowballed and many more people are involved in the creation of these murals.

Understandably, when they first learn they will be creating a mural some 5 meters long, the participants are somewhat daunted. But they are first taught to sort the ceramic shards by colour. Then comes the assembly of parts according to a design, and as the pieces are placed together on a flat surface, a mesh is then placed over them to secure them. Eventually everything is united in the overall design and mortared into place. In the execution of these murals, there have been many benefits for the participants. They are gainfully employed and taught a new skill, which involves concentration, coordination and application. At the end of the venture, the participants are able to see tangible results which give people pleasure and interest, and they have achieved something they thought initially that they could not do.

To me, it seems the most wonderful alliance of art and skills to enhance the buying experience for everyone in a supermarket, while uplifting and reaffirming the spirit of those who don't always have such opportunities. Good for Mercadona and all those involved in the trencadis murals!

Sunlight and Shadows by Jeannine Cook

Today is a day of heavy flat light, laden with humidity and heat, here on the Georgia coast. All contours are softened, distances are blurred and somehow the scene is flat and almost featureless. It is a day that makes me long for the bright sharp sunlight of the Mediterranean. It also makes me realise how much landscape artists are influenced by the ambient light.

Think, for instance, of Japanese artists. Down the ages, in their nature-based art, the Japanese have been very aware of the play of light on rocks, trees, architecture. Shadows, the corollary of sunlight, are a natural function of their architecture, for example, with the broad eaves on buildings casting wonderful angled shadows. The ultimate interpretation of the beauty of light can be seen in their black lacquer ware, flecked with gold or silver. Viewed by lantern or candlelight, this lacquer ware evokes their northern, sea-influenced light in haunting fashion.

At the other extreme are Western artists who work in the brilliance of Mediterranean light. Take, for example, two of Spain's artists, Joaquin Sorolla from Valencia and Joaquin Mir from Barcelona. Sorolla was multi-faceted in his art, ranging from wonderful luminous portraits to vast historical paintings and, my favourites, landscapes flooded with light. In fact, a quote by Edmund Peel from James Gibbons Huneker, in the book, The Painter, Joaquin Sorolla, says it all: "Sorolla – the painter of vibrating sunshine without equal". It is interesting to study Sorolla's paintings: many of his landscapes which include figures have dramatically bold, abstract shadows (such as his paintings of Valencian fisher women). Yet landscapes done in Javea, Valencia or Malaga, in mainland Spain's Mediterranean coast, are often painted in a very narrow range of values, without dramatic shadows. Even more deliriously high key are some of his depictions of the almost incandescent cliffs and headlands in Mallorca, especially the sun-drenched scenes of Cala San Vicente in the north-east of the island.

"El mar en Mallorca" , Joaquin Sorolla

"El mar en Mallorca" , Joaquin Sorolla

Interestingly, Mallorca, with its amazing light, was also the springboard for Joaquin Mir's greatest successes. A contemporary of Sorolla (who lived from 1863-1923), Mir was born in Barcelona in 1873 and lived until 1940. Colour and light were the keys to his art : "All I want is for my works to lighten the heart and flood the eyes and the soul with light", he said in 1928. He forged his own path to celebrating the Mediterranean sunlight and shadows, sometimes veering to realism, other times towards abstraction, but always seeking to interpret the beauty he saw in a delirium of colour and light. He borrowed the Impressionists' palette of colours, eschewing black, but he used the colours in his own highly original fashion. When you see Mir's works done in Mallorca, you can feel the wonderfully clear light pulsating over everything - the Es Baluard Museum has a number of these canvases (http://www.esbaluard.org).

Joaquim Mir i Trinxet (or Joaquin Mir, 1873-1940): Canyelles

Joaquim Mir i Trinxet (or Joaquin Mir, 1873-1940): Canyelles

Perhaps evoking the clarity of Mediterranean light will help banish the Georgian grey skies of humid heat – I can but hope!