Farewell Subirachs: The Post-Gaudí Sagrada Familia

The death of Gabriel García Márquez a week ago totally eclipsed another ‘cultural’ tragedy: the death of a man that was deemed ‘Catalonia’s Most Important Artist Alive’, namely Josep Maria Subirachs (1927-2014).
Few artists can ‘divide’ and polarize the public opinion as he did, his works never leave you indifferent: you either love them or you reject them totally. One only needs to see the expression on the faces of the visitors to Barcelona’s ‘Sagrada Familia’ as they contemplate the ‘Passion Façade’ to understand this fact. The story is an interesting on.

Subirachs was born the year after Gaudi’s death, not knowing that he would ‘take over’ the responsibility of continuing Gaudi’s most important work: the legendary and iconic Sagrada Familia. A sculptor of obvious talent, he was commissioned in 1986 to create the statues and the sculpture groups for the church’s ‘Passion Façade’, featuring the last days of Jesus Christ. It took him 18 years to finish the work (something reminiscent of great works by Ghiberti), and the outcome was a bomb.

As his formal expressionism gave way to abstraction, his figures became more geometrical and angular, and the Façade ended up looking like an alien body compared to Gaudí’s original organic (and ‘melting’) designs. Some celebrated the Façade as a revolution; others saw it as an assault on “Saint” Gaudí’s work. The provocation was so intense that demonstrations were held in 1990 against Subirachs’ involvement in the Sagrada Familia, and a manifesto was signed. Prominent intellectuals and artists voiced their objection (both to continuing work on the Sagrada Familia to start with, and to Subirachs), including Le Corbusier, Joan Brossa and others.

But there is more: It is rumored that Subirachs was an atheist. Imagine the rage of the conservative and clerical circles of Barcelona at the ‘sacrilege’ done by an atheist sculptor to a sacred space originally conceived as an expiatory temple to clear the city of its sin!

Apart from the Passion Façade, the quality of Subirachs is evident in many public works that still adorn the squares, buildings and garden of Barcelona, and which can be visited by anyone interested. It’s a luxury to have sculptures by the likes of Subirachs, Josep Clarà, Josep Llimona, Joan Miró, to the end of the long list of great Catalan artists, and it’s a pity they have all died.

Subirachs’ work on the Sagrada Familia marked a before-and-after. The Post-Gaudi Sagrada Familia has come to an end with the death of Subirachs, and now we will see how the post-Subirachs Sagrada Familia will look like.

Sénia’s Millenary Olive Trees: Among Gentle Giants

One cannot possibly describe the feelings he experiences when he comes face to face with a living being over 1000 years old…one that has survived a drastic climate change with countless droughts and snowstorms, one that has witnessed the succession of forgotten dynasties and kingdoms, as well as the rise (and fall) of Man. Such is the case with millenary olive trees.

I. Among Millenary Olive Trees
Yesterday, I visited (or better said, paid homage) to the world’s largest concentration of millenary olive trees: over 4000 millenary trees have been catalogued in the Sénia Territory stretching between Catalonia, the Community of Valencia, and part of Aragón (Spain). One area, called L’Arión (in Ulldecona), offers a unique experience with excellent signposts, namely the Natural Museum of the Millenary Olive Trees…an excellent example on natural heritage management (if –somewhat- difficult to reach) with a wonderful itinerary and almost 140 millenary trees. This area lies quite close to the Roman Road known as Via Augusta, and some trees date back to the Roman era.

The Mediterranean ‘liquid gold’ (i.e. olive oil) is still produced from many of these trees…an icon of the Mediterranean culture and the cornerstone of the Mediterranean cuisine, declared Intangible World Heritage by the UNESCO. Most of the olive trees here (some 98%) are of the Farga variety, a true ‘survivor’. Others varieties include the Morruda and the Sevillenca.

The ‘Farga of Arion’ is Spain’s best monumental olive tree, and the star attraction of the Natural Museum at L’Arión. This gentle giant, standing 6.5 meters high, has a huge trunk with a perimeter of 18 meters at the base and over 8 meters at a height of 1.3 meters (millenary olive trees are identified as those with a trunk perimeter of 3.5+ meters at the height of 1.3 meters above ground).

There is something magical about this tree, a presence of some sort: To think that this tree has survived like a sphinx challenging the sands of time…to think that its olives and its oil might have fed Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Berbers, Franks, to the end of the long list…to think that man can destroy (or preserve) what Mother Nature has shied away from destroying…it all sends shivers down my spine, especially when I recall what happened and still happens! The story is a sad one.

II. The Market Forces
It was in the news. A millenary olive tree from Portugal was auctioned to a French collector for 64,000 euros in 2011. He wanted it for his garden. He is not the only collector willing to pay a fortune for his private garden or…his business!

In Spain, Emilio Botín (Santander Bank) bought hundreds of centenary olive trees from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Morocco for the garden of the Bank’s Financial City in…Madrid! Moreover, he acquired 11 (or 12) millenary olive trees from the Sénia Territory. A passion for ancient olive trees? Wait a minute. He used the trees to make exceptional gifts to VIP clients, personalities and powers-that-be: how about a fancy bottle of unique olive oil from a millenary tree? One for the Pope? Another for the Director of the World Bank? Got the idea?

Here are some sad facts: 50% of the ancient olive trees that are uprooted and planted elsewhere cannot survive for over 2 years. It is estimated that 80% never survive beyond 12-15 years. It’s not just a question of climate and care, but also a question of the ‘shock’ that ‘removing’ a tree from its habitat entails, after hundreds and hundreds of years ‘living’ there. It’s probably as bad as forcing a wild animal into a cage in some zoo. These trees live in captivity.

Moreover, collectors, speculators and businessmen have all contributed to ‘putting a price’ and ‘creating a market’ for ancient olive trees. There came a time when farmers would cut old trees that were not very productive (like the Farga), selling the trunk for peanuts (thinking it would be used for its wood). Now, collectors and businessmen drove the prices up to some 24,000 euros for some trees, but in an auction, things can get even crazier.

On the positive side, in the Sénia Territory, the efforts of different stakeholders have finally yielded the creation of associations and other bodies involved in cataloging, protecting and promoting the unique natural heritage represented by the millenary olive trees, and the Law now protects certain area. This –Mediterranean- heritage is diffused through centers of interpretations and natural museums, and a good way to support this cause is to pay a visit!

I leave you with the photos, with a focus on the incredible texture of the trunks and roots.

The Mediterranean History by David Abulafia – Lecture Review

Yesterday’s lecture by Cambridge Professor, David Abulafia, at Barcelona’s CaixaForum was a time capsule; a review of the Mediterranean history since the time of the Neanderthal Man (which he insisted should be called the Gibraltar Woman) and all the way to the Roman Empire.

The famous author of ‘The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean’ emphasizes the ‘human agency’, stressing the lasting legacy and the profound changes provoked by individuals like Alexander the Great and others throughout the Mediterranean history.

Following an initial review of the prehistoric civilizations and cultures of Malta and Sicily, he moved on to the Bronze Age Civilizations of present-day Greece and the nearby islands (Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean civilization). Mediterranean islands like Malta, Cyprus and Sicily became ‘stepping stones’ (to put it in his own words) that facilitated the contact between both shores of the Mediterranean. Trade and the search for resources brought people closer, triggering a massive cultural exchange, but then came a rupture and a wave of violent migrations by the mysterious Sea Peoples. Abulafia compares the effect of the Sea Peoples on the Eastern Mediterranean to that of the Barbarians on Rome much later.

Integration was made possible again –and at a greater scale- through the Phoenicians. The Mediterranean flourished again, the Phoenicians came in contact with Greeks, Etruscans, Iberians…and a Phoenician outpost in Carthage, Tunisia, became a super maritime power in the Mediterranean that vied for dominating the sea.

Abulafia’s lecture formed part of the cultural programme accompanying a wonderful exhibition at CaixaForum, titled ‘The Mediterranean: From Myth to Reason’. I would like to share a quote from that exhibition’s brochure that captures the exhibition’s essence: “In the 6th century BC, on the coasts of Ionia and Magna Graecia, thinkers such as Thales and Heraclitus abandoned the belief that the universe was a divine creation and attributed its existence to the action of primordial elements: water, earth, air and fire. It was a fundamental change. Myths were no longer sufficient to explain the origins and sense of the cosmos. Humans were faced with an enigma that they had to resolve by themselves, without any supernatural interventions.”

In his book ‘The Great Sea’, Abulafia speaks of the current Mediterranean as the fifth Mediterranean…a sea divided and dominated by political turmoil and economic crises on both shores. I’m half-way through the book, and I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in the Mediterranean history.

2014: The Year of El Greco

“Art is not submission and rules, but a demon which smashes the moulds (…). El Greco’s inner-archangel’s breast had thrust him on savage freedom’s single hope, this world’s most excellent garret.” – Nikos Kazantzakis

El Greco means the Greek. The legendary painter El Greco (who died 400 years ago) was indeed born in Greece (Crete), but he is celebrated in Spain as a Spanish artist for several reasons. First, it is claimed that it was in Spain that his talent flourished (not true, because he had already mastered icon painting in Greece and later produced artworks in Venice during the time he spent with Titian). Second, he was commissioned to produce important works by Philip II of Spain, which is true, but it is also true that Philip II did not like his works and gave him no further commissions. Third, it was in Spain that El Greco produced his absolute masterpieces, and it was in Toledo that he died. This, to my understanding, is the strongest justification.

Spanish or Greek, El Greco will always be remembered and celebrated for such great works as The Disrobing of Christ, The Opening of the Fifth Seal and the Knight with his hand on his breast. Moreover, his ‘views of Toledo’ forever immortalized Toledo’s cityscape, and created a classical correlation between the artist and the city where he died.

Just like Goya centuries later, El Greco defies classification. He is generally considered a mannerist (for his elongated figures and twisted bodies), but the unmistakable iconic quality of his figures betrays a Byzantine influence, which comes as no surprise for a painter ‘formed’ in Crete. The Renaissance touch came from Venice and Rome, and the resulting style looks personal and coherent rather than hybrid and invented…with a heavy apocalyptic air.

2014 is the Year of El Greco in Spain, and lots of activities and exhibitions are planned in Toledo, Madrid and Valladolid. You can check the programme of activities and itineraries at the official website:

Off to Toledo very soon!