Casa Vicens: Gaudí’s Early Masterpieces

“To be interesting, ornamentation must present objects that remind us of poetic ideas, that constitute motifs. Motifs are historical, legendary, active, emblematic; fables relating to men and their lives, action and passion.” – A. Gaudí

This week, one of Antoni Gaudí’s most impressive –and bizarre- houses finally opened its doors to the public. Considered as his first masterpiece, Casa Vicens (1883-1888) is everything you would expect from Catalan Modernism: polychromy, curvilinear forms, wrought iron railings, geometrical and zoomorphic motifs, the interplay between light and shade, to the end of the long list, all with an unmistakable ‘organic’ twist that is a constant in Gaudí’s work.

One particularly interesting detail in Casa Vicens is the use of the ‘muqarnas’ (stalactite) decoration in one of the rooms. Guadí incorporated elements of the Islamic-influenced mudejar style in many of his buildings, but the use of muqarnas breaks the mudejar mould and betrays a clear fascination with Islamic art, not only of al-Andalus, but also of the Orient. In his notebooks, Gaudí explains:

“In the East, everything blends into the horizontal supports and vertical struts. The arch is a simple ornamental motif set within a system of pillars and lintels. Its vaults are simple spherical caps or stalactite vaults – a flat ceiling supporting stalactites as a reminder of the coolness of the cave.”

Click any image to enlarge it.

My next lecture: Ancient Mediterranean Art (30 May 2014)

On 30 May, I will be giving a lecture titled ‘Mediterranean Art: An Expression of the Mediterranean Spirit’ at the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean in Barcelona (for the UfM staff). I am looking forward!

Art imitates life, and the Mediterranean region is the perfect example. From the abstraction of the prehistoric Venus Figurines in Malta and France to the hypnotizing naturalism of the Amarna Period in Egypt and the exquisite pottery of Classical Greece, this presentation is a tour-de-force of Mediterranean Art, a journey to the Ithaca of Odysseus, Alexandria of the Ptolemy Philadelphus, Knossos of the Minotaur, Tyre and Carthage of the Phoenicians, and many other Mediterranean corners whose legacy transcend time and place, and whose names have become synonymous with civilization and enlightenment.
We set sail on 30 May for a destination where all points of the compass meet: our Mediterranean.

Masterpieces of Mediterranean Art will serve as the pretext to tell wonderful stories of the Mediterranean’s vibrant history. Marvelous artworks and artifacts produced by the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Phoenicians, Etruscans, Iberians and others will set the backdrop for a Mediterranean drama, woven around 7 tales and 7 masterpieces that perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the ancient times, and the genius loci of the Mediterranean port cities and towns. These are masterpieces that every Mediterranean citizen should know.

Given the broadness of the topic and the limited time, focus will be given to the art and culture of Prehistory, Ancient Civilizations and Classical Antiquity.

The Tides Return Forever (introduction)
Tales & Masterpieces (Storytelling & Art Appreciation)
The Power of Form (Slideshow & Music)
The Agora (Q&A’s)


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.

Barcelona’s Sant Pau Hospital: World Heritage Pearl

A walking distance from Gaudí’s famous Sagrada Familia is another masterpiece of Modernism, namely the Hospital of Santa Creu and Sant Pau, somehow eclipsed by its mammoth neighbor and the fame of its builder. But make no mistake: this hospital is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it comes as no surprise in a city where architecture seems to descend from heaven rather than rise from the ground!

Following years of restoration work, the hospital finally opened its doors to visitors. Long serpentine queues basked in the sun, waiting for their turn to contemplate firsthand the miracle of Lluís Domènech i Montaner, one of Barcelona’s legendary architects that championed the Modernist style together with Antoni Gaudí.

Once through the entrance, and following the initial aesthetic shock passing through the Administration Pavilion, one comes face to face with a wonderland of domed pavilions and colored towers that glitter under the sun: a symmetrical labyrinth of spikes, chimneys, chimera, gargoyles, and everything fanciful. A panoramic view of this huge space features more of a landscape/skyscape than just a fragmented group of buildings. The harmony of the complex embodies the very essence of an ‘ensemble’, and any itinerary offers a tour de force of Modernist glamour.

The construction work for the hospital started in 1903 in response to a growing population propelled by the feel-good factor of a confident city thanks to the industrial revolution. Lluís Domènech i Montaner wanted a hospital that would be not only functional, but also inspiring and cheerful. His attention to the human element was translated into a ‘garden-city’, where separate pavilions dedicated for different diseases are surrounded by greenery and pleasant walkways over a huge space. On the inside, the pavilions are no less impressive, with murals, tailor-made ceramic tiles, wrought iron lanterns, colored glass windows, and all the luxury of detail.

So far, six of the twelve pavilions have been fully restored and opened to public, and I think the photos can speak better for the charms of this site.

A Walk in Masonic Barcelona

A few days ago, I went on a guided tour in Barcelona’s historic center to visit some of the city’s most well-hidden treasures, namely buildings with masonic symbols. In this post, I will share some info about the walk without revealing the exact itinerary, because those of you in Barcelona might like to do it, and because I think it would be better to do it with the guide (Alexandre Lloreda, Literat Tours) rather than on your own, given his excellent knowledge and his passion for the theme: Check the website of his agency here.

The tour (Masonic Barcelona) started with an introduction to Freemasonry, its history (from the XIV c. onwards), its symbols, its values, etc. A fair share was given to Freemasonry in Spain, which has around 170 Masonic lodges, with the central one being in Barcelona. It is interesting how Freemasonry was demonized by Franco who associated it with Jewish conspiracies. It comes as no surprise though, bearing in mind that most of the liberators of the ex-Spanish colonies in the Americas were Freemasons, and so were most of the figures of the Second Republic in Spain. One of the participants, himself a mason, emphasized how the Freemasonry in Spain until the Civil War was largely a French influence, and hence the rejection for it on part of those who associated France with all the evils imaginable (cherchez the Church vs. the French Illustration!).

The guide also talked about the ranks of masons, their division into two currents, and the symbols they use. In addition to obvious symbols like the compass and the square, other symbols include the 7-pointed star and the acacia tree, reminiscent of Hiram Abiff, the Phoenician architect of King Solomon’s Temple. God is the master geometrician and architect (and hence the G in their symbol), and it’s only logical for a ‘mason’ to venerate Him as such.

The itinerary took us to places like Portaferrissa Street and the Cathedral of Barcelona, where we could admire plaques and friezes with Masonic symbols that seem to elude the viewer. As I said, I will not mention building numbers or exact places, but I’ll attach some photos (scroll down). Among the interesting things that we saw were marks left by groups of masons in the façade of a medieval church. The marks might have served as a quality control mechanism (to see which stones erode first and which are more resilient), and also as a ‘count’ in order to pay different groups of masons according to how much they contributed to work. Then came a building with a huge clock on top, and a goddess holding what seemed to be the arms of the clock, but on a more careful examination appears to be nothing but a compass. The marks on the clock (12, 1, 2, 3, 6 and 9) sum up to 33, the age of Christ when he supposedly died on the cross.

Enough for now, but here are some interesting short facts:
Did you know that Freemasonry has no ‘ideology’?
Did you know Freemasonry did not accept atheists into its circles?
Did you know that Freemasons played a massive role in the French & American Revolutions?
Did you know that Mozart was a Freemason and that his Magic Flute is almost a masonic manifesto?
Did you know freemasons can recognize each other’s rank (apprentice, fellow or master) through special handshakes?
Did you know that black and white chessboard floors are typically used in many masonic meeting places?
Enjoy the photos.

A Morning with Joan Miró

Today, in a group of students and friends, we visited the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona, which houses literally thousands of artworks by the artist who died in 1893 (aged 90). Luckily, there was a wonderful exhibition featuring works by Monet, Chagall, Klee and many other masters. Below are excerpts from things that I explained during the visit:

The Foundation, inaugurated during Miró’s lifetime, was intended not only as a museum of his works, but also as a centre for the study of Contemporary Art. Housed in a beautiful building in the Mediterranean Style by Joan Lluis Sert, the collection spans different stages of his artistic career, with some outstanding masterpieces.

It is impossible to appreciate the art of Miró without understanding the tragedies that he had witnessed and that had shaped his character and style. His strong attachment to the Catalan land and culture and the shock provoked by the two wars that he experienced (the Spanish Civil War and WWII) obviously marked his art ever after.

Miró was an alchemist that managed to turn very popular motifs (like birds, women and stars) into a very personal vocabulary and pictorial language that became characteristic of his work and that became unmistakably ‘his’. When he portrayed war, he produced horrifying and disturbing artworks, and when he wanted to escape the horrors of war, he produced a surrogate reality where stars and planets obeyed a profound lyrical order, as if slowly swinging to the rhythm of a divine tune…the music of the spheres?

I end this with a quote by Miró, in which he described his state of mind during war:
‘I felt a deep desire to escape. I closed myself within myself purposely. The night, music, and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings.’

A magnificent short film about Miró traced his artistic career from his early days in Catalonia, then in Paris and Mallorca, and all the way to the US, where he influenced the Abstract Expressionists, and found the inspiration for realizing monumental and large scale artworks. Another visit to Japan opened his eyes to Japanese calligraphy, something that would translate into heavy black lines. Fine lines, heavily-populated canvases and figurative shapes would give way to a mature economy of elements that would be characteristic of his old age.

Panoramic View

With students and friendsThe Gold of Azure

Cultural Walk in Barcelona (16 Nov. 2013)

From today’s cultural walk for my class in Barcelona:

Throughout its history, the city of Barcelona has always produced and attracted artists, writers and intellectuals. Whether Catalan or not, the city provided the perfect setting for all of them to be creative and leave a legacy that we can still trace today in the streets and the cafes of Barcelona.

Today we talked about such artists as Picasso, Miró, Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol… architects like Gaudí, Puig i Cadafalch, Domènech i Montaner and Josep Vilaseca…writers like Jacint Verdaguer, Rubén Darío and Aribau…and other important figures like Granados, Ocaña, Subirachs, Pere Romeu, Josep Clarà, etc.


Passeig de Gràcia – Plaça Catalunya – Portal de l’Àngel – Carrer Montsió – Avinguda de Portaferrissa – Rambla de Sant Josep – Plaça Reial – Carrer Avinyó – Carrer Ferran– Plaça Sant Jaume – El Call – Plaça Sant Felip Neri – Plaça de la Catedral and the Roman City Walls.


Casa Batllò – Casa Ametller – Casa Lleó Morera – La Diosa – Monument to Francesc Macià – Els Quatre Gats – Roman City Walls and Aqueduct – Palau Moja – Escribà Pastry Shop – House of the Umbrellas – Miro’s Circular Mosaic – Cafè de l’Òpera – Lampposts of Gaudí – Generalitat – L’Ajuntament de Barcelona – The Interpretation Centre of the Jewish Quarter – Picasso’s Mediterranean Friezes – The Roman Temple of Augustus – The Barcelona Cathedral.

Key terms

L’Eixample – Modernism – Trencadís – Renaixença –Els Jocs Florals – Tertulia

L’Eixample is the name given to the XIX-century extension of Barcelona towards the mountains as a result of the population boom. It was the plan of Ildefons Cerdà in 1859, and it resulted in the inclusion of Sants, Sarrià, Gràcia and other villages/suburbs.

Modernismo is the Spanish name given to a continental style of art, architecture and literature that flourished between 1880 and 1914 and had a strong expression in Barcelona thanks to Gaudí and his colleagues. It coincided with the Catalan industrial revolution.

Trencadís refers to the broken ceramic shards that are used in Modernist buildings to cover facades and walls in colourful mosaics, lke the façade of Casa Batllò in Passeig de Gràcia.

Renaixença refers to the Catalan Renissance of the second half of the 19th century. It was golden age of the Catalan culture, championed by the likes of Jacint Verdaguer, Aribaul and Maragall. The Catalan language was celebrated and epic poems were written.

Els Jocs Florals are the Floral Games revived during the Catalan Renaissance. They were competitions between writers and poets, inspired by an old Greek tradition.

Tertulia is like a cultural salon. Tertulia gatherings were gatherings of people with a common passion for art and culture to exchange their creative works (whether art, poetry, music, etc.) and to discuss the latest trends and events. Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona was very famous for tertulia.


Half-forgotten corners in Barcelona’s Medieval Quarter

Today I took my class for a cultural walk in Barcelona. There were people from 14 different coutries…a cultural mosaic proper of a cosmopolitan city of many charms.
Away from the tourist herds, one can still enjoy half-forgotten corners at the very heart of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic (Medieval Quarter). Plaça Sant Felip Neri is one such place…an oasis of tranquility located only a few meters away from the maddening crowds. Behind the peaceful ambiance lies a horrible memory, one that remains engraved in the scarred walls of the Baroque church at the Plaça: it was here that, during the Spanish Civil War, Italian aircrafts bombarded the city, killing over 40 people (mostly children) back in 1938.

Franco, the Spanish dictator that led the Nationalists against the Republicans, had allied himself to Fascist Italy and to Nazi Germany, and literally asked them to bombard Spanish cities like Guernica and Barcelona in order to crush the resistance. He emerged victorious in 1939, but the tragedy remains immortal in the memory of stone (like the walls of the Church of Sant Felip Neri) and in the visual memory of art (like the painting of Guernica by Picasso).

During the Spanish Civil War, several great literary figures joined on the Republican side, writing their memoirs and describing their firsthand experience. George Orwell had much to say, and I leave with some quotes from his novel ‘A Homage to Catalonia’ that we read during today’s walk:

“All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

“The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.”

Cultural Walk in Barcelona: In the footsteps of great cultural figures (Nov. 18th)

This Sunday, I will organize the annual cultural walk for my class in Barcelona, followed by a tertulia session at one of the city’s cultural cafes.
One of the things that fascinate me about Barcelona (apart from its Mediterranean character and cosmopolitan feel) is the abundance of public artworks that can be enjoyed by all in the streets and squares of the city. Signature works by Spanish artist like Picasso, Joan Miró, Gaudí and Subirachs, as well as international artists and architects like Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Rebecca Horn and others.

Many of these works date back to 1992, the year in which Barcelona hosted the Olympic Games. The city witnessed one of the most massive urban regeneration processes in its history, with several neighbourhoods and beaches given a ‘facelift’ to project an image of a confident and modern city. It came at a price: some things are lost forever in the name of ‘urban development’, and the original ‘chiringuitos’ of the fishermen are lost once and for all, replaced by chic restaurants and cafes that cater to massive cultural tourism.

My new Art History Course (Barcelona, Nov. 2012)

I’m pleased to announce my new Art History Course, taking place in Barcelona next month (November) over four sessions (once a week) covering the history of art from Prehistory and all the way to Contemporary Art.

The poster has more details, but the structure of the course is as follows:
First Session : Intro to Art Appreciation – From Prehistory to Medieval Art
Second Session : From Renaissance to Neoclassical Art
Third Session : From Romanticism to Modern Art
Fourth Session : Contemporary Art

All four sessions will be lecture-style, with PowerPoint presentations in all of them. The teaching language is English.

The course includes printed handouts, reading material, and a guided visit to the MNAC Museum in Barcelona to explain some works by old and modern masters like Zurbarán, Carracci, Titian, El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, Picasso, Casas and others.

Anyone interested is welcome to participate. For inquiries / reservations, kindly contact me at the email address indicated in the poster.