Review: Lazarillo de Tormes

Review: Lazarillo de Tormes

La vida del Lazarillo de TormesLa vida del Lazarillo de Tormes by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One can imagine the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes sitting down to write in a mood similar to that of Erasmus when he penned In Praise of Folly, or of Voltaire when he composed Candide: full of the wry amusement of one engaged in a learned, witty, and irreverent literary exercise. And yet this book, like those other two, quickly became something far more than an elegant diversion. For with Lazarillo the author spawned an entire literary genre, the picaresque, creating a character and a story that have retained their charms long after the targets of the author’s satire have passed out of this world.

The most conspicuous target of the author’s derision is the church—which is likely why the author wished to remain unknown. Pardoners, priests, friars, and chaplains are exposed as hypocritical sinners—as gluttons, profligates, and fornicators, with a pious word for everybody. But the writer also takes aim at the inflated sense of honor that infected society in his day, which most famously compels a starving knight to go about town, pretending to be well off, preferring to suffer and even to die rather than have his poverty revealed.

We see all this through the eyes of Lázaro, a man of humble origins whose highest ambition is to have a full belly. This proves extremely difficult, however, as he goes from one master to another, each of them proving unable or unwilling to satisfactorily feed the ravenous rogue. Like all picaresque heroes, Lázaro is, at bottom, simple and good, with a robust and hearty humor, but who is nevertheless forced into cunning and trickery by hard circumstances. This formula—so successful in the age of television—was used to its full potential in its first historical appearance. Even through the difficult lens of old Castilian, Lázaro’s schemes to steal some crumbs of bread or some swigs of wine are still wonderfully funny.

But the novella is more than a slapstick comedy. The necessities of his belly and the earthiness of his mind allow Lázaro to penetrate all the hypocrisies of those around him—since, after all, hypocritical words cannot be eaten. Lázaro thus proves the ideal vessel for exposing the gulf between being and seeming. The reality he faces is bleak: full of sin, suffering, and poverty. And yet his society is in a state of constant denial, covering up this bleak reality with noble phrases and unheeded pieties. That this is more or less always the case in human life is why this book remains one of the jewels of Spanish literature.

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Homage to Catalunya: Tarragona

Homage to Catalunya: Tarragona

This is the final installment of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

If you want to catch a glimpse of Catalonia’s Roman heritage, no city is better suited than Tarragona—or, as the Romans called it, Tarraco. The capital of its eponymous province, the city of Tarragona is nevertheless much smaller than Barcelona, with a population of about 130,000. It is easily accessible from that mecca of Catalonia, about an hour away by commuter train, and thus well-suited for day trips. Tarragona is also worth visiting on its own—especially if you’re looking for a place less infested by tourists. Like Barcelona, it is situated on the Mediterranean coast, in a section the Catalans call the Costa Daurada, or “golden coast.”

tarragona_beach1
Tarragona’s beach with the tracks towards Barcelona

Roman remains are scattered throughout the city, especially in the old city center. This part of town is also called the “high part” by the inhabitants, for the obvious reason that it is situated high on a hill overlooking the sea to one side and the land on the other. You can reach this point by ascending the Via de l’Imperi Roma, a fine tiled walkway, sheltered with trees, that goes along the remains of the old Roman wall (which was likely built atop another, older wall, perhaps Phoenician). For a small price the visitor can climb up these walls and walk their length, giving one an excellent view of the city as well as the surrounding valley on the inland side.

Going along this way, the walker curves around back towards the city and the sea. I passed the Archaeology Museum, which unfortunately was closed at the time. Nevertheless, outside the building there are some ruins to explore, notably a staircase that leads up into the shell of the old Praetorium Tower. This tower has been repaired, rebuilt, and repurposed many times throughout its long life: as a castle, a barracks, and finally a prison. According to the informational plaque, it was used for this last function as recently as the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when it was filled far beyond capacity with political and military prisoners, many of whom were executed. Nowadays, the tower is a ruined shell; before it, on a tall pillar, stands the statue of a Roman dignitary, who seems to be gazing despairingly at the sea beyond.

tarragona_statueview

Nearby, like a stone scar in the middle of the city, is yet another ruin. Like so many ancient remains, weather and time (not to mention the people who used these old ruins as stone quarries) have taken their toll on this site. All I could discern were doorways and what could have been rows of seats. A plaque informed me that this was a section of the old circus maximus, the stands where crowds cheered as chariots sped by. Further down, closer to the sea, a larger section of the old racing ground has been preserved. Apart from walls, doorways, and seating, there is a tower affixed to the structure—whose purpose I admit I do not know, but which looks to my eyes like a later addition.

Tarragona_circusmaximus2

But the most impressive ruin in Tarragona is still further towards the water. This is the amphitheater, which sits like a man-made crater in the hill above the beach. Few sights in Catalonia are more picturesque than this one: the tan stone, symmetrical and bare, seeming to float above the sea. Built in the early 2nd century, the amphitheater was approximately the same size as the one in Mérida, big enough for 15,000 spectators. And like all amphitheaters in Rome, what these spectators viewed was gore: fights to the death between slaves. During the reign of Valerian (253 – 260), the Christian bishop Fructuosus was, along with his two deacons, burned alive in this very amphitheater during one of the many waves of persecutions against the Christians.

tarragona_amphitheater

The Roman remains within Tarragona have been subject to the pressure of an expanding city. Their rocks have been quarried and their structures used as foundations. But outside the city, some ruins have fared rather better. The most famous of these is the so-called Pont del Diable, or Devil’s Bridge. More prosaically, this is Les Ferreres Aqueduct. This was built during the time of Augustus to transport water to the city of Tarraco. Today it sits, peaceful and pristine, in a wooded area about 4 km north of the city.

I could have gotten there easily enough by bus. But I like walking and so I decided to go by foot. Google Maps has a bad habit of routing pedestrians with the most direct route, without considering whether it’s really walkable. So the path took me along the highway N-240 (which links Tarragona and Bilbao), which is indeed quite direct. The problem was that the sidewalk dwindled and eventually disappeared, leaving me wandering in the tight space between the guardrail and the grass. Eventually I decided that this was possibly unsafe and certainly unpleasant, so I turned into Sant Pere i Sant Paul, a suburb of Tarragona. Once I crossed through this sleepy hamlet (and stopped for coffee), I entered some dirt paths that led through a pine forest.

Amid these natural surroundings the aqueduct mysteriously materializes, traversing a wide valley between two hills. It has hardly aged a day. The tan rock bears the same color as the sandy soil underneath, and indeed of much of the stone of this region. It is not as tall or as graceful as the aqueduct of Segovia, which has three levels of arches rather than Ferreres’s two. Nevertheless, one cannot walk across the top of the aqueduct in Segovia, as one can here. There is no ticket booth nor any tourist apparatus of any kind. One simply walks up and across, enjoying the view of the surrounding forest. Admittedly the constant whooshing of the nearby highway traffic does lessen the enchanting sensation of having discovered a forgotten ruin. Even so, the aqueduct is one of the jewels of Tarragona.

Tarragona_aqueducttop

This exhausts my knowledge of Tarragona’s famous Roman ruins. But Tarragona has still more to offer.

The most beautiful building in the city is Tarragona’s Cathedral. The building sits ensconced in the historic center, up on the hill, surrounded by attractive narrow streets and old buildings. A flight of stairs leads you up to its façade. This is most notable for its row of saints, apostles, and prophets in robs who flank the main doorway. In the central doorjamb stands the Virgin, holding Christ; and below her is a bas-relief of Adam and Eve. Once inside, I was able to hear the cathedral’s magnificent organ resonating throughout the space, since it was in the process of being tuned. This did not sound exactly beautiful, I admit, but it is a pleasure to hear even a single note on a real church organ.

tarragona_cathedralfacade

What first attracted my attention was the main altar. Luckily the visitor can walk right up to it, which is usually not the case. It is a wonderful gothic creation in polychromed alabaster, depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary in 18 separate reliefs. Once more, the Virgin and Child stand in the center, while above two golden angels raise their weapons in righteous fury. The cathedral also has a lovely cloister, spacious and filled with green. When I visited a painter had set up an easel in one corner and was at work. From the painter’s spot you could also see the cathedral’s distinctive octagonal tower, which is doubtless why he chose it. I particularly enjoyed the small vents in the walls around above the cloister windows, each one carved into a different pattern.

tarragona_altar

Attached to the cloister is the Dioecian Museum, which houses several religious paintings and tapestries. I was also surprised to find that one door led into an archaeological excavation. A temple dedicated to the cult of Augustus has been uncovered under the cathedral. Humans like to build their temples over one another, it seems, perhaps for the sake of continuity during a period of dogmatic change. Many churches in Spain have been built over mosques, which themselves had been built over Visigothic churches. And so history flows on.

Tarragona_castle

Once you descend the hill on which the old town sits, you can come to the city’s central road: the Rambla Nova. In the center is a spacious walkway where, when I visited, a Christmas market had been set up. Here you can also see the Monument als castellers, which is a metal statue depicting Catalonia’s famous tradition of making human pyramids. This tradition, by the way, is one of two in Catalonia to be designed UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The other is the Patum of Berga, a festival celebrated in the city of Berga during Corpus Christi, in which people dress up in giant monster costumes and dance.

At the end of the Nova Rambla is the Balcó del Mediterrani, a lookout point that sits high up above the Mediterranean Sea beyond. Dotting the seascape were the shapes of ships, large shipping frigates at anchor in the harbor. I wonder, do the sailors sleep on board or do they take a little boat to shore? The life of a sailor is a great mystery to me. Someone who assuredly did sleep many nights at sea is Roger de Llúria, a Catalan who was one of the greatest naval commanders of the medieval period, and whose statue stands in the center of the lookout point.

From here there is no direct way to get down to Tarragona’s beach, the Platja del Miracle. But it is worth the walk if you want to see the sun set below the dockyard, turning the skyline red and turning every building and person into a black silhouette. You may even enjoy a swim.

Tarragona_Cover


This wraps up my series on Catalonia. Of course with my measly three trips there I have inevitably left out much of the region’s treasures. Even so, I am tremendously impressed with Catalonia. It is a place replete with national and cultural beauty, rich with history, and still striving towards the future.

A Conversation with a Philosopher

A Conversation with a Philosopher

Carlos Gómez is a retired teacher who spent his career working in a public school in Rivas-Vaciamadrid. He taught philosophy, mainly to bachillerato students (the final two years of high school), but also a class called “Ethical Values” to lower levels. He has been my student for over a year now; and, despite his constantly humble insistence that his English is “so bad,” he is remarkably articulate in this second language, which he learned later in life.

We have our classes in his personal library. The walls are lined with bookshelves, stuffed full. Around me I see Newton, Locke, Bentham, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, Kant, the complete works of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, a multi-volume history of private life, and several histories of Western philosophy. On one shelf sits a bust of Voltaire, looking impish. In his office hangs a poem by Antonio Machado; and on an easel sits a painting he is working on.

Carlos recently agreed to turn one of our classes into an interview, focusing on his experience in philosophy and education. The following is an edited transcript.


CARLOS: This will be the first interviewed I ever answered.

Carlos_Portrait

ROY: Are you excited?

C: Yes, I feel like a like a VIP. All people like to have other people interested in them, I think.

R: Okay, first question. What originally drew you to philosophy? Were there any particular authors or experiences that inclined you to study the subject?

C: It was really the influence of a teacher. When I was in secondary school, my main goal, until the age of 17, was to study chemistry. But then something happened. And that was to have a very good philosophy teacher. He was, indeed, a student of Ortega y Gasset. His name was Antonio Rodríguez Huéscar. He was a student of Ortega y Gasset during the Spanish Republic (1931-35), and he went into exile at the end of the Civil War. He ended up teaching philosophy at Puerto Rico University, but he eventually decided to come back to Spain. He was an old man by then. And he decided to get a post as a philosophy teacher here, but he wasn’t allowed to teach in a university, because of his past. So he taught in a secondary school.

Well, he came to my public school, and for me that was amazing. I discovered philosophy. At that time philosophy was taught in the two last years of Bachillerato. I had him as a teacher these two years, and I saw that philosophy was “my way.” That was my only reason to study philosophy. A great teacher.

R: What made you decide to become a secondary school teacher?

C: Here in Spain, professional paths for a philosopher are few. One of the most important is to be a teacher. Another one is to publish and to translate other philosophers, but most graduates become teachers, either at secondary school or at university. This is our fate. In my case, I became a teacher just when I finished my degree.

R: Can you give me some idea of the process of becoming a secondary school teacher of philosophy?

C: To be a teacher in a secondary school you need to have a degree. In fact, if you are trying to be a philosophy teacher, your degree need not be in philosophy. You just need a degree in general. Of course, most people who teach philosophy studied the subject, too. You also need to pass the oposiciones.

The oposiciones are a special public examination in which there are a determined number of posts to be got. People need, not only to pass the exam, but to beat each other. This is why they are called “oposiciones,” because everyone is opposed. There is a writing portion in which you need to write about one subject chosen from 150 possible subjects. Most of these were about the history of philosophy, specific philosophers, aesthetics, ethics, etc.

The second part of the exam used to be called the encerrona, because they locked you in a classroom with some books, to prepare a topic that had been given to you randomly. You don’t choose it. I had 4 or 5 hours to prepare the topic, and then I had to give a presentation about it. The last part of the exam was a kind of pedagogical test, about how to teach philosophy, how to organize your materials, what exercises, what resources you could employ to make your subject more attractive.

R: What are some of the challenges of getting adolescents to grapple with philosophical questions?

C: I don’t know if I got it, I tried but… Well, today I think the main obstacle to gain teenagers to our cause is that they live in a visual culture. They don’t usually read. And they understand mostly things that they can see or that they can imagine. Or things that they can find in their everyday life. Philosophy, on the other hand, as everyone knows, is a quite general, quite abstract subject. So the question is to unite both things. So, to me, this visual culture is the most difficult obstacle. How do you overcome that? Well, with difficulty. I don’t have an easy solution, but I think you need to bring philosophical questions closer to their lives.

Carlos_bentham
Carlos with the “auto-icon” of philosopher Jeremy Bentham

I’ve discovered that you have to begin to treat any problem by asking for their experience in that field. Of course, you don’t ask a teenager “Does God exist?” But, perhaps, “Do you think we’re alone in the universe?” or “Do you think have any idea about the meaning of life?” or “Have you ever thought about death?” Or something similar. Trying to attract them to problems that, eventually, can get them to your field—to a field in which you, eventually, can ask “Do you think there could be another kind of being different from us, more powerful than us, a creator, or a judge for our actions?”

But I repeat that I have no magic bullet for this problem. You have a saying, in English, “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” And I think that this is the way. The other thing is to have the will.

R: In the United States we do not teach philosophy in public secondary schools. Are we missing out?

C: Well, I don’t know if you are missing out. We have always had a subject of philosophy in secondary schools. And I’ve learned quite recently that this is not very common, even in Europe. But I think that it has its function. Why? I would say that everybody should have the opportunity to think about the persistent problems that afflict human beings. As Popper says, if you don’t have a philosophical idea, you will have a philosophical prejudice. In any case, you won’t have any conscious idea about what to do in an ethical context, or about what is going to happen when you die, or about what it means to live in a fair society.

I think that it’s better to be trained to use your mind to solve these problems. And I think, in any case, you will be a philosopher, as Kant said, since everyone faces philosophical problems. The important point, for me, is that philosophy in secondary school should be understood as training, a training to be conscious of problems, to have a reflective attitude. For me, it’s nothing but that. To be reflective.

R: Do you think that philosophy classes contribute to the health of society?

C: I hope so! For me the answer is the same. Societies where people make their decisions consciously is definitely preferable to a society where people make decisions in a random way. And to make a non-rational decision, for me, is to make a random decision. Would this be the solution of every social problem? Absolutely not. But if we had this kind of society, a rational society, a society in which all its members think through their decisions—this would absolutely be better than the reverse. Some philosophers have had their utopia in which all people are rational and discuss every issue rationally, and make their decision without any interest or interference. Of course this is far from real. But I think that the main idea is a good one, even though this is a very difficult, in some way unreachable, ideal—but an ideal that attracts us so much that it makes us walk in its direction. And this is good in itself, even though we never reach the goal.

R: How would you respond to those who find philosophy pretentious nonsense or completely impractical?

C: In some sense they are right, because there have been, in history, a lot of pretentious philosophers and a lot of impractical philosophers. Even from the point of view of a philosopher. This can be said of some number of philosophers, but not of philosophy in itself. As happens in every realm of culture, there are people who aren’t at the level they are supposed to be. But is philosophy in itself pretentious? Absolutely not. For example, Ortega y Gasset is, for me, an example of a clear, practical philosopher. He wrote understandably and he brought his ideas to the political arena. He gained a seat in parliament. He wrote many articles about the political situation.

Carlos_Wittgenstein
Carlos at Wittgenstein’s grave

In general, I don’t think it’s necessary that philosophers be considered as men who live above the clouds, not interested in real life. This is not true. On the other hand, it is true that philosophers who write in a very complicated way have created a “black legend” about philosophy. But that is something we have to fight against. We don’t need to take that as something essential for philosophy.

R: Do you have any suggestions for improving Spain’s educational system?

C: Today, I am an outsider, out of the public educational system, so I can speak more freely. But I don’t really have a magic bullet in this case either. But for me there are two general lines to develop. One of them would be to get rid of charter schools. Why? Because I think it doesn’t make sense that we have schools that are at the same time public and private. If it is private, it must face the challenges that private companies face. And they should not have any public benefits. They should not have public aid. I think this because, nowadays in Spain, public schools have to compete with a kind of school that offers them benefits that public schools, with their limited budgets, cannot. This is not fair. The charter schools, as a result, get the best students. Because students are attracted by things like indoor pools and dancing programs, and so on. So private schools shouldn’t use public funds.

The other idea that I always had is that… Well, you know, we have all the students from 7th grade to 12th in the same schools, with the same kinds of curriculums. That is to say that they all study the same academic things, in the same classrooms, with the same level of depth, and the same teachers. For me this is not functional. When I was a child there were two curriculums. There were two paths. A more academic line, which led us to university. And there was a practical, professional line which led into vocational schools. I think this model is better than the one that we have today. And I would go back to it. Of course, you must allow people to switch back and forth, if they want. Teenagers change their minds. Many problems we have in secondary schools nowadays come from this lack of differentiation. How can you teach a class when one half is interested and the other half isn’t?

R: Are there any thinkers, ideas, or books that you find yourself returning to again and again?

C: I am interested, basically, in questions of epistemology (the theory of knowledge), ethics, and politics. I don’t know enough about aesthetics, for example, and hence I am not interested in it too much. I also do not care much for ontology. My preference for the above mentioned topics has been constant from the beginning. And the philosophers who have contributed the most to these fields are the ones I like best. For example, Aristotle more than Plato, though I recognize that Plato was more creative. In modern philosophy, I like the empiricists (such as Hume) more than the rationalists; and among the rationalist philosophers I like Spinoza, but not Descartes very much.

But my very favorite philosophers are those from the age of Kant and afterwards. Kant himself is the father of contemporary philosophy. And there are the greatest of the nineteenth century, Marx and Nietzsche. Mill is interesting, too. In my early days I liked Ortega very much, but Ortega is a philosopher who I don’t read anymore. I also like philosophers who are involved in the social sciences, like Karl Mannheim, about whom I wrote my thesis.

I am particularly interested in questions of technology, like whether technology is releasing us from nature or is exploiting or manipulating us, or is leading us to a new form of slavery. Technology is bringing new philosophical questions to light. Such as the old problem of immortality. Soon it may be, indeed, literally possible that we live longer or, even—why not?—that we live forever. Well, I don’t know. The question of human nature, raised by Hume, is also more important than it has ever been. Since today the possibility of changing human nature does exist. But for me the questions are more interesting than the answers.

I think you can find philosophical problems everywhere, if you have the proper sight. There are people who would never find a philosophical problem anywhere. And there are people, like us, who find philosophical problems everywhere. For me, these problems exist. Philosophers can be detestable people. But that doesn’t affect philosophy itself, and philosophy itself matters. And I think it will matter forever.

Review: Frankenstein

Review: Frankenstein

Frankenstein, or The Modern PrometheusFrankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Shelley was just eighteen when she wrote this iconic novel, which you might think is extraordinary; but considering who she was, it would have been even more extraordinary, perhaps, had she not done so. The daughter of William Godwin, idealistic philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist champion, she was wooed and conquered by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who then took her on a vacation with his good friend, Lord Byron, when a cold-snap caused by the ashes released into the atmosphere during the 1815 eruption of Mount Tamora forced them to stay inside for days on end, where they found entertainment by telling ghost stories. If she had not done something memorable in such circumstances, it would have been nearly obscene.

This book was the first “classic” I read on my own initiative. I was the same age as was Shelley herself when she wrote the book. I had just gotten to college, and the experience so impressed me that I thought I had better do something to cultivate my mind. My vocabulary was so feeble at the time that Shelley’s nineteenth century prose—quite overwritten—was like another language. Still, I pressed on to the end, and the experience was enjoyable enough that I immediately went on to read Dracula (which I preferred). Still, the impression lingered on afterwards that there was something not quite right with the book, like a dish that had been somehow botched. Now that I finally read it again I can say why.

What irks me the most is that I find Dr. Frankenstein absolute implausible as a character. If he earnestly thought that he was unlocking the secret of life—a noble goal—why would he keep his work such a secret? And how could such a cold scientific genius, who had just been sewing together corpse parts, be so overwhelmed by the ugliness of his creature’s face that he faints away? How could such a brilliant man not foresee that the monster’s threat about his wedding day was not directed at him? Time after time he makes decisions or has reactions that are, to me, inconsistent and unbelievable. Indeed, I recently read an adapted version for ESL learners which palpably improved the story, I think. Instead of Frankenstein fainting away and falling into a nervous fever for months at the mere sight of his monster, for example, the laboratory catches fire from the lightning and he falsely assumes the monster escapes.

I know, I know, I am supposed to suspend disbelief. But what jarred me was not the lack of scientific plausibility, but the lack of psychological plausibility of Frankenstein’s character. I could hardly believe that Frankenstein, who had unlocked the secret of life and death, did not even momentarily consider reviving his loved ones. I also had trouble believing that Frankenstein could complete 90% of the work on the monster’s bride, and only consider the dangers of doing so at the last possible moment. And a man who is supposedly in the depths of despair or thirsting with mad revenge, but who continually pauses to give loving descriptions of his alpine hikes and his travels through Europe, all the while professing not to have enjoyed them—it swerves into the absurd.

This psychological implausibility infected every other character. The monster’s long speech at the end about his tortured conscience rang more falsely than tin cans. And the bland goodness of Frankenstein’s friends and family made them impossible to mourn—pure white lambs prepared for the slaughter. The general impression is that the characters’ personalities are driven by the necessities of plot, not vice versa, which is never good. Frankenstein is a genius when the story need him to discover life, and an oaf when the story needs him to make a mistake; his monster is ruthless and demonic when tragedy is called for, eloquent and pitiable when things take a more plaintive turn.

But the book would not have become such an inescapable classic, and an integral part of pop culture, if it did not have compensating virtues. The most striking aspect of the book, for me, is its imagery. Many scenes are so vivid that they are always remembered. Shelley’s swollen prose is ill-suited to the quiet moments of the book, but flies free of excess in the novel’s many dramatic climaxes. And of course the novel’s premise was radically original and proved extremely influential. A ghost story without a ghost, a fantastic tale where technology provides the fantasy—it had not been done before. Its premise, too, has proven extremely rich and relevant, an allegory for humanity’s arrogance and the perils of creation. These virtues will ensure Frankenstein a place in English literature as permanent as Percy’s poems, which may indeed outlast Ozymandias’s statue and still be read when we are able to resuscitate corpses.

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Review: The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

Review: The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

The Letters of Vincent van GoghThe Letters of Vincent van Gogh by Vincent van Gogh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For great things do not just happen by impulse but are a succession of small things linked together.

The main problem when encountering Van Gogh is that his life has become the quintessential artistic myth of our age. The obscure genius ahead of his time, toiling in solitude, tortured by personal demons, driven by a creativity that sometimes spilled over into madness—and so on. You’ve heard it all before. You have also seen it before. His paintings suffer from the same overexposure as does his life story. Starry Night hangs, in poster form, in dorm rooms and offices; it is used in commercials and as desktop backgrounds. The challenge, then, as with all iconic art, is to unsee it before it can be properly seen.

The best way to pop this swollen bubble of this myth is, I think, to read these letters. Here an entirely different Van Gogh is revealed. Instead of the mad genius we find the cultured gentleman. Van Gogh could read and write English, French, and German fluently, in addition to his native Dutch. He peppers his letters with references to Dickens, Elliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac, Zola. His prose is fluent, cogent, and clear—sometimes even lyrical. His knowledge of art history is equally impressive, as he, for example, compares Shakespeare’s and Rembrandt’s understanding of human nature. Not only this, but he was far from insulated from the artistic currents of his day. To the contrary, he was friends with many of the major artists in Paris—Seurat, Signac, Gauguin—and aware of the work of other prominent painters, such as Monet and Cézanne.

But, of course, Van Gogh’s myth, like many, has some basis in truth. During his lifetime he did not receive even a fraction of the recognition his work deserved (though if he had lived a little longer it likely would have). He was often unhappy and he did suffer from a mental illness of some sort, which did indeed lead him to sever a portion of his own ear. What is less clear is the role that his unhappiness and his mental illness played in his work. In our modern world, still full of Romanticism, we are apt to see these factors as integral to his artistic vision, the source of his inspiration and style. Van Gogh himself had, however, quite a different opinion, seeing his suffering and illness as a distraction or an obstacle, something to be endured but not sought.

The letters in this volume span from 1872 to 1890, the year of his death. Most of them are addressed to his brother, Theo, who worked as an art dealer in Paris and who supported Vincent financially. There are also a few letters to his sister, Wil, and to his artist friends. From the beginning we see Van Gogh as an enthusiastic and earnest man, very liable to be swept up into passions. His first passion was the church. Following in his father’s footsteps, Van Gogh went to England to work as a preacher. His letters from this period are full to bursting with pious sentiments; in one letter he even includes a sermon, which he composed in English. He quickly grew disenchanted with conventional religion, however, and soon he is pining after his cousin, Kee, who rejects him and refuses to see him. Not long after that he takes in a woman named Sien, a former prostitute, and his letters are filled with his dreams of family life.

But in all of these letters, even before he decided to take up art—which he did comparatively late, at the age of 27—Van Gogh show a keen visual awareness and appreciation. He includes long, detailed, and sometimes rapturous descriptions of towns and landscapes. He is also, from the start, independent to the point of stubbornness. He persists in trying too woe his cousin even in the face of his whole family (including Kee herself) discouraging him. He insists on taking in Sien despite the disapproval of nearly everybody, including his brother and his mentor, Mauve. When it came to art he was absolutely uncompromising, refusing to paint anything just for money, and getting into passionate disagreements with some of his artist friends (Gauguin, most notoriously).

Van Gogh’s intractability often landed him in trouble. He had a bad relationship with his parents and often quarrelled with his brother, Theo, who was his closest confidant. But it is also, I think, the quality that is ultimately most admirable in him. His personal standards drove him to work hard. He was no savant. His letters are filled with exercises and studies. He was tough on his own work and constantly strove to improve it. And though he sometimes got discouraged, there is never any hint of quitting or compromising. This is the classic story, often told. But it is easy to lose sight of how dreary and dispiriting this life could be, day to day. In films the struggling artist is enmeshed in a moving drama, and the audience always knows it will come right in the end. But for Van Gogh this was a plodding daily reality of struggle and failure, with no audience and no guarantee of ultimate success.

That we admire Van Gogh for persisting is, in large part, because his art was truly great. But what would we think if he was mediocre? This, you might say, is the paradox of persistence: We admire those who persist in the face of struggle when they have genuine talent; but when they do not, the spectacle becomes almost pathetic. What would we think of a man financially supported by his brother, constantly quarrelling with and alienating his parents, toiling away in isolation, who produced nothing beautiful? We might be inclined to call such a person naïve, foolish, or even selfish. Whether we admire or scorn stubbornness, in other words, depends on whether it eventually pays off. But in the meantime nobody can know if it will, least of all the stubbornly persistent person. It is, in short, a great risk.

Yet it cannot be said that Van Gogh wagered everything on his talent, since there is not even a hint of calculation or self-interest in his continuing persistence. He is so manifestly, uncompromisingly, absolutely obsessed and absorbed by art that there is no other option for him. Even when institutionalized and hospitalized he thinks of nothing but when, how, where, and what he can paint next. And though he at times expresses regret for the sacrifices this entails—he is especially vexed by the toll it takes on his love-life—he never discusses art with even a touch of bitterness. He is willing to live in a hovel and survive on crumbs if it means he can afford paint. To see such unqualified devotion, not in a novel or on a stage, but in the real, intimate context of his daily life is (to use a hackneyed word) inspiring.

Vincent’s story had a tragic ending. On a summer day in July he walked into a wheat field where he was painting and shot himself in the chest. He survived two more days, finally passing away in his brother’s arms on July 29. The circumstances surrounding this death are rather remarkable, and I don’t wonder that two biographers, Naifeh and Smith, have raised questions about it. The tone of his final letters, while troubled, are far from despairing. He even includes an order of paints in his final dispatch to Theo. And it is also extraordinary to think that a man who had shot himself in the chest could walk a mile back to the inn, or that a man locally known for his mental instability could get a gun. The recent film, Loving Vincent (which I haven’t seen), is focused on this question.

Theo did not long survive his brother: he succumbed to syphilis within just six months. Theo had married his wife, Jo, less than two years earlier, which proved an extremely fortunate circumstance—for art’s sake, at least—since it was Jo who championed Vincent’s legacy and who published his correspondence. Theo and Jo’s only son, named after his uncle Vincent, was responsible for founding the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which I recently visited. To any who get the chance, I highly recommend this paired experience, for the letters and the paintings are mutually enriching. Few people in history seemed to have lived so entirely for the sake of posterity: churning out paintings which few people saw, writing letter after letter few people read, creating a story and an oeuvre that now have the power to tear you in two.

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Homage to Catalunya: Montserrat (and Poblet)

Homage to Catalunya: Montserrat (and Poblet)

This is Part Six of a projected seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

The monastery of Montserrat, situated about 50 kilometers from Barcelona, is understandably one of the most popular day trips for visitors to Barcelona. But before I tell you about that monastery, allow me to take a detour to the Poblet Monastery—comparatively little visited, and yet the only monastery in Catalonia (which has three famous Cistercian monasteries aside from Montserrat) to earn the distinction of being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Poblet

The UNESCO designation largely rests on Poblet’s status as the royal burial site of the Kings of Aragón. Every king and queen of Aragón since James I (1208 – 1276)—save one—is buried in an alabaster tomb in the monastery’s church. The exception is the last king that Aragón ever had, King Ferdinand II (1452 – 1516), who married Isabel of Castile and thus merged their kingdoms—incorporating Aragón into Spain as we know it. Ferdinand is buried in Granada, a city that he “reconquered” from the Muslims, along with his wife. (With few exceptions, every monarch since this marriage—henceforth, kings of Spain—has been buried in El Escorial, in Madrid.)

My plan was to take a day trip from Tarragona to visit the Poblet Monastery. But I made a fatal error: I had waited until Saturday, when the buses aren’t running. My only option was to take a commuter train to a nearby town, Espluga de Francoli, and walk about an hour to the monastery. The problem with this plan was that, due to the train schedule, I would have to turn around as soon as I reached the monastery in order to catch the only train back to Tarragona. This was clearly not desirable. But, lacking options, this is what I did.

Luckily, the train ride to Espluga de Francoli was itself worth the trip, skirting around the edge of the Prades Mountains. Even Espluga de Francoli was a charming sight, sitting atop one of the range’s foothills, like so many villages in the area. And though I did not have time to appreciate it, I enjoyed the town’s Moderniste wine cellar, designed by Pere Domènech i Roura. The walk to the monastery quickly drew me through the town, however, and into the surrounding agricultural fields. It was winter and nothing was growing, though the hills in the distance were still green.

poblet_sunbeam
The monastery hiding behind a sunbeam

I arrived at the monastery with barely ten minutes to spare. But this was enough to go inside and take a look around. This Cistercian monastery is built somewhat like a fort, and for good reason. Like the Monasterio de Piedra in Zaragoza, it was founded when there were still frequent clashes between Christians and Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. Thus a strong wall surrounds the outside and there is a second layer of defense within. But it turns out that the monastery had more to fear from disenchanted Spaniards than from Muslims, since it was during the Mendizábal confiscations, in 1835, that the monastery was taken from the church’s hands and then destroyed by angry, anti-clerical mobs. In his youth Gaudí wanted to rebuild the monastery and turn it into a sort of religious commune; but this didn’t happen. Instead, the monastery was rebuilt later, starting in 1930, and began to house monks again in 1940. At present there are 29 monks living in the monastery.

Poblet_Facade

But I had no time to dwell on any of this history. Indeed, I barely had time to rush through the church’s Baroque portal, walk down the nave, and peek at the royal tombs beside the main altar (designed by Damià Forment, who also designed the even more impressive altar in Zaragoza’s El Pillar). After that I had to speed away back through the farmland towards Espluga de Francoli, where I caught the train back to Tarragona. Thankfully, my trip to Montserrat went more smoothly.

Poblet_Interior
Poblet’s main altar and, to the left, the royal tombs

Montserrat

As I said above, Montserrat is about 50 km (or 30 miles) from Barcelona. Getting there from the city center is easy. A commuter FGC train departs from the Plaça d’Espanya every hour: the R5 towards Manresa. You can hardly miss it: the ticket machines at the station are constantly swamped, and there are attendants on standby to help tourists buy the correct ticket. This train will, however, only bring you to the base of the mountain. There are two options for going up: a cable car and a rack railway. The second is slightly cheaper and the first has a slightly better view; but in the end it hardly makes a difference in the time or the experience.

Montserrat is Catalan for “serrated mountain,” and the name is well-chosen. As you approach, its form looms up above you like a giant stone saw. The surrounding countryside is a deep pine green, so the greyish brown rocks that appear look as though they are slicing through nature herself. The monastery complex is nestled between these sawtooths, overlooking the surrounding countryside. From up close, however, the sharp edges of Montserrat look swollen and bulbous, even vaguely alive. They could have been designed by Gaudí himself.

montserrat

Unlike Poblet and other two famous monasteries of Catalonia—Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges—Montserrat is Benedictine, not Cistercian. Its origins are somewhat unclear, and legend has extended them far into the past; but what is certain is that by the 12th century it was taking shape. The monastery grew steadily over the years, with Romanesque and then Gothic additions, until the 19th century, when it was struck by two blows. First, Napoleon’s invading troops burned the monastery in 1811 and 1812; and then it was taken by the government during the 1835 Confiscations of Mendizábal (which affected so many of the Spanish monasteries I have seen). Unlike Poblet Monastery, however, the Monastery of Montserrat was reopened less than a decade later, in 1844.

Montserrat_Monastery

But this wasn’t the end of the monastery’s troubles. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 the monastery was closed and confiscated by the Catalan government, the Generalitat. The wave of anti-clerical violence and persecution that took place during the war years resulted in the deaths of over twenty of the monastery’s monks. After the war’s conclusion, however, Montserrat was returned to the church. During Franco’s reign it became (like everything else in Catalonia, it seems) a symbol of Catalan nationalism, serving as a refuge and a place of protest. At present over 70 monks are still living, praying, and fasting within its walls.

Montserrat_facade

Though many buildings make up the Monastery of Montserrat, the most impressive, by far, is the basilica. You cannot see it from the outside, since it is enclosed in a rather plain and unremarkable square building. But once you enter this through the front portal and stand in the enclosed plaza, you can see the basilica’s façade. This actually of quite recent date, having been constructed after the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless its fine sculptural friezes and decoration are perfectly in keeping with the place’s long history, as well as with the mountain itself, since the architect Francesc Folguera used stone quarried on site. The inside of the basilica is absolutely radiant. Numerous lights and candles illuminate the gold that seems to cover every surface. The vaulted ceiling, the walls, the altar—they all emit a regal glow.

Montserrat_Interior

In a space above and behind the main altar is the famed Virgin of Montserrat. Sometimes called the “Black Virgin” because of her dark skin, this is a statue of the Virgin and Child enthroned. According to legend it was carved by Saint Luke himself and discovered by some shepherds in the year 890 or so; but in reality it bears the clear marks of a Romanesque work. In any case, kissing this Virgin is supposed to bring blessing and good fortune, and so people line up for hours to do so. The expectant smoocher passes through an elaborately decorated doorway and ascends a staircase, at the top of which the Virgin patiently awaits—as she has done for centuries. For those in search of additional benediction there is a narrow passage in the space between the basilica and the mountain’s rockface, where for a small fee one can light a candle and place it on a metal rack. These candles are housed in colorful glass cups that glow attractively in the shadowy passage.

Montserrat_candles

At this point I felt hungry and began searching for something to eat. Montserrat is well-stocked with restaurants, cafeterias, and vending machines. But they are uniformly overpriced. And since being stuck on a mountain is like being on an airplane—in that there are limited options—vendors can charge whatever they like for quite ordinary food. I bought a sandwich from a machine and scuttled away, unsatisfied. Heed my advice and pack a lunch.

Next I wanted to explore the mountain itself. Montserrat is full of walking paths, ranging from a quick stroll to mountain climbing. There are also funiculars for those who would prefer not to climb up any steep hills. The Funicular de Santa Cova takes one down to an important shrine in situated in a cave; the Funicular de Sant Joan takes one upwards, giving one a panoramic view of the compound. But I had just spent several weeks in city centers, surrounded by grey asphalt, so I wasn’t interested in either of those. I was aching to lose myself in nature; so I chose the longest path, up to the top of San Jeroni, the highest peak in the area.

montserrat2

The beginning stretch was the most difficult, leading up several steep staircases that had been carved into the mountain rock. After the first half-hour, however, the trail levelled out somewhat. Still, the constant pumping of my legs as I rushed ever upwards quickly had me panting. The scanty trees seldom provided any relief from the glaring sun. But the mountain spurred me on like a mystery story, gradually revealing itself in a series of twists and turns, each one bringing more of the whole picture into view. The undulating curves of the mountainside were covered in emerald bushes and spotted with the bulbous grey of rocks, like the scales of an enormous reptile.

montserrat_cairns

Nearly an hour and a half had elapsed before I reached the top. The clouds hung lower and lower as I rose. The vegetation dwindled and finally disappeared, leaving only the swollen, jagged stone of this enchanting place. As often happens, there are many small cairns near the top—piles of stone that serve as miniature monuments to former climbers. Soon the whole surrounding landscape came into view; and the sight was well worth the exertion. The distant horizon faded into the atmospheric blue of faraway. The shadows of small clouds darkened the landscape below, where roads and towns looked like mere patches of dirt. But for the most part the view is a gently rolling sea of green.

montserrat3


So concluded my trip to Barcelona’s iconic mountain monastery. Now I must move on to another of Catalonia’s great cities: Tarragona.

Homage to Catalunya: The Museum of Dalí

Homage to Catalunya: The Museum of Dalí

This is Part Five of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

One of the most visited museums in all of Spain is not in any major city. Indeed, it is not even close to one. This is the Teatre-Museu Dalí (the Dalí Theater and Museum), which can be found in Figueres, a small town—with about 45,000 inhabitants—located in the north of Catalonia, just 24 km (15 miles) from the French border.

The train ride from Barcelona to Figueres lasts about 2 hours. The route passes through another of the jewels of Catalonia: Girona, capital of its eponymous province. Though I only glimpsed the city through the window, its form has stayed with me. The cathedral stands proudly over the city, which is splayed out on the hilly ground surrounding the River Oñar. (Though it doesn’t look especially big, this cathedral apparently has the widest gothic nave in the world.) The city is visibly well-preserved, retaining the chaotic cobblestone of its medieval period. One of the city’s most iconic sights—reproduced in calendars and posters—are the colorful “hanging houses” that surround the River Oñar, reflecting brilliantly in the calmly flowing waters. A visit to this precious city is high on my list for my next trip to Catalonia.

Girona
Girona. Image by Infernalfox; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

When I wasn’t gazing out the window of the train, I was busy reading the poetry of Federico García Lorca. This is one of Spain’s greatest poets, who was also a great friend of Dalí, whom he met while the two were living in the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid. Indeed it is rumored that the two had a love affair. In any case, though they worked in different mediums, Lorca and Dalí undoubtedly influenced one another, pushing each other into surrealism. Lorca’s poetry is the closest verbal approximationto a Dalí painting, which is what made it so good to read on the way to Figueres. Sadly, their friendship was cut short: Lorca was killed at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War—executed by some fascist soldiers. Dalí was deeply saddened by this; but it did not prevent him, later in life, from cozying up with Franco.

Finally the train arrived. Figueres does not present such an immediately striking aspect as Girona. Indeed, if not for the Dalí Museum probably few people would visit this sleepy town. Dalí chose it for his museum because it was here that the painter was born. Nevertheless I was soon charmed by the city. As I walked from the train station towards the museum I passed a park where some sort of school festival was taking place. Dozens of children in matching costumes—as flowers, as cars, as construction workers—waited on the sidelines as groups took turns dancing in the center. The group I saw had a costume of a giant van, worn by two teachers, which they raised into the air. It all seemed appropriately absurd for Dalí’s hometown.

figueres1

The line for the museum stretched far into the neighboring plaza. Luckily it was a sunny day. I took the time to examine the attractive Church of St. Peter, a fine gothic structure that sits next to the museum. The building of the Dalí Museum itself is visually absorbing. In Dalí’s childhood the building was a theater, where the young Dalí himself once had an exhibition. But this building was mostly burned down during the Spanish Civil War. Its remains were renovated to construct this museum under Dalí’s own supervision and guidance. He furnished the museum with his own personal collection, which is why it has the largest number of original Dalí works of any museum in the world. He also chose to be buried here, under the stage of the original theater. (His body was recently exhumed to check if he was really the father of tarot-card reader Pilar Abel, as she has been claiming for years. Her fortune-telling failed her, it seems, for DNA evidence revealed that he was not the father.)

The rebuilt theater now bears the clear mark of Dalí’s taste. Its red exterior is covered in rows of fleshy knobs. The roof is topped with alternating eggs and golden statues that look like Oscar awards, except that they have their arms upraised. One side of the building is shaped to look like a castle’s turret, while on the other side is a giant glass dome that crowns the old stage. One enters through the original theater façade—topped with the same golden figures; and below them statues of knights with baguettes resting horizontally on their helmets. A scuba diver stands guard above the entrance. Outside in the plaza is a surrealist sculpture: a towering, playing-card figure who grows out of a tree trump, and whose robe contains several other sculptural busts and friezes. The visitor is thus well-prepared for what waits inside.

dalimuseum

Soon after entering, one comes to the courtyard. In the center stands the statue of a busty and curvaceous woman, her pose looking like some ancient fertility goddess. She is standing on an old cadillac, inside of which, at the driver’s seat, a dummy sits surrounded by artificial plants. High up above all this, suspended on a pole, is a small sailboat. Meanwhile, more golden statuettes raise their arms in nooks in the courtyard’s surrounding wall.

dalicourtyard

From there one can walk under the glass dome, onto the old stage. On one wall is a giant mural of a faceless torso standing in front of a landscape, his head cracking like an egg, a tree growing on his chest. On another wall a man with a cubic skull is climbing, suspended above one of Dalí’s famous paintings, concisely named Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20m is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. You might be surprised to learn that this image, when seen from afar, looks like Abraham Lincoln; but from up close one sees a woman looking out at the sea. Dalí achieves this effect by using large squares of color that, from afar, function like pixels. This painting is just one of the many examples of Dalí’s fondness for visual puns and for optical illusions, of which the museum is full.

dali_lincoln

Paintings and sculptures and other installations are found in the exhibit floors surrounding the courtyard and theater. These are impressive more for their cumulative effect than for their individual merit. The museum has none of Dalí’s masterpieces. But seeing so many works by Dalí—silly surrealist assemblages, Bosch-like doodles, and even a series of portraits of his mustache—gives the visitor a sense of the great artist’s witty and whimsical humor. One friend describes it as like “walking through Dalí’s head,” and this does capture the powerful impression of personality that pervades the space. This personality is irreverent, restless, even impatient, perhaps somewhat immature, certainly self-absorbed, but undeniably brilliant and sharp.

Some works do stand out for comment. One of my favorites is his Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon, an image of a melting mustachioed face, barely held up by several wooden crutches, sitting on a platform next to a strip of bacon. Another is The Specter of Sex-Appeal, a painting that is dominated by the huge form of a grotesque woman—her legs ham bones, her body pillows and blankets and bags, her head dissolving into the rock behind her. This specter, too, is held up with wooden crutches—one of Dalí’s motifs—and is gazed upon wonderingly by a young boy in a sailor’s outfit. Galatea of the Spheres belongs to Dalí’s scientific period, when he became deeply interest in physics and mathematics; thus the image of Galatea (a mythical sea nymph who, like so many women in Dalí’s works, is really his wife Gala) is broken into manifold colored spheres that float in space. Leda Atomica belongs to this same phase, and also takes a mythological subject (Leda, a woman raped by Zeus in the form of a swan) and transforms it into an allegory of atomic physics, with everything floating mysteriously in space without contact.

dali_collage
Top left to bottom left: The Specter of Sex-Appeal; Leda Atomica; Galatea of the Spheres. Right: Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon

Apart from paintings there are many memorable exhibition spaces. The most famous of these is a room full of furniture—a couch, a fireplace and mantel, two pictures hung on the wall—that looks like the face of iconic blond Mae West when seen from a certain angle. There was a long line to walk up the raised platform, and I didn’t want to wait. Instead I moved on to see some of Dalí’s visual experiments, such as his stereoscopic art. These consisted of two similar images, often differing in a small detail like color, separated in a glass enclosure, so that the viewer must look at each image with one eye. The idea, I think, is that the brain would blend the images from each eye together to form a mental composite; but most often I just found these confusing. One room was furnished like an elaborate bedroom. A tapestry on the wall bore the image of Dalí’s most famous painting, the Persistence of Memory. Next to the bed was the skeleton of a chimpanzee, painted gold.

daliroof
A ceiling fresco in one of the rooms

When I finished explored the main building of the Dalí Museum there was still more to see. In a separate location, though quite nearby, is the collection of jewelry that Dalí designed. He was something of a Renaissance man, you see, or at least that is how he liked to fancy himself. Now, I am not normally very fond of jewelry; indeed I rarely even notice it. But this was easily one of my favorite parts of the museum. The fine draughtsmanship one finds in his paintings is also seen in the exquisitely detailed gold and silver shapes that wrap around the sparkling gems. Dalí’s penchant for bizarre forms also translates well into this medium: a flower with arms for petals, an elephant with long spindly spider legs, a four-legged arthropod whose legs are elongated arms with hands on each end. You don’t normally see this sort of thing at Zales.

dali_jewelrycollage

I was absolutely famished by the time I left the museum, so I went to a restaurant in town and ordered a classic Catalan dish: butifarra (a type of lean sausage) with white beans. It was delicious. Then I got on the train and read Lorca all the way back to Madrid.

I left the Dalí Museum with mixed feelings. The museum is undeniably impressive. Like the Museu Picasso and the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, the Teatre-Museu Dalí gives the visitor an opportunity to immerse herself in the work of a great artist, noting how his style evolved and how it remained the same, witnessing the mind of a brilliant painter grow and change over the years. Indeed, even more than those two museums, the Dalí Museum in Figueres gives one the sense of really meeting and getting to intimately know the artist, since every inch of the building is reeking of his personality.

Yet getting to know Dalí makes one realize that there are many reasons to dislike the man. Besides his tolerant attitude towards Fascism in life—a political shortcoming that Orwell famously decried him for—Dalí was personally off-putting. His narcism is grating, even from a distance. Now, I am willing to tolerate a certain amount of vanity from brilliant people; but Dalí could be positively (and literally) onanistic. This may or may not have negatively affected his art, but it is undeniably unpleasant. Egotism aside, Dalí was often superficial. He was the pioneer of “shocking” art—gestures, meaningless in themselves, only meant to upset conventional opinion. Oddity for the sake of oddity, vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity, the prototype of so much contemporary pop culture. He was also drawn to cheap wittiness, such as his love for visual puns (of which the Mae West room is an example). It is in the nature of puns, verbal or visual, to be cheap and empty, since they actively erode meaning rather than create it. Thus, much of Dalí’s art produces little more than a snort or a chuckle, and then is quickly forgotten.

dali_mustache

All this may be true. But it is also true that Dalí was one of the great artists of the previous century, as even a cursory acquaintance with his work makes clear. His technical ability is undoubtable. More importantly, his visual genius, even if it strayed into shallow waters, was so fertile that he added greatly to our collective imagination. And for every time that Dalí is grating, there is another in which he is undeniably charming. For this reason, the Dalí Museum in Figueres is without doubt one of the best museums in Catalonia, and in all of Spain.


The Dalí Museum is quite a trek from Barcelona, which makes it a somewhat inconvenient day-trip. But there is another beautiful site that is quite a bit closer to Barcelona, which is what makes it such a popular destination: Montserrat.

Homage to Catalunya: Architecture of Barcelona

Homage to Catalunya: Architecture of Barcelona

This is Part Four of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

Few cities can compare with Barcelona for the variety and depth of architectural pleasure on display. In my posts I have already had occasion to mention some of Barcelona’s wonderful gothic buildings, such as its cathedral and its basilicas. Even quite functional buildings are intriguing, such as the Fundació Miró, the Palau Nacional, as well as Barcelona’s former bullring, Las Arenas, and even its latest one, Monumental. Indeed, Barcelona is so full of fine buildings that many are barely noticed by the tourists. As an example of this I would offer the Casa Comalat, a bulging apartment building designed by Salvador Valeri i Pupurull, whose form would be eye-catching if it weren’t in the same city as Gaudi’s works.

Though Barcelona dates back to Roman times, its most fertile architecture period occured at the turn of the 20th century. This was the epoch of Modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. The most overpowering quality of this trend was its emphasis on ostentatious decoration. There is nothing light or understated; the architecture bursts forth like a flower into curves and colors. Modernisme also coincided with a resurchange of Catalan nationalism, and as a result many buildings from this fruitful period are explicitly or implicitly involved in the Catalan identity. This movement had many excellent practitioners; but two architects stand out above the rest: Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Antoni Gaudí.

Lluís Domènech i Montaner

I cannot say why Lluis Domènech i Montaner (1850 – 1923), an architect nearly as original as Gaudí, is not even one-tenth as well-known. Certainly he was a less Byronic figure. Far from the typical brooding, solitary genius, Domènech was a man of the world. A brilliant polymath, he was a writer, scholar, teacher, and politician in addition to his work as an architect. But his central concern, in all of these endeavors, was to create a Catalan nationalism that was forward-looking and unprovincial—a Catalan nationalism that celebrated the region without rejecting the rest of the world.

One of his best-known buildings stands in the Parc de la Ciutadella (discussed in a previous post), beyond the Arc de Triomf. It is the Castell dels Tres Dragons, which was made for the same 1888 World’s Fair as the arc and the park’s fountain. Originally it was meant to be the Café-Restaurant adjoining a nearby hotel, which Domènech also designed but which was subsequently torn down. Nowadays the fortress is home to the zoological museum. It is notable for its use of brick as a decorative material—looked down upon at the time, though Domènech liked it because it contained Catalan soil—as well as nakedly visible cast-iron supports.

Far more showy is Domènech’s Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music). This is a concert hall built between 1905-8 for the Orfeó choral society. Though unfortunately I have not yet gone inside—one of my biggest regrets of my visits to Barcelona—Robert Hughes considered this building to be Domènech’s masterpiece, and I have no reason to doubt him.

palaumusica1

The concert hall stands amid the cramped streets of the old city center, hemmed in closely on all sides; so it is difficult to get a good look at its impressive façade. Nevertheless you can certainly appreciate the sculptural group exploding from its front corner, bursting forth like the prow of a ship. This is an allegorical representation of Catalan folk song, designed by Miguel Blay. Sitting on columns, high up above, are the busts of Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. (According to Hughes, Wagner was deeply loved in Catalonia at this time, since his own project of creating nationalistic art by combining different mediums—Gesamtkunstwerk—was obviously parallel to Domènech’s own aims, as well as those of his compatriots.) Colored mosaic enliven the building’s flaming brick-red exterior, giving the whole a playful, festive air.

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Judging from the photos, and from Robert Hughes’s descriptions, the inside is even more impressive than the exterior. The roof of the concert hall is dominated by a glowing stained-glass skylight that droops down into the space. On either side of the stage are elaborate sculptural friezes. On the right, Beethoven’s bust swells into the smoke of inspiration, which then bursts forth into flying valkyries. Opposite Beethoven is the Catalan poet Josep Anselm Clavé, whose thoughts spring into a tree that blooms across from the winged warriors. Curiously, for a performance space, the concert hall is extremely open—both sides dominated by large windows. This means that, ironically enough, the acoustics are not great; and also that the space is poorly insulated from street noise. This hasn’t stopped many famous performers from adoring the space, including the famous Catalan cellist, Pau Casals (whose recordings of Bach’s cello suites, the first ever recorded, are still my favorite).

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Photo by Jiuguang Wang; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

The building I have visited is Domènech’s Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul), begun in 1905 and not completed until 1930, after Domènech’s death, by his son Pere Domènech i Roura. This building complex is listed—along with the Palau de la Música Catalana—as one of Spain’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites, and deservedly so.

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The Hospital de Sant Pau replaced Barcelona’s far older and obsolescent Hospital of the Holy Cross, a gothic structure that had been in use since the middle ages. This hospital was overcrowded and wholly unsuited to the new technologies and techniques of modern medicine. Luckily, a hefty donation from Pau Gil, a wealthy banker, allowed the city to begin work on a replacement. (This is why the new hospital is named Sant Pau, to honor Pau Gil’s contribution.) The new hospital was to be situated in the recently constructed Eixample, away from the overcrowded old city, almost next to Gaudí’s Sagrada Família (which begun construction about twenty years earlier). You can still see some of the buildings that formed the old gothic hospital, by the way, since they have been refurbished—most notably as the Library of Catalonia.

The hospital that Domènech designed could not be further removed than the dreary gothic interior of its predecessor. Indeed, it is unlike any hospital I have ever seen or heard of. Far from the white, sterile, and crowded places I know as hospitals, Domènech designed a place open, colorful, and tranquil—a place of pleasure and peace. For me his design is so convincing that I wonder why every hospital does not emulate it. For if healing is not just a matter of treatment and cures, but of will and mindset—as I think is the case—then Domènech’s work is a model: catering to the mind as well as the body.

The entrance to the hospital is a sweeping, winged building that seems to embrace the visitor as she walks inside (see photo above). It is crowned by a magnificent clock tower and adorned with angels. These angels were designed by the neoclassical sculptor Eusebi Arnau and his more famous pupil, Pau Gargallo (who has a museum dedicated to him in Zaragoza), whose own angels reveal the growing influence of cubism in his work. Running across the outside of this central structure is a mosaic showing scenes from the development of medicine in Catalonia, ending with the creation of the hospital itself.

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Once the visitor walks through this main building, she will find herself surrounded by several separate pavilions, arranged in two neat rows with their entrances facing one another. Domènech wanted a place open and green; and to do that he split up the hospital into these individual buildings, leaving a garden in the center. This decision had medical as well as aesthetic motives; for it allowed patients with different ailments to be separated and quarantined from each other, reducing infection and improving organization.

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The central garden is filled with benches, where patients could sit and rest. But of course the entire effect would be spoiled if doctors, nurses, and orderlies were constantly rushing in-between the pavilions and through the gardens. To prevent this, Domènech built a network of tunnels under the hospital, which directly connect each structure in the compound.

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Each one of the pavilions is a delight, with a glowing, multicolored dome crowning one side of its entrance, and a narrow circular tower on the other. This fairly narrow façade conceals the buildings’ lengths, their main bulk leading away from the central courtyard. Each of their slanting roofs is decorated with bright tiles in delightful swirling patterns, different for each building. The insides are equally inviting. A vaulted nave leads down to the back of the building, its walls and ceiling covered in shining tiles, making the visitor feel that she is walking inside a luminescent seashell. Windows run along the top of each side, providing enough natural light to render artificial lighting unnecessary during the day. Beside the entrance, beneath the frontal dome, is the sun room, whose large windows flood the space with light. This room was used for relaxation and also for receiving visitors.

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The Hospital de Sant Pau stopped receiving patients in 2009, when a new hospital was opened up nearby. Nowadays it survives as a museum and a monument. Judging from the informational video on display in the building complex, the hospital which replaced it is yet another modern care center—devoid of color and empty of air. This is a shame, I think, for Domènech’s building has much to teach us that we have yet to learn. Indeed, the Hospital de Sant Pau teaches the lessons of all great architecture: that beauty can be functional; that daily life need not be drab; that art and science can be merged. The building complex is not just a work of art, but a vision of what a cultured society can be: catering to and caring for the whole human being—not just the body’s obvious physical necessities but the mind’s subtler needs.

From the front steps of the administration building, the visitor can see the masterpiece of Barcelona’s next great architect—the Sagrada Família—whose work, albeit differently, illustrates the same lessons as Domènech’s.


Antoni Gaudí

The life of Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926) fits our Romantic mold of the eccentric artist far better than does Domènech’s. Neither a man of the world nor a public intellectual, but an austere man of deep spiritual convictions, Gaudí was every inch an artist. Uncompromising in his style, he accepted no projects unless he was given a free hand—complete creative control. Unyielding in his religion, he stood against the secularizing and cosmopolitan currents of his day. Fully obsessed with his work, he lived a monkish life, never marrying or even having any significant partners. He was killed by a tram on daily walk to confession—too deaf, apparently, to hear the oncoming train or the shouted warnings of bystanders. He was 73. His appearance was so shabby, and his pockets so empty, that he was originally mistaken as a beggar and sent to a public hospital to receive basic care. When his identity was finally ascertained it was too late to save him.

Gaudí came from a long line of artisans. At a young age he observed his father bending and molding metal into shapes. His profound understanding of structure and form, therefore, was anything but mathematical; he did not like drawings and hardly made any. He performed poorly in school. He thought with his hands, and thus preferred making models. Nowadays we have computers to aide architects in the difficult problems of support and weight distribution. Lacking (but not missing) these resources, Gaudí invented his own solutions. His most memorable one was to suspend little bags of birdshot from strings, showing how the weight naturally fell. When he photographed these models, and then turned the pictures over, he had perfectly sound structure. Unfortunately for history, many of his models for the Sagrada Família were destroyed in 1936, during the outburst of anti-clerical violence that followed the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Thus much of the work done on that building is little more than a guess at his intentions.

Perhaps the most perplexing thing about Gaudí, at least for us in the modern world, is his simultaneously radical style and ultra-conservative worldview. This is only a paradox if you blandly assume that avant-garde art comes with a left-wing perspective. Very often this is the case, of course, especially in the past one hundred years. But not necessarily. Now, Gaudí’s radicalism had many components. Most obviously it was religious. Gaudí was living in a time of growing secularism; anti-clericalism was a strong cultural force in Spain, occasionally leading to outbreaks of violence and destruction of church property. The famed Poblet Monastery of Gaudí’s native Tarragona, for example, was burned to the ground in the 1830s in one such outbreak. Gaudí thought that the only proper response to this was unconditional submission to the church and extreme acts of penance. He himself fasted intensely, sometimes endangering his health.

Gaudí was also an intense regionalist. He thought that Catalonia was ideally situated between the passionate south and the over-intellectual north. To this religious regionalism one must add his love of nature. The movement of Modernisme itself emphasized natural forms, particularly the colors and curves of flowers. But Gaudí took this love of nature to an extreme. In his works, for example, one can find scarcely a single straight line—since perfectly straight lines are rarely seen in natural objects. To make some of the decorative friezes on the Sagrada Família, Gaudí made casts of plants and dead animals, even asking nuns for stillborn babies to use for the little angels (and the nuns agreed). To make the crucifix for the Sagrada Família’s main altar, he had a workman tied to a cross in order to see how a body naturally hangs from such a pose (the body droops down far more than in conventional representation). In short, Gaudí saw nature as God’s creation and strove to incorporate its order into his works.

The majority of Gaudí’s works are found in Barcelona. I have only managed to visit three, but these were enough to fill me with awe and to give me enough imaginative food for a lifetime.

The first was the Casa Batlló. This building is located on the Passeig de Gracia, in the famous Illa de la Discòrdia (Isle of Discord), a block so-called because it is home to four famous houses by four architects with jarringly different styles. One of these was by designed by the aforementioned Domènech: the Casa Lleó Morera. Next door is the Casa Ramon Mulleras, by Enric Sagier, the architect who designed the expiatory temple atop Tibidabo. But the most attractive house, after Gaudí’s, is the Casa Amattler by Josep Puig y Cadafalch. Topped with a Dutch-style crow-stepped gabble, the house brims with color and charm—very appropriate for the home of a chocolatier, which it was. Barcelona has no lack of brilliant architects.

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The Isle of Discord. Top row: Casa Lleó Morera on the left, and the Casa Ramon Mulleras nextdoor. Bottom row: the Casa Amattler with the step-gabbled roof, and Gaudí’s Casa Batlló to its right

Yet even such showy houses look absolutely tame next to Gaudí’s construction. This home was built (actually renovated, from 1904-1906), like all the other fine apartments on the block, at the behest of a rich patron—in this case, Josep Batlló i Casanovas. Seen from the outside the building has three distinct levels. The lowest consists of the cavernous windows covering the first floor, with spindly stalactites for supports. The windows above are discontinuous; and each is fronted with a skeletal, even skull-like railing. The roof bursts from the building’s body like the frilled back of some tremendous reptile. Indeed, this is the most popular interpretation of the building’s form: that the apartment is meant to be the dragon vanquished by St. George—the bottom layer its cave, the windows its victims’ skulls, the top its back, and the turret on the left St. George’s deadly spear. This interpretation ties into both Gaudí’s religiosity and his regional pride, since St. George is Catalonia’s patron saint.

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The inside of the building is just as spectacular. In the dining room, which overlooks the Passeig de Gracia through the cave-like window, the ceiling swirls like a hurricane, its undulations closing in on the central light—molded to look like a glowing iron sun. Above the windows and doors circular panels of stained glass shed colored light throughout the space. Every surface swells and shifts like a windswept pond. On the far side of the room is the fireplace seat—two seats situated in a mushroom-shaped nook around the fireplace.

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The central lightwell is one of the most impressive sights. Each surface is covered in shiny blue tiles, darker near the light source at the top and brighter near the bottom in order to equalize the brightness. Ascending upwards the visitor reaches the loft, where white catenary arches (similar to parabolic arches) enclose a narrow passageway (supposedly representing the dragon’s ribcage). On the roof one can see Gaudí’s whimsically bent chimneys, covered in colored tiles, as well as his trademark blooming cross, whose flower-like shape allows it to appear cruciform from any angle. Like so many of Gaudí’s buildings, the whole thing has an Alice-in-Wonderland quality.

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Undeniably, one of the Casa Batlló’s finest features are the tilework that adorns the surface, making them shimmer with color like a Monet painting. This technique is called trencadís, and is done by plastering together smashed up china. The credit for this fine work actually belongs, not to Gaudí himself, but to Josep Maria Jujol, who also collaborated with Gaudí to create the fantastic mosaics in our next site: the Park Güell (1900 – 1914).

 

 

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The park takes its name from Eusebi Güell, a wealthy entrepreneur who became one of Gaudí’s greatest patrons. The original idea was not to create a simply a park but a garden housing development, following the English garden city movement initiated by Sir Ebenezer Howard (which is why its real name is the English word “Park”). The goal was to create a green neighborhood for the wealthy who wanted to escape Barcelona’s insalubrious city air. But the idea was a flop, since nobody wanted to move so far away from the center; indeed, most people with money preferred to build fancy apartments on the Passeig de Gracia, such as the Casa Batlló. In the end only two houses were sold, one to Gaudí himself, where he lived from 1906 until his death in 1926, and which is now the Gaudi House Museum.

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Describing the whole park would be an exercise in futility, but there are some highlights that cannot be missed. The first is the statue (in Jujol’s brilliant trencadís) of a salamander, nicknamed the dragon, which seems to guard the water in the fountain below. This is found on the staircase leading up to a forest of columns—the “hypostyle room”—modelled after a Greek temple, whose pillars hold up the terrace above. This terrance is one of the most famous spots in Barcelona, partly for its view of the city, but also for its undulating, ceramic bench that slithers around the exterior. Below, one can see the two pavilions that flank the original entrance, with rough brown walls and black and white roofs, one of them sporting a large tower topped with Gaudí’s signature budding crucifix.

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Parkguell5The park itself is full of structures dun-colored stone—walls holding up terraces, elevated roadways and viaducts, balconies and covered footpaths proceeding through columns. The aesthetic effect produced by all this stonework is unique—for me at least—being somehow both natural and unnatural, which was undoubtedly intended by Gaudí.

If you leave the park and head towards the shore, you will replicate a journey taken by Gaudí himself many times during his life, ending up with his greatest and most iconic work of all: the Sagrada Família.

The full name of this building is the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, which translates to the Basilica and Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family. To repeat an earlier post, it is not and never has been a cathedral. By the time construction on the Sagrada Família began, in 1882, Barcelona had possessed a cathedral for several hundreds years already and was in no need of a replacement. Indeed, it is only recently, in 2010, that the building was designated a basilica (which essentially means it is an especially grand church). Before this consecration it could not even be used for mass.

The history of the building is an epic in itself. Never an official church project, the idea was conceived by an independent religious organization and funded by private donations. Gaudí used himself to go visit wealthy families on the Passeig de Gracia, asking for “a sacrifice.” Even today the building’s continuing construction is funded by entrance fees. Construction began in 1882; and by the time Gaudí died, in 1926, not even a quarter had been built. Since his models were destroyed during the Civil War, we cannot even be sure if the final result will be true to his vision. The builders hope to have the main towers completed by 2026 for the anniversary of Gaudí’s death—but these things are hard to plan.

The building has grown from its controversial origins—many feared that it would outshine Barcelona’s cathedral, and arguably it has—into being the inescapable symbol of Barcelona, as thoroughly identified with the city as the Eiffel Tower is with Paris or the Empire State Building is with New York. Indeed, the Sagrada Familia is the most visited monument in all of Spain—surpassing even the Alhambra in its more than 3 million visitors per year. Even so, not everyone likes it. George Orwell infamously remarked that the anarchists showed poor taste in not blowing it up; and Gerald Brenan cited the building as evidence of Catalonia’s low cultural level. I admit that when I first saw it I was put off by the hugely exaggerated goliath that greeted my eyes. The bulging form struck me as garishly Disneyesque, all cheap flare with little thought.

But I was badly mistaken. For close inspection cannot but reveal the Sagrada Família to be one of the great edifices of the world. Like all of Gaudí’s work, the Sagrada Família does not conform to any particular style. But if forced to put a label on it, you might call it a mixture of neo-gothic and Modernisme—though it goes far beyond the bounds of both.

As you approach you can see the basilica’s famous towers that curve up like rockets waiting for takeoff. Its dusty brown color gives it an earthy appearance, almost like a giant sandcastle, which belies its bizarre and otherworldly form. The continuing construction is evident. The newer sections are visibly more mathematically precise and their material is fresh and clean, unstained by the years. And if that wasn’t enough, the towering cranes overhead let you know immediately that the building is still very much a work in progress.

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The visitor enters through the Nativity Façade, the only one completed during Gaudí’s life. It was for this façade that Gaudí made all those casts of plants, animals, and babies—to emphasize the divinity in nature and the nature of divinity. The holy family stands on the central doorjamb, surrounded by smiling angels and onlookers, heralded by four musicians who celebrate the coming of the Lord. These figure are suspended in a quasi-natural space, much like that of the Park Güell, the rough and bulging stone looking like a cave or a cliffside. Animals can be seen, too, such as the two turtles—one aquatic and the other terrestrial, representing the stability of the sea and the land—as well as plants, such as the palm leaves that grow out of the two pillars. Crowning the whole façade is what looks like a Christmas tree: the tree of life. You might even be tempted to call such nature-worship “pagan,” if it weren’t tinged with such a strong dose of repentance.sagradafamilia_nativity

Impressive as all this was, I was prepared for it. Like nearly everyone I had seen photos of the Sagrada Família beforehand and so knew roughly what it looks like. But I was not prepared for what awaited me inside.

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Gaudí has created a space utterly unlike any I have ever seen. The effect was so strange that I felt as though I had been transported onto another planet or was exploring an alien temple. Several factors combine to produce this effect. Most obvious is the lighting. Radiantly colorful light pours in through the exquisite stained glass. There are lighted panels on the columns, too, as well as on the roof, and so color comes from every direction. The columns are designed to maximize this effect. They subtly change in shape throughout their lengths, going from eight-sided to circular to six-sided, and so on, which affects how the light hits their surface. Gaudí’s columns are special in another way. They do not sit perpendicular to the ground, but at a slight angle; and as they approach the ceiling these columns branch off like the trunks of trees. The visitor feels that she is walking through a petrified forest illuminated by the light of distant suns.

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I found the interior of the building so stunning that, when I exited on the other side, I was somewhat exhausted. What greeted me here was the Passion Façade. This side was expressly conceived by Gaudí to contrast with the Nativity Façade. Where that side of the building bursts with curves and figures and thus brims with life, the façade dedicated to the Passion is bare, linear, and austere—a monument to death. The sculptures depicting the crucifixion were designed by Josep Maria Subirachs, who also designed the monument to Francesc Macià (discussed in a previous post). The harsh and almost cubist sculptures that Subirachs designed have proven somewhat divisive. Some, like Robert Hughes, think that the sculptures are not consonant with Gaudí’s aesthetic. Others were offended for religious reasons, since this façade has one of the few extant representations of Christ completely nude. In any case I liked the heavy, blocky statues, since they provided a nice contrast with the previous side. They are also, arguably, not very distant from Gaudí’s own work, since they are highly reminiscent of the sculptures atop another of Gaudí’s famous works, the Casa Milà (which I have yet to visit).

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This exhausts my experience and knowledge of Gaudí’s work in Barcelona. Indeed, with this post I come to the limit of my knowledge of Barcelona. Yet despite my tour of Barcelona’s museums and architecture, one iconic Catalan artist has yet to be discussed: Salvador Dalí.

Homage to Catalunya: Museums of Barcelona

Homage to Catalunya: Museums of Barcelona

This is Part Three of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

Barcelona, is a vast and cultured city, and has a correspondingly huge number of museums. There is the Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Catalan Modernisme; and a museum dedicated to archaeology and to design—just to name a few. But I have only visited the three most famous: the National Art Museum; the Miró Foundation; and the Picasso Museum.


Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

The biggest and grandest museum in Barcelona is the National Art Museum of Catalonia, situated atop the Montjuïc hill. The museum’s building itself is splendid: the Palau Nacional, a large palace built for the 1929 World’s Fair. It reminds me very much of El Escorial, and for good reason, since it was intentionally made in a Spanish Renaissance style. Four large towers flank a central dome, which rise above the city on its perch.

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The museum’s collection is expansive, ranging from the Romanesque to modern art. The oldest pieces are arguably the museum’s most impressive. Whole church apses have been transported into the museum in order to display their frescos. And these frescos are exquisite. Romanesque art always charms me with its fantastic stylization. As in Egyptian and Babylonian art, humans are idealized and abstracted, turned into cartoonish symbols. The volume of Greco-Roman art and the realism of the Renaissance are completely absent from these flat figures, residing in a two-dimensional realm of color and sentiment.

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When I first saw medieval Christian art I found is disagreeable, almost childish in its lack of naturalism and its technical unsophistication. But now I find in the Romanesque a sense of otherworldly peace. It is a spiritual art, representing timeless truths, and thus the stylization suits it perfectly. Unlike the real world, where facts and details have no meaning beyond their own existence, every line in Romanesque frescoes is imbued with significance. Every scene is part of a cosmic drama; every man and beast symbolizes a divine attribute; every gesture illustrates a religious truth. The apparently simplicity of the works, then, is the result of a synthesis: focusing a whole worldview into vivid clarity.

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Quite as enchanting as the frescoes are the Romanesque capitals. These often display what, to me, seems like a playful delight in the grotesque. The monsters, men, and vegetable motifs that weave around each other—their squat forms helping to hold up the structure—are almost pagan in their exuberant love of life. The friezes are ingenious, endlessly varying, each one a different pictorial solution to the puzzle of turning things into designs. Apart from the frescoes and the capitals, the museum also has a digital reconstruction of the monumental portal of the Ripoll Monastery (in Gerona). Using a projector you can explore the façades many excellent friezes in detail, and in 3D.

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The character of the art changes quite noticeably once you go from the Romanesque to the Gothic section. Gothic representation is, on the whole, far more naturalistic than that of the Romanesque. The people are individualized—escaping the anonymously identical faces of the Romanesque—with flowing robes and fluffy beards. Frescoes and paintings have more sense of solidity and depth. This growing naturalism, if it lacks the purity of the Romanesque, does give the Gothic a greater visual delight, while maintaining a deep sense of spirituality.

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Having finished with the medieval period, I ascended the stairs to the second level. Here you can stand under the building’s central dome. Its inside is decorated with an attractive, allegorical fresco by Francesc d’Assís Galí. From here you can skip ahead in time a few hundred years, and visit the museum’s collection of modern art. I must admit that none of the individual pieces made a deep impression on me as I walked through. But I did very much like the historical and sociological framing of the progression of modern art, which reminded me very much of how Robert Hughes introduced the subject in his documentary, The Shock of the New.

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This about does it for the National Art Museum. Luckily, the next museum is only a short walk away.


Fundació Miró

The Fundació Miró sits perched on the same hill, Montjuïc, with the same grand view of the city beyond. Around it are the lush gardens of the hill, where many locals come to exercise, play, and walk their dogs. The building of the foundation looks incongruous amid such surroundings, white and angular like a warehouse. It was designed by Josep Lluís Sert, a friend of Miró’s, who managed to create an ideal museum space. Each room, bare and unobtrusive, is bathed in natural light; and the visitor is led effortlessly through the museum on a linear path.

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The right angles and stark whiteness of the building offsets the colorful curves of Miró’s paintings. These are arranged both by chronology and theme. Miró’s earliest works are actually some of my favorites. They were made during his fauvist period, when he was painting realistic scenes of Montroig—his ancestral home in Tarragona, to which he returned throughout his life—using lush and vibrant colors. The influence of Cézanne also shows, with shapes somewhat simplified and made geometrical. To me, these works have a wonderful cheerfulness, purely absorbed in the joy of bright colors and the beauty of the Mediterranean landscape.

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But this realistic phase is soon got through. Now we come to the Miró as we know him: the Miró of flat spaces and abstract shapes. The human form in particular becomes unrecognizably twisted in Miró’s works—a whole person being evoked with a few lines and dots and shapes. To me many of these paintings have a sort of childlike naiveté—completed with a seemingly simple technique, at times approaching stick figures. But there was nothing childlike in Miró’s thought. He was deeply interested in poetry throughout his life and aspired to make his paintings like poems, employing an idiosyncratic system of symbols. To the knowledgeable eye, therefore—which I do not possess—his paintings are deeplying meaningful.

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On a purely formal level, however, they may still be savored. Miró’s bulbous and suggestive shapes, swelling and sticking, stretching and squeezing, evoke many things at once. Unlike Picasso, who bent form but never broke it, Miró’s paintings sometimes verge on the nebulous—the outlines floating on top of nowhere. It is a deeply organic world with no hard surfaces, with every simple form evoking the body and the natural world. And though grotesque and even monstrous, it is not a frightening world. Miró’s demons are cartoonish and his nightmares have laughing tracks.

This is the Miró that charms me. But when Miró attempts a grave statement, I cannot go along with him. His series of three paintings, The Hope of a Dead Man, which were painted on the occasion of a young anarchist’s condemnation and execution, provoke no reaction in me save boredom. They consist of a single blank stroke on a white background, with a ball of color floating nearby. Such art is too much statement and too little substance. In general I think Miró’s work is rather hermetic—floating in his own dream world—and so his attempts to be political fall flat.

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The Fundació Miró also tells us something of Miró’s philosophy of art. One of his most quoted phrases was his desire to “assassinate painting.” This statement can be interpreted in manifold ways, but I believe refers to his desire to escape bourgeois commodification. (Notwithstanding this desire his paintings sell for millions of dollars at auction.) It is true, though, that Miró was never quite content with painting. He loved poetry and strove to emulate it, developing a complex system of symbols for his works. He also branched out into sculpture (of which the Fundació Miró has many examples) and even into tapestries. Apart from assassination, Miró was interested in the idea of anonymity, believing that art should be so popular that it cannot be said to have come from anyone. (According to what I’ve read, Miró liked popular music, especially Jimi Hendrix.) All of these ideas, taken together, seem quite odd in a painter who developed an individual style that is not widely popular.

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I cannot say that I emerged from the Fundació Miró deeply shaken by an aesthetic awakening. But I did emerge deeply impressed by the diligence with which Miró followed the bent of his vision and his success in bringing forth an entirely new visual language. After visiting this museum one can hardly doubt that Miró was one of the great Catalan artists of the previous century.


Museu Picasso

(Unfortunately photos are not allowed in this museum, so you will just have to imagine the art.)

The last museum on my itinerary is quite a walk from Montjuïc: forty minutes away, deep in the old city center. This is Barcelona’s Picasso Museum. Picasso was not Catalan: he was born in Málaga (where there’s another Picasso museum) and spent several years in La Coruña. Nevertheless he is regarded as something of an honorary Catalan, since he spent his teenage years in the city and often returned to it throughout his life. This is why Picasso suggested Barcelona as the location for a museum dedicated to his artistic career.

The Museu Picasso occupies five aristocratic houses dating from the gothic period. Its collection is somewhat bipolar: with an extensive (approaching exhaustive) collection from the beginning and end of Picasso’s career, and very few from its famous middle. Despite this—or because of it—the museum is one of the best places to go to explore the workings of Picasso’s mind.

In the first rooms of the museum the visitor can see Picasso’s juvenilia—in itself not especially great, but showing great promise. These gradually increase in sophistication, under the influence of Picasso’s academic tutelage, until it culminates in Science and Charity. This paintings, which he completed in 1897 at the age of 15, is astonishingly finished. Picasso manages to be both allegorical and naturalistic. The morbid topic of death is portrayed with great realism, with the brown hues of the space and the sick girl’s palid face giving the painting a certain grimy edge. Belying this naturalness is the careful diagonal composition of the figures, and the obvious dichotic symbolism of the doctor (science) and the nun (charity). It is no wonder the critics loved it.

But Picasso does not continue down the academic path. Instead he turns toward the avant-garde, and thus commences his blue period. Here his work becomes decidedly unrealistic, completed in monochromatic blue; and his drawings of human forms reveals the influence of El Greco, with bodies extended and features exaggerated. In subject matter, Picasso turned towards poverty, sadness, and death—the darker aspects of the human experience. Though perhaps not technically in the Blue Period, The Madman (1904), which you can see at the museum, illustrates this trend in Picasso’s painting: a homeless man, covered in rags, his long fingers extended almost maniacally—all done in a single shade.

Also on display is The Frugal Meal (1904)—showing two gaunt, emaciated forms, the man desperate and the woman resigned, leaning over a bare table. This vein in Picasso’s early work reminds me of one of Van Gogh’s early works: The Potatoes Eaters. Both artists, it seems, were deeply concerned with the poor and neglected during their youths; and both used gritty hues and nightmarish distortions to represent it. As I mentioned, the museum has relatively few paintings from Picasso’s most well-known periods—when he was developing, perfecting, and then moving beyond cubism—but this time is not totally neglected. The museum has, for example, The Offering (1908), a recognizably proto-cubist work clearly reminiscent of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The museum also has a copy of Picasso’s famous etchings, Minotauromachy (1935), made when Picasso was experimenting with mythological themes in the years leading up to Guernica.

The museum becomes, once again, close to exhaustive when it reaches Picasso’s later years. Most notably, the museum boasts the complete Las Meninas series (1957).

Las Meninas is, of course, a famous painting by Velazquez, on display at the Prado in Madrid. Picasso used this iconic image as the bases of a series of reinterpretations, 45 in all. Though many are excellent, I don’t think any of these paintings, individually, is a masterpiece. But taken together the series is an incredible look at the way Picasso can take a form apart and put it back together. Velazquez’s painting explodes under Picasso’s gaze, reduced to its basic elements. Picasso then experiments with the different ways these elements can be distorted, twisted, stretched, compressed, simplified, and how all these can be reassembled into a new work. Admittedly there is something trivial about all this; many of the paintings look somewhat slapdash and hasty. But their lack of finish does help us to see Picasso’s mind at work—to catch a glimpse of his cognitive processing of shapes and compositions. And one of the paintings, at least (the most famous one, in black and white) does capture some of the creative energy of Velazquez’s original.


Here I reach the limit of my knowledge of Barcelona’s museums. But the city of Barcelona, you might say, is itself a sort of museum, housing some of the most interesting buildings I have ever seen. It is to these buildings, and the architects that designed them, that I turn next.

Review: Miró—Painter of the Stars

Review: Miró—Painter of the Stars

Miró: El pintor de las estrellasMiró: El pintor de las estrellas by Joan Miró

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Joan Miró’s name is hardly less known than that of Dalí’s or even Picasso’s, his art seems strikingly less popular. I have been told by several people that they cannot appreciate it. And, indeed, I was often left cold by the works I had seen in the Reina Sofia—some of which seems to confirm every negative stereotype about modern art. But I wanted to give Miró another chance; so I visited the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, and read this book.

One of the most difficult tasks before any young artist is to develop her voice. By “voice” I mean many things: style, philosophy, identity, themes, and so on, which taken together make an artists work immediately recognizable as hers. In a word, this requires originality. One might be inclined to think that originality is the easiest thing to achieve—being the natural product of everyone’s differences. But to produce a deeply original work—one that could not have been produced by anybody else—is anything but easy. Artistic voice emerges in a dialectical process with one’s influences, as they are first mastered and then synthesized, until gradually something appears which cannot be traced to any influence.

This process is most easily seen among painters. And it is wonderfully illustrated in Miró, whose work incorporated fauvism, surrealism, and cubism. But it wasn’t only artistic trends that shaped the young painter. He was deeply inspired by natural sights—particularly the countryside near Montroig (near the city of Tarragona, in his ancestral Catalonia). The voice that Miró developed through his formative experiences and influences is unmistakable—displaying a sensibility for forms and color that no other artist could replicate. And consequently one feels, upon entering the Fundació Miró, the same way one feels upon entering the Dalí Museum in Figueres—that one is entering a new visual universe that obeys different laws.

In short, I have come to enjoy Miró’s work far more than I had. I find in it a sense of playfulness, and sometimes a sense of peacefulness, that is deeply appealing; and I enjoy watching his manipulation of forms shift throughout his work, while remaining recognizably Miró, like a theme and variations. But I still must admit that it does not affect me very deeply. My appreciation, in other words, is more intellectual than emotional. And I think that would have suited Miró just fine.

This little book is full of glossy pictures and does an excellent job in covering the different phases of Miró’s career.

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