Modern Art Collection Part 1, The Rise of the Modern Artist, National Art Museum of Catalonia

In the mid-19th century, at the same time as bourgeois society was taking shape, the figure of the modern artist appeared on the scene. Unlike the artist under the ancien régime, who was tied to the official symbolic cycles of the Church or the aristocracy, the new artist had as his stage the anonymous market or the cosmopolitan city. Faced with a situation in which art had become merchandise, the artist invented a new religion, art for art’s sake, in which he was the high priest. In a society in turmoil, governed by bourgeois decorum and shaken by the class struggle, the artist presented himself as the specialist in freedom and adopted the form of the dandy, the bohemian, the revolutionary or the avant-gardist. The key to the modern artist, then, seems to lie in his confrontation with the conventions of bourgeois society and with the bourgeoisie themselves as a class, but this contains a profound paradox and a terrible aporia, as the bourgeois enemy is also his client, and art, however revolutionary it might seem, is one of the stars of the market in luxury goods.

National Art Museum of Catalonia reopened the first floor of the museum, dedicated to Modern Art, after a process of renovation of the collections, the galleries and the museography. The new display offers a new critical and complex narrative that avoids the mere succession of styles and names and includes all the artistic productions of the period:sculpture and painting, drawings and prints, photography, poster work, cinema, architecture and the decorative arts. Now there is a greater presence of elements that will help you to understand the social, historic and artistic context, and which highlight the international connections of artists and movements of Barcelona and Catalonia. The new display goes for the first time as far as the 1950s, including the movement Dau al Set (the first post-World War II artistic movement in Catalonia).

Modern Art permanent exhibition is divided into four sections and an epilogue: The Rise of the Modern Artist, Modernisme(s), Noucentisme(s), Art and Civil War, and The Avant-garde Revival of the Post-War Years.


Studio, character and work
After the mid-19th century, society no longer identified art with the universal rules and collective values of the academic institution, but with that secret place that is the artist’s studio. Filled with hand-made objects, carpets, tapestries and works of art in careful disorder, like the ideal museum, or lit up by little coloured lights and dotted with the remains of an endless feast, like a pure continuation of bohemian life, the studio, as a private place, represents the most radical expression of the subjective individuality defended by the modern artist. The studio, then, has a ‘character’ that is identical to that of the work produced there.

Portraits and self-portraits
Probably at no other time in history have artists devoted so much energy to self-portraits as in modern times. Through hairstyles or clothing exhibiting different degrees of eccentricity and soon to become commonplaces, the modern artist shows off his rebellious individualism to society, sometimes as a dandy, sometimes as a bohemian. But what is more significant in these new galleries is the profusion of portraits of figures making up the artist’s closest circles: poets and writers who, in the exercise of their new mission as art critics for periodicals and magazines, were to become an essential instrument for integrating modern art in mass society.

The artist’s apprenticeship. The academy
Compared with the supposed freedom of the studio, in which is expressed the individual nature of the artist, the academy, from the beginning of modernity, became a byword for the staleness of artistic rules that had become as outmoded as they were hypocritical. The modern artist responded to the abstract affectation of the academy with his subjective sincerity and made this confrontation one of his principles, Nevertheless, academic training was still the basis of the modern artist’s apprenticeship and the nude, drawn from life or copied from a new medium like photography, the basic exercise of that apprenticeship.

Realisms: model and nude
One of the ways in which the modern artist defends his independence from academic norms is through realism, understood as an unidealised description of the world. The nude being the culmination of academic apprenticeship, it is hardly surprising that it is also where this move against idealisation shows most. The human body displayed in its most material reality, therefore, went against the abstract canons of beauty represented in the classic nude. The ineluctable objectivity of photography, a new competitor of art in its own terrain, was to have an enormous influence in this realistic vision of the body.

The artist in his studio
The studio is identified with the ‘character’ of the modern artist as much as with the ‘style’ of his work. It is a place of retreat, of inspiration, and also the nucleus from which that inspiration spreads outwards. Modern depictions of the studio, whether in painting or photography, include both the artist or enthusiast deep in thought and the unkempt rascal or model and, very often, a painting of which all we see is the stretcher, as a symbol of the mystery of the work for ever in progress, a prerogative of the artist.

The bohemian artist
The modern artist defines art as a religion –art for art’s sake– and himself as a non-conformist opposed to the conventions of bourgeois society, although the truth is that art is an essential part of a market in luxury goods for which the bourgeoisie are the only clients. In marked contradiction to this, the life of the artist comes across as bohemian –in other words, someone who identifies with the finges of society. The modern artist comes across as a Gypsy (which in fact was the original meaning of the word ‘bohemian’), drifter or actor in a play featuring fools, visionaries or madmen, beings seemingly possessed, like him, by inspiration.

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The bourgeois portrait
Although the modern artist defines his freedom in opposition to the conventions of the bourgeoisie, the fact remains that the bourgeois portrait is his main source of income. From pompous busts in which he is expected to realistically represent all the lace and jewels, to domestic portraits –sometimes those of his own family– which reflect the security of a life that is rich in every sense, and including posthumous portraits, the artist resorts to any register. But this is also the terrain in which competition from photography gets tougher. Two types of realism are considered here: the still ‘transcendent’ reality of art and the now ‘objective’ reality of photography.

The enthusiast in the studio
An old myth about the prestige of the artist tells how Alexander the Great paid a visit to Apelles in his studio. Baudelaire, for his part, said that modernity is an age of heroes in patent-leather shoes. From the world of myth, we move to another of bourgeois everydayness, which artists often depict in the withdrawal of the enthusiast or collector looking at prints in the studio. The print, furthermore, is a multiple medium, one cheaper than painting or sculpture, and lets the modern artist extend his work to social strata that are no longer limited to those of the bourgeoisie.

The ‘Orient’ is present in the bourgeois art and culture of the second half of the 19th century for two reasons. First, its discovery coincided with the imperialist campaigns of the European powers, who violently reduced the countries of north Africa to the level of colonies; secondly, for the European imaginary, a fantastic ‘Orient’ that was very different from the real thing became the place where passion, now lost in the vulgarisation of the metropolis, was still possible. Orientalism, in short, filled with consoling dreams, became one of the most commercial subjects of the new art markets.

Japonism and other exoticisms
At the end of the 19th century, when Japan opened its doors to trade with the West, interest in its culture and art spread rapidly through European society. In particular, the popular prints of the type known as ukiyo-e became objects of admiration, both for the bourgeoisie and for artists themselves. Bourgeois interiors filled with Japanese ornaments –printed cloths, screens, sunshades, fans…–, but unlike what had happened with other superficially assimilated exoticisms, the style of these prints –the line, the flat colours, the framing and formats– was to be decisive in structuring the aesthetics of the avant-gardes.

Historical painting versus current affairs
In the hierarchies of art, historical painting has occupied the highest position. These were large-format works with many characters, which earned the artist his greatest recognition. But in an artistic world that was no longer dominated by the symbolism of the ancien régime, so much as by the fickleness of the market and the fleeting present, there was no longer room for those great ‘moralising machines’. Driven by the advent of journalism and photography and the need to preserve his status in face of these new media, the modern artist replaced historical themes with current affairs issues: the colonial war, the class struggle, etc.

Landscape 1: open air painting and photography
Whereas the landscape took second place under the old hierarchies, in the latter half of the 19th century it became the most important genre in painting. For one, as a byword for realism, and for another, as the image of the freedom of the artist who, having left the enclosed life of the academy, painted unfettered en plein air, ie in the open air. But this is also a terrain in which the competition from photography showed itself in the repetition of subject matter and formal resources… Pictorialism, a photographic movement that sought to ‘elevate’ photography to the category of art, found its chief subject matter in cloud-filled landscapes and backlighting.

Landscape 2: Impressionisms
The sketch-like painting of the pleinarist originated in the technique of the academic study, but soon stopped being an intermediate step towards the finished work to become a work in its own right. At the same time, one of the characteristics of plein-air painting is its link to the fleeting moment, the changing light, the impression on the retina. Impressionism emerged from these two circumstances and, through multiple interpretations, became a style –both of painting and of life– that characterised the artist in the modern age, in the transcendental sense of freedom and autonomy in art as well as in parody and caricature.

National Art Museum of Catalonia
The National Art Museum of Catalonia, also known by its acronym MNAC, is a museum of art in the city of Barcelona which brings together all the arts whose mission is to preserve and exhibit the collection of Catalan art ‘s most important world, showing everything from Romanesque to the present. Its current director is Josep Serra.

The MNAC is a consortium with its own legal personality constituted by the Generalitat de Catalunya, the Barcelona City Council and the General State Administration. In addition to the public administrations, individuals and private entities collaborating with the administration are represented on the museum’s board of trustees.

The main headquarters are located in the National Palace of Montjuïc, opened in 1929 on the occasion of the International Exhibition. Three other institutions are also part of the museum as a whole: the Víctor Balaguer Museum Library in Vilanova i la Geltrú, the Garrotxa Museum in Olot and the Cau Ferrat Museum in Sitges, whose management is independent and its ownership is based on the respective councils.