As the stage for bourgeois power and the class struggle, the city in turmoil at the turn of the century was also the setting par excellence of modern art. All the effects of industrialisation, of technification, of the market in luxury goods and of the new mass markets in consumerism, fashion and entertainment, of the exaltation of the image and of iconoclastic violence, of construction and destruction, of freedom and repression… are to be found there. The modern artist, in his twofold capacity as a dandy and a bohemian, thinks he can frequent all its strata, from the drawing-rooms of the bourgeoisie, his clients, to the tavern, the brothel, the music hall or the street, where he identifies his bohemian freedom with that of the marginalised and the down and out. In the city, the traditional arts find their place among the arts and crafts and the new media –photography, illustration, film– to create the styles of the 20th century. Modernisme was the equivalent in Barcelona to movements like Art Nouveau, Sezession, Jugendstil or Liberty, names in which the concepts of novelty, breaking and youthfulness are present. The same as in these cases, Modernisme embraced not only art but every field of culture, of social life and politics, and it was to be decisive in the symbolic production of the Catalan nationalism of the turn of the century.
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.
Art Nouveau in Paris
During the years of the turn of the century, Paris was the capital of modernity. An undisputed centre for fashion and the market in luxury goods, it was also the centre of the mass market and the popular leisure market and of the new media: advertising, poster art, etc. Paris offered the right conditions for an independent art: influential critics, abundant publications, intellectual gatherings of all sorts, gallery owners and clients interested in the avant-garde. Any modern artist had to try his luck here and the fact is that many of them, arriving from all over the world, produced their best work in those brief Paris years, under the shock of the city of entertainment.
Art Nouveau in Barcelona
If there was one place in Barcelona that stood for modernity with Parisian roots, this was the tavern Els Quatre Gats (1897-1903), founded by a group of artists who had lived in Paris –Casas, Rusiñol, Utrillo– and run by Pere Romeu, one of the central figures of bohemian Barcelona. As well as promoting magazines and other publications, he gathered enthusiasts and artists of different ages, including, as is well-known, the young Picasso. Like the Montmartre venues that inspired it, it was home to exhibitions, concerts and puppet shows, coinciding with the invention of the cinema, of which Barcelona was to become a major production centre.
The painter of modern life
In The Painter of Modern Life, an essay published in 1863, Baudelaire identified art with what is fleeting and circumstantial, the inconstant that characterises modernity, and the artist with the flâneur, the enervated, curious ‘stroller’ who fades into the crowd. The theatre and the music-hall, the boulevard and the park, the night, fashion, female make-up… are the places and objects of this modern life, inseparable from the pace of the city of masses, which has become a spectacle in itself. Around 1900, in Paris or in Barcelona, as in so many European cities, artists seemed to culminate the role assigned to them by Baudelaire.
The ‘Modernistes’ home
During the second half of the 19th century, as a reaction to industrialised, mass-produced ornamental production, the traditional trades saw a revival all over Europe. Artists and architects designed everything from glass cases to paving, and craftsmen of all sorts –cabinet-makers, upholsterers, goldsmiths, ironsmiths, potters, glaziers, etc.– found a common home in an architecture that dreamed of conducting a new harmony in the arts and crafts as much as it yearned for the synthesis of art and life. Faced with a city riven by violence and the class struggle –remember Barcelona had a flourishing working-class movement in those days and was known around the world as the Rose of Fire–, the home became the ideal refuge for that bourgeois utopia.
Antoni Gaudí and Josep Maria Jujol
Gaudí is Modernisme’s best-known name and is by far its most outstanding figure. But instead of looking on him as an isolated genius, as has so often happened, we ought to place him in the rich context of Barcelona at the turn of the century. His work did not arise from his solitary imagination, but took the aspirations that characterise Modernisme to the most radical extreme, in particular those of its architecture: to achieve the synthesis of the arts and crafts, of art and life, under the leadership of the architect. In spite of everything, and in view of his radicalism, Gaudí had few pupils. Jujol, who worked with Gaudí from about 1906, was the only person capable of preserving the master’s tension in his work, using an approach that eventually converged with the techniques of the avant-gardes: collage, assemblage, etc.
There are countless sides to the symbolic production of modernity and many of them are, unparadoxically, conservative. Both the Church and the institutions of the bourgeoisie developed monumental public art –architecture, sculpture, mural painting, etc.–, which, through the techniques of modernity, conveyed a traditional message of power and hierarchy. The artists themselves, found suitable ways on the market’s conventional circuits –galleries, exhibitions or salons– to satisfy the guilty conscience of the bourgeoisie: poverty, old age, human hardship, charity or religious sentimentalism became successful artistic subjects.
At the end of the 19th century, there were a series of reactions against realism and naturalism that took the overall name of Symbolism. In the field of art, this reaction was also against the lack of transcendence in Impressionism and what was proposed was idealism dominated by poetic and spiritual values. But the symbolism, which was also expressed in photography, illustration and poster art, was of many different types: from the mildest, with links to religious sentimentalism or the world of fairy tales, to the most disturbing, tied to eroticism, evil and the individual and collective fears of the time.
Bohemia, miserabilism and black painting
Bohemian thinking leads the artist to take an interest in the darkest and most primitive side of the society he lives in. This can happen as a reaction to official picturesqueness or religious sentimentalism or as a disturbing identification with the infamies of hardship and ‘degeneracy’. The case of Nonell and his portraits of beggars, cretins or, especially, Gypsy women –always different but always the same– was one of the high points of bohemian ideology.
The poetic and spiritual values upheld by symbolism and its wish for transcendence against the anti-idealism of Realism and Impressionism were also reflected in the formats of their paintings or photographs, which sometimes tried to evoke those of religious art. In opposition to the straightforward easel painting that is a characteristic of modernity, symbolism proposed the complexity of the cycle or the retable –triptych or polyptych– and extended the work from the interior of the painting to the design of the frame.
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.