Modernisme is, within the Catalan artistic context, the movement that in France is known as Art Nouveau, in Germany as Jugendstil and in Austria as Sezession. Despite the popularity of the painting, architecture and sculpture, in Catalonia Modernisme is especially notable for the decorative arts, in overcoming the distinction between art and craftwork. Even though the Catalan creators naturally assimilate the influence of everything done in Europe, thanks to international trips, fairs and exhibitions, and publications about decoration and architecture, Modernisme has its roots here with its own personality and its own accents.
The huge constructive activity of Barcelona after the International Exposition of 1888 led to a golden period for architects, which became multidisciplinary and was surrounded by artists and craftsmen: glassmakers, carpenters, mosaicists, etc. Architecture was no longer just a building project or the designing of furniture, but also dishes and cutlery. Under the Modernist stamp, the designs, often inspired by models provided by nature – an inexhaustible mine of aesthetic resources, would take over all the spaces of everyday life.
The decorative arts and design in Catalonia underwent a profound transformation and revival as a result of the 19th century industrialization process. During this century, handicraft items were gradually replaced by larger, faster and lower cost items produced at the factories. The new productive force requires a new way of conceiving the object, since mass production imposes a perfect synchronization of the different phases of a process much more complex than artisanal production.
In this primitive stage of industrial design, the need to imitate the aesthetics of the artisan world becomes clear. The divergence between the pure functionality of the object and its value as a beautiful form was at the heart of intense European debate during the nineteenth century. Society had a hard time accepting objects that were far from the traditional look of handicraft, and industry chose to satisfy that taste through often empty of decorative content. Lluís Rigalt’s ‘ Encyclopedic-Picturesque Album of Industrial Arts’ (1857-1859) exemplifies the difficult early stage in the relationship between art and industry.
European theorists such as John Ruskin and William Morris fiercely criticized the industrial object based on indiscriminate copying and eclecticism. The triumph of the new model, according to them, involved a social imbalance (the factory ends the artisans) and material and spiritual impoverishment (the factory only provides devalued replicas). For Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the alternative was the return to the craft model that dignified both the craftsman and the object. Despite not sharing Morris’s position, the industry understood that objects could not more closely mimic the past, but instead had to harmonize materials, form and use with the conception of a new social and cultural reality.. Morris’ defense of craft also dissolved the traditional discrimination of the decorative arts with respect to the traditional Fine Arts.
Catalonia is a paradigmatic example in the construction of the new cultural and artistic reality. Catalan textile products were the best example of a manufacturing capacity supported by the desire for constant refinement and entrepreneurial projects. Reflecting this dynamic are the different exhibitions that took place in Barcelona during the 19th century, such as the Exposition of the Products of the Principality (1844) or the Industrial and Artistic Exhibition (1860). The culmination of public exhibitions comes with the Universal Exhibition of Barcelona (1888), understood as a great effort to integrate Catalonia into the framework of international modernity through industry and local design.
At the same time, figures such as Francesc Vidal i Jevellí or Alexandre de Riquer adapted the discourse of Arts and Crafts in Catalonia and cemented the role that the decorative arts would play during the modernist period. Architecture and applied arts are understood as a whole that defines the aesthetics and identity of the building, eliminating the hierarchy between architect and craftsman through close collaboration. The symbiosis reveals the tune between modernism and similar renewal trends at European level. They all share the concept of a work of ” total art “, the integration of all the arts in the overall project framework.
The architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner took advantage of the Café Restaurant built on the occasion of the 1888 Exhibition to accommodate the Three Dragons’ Castle, an applied arts workshop founded with the help of Antoni Maria Gallissà. Both Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch always surrounded themselves with the leading artists and craftsmen for their projects, such as Eusebi Arnau, Alfons Juyol and Gaspar Homar. For his part, Antoni Gaudí had regular collaborators such as Llorenç Matamala, Josep Llimona and Carles Mani. Gaudí exemplifies the convergence of the different disciplines during modernism with the designs of forging in the Finca Güell or La Pedrera, the design of the hydraulic pavement and the furniture for Casa Batlló, or the experimentation with ceramics in the technique of trencadís.
The Catalan institutions expressed their concern about the applied arts and the revaluation of the object with the creation of the Industrial Center of Catalonia in 1894 and the FAD (Promotion of Decorative Arts) in 1903. The latter enjoyed internationally recognized since then.
Some of the bourgeois homes of Barcelona are the settings for the production of the best artists of the time. Throughout the day everything from business meetings to family visits were held. The perfect social showroom. This explains a certain exhibitionist luxury in certain interior spaces. A large dwelling full of paintings, sculptures, porcelain, rugs, curtains and other ornaments. The work of the corresponding maintenance becoming essential among the household tasks.
The atmosphere of the bourgeois domestic life is not possible to understand without the new worship of objects, to which the Modernist artists would incorporate the new taste based on the recuperation of traditional craftwork. In this way they would take advantage of the major popularity of these complements, from jewels to small decorative objects, which evoked the sensual ambience of the end of the century.
A privileged setting of Modernist architecture and interiors can be found in the Passeig de Gràcia, where the wealthiest families of the city settled. Here it is worth highlighting the well-known “Mançana” (or Block) of the Discord, that groups together the Casa Lleó Morera, the Casa Batlló and the Casa Amatller, presenting, respectively, the architects Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Antoni Gaudí and Josep Puig i Cadafalch.
Also called Casa dels Ossos (House of the Bones) or dels Badalls (House of the Yawns) the Batlló house, at Passeig de Gràcia 43, is widely represented in the museum, where the original doors and furniture, made in the workshop of the cabinetmaker Casas i Bardés, following the guidelines of Antoni Gaudí, are conserved. The undulating, sinuous and biomorphic shapes of this decoration already form part of contemporary art.
Josep Batlló, owner of the building, asked Antoni Gaudí to reform the existing property. Gaudí constructed a main floor with independent access, rebuilt the staircase and interior courtyard, which he covered with blue and white tiles, as well as covering the old façade with a new one with trencadís (small broken tiles) or fragments of coloured glass. He also placed new railings on the balconies, a gallery on the main floor and crowned the house with a double roofing. In short, it makes the building look like a work by Gaudí.
In the furniture, Gaudí opted for essential lines, devoid of superfluous elements, based on materials such as wood, with its natural veins rich in textures. This Two-seat sofa, with the rounded shapes that adjust to the shape of the human body, brings together all these attributes in an example of the inventive capacity of the architect. The doors are also a good example, richly cut spirals, ridges and broken bits.
A new industry
The artistic industry exhibitions organised periodically since the end of the 19th century stimulate the relations between art and industry. Based around the National Exhibition of Artistic Industries of 1892, the centre for decorative Arts was created, in the image of the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs of Paris. This entity, part of the future Foment de les Arts Decoratives (FAD – Promotion of Decorative Arts), comprising a good list of artists who would be key figures of Modernisme. They are also important artistic industry workshops, led by the furniture maker Francesc Vidal (in Catalan), in which artists were trained in different branches of the decorative arts.
The importance of this culture of workshops becomes evident with initiatives such as the Castell dels Tres dragons, in the Ciutadella, set up by the architects Domènech i Montaner and Antoni M. Gallissà (in Catalan), in the restaurant of the International Exposition of 1888: the traditional trades are experimented and perfected, such as ceramics, forging or stained glass. Other major expositions, such as the Universal Exposition of Paris of 1900 or the international expositions of fine arts, are motors which boost and foster this activity, without forgetting the activity generated by the artists’ workshops.
Considered by the bourgeoisie of Barcelona as one of the biggest signs of economic potential, painters and sculptors entered the world of jewelry to treat it like a work of art. The jeweler, Lluís Masriera (in Catalan), also a painter, is one of the essential artists from the period.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Masriera took on the artistic management of his family workshop, familiarising himself with the secrets of enamel and incorporated elements from the Art Nouveau: flowers, birds, dragonflies, Japanese influences, nymphs, and also the figure of Saint George, the patron saint of Catalonia. With regard to the materials, Masriera used a base of gold, which enhances the colours of the precious stones, such as rubies, sapphires and diamonds. His translucent enamels with very fine reliefs are characteristic.
The Modernist jewels present the usual characteristics of this movement: freedom of composition, curved lines, polychromes and the role of the flower, fauna, and feminine figures. In the Masriera workshops the elaboration process of the jewels, many of which were articulated and adapted to the body of those who wore them, combined the craftmen’s procedures with a degree of mechanisation in the creative process, repeating models, to reach different social levels.
Leisure and social life
Leisure and social life are two of the ambits most looked after by the Barcelona bourgeoisie. The cafés and other venues that emulate the most prestigious French saloons become centres of great importance for the development of an art that, in part, responds to these needs.
The Passeig de Gràcia lived its most splendid moment during the Modernist period and that is where the cafés and theatres emerged, the high bourgeoisie made it their cosmopolitan boulevard. The Maison Dorée, the Cafè de la Lluna and the Cafè Torino, are good examples.
Some of these premises are also a reference for intellectuals and artists, such as Els Quatre Gats, for which Picasso himself designed the menú. In its decoration, neogothic elements are mixed with more popular ones, such as plates, tiles and pottery jars. The large quantity of paintings that decorate the bar, among them the Tandem by Ramon Casas, round up the image as the establishment as an icon that could sum up the whole of Modernisme.
After a few years, at the end of the first decade of the 20th century, this framework would radically change, and Modernisme received bitter criticisms, in the name of the return to good taste and the good name of the city. The houses were redecorated and the objects that were considered sumptuous were put away in a corner. Voices even emerged that demanded that these constructions, which until then had been the symbol of the bourgeoning bourgeoisie, be knocked down. One period came to end while another started out.
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.