The Age of Modernity

The 18th century may have marked the low point in Catalan history, but industrialization brought an upswing. Barcelona became a major center of the textile industry. That also marked the rebirth of art here.

In 1775 the directors of the chamber of commerce founded a new school of fabric design. It was situated in La Llotja, the old commodities exchange. It was a historic spot: the great hall in the building dates back to the Gothic period. In Barcelona’s heyday the merchants had assembled here to trade goods from around the world. The new design school rapidly developed into the premier art academy in Catalonia, the Escola de la Llotja. As if the spirit of the Middle Ages were still active in the old walls, Barcelona experienced a glorious resurgence as a center of the arts. Some of the greatest artists in Europe would attend La Llotja, including Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso.

The works of its students fill the rooms of the Museu Nacional’s modern art department. In the mid-19th century one student in particular stands out. His name is Marià Fortuny. When he was 21 years old, the government of the Province of Barcelona sent him to Morocco to document the Catalan campaigns in the Spanish-Moroccan War. In 1860 he observed the battle in which Spanish troops took the city of Tetuan and recorded it in a monumental painting. He worked on the composition over the next decade, but never quite finished it.

Apart from war, it was the colorful world of Morocco that most fascinated Marià Fortuny. He captured his impressions in hundreds of sketches and paintings. He did not draw the fashionable clichés of his day, but reality – with many keenly observed details.

Fortuny found many fascinating motifs in his own country, too – like the wedding couple signing the marriage contract. The wedding guests are from all classes and social strata – and Fortuny characterizes them with irony and an eye for detail.

His style builds a bridge between the old and new ages. His brushstrokes recall the lightness of Rococo painting while anticipating Impressionism – but above all he confronts the real world, beyond any romantic idealization. In fact, it was this closeness to reality which proved fatal for him. He often worked, not in his studio, but outdoors. And while at work near Naples, Marià Fortuny caught malaria and died in 1874 at the age of just 36. Many consider him the greatest Spanish artist of the 19th century.


Ramon Martí Alsina also studied at La Llotja school of art. He continued what Fortuny had begun. His most famous painting shows a man taking a midday nap. An ordinary man in a plain room with a simple piece of furniture: A scene from everyday life, direct, without idealization. That was the Realist style, a style pioneered above all by the French painter Gustave Courbet. Martí Alsina had seen the work of Courbet in Paris and brought his ideas to Catalonia.

The word ‘Realism’ took on a new meaning. It was no longer about depicting saints or heroes in the most naturalistic way. It was no longer about ideals or faith, but about ordinary people and their real lives. This was a step toward modernism in art – and it was a political attitude. The Realists encouraged a critical examination of social conditions.

The Realist artists no longer painted landscapes by using their imagination in the studio. Instead they went outdoors. Joaquim Vayreda was one of the great adherents of open air painting. He was first a pupil, then a collaborator of Martí Alsina before settling in the town of Olot on the edge of the Pyrenees. Here he founded what is known as the Olot school of landscape painting. It was the antithesis of the urban society of Barcelona.


At the end of the 19th century a new movement in art emerged – one that was to bring Barcelona world fame. The city was booming and growing beyond the old walls. The new quarter was called “Eixample” – ‘the extension’. The rich citizens of the city wanted to show off their wealth and their love of art and culture. Their new homes became masterpieces of a style that was taking Europe by storm. Each country had its own name for it: Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Secession style or Jugendstil. But nowhere did it become such an all-encompassing art movement as it did here with Catalan Modernisme. For an entire generation it became a symbol of the love of art and of the wealth of the Catalonian citizens.

A single block on the new boulevard Passeig de Gracia featured three masterpieces of Art Nouveau. The architect Lluís Domènech designed the house of the Morera family. He opposed the faceless buildings of industrial society with facades full of ornaments inspired by nature and reminiscent of historical edifices. Above all Domènech did not rely on industrial products but on the cooperation of artists and craftsmen. Architecture and sculpture, painting and design were to meld together to form an organic whole.

The salon on the first floor was a Gesamtkunstwerk; it is now on display in the Museu Nacional. The superb inlays come from the workshop of the designer Gaspar Homar who left a mark on modernist design as few others did. One of the basic tenets of the modernists was to overcome the academic division of arts and crafts. From the façade to the door handle, from the floor to the book case, artists and craftsmen designed the houses jointly.

On the same block as Domenech's Casa Morera is the home of chocolate manufacturer Antoni Amatller. It was designed by Josep Puig, another great Modernist architect. But the star of Modernisme was one of the most singular architects of all time, Antoni Gaudí. The house he remodeled for the industrialist Josep Batlló is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage, along with many other of Gaudí’s unique buildings.

In Gaudí’s designs the interiors are part of the oeuvre. Less well-known, but on display in the Museu Nacional are pieces of furniture designed by Gaudí with many innovative ideas – for example, the pew for which he combined wood and cast iron in a novel way. But no matter how original the ideas, Gaudí’s designs are always based on nature. He planned his furniture for the human body. With his rounded, anatomical shapes, Gaudí was a forerunner of ergonomic design.

Modernisme was not just a movement in architecture and design. The Catalan national museum also has one of the greatest collections of Art Nouveau painting and sculpture in the world.

Casas and Rusiñol

Among the major painters around the turn of the 20th century were the two friends Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol. The artistic center of the world at the time was Paris, and like many other artists Casas and Rusiñol began their careers there. They lived together in Montmartre, then a cheap district on the edge of the city. Around the corner was the restaurant Moulin de la Galette. It was a popular destination for day-trippers. A look outside should reveal the bustling, crowded terrace, but Santiago Rusiñol shows it empty and still. This seems like a premonition: A few years later Rusiñol became a morphine addict. It took him years to overcome his addiction and until the end of his life he continued to paint empty parks and gardens.

Rusiñol was born into a family of textile manufacturers. He was supposed to take over the family business, but at the age of 28 he left his wife and child to become a painter. He became one of the most versatile artists of his day – not only as a painter. He collaborated on books with Ramon Casas, for which he wrote the texts and Casas did the illustrations. In Sitges near Barcelona Rusiñol founded a combined studio and museum called Cau Ferrat – the iron cave. Today it is a branch of the Museu Nacional. Here Rusiñol could devote himself to the bohemian lifestyle – as the scion of a rich family he never had to worry about money.

Ramon Casas was also a significant representative of Modernisme. He portrayed many of his friends and fellow-artists. The works he gave to the National Museum provide a veritable panorama of artists and writers at the turn of the century.

Casas painted two of the most emblematic works of Art Nouveau works. They are reminiscent of posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. This is not surprising, as Casas had been influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris and had already made a name for himself as a graphic artist. The two works show Casas himself and Pere Romeu, the host of the bar Els Quatre Gats. The pictures hung on the walls of the bar – the tandem from 1897 until 1900 when it was replaced by the exciting new automobile.

Els Quatre Gats – “The Four Cats” – became a center of Modernisme. The café was founded by Ramon Casas himself with his friends Santiago Rusiñol, Miguel Utrillo, and Pere Romeu who had previously worked in the legendary Parisian cabaret Le Chat Noir, “The Black Cat”. And like its French model, Els Quatre Gats became a gathering place for artists and intellectuals, a venue for events and a gallery. The menu was designed by a young student from the La Llotja art school, who put on his first one-man show here: Pablo Picasso.

Another frequent visitor to Els Quatre Gats was Joaquim Mir. He was a friend of Rusiñol und Casas and had visited them in Paris, but unlike all the other important artists of his generation he had never lived in the French capital. Perhaps that accounts for the distinct, personal style he developed. He moved to the countryside, to Maspujols near Tarragona, painting the village like no one had seen it before. It is an explosion of color, forceful and unusual, almost abstract. Mir’s stained glass triptych The Blue Pool is a veritable delirium of light and color.

Fin de Siècle: Boom and Gloom

Despite all the enthusiasm for the Modernisme movement, there was also dissent. In 1893 a group of artists founded the Circle of Sant Lluc. Its members included painters, sculptors and architects – Antoni Gaudí was one of them. They shared deeply Catholic views and a distaste for what they saw as the worldliness and loose morals of many of the Modernistas. One of their rules was: no nudes – that is no violation of Catholic morals and virtue. Soon, however, they realized that this ban was too great an artistic restriction.

In fact, it was one of the founders of the group, the sculptor Josep Llimona, who later created one of the most beautiful nude figures of Modernista sculpture. “Desconsol” – or “Desolation”: Llimona’s work refers to Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Danaide”, but it is far more melancholy (than the French sculptor’s work). That may be due to the fact that it was the naked version of a tomb figure.

In 1883 a new cemetery was opened on Barcelona Montjuïc hill. It was a boon to the city’s sculptors, as figures for the graves were status symbols for wealthy citizens. The sculptures are symbols for abstract feelings like pain or pity. The artists were not primarily concerned with depiction, but with the associations their works conjured up: moods, dreams and ideals. This “Symbolism” was typical of the spirit of the Fin de Siècle. People alternated between euphoria and world-weariness, between optimism and fear of the future.

The loneliness of a woman: her gaze is turned away; there is no recognizable background. We sense that she is an outcast. Isidre Nonell painted the marginalized of Catalonian society. He began in the Val de Boí, the very same valley that was so significant for Catalan Romanesque art. In 1896 Nonell, then a young man, travelled there to paint the landscape. In the remote villages he found people suffering from disabilities and deformities – and from that point on he began to paint the outcasts of society – the beggars, the homeless, the gypsies. With his very personal style he shows the human drama beneath the surface.

At the same time the young Pablo Picasso was painting similar pictures full of sadness – his Blue Period. Both artists were expressing a general feeling of unease or anxiety – the downside of the capitalist boom.

It was a message that few art collectors wanted to see. The wealthy citizens who patronized the Modernistas did not want to know about the dark side of the economic recovery. Nonell’s bitter images were received with disgust and hostile criticism. Nonell was deeply hurt by this reception, but continued working undeterred. By 1910 his time had finally come; an exhibition in the Faianç Català gallery was a triumph – and people began to buy his work. However, Nonell had little chance to enjoy his success; just a year after his breakthrough he died of typhus.

Noucentisme – the style of the new century

After 30 years Modernisme gradually came to an end. And once again it was former students of La Llotja art school who provided the new impetus. One of them was Joaquim Sunyer, who had been a fellow student of Isidre Nonell and Joaquim Mir. Five women in a landscape. They are actually themselves part of the landscape, firmly planted in the ground, directing our gaze to the fields and the sea. Water, land and light as the source of energy – the motif is an allegory of the country itself.

Joaquim Sunyer’s painting is a key work of the new movement. Sunyer considered Modernisme a style ‘imported’ from northern Europe, and felt that Catalonia as a Mediterranean country should return to its classical Greek and Roman roots. Mediterranean scenes and the special light were to be the basis of the national style he envisioned. The artists called it “Noucentisme”, a word with a double meaning. ‘Nou’ means ‘nine’ in Catalan, and the ‘Ninehundred’-style was a reference to Italian terms like ‘Quattrocento’. But Nou also means new – so Noucentisme was intended to be the style of the new century.

The greatest sculptor of Noucentisme was Josep Clarà. In Paris he had met Auguste Rodin and, above all, the sculptor who was to be his friend and role model, Aristide Maillol, a Catalan from Roussillon, the French part of historical Catalonia. The two were kindred spirits: Maillol and Clarà were both in search of classical harmony.

The Noucentistas strove for eternal values, for clarity and order – in politics as well as art. They opposed modernist liberalism, which they viewed as anarchistic. They were also Catalan patriots – even Maillol, the Catalan from France. All these ideas were very popular with the bourgeoisie. Even today copies of Clarà’s statues can be found in the center of Barcelona.

Between the Wars

The First World War marked a radical break for artists all over Europe. How could they react to the death and destruction in their works? At the same time the world was becoming ever faster and more complex. The art world split into countless movements with ever-new styles.

Abstract art was gaining in popularity. Juli González from Barcelona made a significant contribution to it. He had been an apprentice in his father’s goldsmith business, but became a painter instead. He met Pablo Picasso in ‘Els Quatre Gats’ and the two became friends. Gonzalez moved to Paris. At the age of 42, he became an apprentice in a Renault factory. He learned the welding technique; and he discovered his love of sculpture.

A bowl of fruit and a bottle. A still life as sculpture – that was unusual even for González. He formed the label yet defined the bottle by eliminating it altogether. Gonzalez explored the interplay of material and space, of positive and negative shapes. It is the simplicity that is so appealing – and the surprising realization of how much a piece of sheet iron can express.

González developed an individual style with his iron sculptures. Even Picasso learned from him, and the two friends worked together for years. Julio González became a role model for sculptors all over the world – and a key figure of the avant-garde.

To depict the world – that had now become the job of photography. Photographic reportage was changing people’s perspectives. The American magazines Life and Harper’s Bazaar were immensely popular. Photographers like Robert Capa or Agustí Centelles were showing the world events close-up. The Spanish Civil War in 1936 with all its savagery can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War – and was perhaps the first media-war in history.

The Civil War was followed by 40 years of Fascism under General Franco – and another period of suffering for Catalan culture. But once again, Catalan culture survived, in part thanks to the artists who upheld artistic freedom during the conflict with the dictatorship. And once again Catalan artists were world-famous – led by the Big Three: Pablo Picasso, Joan Mirò and Salvador Dalí, and later Antoni Tàpies. All of them spent some of their career in Paris. But today they are back home in Barcelona.

Pepe Serra Villalba, director of the MNAC:

“In this city, we have a museum dedicated to Picasso, a museum dedicated to Miró, a museum dedicated to Tàpies; in Figueras, there’s one dedicated to Dalí – all four of them created by the artists themselves. They are very important museums, and what the Museu Nacional does isn’t replace them but place them in the context of global art history, while those museums each focus on a single artist. All of these museums together provide a wide and complete view which I‘d say no other city in Europa can offer.”

In an almost symbolic manner Catalan art history came full circle in 1961 when the Gothic Aguilar Palace was remodeled for a Picasso Museum – and builders discovered the frescos celebrating the conquest of Mallorca 700 years earlier. They have found their way into the national museum and now testify to the great age of the Crown of Aragón.

A thousand years of culture, from the heyday in the Middle Ages to the rebirth in the 19th century; from the masters of modernism into the future – this is Catalonia’s great legacy in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.