One of the most important exhibitions of the season, celebrating a century of artistic and cultural exchanges between Paris and Barcelona, is currently showing in the Grand Palais Museum in Paris.
Visiting this exhibition in Paris without being prepared can be quite puzzling since it is extremely vast in its scope of comparisons and contrasts, and covers an extremely rich period between 1836 and1936. This was a period of rapid industrial progress that obliged artists and architects to question time-worn values and experiment with new techniques and aesthetic approaches. The exhibition takes in, for example, Antoni Gaudí y Cornet's architectural scale model for the ‘Sagrada Familia’ (showing analogies with Viollet-Le-Duc) as well as some of his heavily designed furniture mirrored by that of the French Art Nouveau designer Guimard. You then go on to see sculptures by Rodin, his Catalonian counterparts such as Manolo, and also a beautiful sculpted head of a woman by Picasso. You proceed to paintings by Puvis de Chavannes, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec (who influenced the Catalonian Casas both in style and choice of subject matter), as well as Rusiñol and the young Picasso, before going on to find a rapid confrontation of Braque's and Picasso's Cubist period. Then, finally, you find yourself confronted with Miró and Dali, along with André Masson and Picabia.
You are stimulated to discover various associations on either side of the Pyrenees: for example, one wonders what is the connection between Gaudí's chromatic architecture and Miró’s ‘Horse, Pipe and Red Flower’, as well as that between Le Corbusier and Gaudí; and then there is the question of the missing link between the Parisian Montmartre libertarian cabarets and the great mystic who chose to spend the last years of his life aiming to finish a unique cathedral.
Gaudí and Picasso are the two giants of this exhibition in the sense that their genius announced, shaped and over-rode all the contemporary currents in their respective fields. Their creative power became a monument to their own personality, and they were so rich in invention that each avenue they explored or even borrowed reached it's zenith with them, as witness their influence on many generations that turned into ever-expanding new styles. The story of Gaudí (1852-1926) and Picasso (1881-1973) illustrates how Barcelona was first influenced by Paris and how it then influenced Paris later on. It was as if, in that fragmented epoch, an intellectual and artistic bridge was built between the two cities that stimulated every creative field.
This exhibition precisely shows the multiple currents that shaped this geographical area during this epoch, and it helps us understand the reasons behind the flourishing of arts in Western Europe in general and the vivid cultural exchange between Paris and Barcelona in particular. During the hundred years spanning the middle of the19th century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Europe became a magical place a concentration of beautiful architecture and superbly talented artists. Architects designed some of the finest buildings in the world, giving the major European cities the charm that characterizes them even today by transforming them into receptacles for dream, emancipation and creativity.
Within this period, Europe witnessed the birth of many a significant architectural monument that fitted into essentially two schools of design: an engineering-influenced, futuristically modern school presaging ‘Art Nouveau’ (e.g. the Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London and burnt at Sydenham in 1936, and another example is the lean and elegant structure of Gustave Eiffel’s famous tower for the 1889 International Exhibition in Paris). The second school was responsible for academically traditional state-funded building that also could have plenty of charm (e.g. Paris’ Opera Garnier 1861-1875).
Contemporary with these schools we find the unclassifiable figure of Gaudí who had started his famous Sagrada Familia in Barcelona in 1883, and went on to undertake his Casa Milá (1905-’10) and Casa Batlló (1905-’07). Rather than considering Gaudí as a third school, we could say that he was the initiator or the instigator of the Modern school. By distancing himself from the academic, he introduced change and adopted modern techniques but with the ambition of marrying the traditional, structural and ornamental in a new, holistic way the way nature goes about it's own creation, with organic, throbbing life and avoiding straight lines, wild with fantasy yet solidly earthbound like mountains.
In fact, architectural currents of thought and innovations that spread to all the arts led to several currents that succeeded or coexisted with each other at that time and, as always, it was hard to decide for the contemporary artist to follow the right path. But the fever to build and innovate that transformed great cities in Europe into gigantic building sites were the most visible and concrete ‘eye of the cyclone’ of change that swept across Europe.
On the whole, we can distinguish three major currents within the most modern school of architectural design of the period. The ‘Modernism’ of Gaudí privileged individualism and independence; it was inspired by Gothic, and took its source from Hispano-Moorish orientalism but using modern techniques (Gaudí once again seemed to anticipate everyone in 1885-’89 with his Palacio Güell, where his parabolic arches were both decorative and structural). Mediterranean neo-Classicism, defended by Maillol and adopted in Barcelona under the name of Noucentism (tending to sober purity), encouraged taking source in Brunelleschi's cathedral in Florence. Thirdly, a much wider idea of architecture, less personal and emotional, and more rational, led to discarding of classical ornament and use of reinforced concrete and iron. It was the latter that was to become the internationally adopted highway that was called ‘Le Modern Style’ in France (referring to a more functional and rational architecture) and ‘Art Nouveau’ when referring to modern decoration or design objects, with its sinuous organic lines and abhorrence of classical symmetry, mostly in cast-iron.
A variety of the ‘Art Nouveau’ trend appeared in England, where it gradually adopted the continental modernism following the ‘Arts & Crafts’ movement. Then this movement, in virtually the same form, swept through Europe, giving rise to ‘Jugendstil’ in Germany, ‘Sezession’ in Austria (that most resembled the French Art Nouveau), and ‘Stile Liberty’ in Italy. It is obvious that the movements differed in their expression, but they shared the same fundamental drive to use modern materials and innovate freely with design. Between the two world wars the new movement was taken further by Le Corbusier (who had admired the Sagrada Familia), Walter Gropius (the founder of the Bauhaus at Weimar), and Mies van der Rohe.
It becomes clearer to understand not only how but also why all this innovation happened. Innovation in architecture needed both new techniques and substantial financing, and this brings us back to the leveraging effect that industrialization in northern European countries and Northern Italy had on both manufactured production (bricks, terra cotta tiles) and innovation in reliable building materials (reinforced concrete and steel). Moreover, the intensive exploitation of iron and coal mines, and the development of new forms of transport (railroads, canals) resulted in an unprecedented prosperity for northern Europe. And, in addition, shared prosperity through timely social reforms provided safe and solid ground for further industrialization in Britain and France.
In Spain, especially with the period of peace provided by the constitutional monarchy of 1876, following the unrest after the 1868 revolution, Bilbao and Catalonia were the only regions to jump on the industrial bandwagon, with steel and fabric factories as leading industries. Prosperity, therefore, was created and maintained by entrepreneurs, and it was the new captains of industry who hired and encouraged architects and decorative artists, and financed their projects.
As with every period of expansion, a nostalgia for the glorious past took artists a few steps backwards only to make considerable leaps forward a few years later. On one hand, the scientific advances that came with industrialization pointed to a rational, structural path leaving aesthetic appearance as secondary and non-essential (the Darwinization of natural sciences also put faith into question and relegated art and culture to a secondary role). On the other hand, under the influence of the recently colonized Orient and its ornament, of the magnificence of Gothic architecture of the past, and in reaction to the all-out industrialization that undermined nature, a new path was opened for the first time in France by Viollet-Le-Duc (1814-1879) and in Barcelona by Gaudí: the Neo-Gothic that they called ‘Modernism’. Gaudí had great esteem for Viollet-Le-Duc and considered his views on architecture (i.e. the harmonization between the aesthetic and the technical) and his encyclopedia on architecture as fundamental (‘Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XI au XVI’, where he developed his argument that the essence of Gothic architecture was in its solutions to engineering problems). He even made a trip to Carcassonne to see Viollet-Le-Duc's medieval restoration work. We must also keep in mind that, just as with Picasso, Gaudí observed many currents but developed his own inimitable style.
Other major influences on Catalonia's link to the emerging innovative Europe came from two British figures who had a crucial role in influencing creative thought of that epoch. One of them was William Morris (1834-1896), who founded the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement and who believed in the functionality of architecture and the relevance to its environment. The other was John Ruskin, whose taste for the past and the merits of craftsmanship permeated his writings such as ‘The Lamps of Architecture’ (1849) and ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1851), in which he praised the use of ornament and the naturalistic merits of Italian Gothic. But, rather than struggling against the effects of the industrial revolution, Gaudí's Neo-Gothic style was a more credible way forward since it lent itself to newly adopted building techniques with iron framework (although Neo-Gothic in appearance, the four 300 foot towers of the Nativity facade of the ‘Sagrada Familia’ make use of structural innovation).
Another major factor bringing younger architects and artists in phase with European modernism was the 1888 ‘Universal Exhibition’ that was in a way the official adhesion of Catalonia to industrial Europe. There was not a linear expansion of modernism in Catalonia since, contemporary to the architects and sometimes preceding them were the painters who, instead of going on the traditional pilgrimage to Rome, chose Paris as their artistic center. Indeed, a similar phenomenon of interaction between the two cities influenced Catalonian painters such as Casas (1866-1932) who went first to Paris in 1882 and met with Utrillo (the husband of Suzanne Valadon and father of Maurice) and Rusiñol (1861-1931). Greatly influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec and bohemian Montmartre, Casas and Rusiñol both attended the Gervex academy and met other artists in the ‘Chat Noir’ cabaret that later inspired the ‘El Quatre Gats’ in Barcelona (with reference to the four founders). Paris was the place where everything was happening, where ‘academicism’ was put into question by a whole generation of artists from Manet to Monet, Cézanne and Van Gogh. The pioneering Catalonian artists showed all those influences in their art with a palette reminiscent of Parisian ‘joie de vivre’ and elegance, and with Montmartre and ‘Butte’ scenes showing their contacts with the French ‘avant-garde’ currents of the epoch, from Degas to Debussy or Puvis de Chavannes. This was ideal ground for the young Picasso (1881-1973) who moved to Barcelona at the age of 14. The son of a drawing professor of the Fine Arts Academy there, he was stimulated by Casas’ portraits, and became a regular of the '4 Gats' where he was encouraged by the older artists to hold an exhibition of his portraits in December 1889 and January 1900. One of the exhibited paintings 'The Last Moments' was chosen to represent Spain in the 1900 'Exposition Universelle' in Paris. This was a unique occasion for Picasso to travel to Paris accompanied by his friend Casagemas a trip that changed his destiny and the destiny of modern art. Young as he was, Picasso earned the esteem of many older artists such as Rusiñol who even collected his work. His first Parisian work, later known as the melancholic ‘Blue period’ was very much under the influence of Van Gogh, and an example exhibited here is the 1901 'Blue Room' from Washington’s Philips collection. Then, in 1906, fascinated by the exhibition in the Louvre of the recently discovered ancient sculptures from Southern Spain, he was convinced of the necessity to change his post-Impressionistic style and adopt a more conceptual style, much more Mediterranean in essence, that gave existence to his 'archaic' portraits, including that of Gertrude Stein. This was the 'Catalonian' speaking through him tragic and imposing with grandeur, powerful and rich, with dark and contrasting colors. During this 'primitive' period he was in Gosól, a Catalonian village where he spent his summer, but he still kept one leg in France. Attracted to the French town of Céret since 1910 by the Spanish sculptor Manolo, whose 1913 sculpture of the 'reclining woman' could have been sculpted by Picasso, Braque and Picasso started the Cubist movement, later joined by Herbin and Juan Gris (a magnificent 1913 'Paysage de Céret' belonging to the Stockholm 'Moderna Museet' is exhibited here).
Other Catalonian artists of renown exhibited are Miró (1893-1983) who was at first influenced both by the colorful beauty of Gaudí's mosaic decorations (having visited the Güell Park) and Picasso's post-Cubist period. Miró later developed his own version of Surrealism.
Another great figure is Dali who, from his early portraits (e.g. 'Portrait of Luis Bunuel’, 1924) was distancing himself from Impressionism and, under the influence of Freud, was inclined to exploration of his own psyche. After meeting André Breton and Picasso in Paris, he too found in Surrealism a promising way forward.
As you explore this exhibition, and review this most prolific period that ended with the 1936 Spanish Civil War, you realize that every modern movement in architecture or the visual arts spanning the middle of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century saw French and Catalonian artists as major players, whether Modernist, Cubist or Surrealist. There was something about this dual culture that produced a powerful symbiosis
and two powerful figures like Gaudí and Picasso, both emblematic of this creative interaction and sources of the next century’s style.
Art Lovers' Paris