My initial impression of Barcelona’s rich art legacy is inextricably tied to my first introduction to the city in early January, only a few hours after I had stepped from the plane into the pulsating, flashy, thriving cityscape. It must have been around 10 pm, and for the first time my study abroad group had been set free to wander from the confines of our safe hotel into the traffic and crowds of Barcelona’s busiest avenue: Passeig de Gràcia. Adorned with intricate iron street lamps in the form of graceful vines and block benches enveloped in crystal mosaics, the elegant avenue enhanced the stylistic character of the city, which exploded from every structural entity. Even the city tiles were patterned in interlocking hexagons and stamped with twisting zoomorphic figures—not until a month later did I learn that they were designed by Antoni Gaudi himself! As I rounded the corner from Plaza Catalunya, Barcelona’s main square, I found myself facing Casa Batlló and Casa Amatller. The architectural realization of Modernisme ideals by such geniuses as Gaudi and Amatller, these two buildings represent the most iconic sections of Barcelona’s Illa de la Discòrdia (Block of Discord). Beneath the haze of the city lights, the crystal that covered the facade tiles twinkled and magically winked back at my upturned stare. From Casa Amatller’s stepped outline to Casa Batlló’s undulating organic stonework, I fell in love with Barcelona, Modernisme, and Art Nouveau.
Before I elaborate on other adventures that were part of my Spanish experience, I should explain the basis and essence of what makes Barcelona such a unique and individualistic city, both artistically and culturally. The capital of autonomous Cataluña, the city vibrates with an unyielding pace and unstoppable essence unlike any other European city. Never without a cry for independence, Barcelona represents a center that celebrates its individual identity in the face of a Spanish nation convoluted with regionalism and inner-faction competition. It is no surprise then that the revolutionary Modernisme movement gripped the socio-cultural psyche of the city at the end of the 19th century. Determined to uplift Catalan culture to rival other European intellectual movements, the writers and artists of Barcelona instigated a modernizing and radical approach against traditionalism. Influenced by strong Catalan nationalism, Art Nouveau, Modernisme, and similar movements championed a bohemian and alternative lifestyle in place of the contemporary bourgeois hegemony. Stylistically, artistic manifestations of the paradigm shift were revealed in the brilliant colors and rejection of line, rich detail and twisting organic patterns, dynamic forms and a celebration of asymmetry. Barcelona’s cityscape and intrinsic character has never been the same since.
What I came to realize about the artistic identity of Barcelona is that after awhile, you become accustomed to buildings that sprout flowery sculptures from the rooftops, outlandish random mosaic masterpieces that decorate the underside of balconies, and irregular windows that tend to be in the shape of anything other than a rectangle. After my first few weeks, I found myself walking by the Illa de la Discòrdia on my way to class every day. I will never forget that first night when the magic of the light and expressive form of Gaudi and Amatller’s masterpiece captivated my imagination and inspired my historical appreciation for the city. By my second week, I was already frustrated by the crowd of gaping tourists standing in the middle of the road taking pictures while I was trying to get to school. As weeks turned into months I acknowledged that my brain had become saturated with the universality of famous art, artists, and architecture that exists concurrently with the city. Walking by Gaudi’s La Pedrera on the way to get coffee? Typical day. Enjoying drinks at Bar Marsella, where Picasso, Dali, and Hemingway used to hang out? No big deal. Discovering a medieval courtyard next to my friend’s residence? Cool…now let’s go out and get some sangria.
Nonetheless, Barcelona’s flair for anti-traditionalism and pure eccentric aesthetics continued to amaze me. One only has to visit the world-famous Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family) to truly appreciate Antoni Gaudi, who was an architectural madman and consummate genius. Literally the first reaction of every person who sees the Sagrada for the first time goes something like this: a confounding stare, followed by a questionable kneading of the eyebrows, a shake of the head, and then a resounding “What the…#*&%@!” This reaction is appropriate. With spires that measure 560 feet high, three diverse facades that express themes from the Bible, and an abstract central nave that mixes smooth lines and jagged points, visitors are certain to be astounded by the whimsical design that constitutes Sagrada Familia. Gaudi himself resisted the temptation to classify his masterpiece into any specific category. Love it or hate it, the only thing that people do agree on is that the Sagrada testifies to Gaudi’s characteristic audacity to challenge the standard norm, and manifests itself as his personal contribution to Barcelona’s iconic skyline. My friends and I loved the outlandish and exuberant scheme of Sagrada. On multiple occasions, we would grab some wine, cheese, and bread from our local outdoor vendor and sit in a neighboring garden to watch the sunset over the church. From twilight into night, a remarkable transformation would take place, casting light into shadow, lines into curves, straight into uneven. It was a show of its own, a play of the natural elements over the eccentric surface of a giant sculpture. Begun in 1882, the church is still ascending further into the sky on a daily basis, with a completion date estimated around 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death.
One of the most meaningful epiphanies I had while living in Europe was that, due to the inherent antiquity of each city, one could possibly discover constant layers of creativity spanning generations by simply knowing where to look. Here in the States, where we frequently bulldoze and replace our older buildings, it was refreshing to experience a society that appreciates the longevity of the residual past. I lived on the backstreets of a neighborhood called El Ravel, on the slopes of Montjuïc, Barcelona’s semi-mountain. Affectionately known as the neighborhood for Barcelona’s immigrants and sketchy business, El Ravel has cleaned up its act in the past few years. What remains is a fascinating mix of traditional city planning of the 13th century, architectural testaments to Modernisme of the 19th century, and an amalgamation of urban sprawl and cosmopolitan revival. My first few weeks walking up and down my home street, I was enchanted by the undulating iron balconies that emerged systematically from the building’s façade. They moved in, out, around, curved, dipped, and flowed together in an elegant wave of delicate design and mosaics. Only later after conducting some research did I realize that they were designed by a prominent forerunner of Art Nouveau (whose name I have now forgotten). Nevertheless, Spanish mothers loved to hang clothes and grow plants on their balconies in a way that enhanced their artistic splendor and integrated architectural history into daily routine.
Thinking back on the art of Barcelona, I find I could spend hours discussing the revolutionary splendor of the city and its imaginative aspects. However, I think the most important idea to take away is that there is no divide between where art stops and the city ends. They both intertwine inexplicably together in a living entity that fosters a life and style uniquely Catalan, Spanish, and European. Every visitor to the city takes part in that artistic process both personally and communally, and that’s what first made me fall in love that night on Passeig de Gràcia beneath the light of Gaudi’s lamps.
Visual Resources Assistant