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Tandem, featuring Santiago Rusiñol and Ramon Casas, leaders of Barcelona Modernisme trend

Modernism in Barcelona

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A BRIEF GUIDE OF BARCELONA MODERNISM

In the 1800's a new art style blooms all over Europe. It's called Art Nouveau in France, Liberty in Italy, Arts & Crafts in England, Jugendstil in Germany. In Spain, it's Modernism - Modernisme in Catalan, Modernismo in Spanish.

And why the Catalan translation is relevant? Because this art trend will happen mostly in the Barcelona area and its immediate area of influence, such as the rest of Catalonia, the region of Valencia and the Balearic Islands.

Modernism in Spain means basically Modernism in Barcelona. And seeing the modernist architecture continues to be a top reason to visit this city. But Modernism isn’t just about architecture: it’s also about painting, sculpture and literature. Come with us today on a trip over 100 years back in time to discover a very exciting period of our history.

This is what you need to know about Modernism in Barcelona

1

Barcelona, leader of Modernism in Spain

Barcelona is the Spanish city with most modernist buildings. You’ll also find modernist examples in most Catalan towns, where the local elite wanted to mirror themselves in the Barcelona elite choices. The exception would be the mountains and rural lands where the power remained in the Church and there was no space for frivolities.

You’ll also find modernism in the Comunitat Valenciana and Mallorca. These are all locations where Catalan is spoken, they share historical roots with Barcelona, having been part of the Crown of Aragon, plus the Mediterranean Sea has created strong links between these areas. It’s not strange that the art travelled as well between them.

Surprisingly though, the second area in Spain for Modernist architecture is none of them, but Melilla. Not very famous, this city is a Spanish settlement in Africa, and the reason they have so many modernist buildings is that a Barcelona architect, Enrique Nieto, moved there in the early 1900’s. 

In other areas of Spain, Modernism is mostly unheard of, except for the regions of Cantabria and Castilla y Leon. There Gaudi worked occasionally thanks to the connections of his benefactor the Count Eusebio Guell.

2

What made Barcelona the perfect place to develop Modernism

Let's have a look at history. Catalonia gradually lost its splendor after uniting to Castilla with the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs in the late 1400's. That's when Catalans were left out from the trade with the Americas, while the Spanish Empire plundered the wealth of the New Continent. ​

Did you notice there’s not much Baroque in Catalonia compared to the rest of Spain? That’s the reason why: the money was there, not here. 

The following centuries were marked by wars and repression in Catalonia, specially after losing the War of Succession in 1714.  But in the mid 1700 the laws started loosening up, and with the recovery of international trade starts a new era. Catalans have always been hard workers: we soon jumped in the wagon of the Industrial Revolution while the rest of Spain still lived out of their American assets. Assets that they were starting to lose, as their colonies fought for independence.

So by the second half of the 1800’s we find a Barcelona that has grown rich with international trade and factories. The upper middle class has money to spend, show off and enjoy life. The city walls were knocked down in 1854 and there’s plenty of available space for new dwellings. And the conservative mentality attached to the monarchy and their accolades is far away in Madrid: here we want to be Paris.

3

Who brought Modernism to Barcelona?

There’s two names you need to know about: Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol. They were bohemian artists from well-off families that spent some time in Paris in the late 1800’s. There they joined the local art scene and were fascinated by the impressionist brush strokes, the Parisian nightlife, and the grey light of the city. Upon their return to Barcelona, their exhibition on the renowned art Gallery Sala Pares was a huge success. Modernism had arrived.

The next year, Rusiñol visits the seaside town of Sitges and decides to stay there. He’ll organize there several modernist festivals with art shows that offer a drastic contrast with the “official” academic trends of the time. In the next years, a café in Barcelona becomes the meeting point for the bohemian artists eager to be up-to-date with the new trends arriving from Paris: it’s the 4 Gats.  

4

Barcelona modernist painters and sculptors

There's two generations of modernist painters in Barcelona. Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol with his friend Utrillo were first, together with Llimona and Anglada-Camarasa, for instance.

After them came a second generation of young promises. Nonell and Mir belong to the Saffron Crew (Colla del Safrà), called like this because of their color choices. And even a very young Pablo Ruiz Picasso could be considered as part of the second generation of modernist artists before he moved to Paris.​

As for sculpture, we need to mention Miquel Blay, Enric Clarassó and Josep Llimona. All of them strongly influenced by the expressivity of Rodin.

The best place to see Modernist paintings and sculpture in Barcelona is the MNAC museum. The collection of the Museu del Modernisme is smaller (and probably their furniture section is way more remarkable), but it’s intimate and still lovely.

5

Modernist literature

Although not much talked about, literature was also a key point of Modernism. The recovery of the Catalan wealth had brought a new period of splendor and a new pride for the land. And the Catalan language became a visible icon of such patriotism. The Renaixença movement wants to put it in value, standardizing it and promoting its use in literature.

Joan Maragall and Mossen Cinto Verdaguer for poetry. Novels such as Solitude by Caterina Albert (aka Victor Catala, because a woman couldn’t get a name in the art world and she used a male pseudonym to publish her works). And theater with plays by Adrià Gual and the multifaceted Santiago Rusiñol that we discussed earlier as a painter. They are all great reads.

AND FINALLY! Who are the big names of Modernist Architecture in Barcelona?

6

Modernist architecture

Lluis Domenech i Muntaner is the father of Modernism in Barcelona, when talking about Architecture. A professor in School of Architecture, two of his creations are considered the first modernist buildings in town.

The printing house Montaner i Simon (now headquarters of the Tapies Foundation) is one of them. And the Palace of the Three Dragons, restaurant of the 1888 World Fair celebrated in the Ciutadella Park, is the other.

He opened up the door to seeing nature under new eyes as a source of inspiration. Despite Baroque was chosen by the French art-nouveau artists to emphasize the local historical roots, he discarded it and chose the medieval Gothic instead. And he welcomed craftsmen of all kind to embellish his projects with a fascinating myriad of materials and shapes. The Palau de la Musica Catalana is his masterpiece.

Younger than him, Josep Puig i Cadafalch followed the lead. And while there’s not a particular masterpiece, he scattered the city with signature private buildings. One of them, Casa Amatller, has a place of honor in the Block of Disagreement in Passeig de Gracia. Enric Sagnier, Josep Maria Jujol and Salvador Valeri are other names we discuss in our Barcelona Modernism Tour.

And where does Antoni Gaudi enter the game? After all, he is the most famous modernist architect. Gaudi was a student of Domenech i Muntaner, and was older than Puig i Cadafalch. He drinks from their same sources… at least at the beginning. His early works are easier to frame within the Modernist movement. However, Antoni Gaudi though outside of the box. A lot. And he eventually grew out of Modernism. His masterpieces can’t be just labeled as modernist. They have their own personality and go beyond what any other of his peers would ever dream. Gaudi is not just Modernism: it’s Modernism and beyond. It’s Modernism taken to another level.

What about you? What aspect of Modernism in Barcelona has surprised you the most?

Marta

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Last update on 2021-05-08 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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