Basilicas, Bombs and Beauty
Barcelona Resplendent, Tragic at CMA

At any given time this past weekend hundreds of visitors shuffled in a ragged line along
the perimeter of a cavernous empty room at the Cleveland Museum of Art. One woman
said it reminded her of the slow-moving queues at the Vatican. She happened to be part
of a group that included a priest, but there were all sorts – young and old, sacred and
profane -- when we visited late Friday afternoon, trying to be patient during the long
shamble toward the stairs leading to CMA’s Barcelona and Modernity: Picasso, Gaudi,
Miro, Dali exhibit.

Now that Barcelona is about to close, three or four thousand people a day are paying $12
and up to see the selection of mostly century-old art. One of CMA’s gray uniformed
guards told us that, for whatever quirky consumer society reasons, “They don’t complain,
even when they wait for an hour; not like when the exhibits are free…” He shrugs.

Sounds like the crowd at a Christian rock concert? If so it must be the drug-like spell cast
by those magic names: Picasso, Gaudi, Miro, Dali. But there’s nothing wrong with that, nor
are those hoping to brush shoulders with early modernist masterpieces disappointed at
Barcelona. Several of the show’s warren of small galleries, inserted into CMA’s second
floor during this still early phase of Raphael Vinoly’s epochal renovation, are packed with
early and mid-career works by those artists, as well as many gems by lesser known lights
of modernism and its precursors.

The show of some 350 paintings, drawings, prints,, and objects covers seven decades of
artistic ferment in the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Catalonia situated in the
southeastern corner of the Iberian peninsula. It samples art and (through wall text and
photos) events from the rebirth of Catalan cultural identity in the 1860’s, through
Barcelona’s own brand of art nouveau and the influential early modernist period when
Picasso had his first solo show at the Café Quatre Gats. It continues up to the tragic fall of
the Spanish Republic in 1939. Belying its blockbuster-like presence, Barcelona and
Modernity is a scholarly exhibit, tracing the history of a region that reinvented itself and
helped to change the world of fine art. Working in conjunction with New York’s
Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the show will reopen in March, and the Museu
Nacional de Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, CMA curator William Robinson delivers a
masterly sketch of a unique, revolutionary culture, illuminating the role it played in the
larger context of late nineteenth and early twentieth century European affairs.

Realist paintings by Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusinol, including a large, somber work
by Casas depicting a public execution, help to flesh out a story of the years leading up to
the turn of the century Those two men were the Catalan artists who co-founded the
Quatre Gats, nourishing a scene that included the teenage Pablo Picasso. On display at
CMA are several early works by the master, at first influenced by Parisian artists like Henri
de Toulouse-Lautrec but soon reflecting the sober social concerns of a period of deep
political unrest. Barcelona was known at the time as “the city of bombs” and was the
capital of international anarchism.

But there are other, earlier and quite different strands in the narrative tapestry woven at
Barcelona. Despite his legendary status, the architect Antonio Gaudi is probably less
familiar to the general public than other headliners here, and he’s also harder to bring
into a gallery setting. Nevertheless curator Robinson manages to convey the mystical
grandeur and sheer otherworldly inventiveness of Barcelona’s fin de siecle architectural
genius with photographs of the improbable towers of his masterpiece, La Sagrada
Familia. Also helping audiences to visualize the scale and complexity of that still-
unfinished basilica begun in the 1880’s (its current architects hope to complete Gaudi’s
plan by the centennial of his death in 2026) is a plaster cast of one of the organically-
shaped decorative flourishes that top those eighteen towers. On display in a glass case
nearby is a fascinating scale model used by Gaudi to visualize the weight-bearing loads of
the Sagrada’s parabolic arches. Made from thread and numerous little fabric bags, the
model seems like a work of art in itself as it recreates the mathematics of multiple catenary
curves. It also perhaps serves as a sort of segway between the gothic-inspired manner of
Gaudi and compatriots like Josep Jugol, and the show’s final gallery where Robinson
presents photos and models of high modernist buildings constructed in the 1920’s and
1930’s. Best known among these is Mies Van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona Pavilion (1929-
30), an immensely influential building that launched that architect’s rationalist program.

Curator Ward says that the starting point for this exhibit was his own curiosity about one
of CMA’s beset loved paintings, Picasso’s 1903 La Vie. It’s hard to classify the overtly
symbolic, and certainly symbolist-influenced, blue period work a young couple (the man is
thought to be Picasso’s friend Carlos Casagemas, who committed suicide following a lover’
s rejection) and a mother with child. Picasso would have been about twenty-two when he
finished the six and a half foot tall canvas, which seems to speak of eternal themes --
youth and age, and certainly sorrow. Yet it also contains the seeds of the very different,
radical vision of sexuality and political response that were to characterize his various,
more mature manners. Robinson’s exposition of historic currents surrounding this work
move from the very beginning of Catalonia’s Renaixença in the mid nineteenth century,
when Barcelona’s medieval walls were pulled down, following the shifting perspectives of
more than three generations of artists. Salvator Dali, for instance, was born the year after
La Vie was probably completed, and Joan Miro was about seven when Picasso debuted at
Quatre Gats. None of them were alive when Gaudi began to construct his facades and
towers, and all are now long dead, even as the completion of the basilica remains
decades in the future.

Like Gaudi’s conceptual catenary model, Barcelona and Modernity examines the stresses
and gravity of several aesthetic and political movements. Extremes of reason and
irrationality alternate as the decades pass, twisting around each other in an elaborate
dance of inspiration and religion, secularism and violence. As the exhibit draws to a close,
eight small etchings by Joan Miro announce the beginning of the end. Called the Black
and Red Series, they date from 1938 and reflect the chaos of the period when the
Spanish Civil war (1936-39) was at its height. The infamous bombing of Guernica had
taken place the previous spring and the horrific destruction of civilian populations that
WWII would make commonplace had begun. Miro shows us something like spiders from
Mars, black blobs with a splash of disorderly limbs, crashing downward as figures in the
foreground appear to flee. Tangles of thin black lines like puffs of dire smoke are
intersected by horizontal streaks of red. Panic, disaster, injury and death seem to scream
from Miro’s scribbled marks.

Barcelona and Modernity relates the thrilling and often tragic saga of Catalonia with rare
insight, giving Cleveland audiences glimpses of the historical processes that forged some
of our culture’s greatest moments. It closes this Sunday -- if you haven’t seen it, it’s
definitely worth the price of admission and an hour’s wait.

[Free Times 1/3/07]