Sunday, June 27, 2010

Travel Journal: Art in Barcelona

Of the many eventful years in Picasso's life, 1957 is my current favorite. Two series of paintings marry the brilliant color of fauvism to the angular structures of cubism.

Las Meninas (The Maids) is a tricentennial response to Valezquez's great canvas that challenged notions of perspective, the viewer, and the subject of painting itself. Like most revolutionary artists, Picasso positioned himself within the tradition he stretched and extended.

The other series of paintings, though more modest in scope, are no less visually engaging. The Pigeons are landscape paintings of the French Riviera. The pictures literally look out from a window, and are thus framed by a frame. The perspective and the subject both reinforce the playful irony and humor at work.

It is liberating to simply enjoy art like this, unburdened by the weight of analysis, criticism, &/or interpretation--the prerequisites of "getting it" where "modern art" is concerned. One doesn't need a degree to simply enjoy Picasso, Stravinsky, Beckett or Barthelme.

Barthelme's observation that "one of the properties of language is its ability to generate sentences that have never been heard before" applies to all artistic media and each of the artists above. Picasso is a paradigm of this virtue in painting, and that is one of the reasons his work is so beloved.

Barcelona is a fantastic city for modern art. In addition to the Picasso museum, Barcelona was the center of the Modernisme movement in architecture, a brilliant stylistic evolution whose freshness has not dimmed over the course of the intervening century.

If you saw the Woody Allen film Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, you saw the vividly original imagination of the central architect of the Modernista style, Antoni Gaudi. Google Gaudi and Parc Guell to see images of the coolest lizard sculpture ever.

Gaudi's first projects were apartment buildings. The most conservative of these (and the only one to win the artist a prize in his native city--insert proverb about prophets & their home towns here) is the Casa Calvet. It is also home to a new restaurant where we had one of the finest meals we can remember.

The aesthetic presentation of the multi-course repast matched the culinary imagination to make the Restaurant Casa Calvet a worthy offspring of the artist who designed its home. The grilled scallops with eggplant tagliatelle, drizzled with two pestos (olive and basil) were the best I'd ever had. Amy's duck breast with orange glaze (served atop a pear tart) was divine. Another Catalan favorite is romesco sauce--a creamy blend of tomatos, peppers, garlic and almonds--served as an accompaniment to all manner of appetizers, vegetables, and meats. I can't wait to try and replicate it in our kitchen.

One of Barcelona's most popular city blocks is home to three distinct Modernista apartment buildings, and is aptly named Manzana de la Discordia (Block--or Apple!--of Discord). I have previously written about the fascinating dissonance of styles in architecture--and music--and this creative tension comes to a vibrant explosion in the work of Gaudi. His unfinished masterpiece is the great cathedral La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family).

Gaudi worked on the boldly eccentric plans from 1884 until his death in 1926. Spain's most-visited site will not be finished for another 40 years. This zenith of architectural ambition--surely the lodestar of originality in all of Christendom-- will eventually feature a tower for each of the 12 apostles (Gaudi originally planned 18), and three facades narrating the central stories of the faith: the Nativity (the only one completed in Gaudi's lifetime), the Passion (finished in 1976), and the Glory (underway). As much construction is ongoing inside, where brilliant stained glass illuminates a vertiginous space that will eventually house up to 13,000 pilgrims.

I finished reading one of Umberto Eco's recent novels, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana on our return flight from Barcelona. Eco's narrator describes an experience I have every time I "discover" a new work of art--whether it be a painting or facade, a symphony or poem: "this moment is the interloper penetrating the forbidden mysteries of life."

There were many more such moments in the two short days we spent in our new favorite city. I'll return to write about the works of Antoni Tapies and Joan Miro soon.

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