11 MARCH 1995, Page 40


Catalan charms

Giles Auty

Those who have been denied a break this winter or experienced one or more doses of this season's particularly virulent 'flu would find it hard to give themselves a better tonic now than a long weekend in Barcelona. Sunny days there in the last week of February matched perfect June temperatures in England. In such conditions, a lengthy walk with the Miro Foundation on Montjuic as its destination can hardly fail to lift the spirits. The sight of Barcelona itself, the moun- tains and the Mediterranean sparkling away in early spring sunshine not only rewards the visiting Brit but possibly helps explain the animation and affability of the city's own inhabitants. The Miro Founda- tion salutes the life's work of one of Barcelona's favourite sons, in considerable depth, in a building of great charm and cheerfulness designed by MirO's close friend, the architect Josep Lluis Sert. The one discordant note for me was to find a temporary exhibition there of vast paint- ings by the American Julian Schnabel. These might be described best as an unsub- tle blend of megalomania and self-abuse, showing that the combination of formless art and unformed intelligence can easily be fatal. In art bombast is no substitute for adventure and it would be hard to find artists who exemplify these two qualities better than Schnabel and Mir& Miro belonged to the heroic era of modernism, whereas Schnabel demonstrates the dan- gers which may have lurked unseen in the body of 20th-century artistic radicalism right from the outset.

The word modernism gains an additional meaning in Barcelona, being used there specifically to define the architectural pro- ductions of Antoni Gaudi and others which combine elements of movements known elsewhere as Arts and Crafts, Jungenstil and Art Nouveau. Even to think of Barcelona without its extraordinary archi- tectural heritage would be to deny a major element of the city's unique character. Gaudi's art worked visually first but at no expense to function, in contradiction to the emphasis preferred by many of the archi- tectural radicals who succeeded him. But the latest Barcelonan baroque — or post- modernism, if you prefer — indicates that the architects entrusted with certain recent civic projects of a major nature have not been entirely worthy of that confidence. Visual aspects and suitability of site seem to me to have been sacrificed on the twin altars of fashionable dogma and Mammon.

Anyone who cannot see that the two tower blocks at Port Olimpic are roughly two-and-a-half times too high is in urgent need of an ophthalmic appointment — yet hardly more so than those who agreed 50- odd years ago to work carried out at the opposite end to Gaudi's own at his unfin- ished Temple de la Sagrada Familia. Worked on some quarter of a century after that genius's death in 1926, the addition is a chilling reminder of what the words `modern sculpture' could mean at the pre- cise period of our own Festival of Britain. The grizzly form of stylisation popular at that time is the absolute antithesis of Gaudi's unique brand of florid realism and boundless visual imagination; the figures at the end of the temple Gaudi completed, drip from ornate portals like wax falling from sacred candles.

The ultimate test of visual art and archi- tectural exteriors must be their visual impact; indeed, if they fall at this first hur- dle the justifications which are made for them simply become excuses for inadequa- cy. The façade of the North transept repre- sented the victory of short-lived sculptural and architectural fashion over visual taste and sense. This is the typical error made by would-be artistic radicals and their sup- porters. Art which once claimed to con- form to the fashionable imperatives of the moment frequently dated even faster than obvious aberrations such as flared trousers which at least could be easily jettisoned. Architecture which bowed to equally hideous fashion cannot be got rid of so simply, because of the vast costs usually involved.- Like Sydney, Barcelona benefits immea- surably from being both a major city and a port. The most ancient part of the latter city antedates the Romans and there is plentiful evidence still of the former Roman presence, through walls, buildings and museums. What has been known since 1927 as the Gothic Quarter forms only a part of the old Roman city of Barcino. This, in turn, is simply part of the old city of Barcelona — Cuitat Vela — which is where the Picasso Museum is located in three old palaces. In contrast to the Musee Picasso in Paris, the Barcelonan version concentrates on the time the artist spent in the city as student and young man. It is especially rich in beautiful and little-known early works which help give a much rounder impression than usual of the artist's life and talents. I cannot but believe these would move even Paul Johnson whose suspicions of Picasso exceed even his new-found ones about Poussin.

Picasso was born in Malaga in 1881 but, like the half million immigrants who came to Barcelona from southern Spain between 1950 and 1970, identified strongly with Catalan life. The artist's father was an art teacher whom Picasso had already out- stripped in terms of technical virtuosity by the age of 14, when he was admitted to the School of Fine Arts. in Barcelona. Picasso's large, set-piece painting 'Science and Char- ity' completed in 1897, when the artist was 16, would be beyond the abilities of most current members of our own Royal Acade- my.

Picasso's earliest work is as fascinating as the buildings in which it is housed. What this museum makes clear is the personal thrust of Picasso's development; he toyed briefly with the fashions of others but ulti- mately invented his own vehicles of vision. The artist's versatility is impressive; he cap- tures the essence of things and people rather than their external envelope, often with absolute economy. His post-war draw- ings of his wife Francoise Gilot are extraor- dinarily expressive as is his extensive pictorial tribute to Velazquez's 'Las Meni- nas' — arguably one of the greatest paint- ings in history.

While Picasso's memory is embalmed in the old quarter, the Mira Foundation looks down from the breezy heights of Montjuic where the Olympic Stadium is housed. Mira's art has a characteristic playfulness and good humour. The Foundation owns 10,000 works in all: 217 paintings, 153 sculptures, a host of drawings and the artist's amazing tapestries. Sunny rooms and courtyards point up the ebullience of the work, yet Mira was affected profoundly by the Spanish Civil War — as were most of his fellow countrymen, from either side. Mira's own concern is captured in a mov- ing series of drawings which are shown complete. His art is informal but always inventive, intuitive and sensitive. It is in the last area that the vast works of Julian Schn- abel, on show now at the Foundation, are most notably lacking. Indeed, many might conclude these were the work of a desensi- tised buffalo — or buffoon. In 39 works, often on enormous tarpaulins, Schnabel seems to me to fail to make a single sensi- tive or attractive mark. This could be held to be an achievement in itself, I suppose. Schnabel's huge international standing, in the whacky world of modern museums, is the most inexplicable of our time.

While meeting the all-too-familiar con- ceits of Schnabel was the low point of my visits to Barcelonan museums, a first sight of the exquisite paintings and drawings of Luis Marsans proved an unexpected bonus. Marsans was born in Barcelona in 1930 and, although quite well known in Ameri- ca, is hardly known in Britain, so far as I can tell. This is a great pity because he is an artist of real refinement. If the present large show by him at the elegant Palau de la Virreina in Las Ramblas, built for a for- mer viceroy to Peru, could be transported to one of our publicly-funded galleries in London — the Serpentine, for instance it would be an eye-opener. Sadly we are seldom allowed to see work of this kind which illustrates how diverse and interest- ing living art is at the moment. Marsans provides proof that artistic originality remains possible in an age of purely notional artistic freedoms. Would we could escape more often from supposed interna- tional stars such as Schnabel who are forced on us by those who run our palaces of culture. Unlike other artists of our time, Marsans moved from avant-gardist prac- tices back to exquisitely-crafted drawings and watercolours of buildings, everyday objects and landscape. His illustrations of books by Proust are another joy. Marsan's work complements the slightly haunting atmosphere of a grand old building admirably. The building's first, elderly owner died shortly after moving in and marrying a young woman who was betrothed originally to his nephew. Manuel Amat i Junyet's life is, in fact, worthy in itself of the narrative attentions of Proust — or of the beautifully understated draw- ings of Marsans.

The last exhibition I saw was a bit further down the Ramblas at Gaudi's astonishing Palau Guell. To be frank, many of the 40 paintings hung there, largely on temporary `Woman and bird' by Joan Mir6 screens, interfered with the remarkable proportions and decorations of the build- ing. Only Ramon Alsima's 19th- century `Siege of Girona' justified the intrusion. I suspect any other city which could boast so unusual an art nouveau treasure as Palau Gun would be at pains to keep it empty. But blessed Barcelona has riches to spare.