British salute to the art of Barcelona

EVEN as a casual visitor today,'' writes Marilyn McCully, ``one is struck by the dissimilarity to other Spanish cities.'' She is talking about Barcelona, capital of Catalonia. The distinctiveness of Barcelona's art and architecture is currently the subject of an impressive exhibition, ``Homage to Barcelona,'' at London's Hayward Gallery (through Feb. 23.)

With the help of various Catalan scholars, Dr. McCully, who is an American authority on Catalan art, has gathered together a wide selection of paintings, sculpture, artifacts, documents, and photographs to present what she calls ``some of the different faces of Barcelona'' from 1888 to 1936. The first of these dates saw the staging of one of the city's self-boosting international exhibitions; another took place in 1929; both are featured in the exhibition. The closing date marked the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

This span includes what most would regard as Barcelona's most outstanding contribution to the arts: the extraordinary architecture of Antoni Gaudi. His intense, strange imagination belongs simultaneously to the turn of the century and to no specific period. His Sagrada Familia church, begun in 1901 but unfinished even today, may confront people as either ecstatic or grotesque, but it certainly never leaves them cold. It combines traditionalism with something that still seems persistently ``futuristic.'' It is Moorish, Gothic, fantastically inventive. Its towers rocket into the deep Barcelona sky like fabrications of a weird dream. It has almost become a symbol of Barcelona's image of itself as different.

Yet, as this show amply demonstrates, there are many other facets to the image. Gaudi himself, however innovative, was consciously provincial in attitude. His originality was highly personal, underpinned by a fervent Catholicism, a strong antimodernist stance, and a commitment to Catalan separatism. It was in fact almost eccentrically at odds with the outward-looking, avant-garde attitudes of many of the other outstanding contemporary and subsequent artists and architects in the city.

The ``modernista'' painters, for example, most notably Rusinol and Casas -- whose work is a proficient kind of Post-Impressionism -- were drawn by that cultural magnet, Paris. Apparently they sensed in modernism a means of identifying Barcelona with a wider Europe. Paris was irresistible also, somewhat later, to Picasso, and to Mir'o and Dali. Picasso, as a young Andalusian outsider come to Barcelona, had played artistic provocateur among the group of artists and intellectuals who collected at the tavern called Al's Cuatre Gats (The Four Cats). He was neither Catalan nor upper-middle-class like the older generation of Barcelona artists. And when he finally moved to Paris in 1904, it was not without a sense of thankfully having left provincialism behind him. Nevertheless his paintings of circus folk and urban down-and-outs, the works of his ``rose'' and ``blue'' periods, certainly owed their origins to the milieu of Barcelona, and particularly to the influence of Nonell. This short-lived, Barcelona-born artist's vigorous oil paintings of gypsies stand out in the exhibition.

If Picasso grew away from Barcelona, the Surrealists Mir'o and Dali, however international their reputations became, never really abandoned their roots. Their desire was to be both modern and Catalan -- to keep an eye on Paris, but still to let their imagery be fed by the mystique and identity of Catalonia.

This exhibition celebrates what the foreword to its gigantic, wide-ranging catalog calls ``the energy of the city of Barcelona and the creativity of the Catalan peoples.'' Just a few of the artists, architects, and craftsmen have become household names. But many are seen here, particularly by English-speaking visitors, for the first time.

The dominant theme is of works of art born from a surprisingly fruitful marriage of the traditional and the new, the local and the international. During World War I Barcelona was briefly host to a number of foreign avant-garde artists, among them Picabia and the Delaunays. But this show suggests that it is home-grown art that counts. Sometimes seeds sown in Barcelona germinated years later. The last part of the exhibition is devoted to Mir'o, Dali, and Picasso responding artistically to the trauma of the civil war in Spain. In the early '30s, the fearful Surrealist imagery of Dali looked back to the turn of the century. Dali stated in 1933 that he saw in Gaudi's malleable, organic architecture a ``premonition'' of the ravenous, horrific forms of Surrealism. Presumably the designer of the Sagrada Familia would have been astounded by the notion. But the art undergoes all kinds of changes and distortions. And, like their city, the art of both Gaudi and Dali have this in common: They are unquestionably different.

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