Modernisme: Catalan Art Nouveau

The arts, the architecture and the men behind it

By Duncan Rhodes Barcelona Life

We look at the artistic movement that defined Barcelona’s aesthetic, and the great minds that made it happen.

Browse any travel guide to Barcelona before arriving and you’re sure to encounter the phrase ‘Modernisme’, normally used to reference the city’s distinctive style of architecture and in particular the flamboyant creations of one Antoni Gaudi. In fact Modernisme was a wide-scale movement across all of the arts, not just architecture, which coincided with the Catalan Renaissance taking place during the same period.

As Catalonia grew in wealth and power around the mid-19th century, the region strove to re-establish its national identity, separate to Castilian Spain, firstly by restoring its language (after 150 years of oppression), but equally by a conscious injection of modern ideas designed to invigorate and lift Catalan society and culture as it approached the 20th Century. The Renaissance’s main vehicle was Modernisme, which is simply the Catalan word for ‘Modernism’ and refers to the region’s cultivating of fin-de-siecle ideas and trends from the Art Nouveau movement, which was already taking place in England, France, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. However in no other part of the world did Art Nouveau leave such a strong architectural legacy as in Catalonia, thanks to the enormous pace of urban growth which took place at that time and the boundless talent of those who championed the movement.

Modernista Architecture in Barcelona

As the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona was naturally the centre of the Modernisme movement, and it was here that Catalan intellectuals, politicians, writers, poets, architects and artists strove to lift the then conservative, traditional and rural Catalan culture to match the progressive natures of Europe’s leading countries. Modernisme’s main man was – not Gaudi, as many assume, but – Lluis Domenech i Montaner. Born in 1850, Domenech i Montaner was a prominent politician and also director of the Barcelona School of Architecture (where he taught Gaudi, two years his junior). His essay ‘In Search of a National Architecture’, published in 1878 in the journal La Renaixença, was a seminal text of the Modernisme movement and reflects the Catalans’ conscious desire to forge a regional identity harnessing the power of architecture. Together with Barcelona’s other pre-eminent architects, such as Gaudi and Puig i Cadalfach, Domenech i Montaner wanted to create a style that would both reflect the Catalan soul, as well as give Barcelona an aesthetic unique in Spain and the rest of the world. It was something they achieved with extraordinary success, and even today Barcelona owes much of its popularity to ‘the look’ which these men created.

How to define that look? Following essentially the same principles as Art Nouveau worldwide, Modernista architecture can be characterized by the use of the curve over the straight line, organic and botanical shapes and motifs, a great richness of ornamentation, bright colours, a disregard of symmetry and a wide use of symbolism. In Catalonia specifically, you will see influences from traditional Catalan rural life and Catalan mythology, as well as Arabic patterns and decorations. The overall effect is a style of architecture which is very dynamic, very human, very colourful and often absurdly over-the-top when it comes to details and adornment. Some people find Barcelona’s architecture too kitsch, too ostentatious, but whatever else it is, it certainly isn’t boring, and all those symbols, decorations and mind-boggling shapes certainly love a camera lens! It’s easy to understand their seemingly cemented popularity.

Where to Find Modernista Architecture?

Half way through the 19th Century and Barcelona entered arguably the most significant stage of its development to date. A huge building programme took place, based on the plans of one Ildefons Cerda, which dramatically increased the size of the city, expanding exponentially out from the medieval Old Town and joining the neighbouring villages of Gracia, Sants, Sant Marti and Sant Andreu into one huge metropolis. This new, vast zone of Barcelona was called Eixample (Catalan for ‘The Addition’) and became the playground of the Modernista architects. It was here that wealthy aristocrats commissioned show-stealing mansions in the new style, and none more so than on the uber-district’s central boulevard the Passeig de Gracia. This sweeping avenue quickly became a living showcase of Modernista architecture as all three of Barcelona’s most famous designers, Domenech i Montaner, Puig i Cadalfach and Gaudi were commissioned to construct Art Nouveau palaces here. Check out the ‘Apple of Discord’ block, where the Casa Lleo Morera, Casa Amatller and Casa Batllo stand side by side, showcasing each architect’s individual style.

For anyone coming to Barcelona to study or pay homage to the city’s Modernista architecture, Eixample is where you’ll want to spend most of your time. Although the majority of its blocks (the zone is set out in a seemingly endless grid of squares, much like Manhattan) are residential, many of what the ‘ordinary’ flats are adorned with Modernista-style balconies (with their distinctive curving ironwork railing), or Modernista motifs, be that ornamental door-knockers, ceramic plaques, Arabic-style crenellations etc. In fact, Barcelona on the whole is so rich with splendid examples of architecture from the Modernisme movement, that many photogenic marvels uncelebrated, whilst the names of great architects – like Josep Domènech i Estapà, Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas and Enric Sagnier i Villavecchia – are known to few. Wherever you turn you’ll find plenty to admire, even if the building you assumed was a palace, museum or cultural attraction, turns out to be nothing more than a humble apartment block, department store or bank.

Modernista Architects

Of all the many great talents of this exciting period in Barcelona’s development, three men stand out as the movement’s leading lights:

Lluis Domenech i Montaner

The son of a bookbinder was a multi-talented intellectual, who engaged in politics, journalism, botany and heraldry amongst other interests. It was his skills in the field of architecture for which he will be remembered, and aside from holding a 45-year tenure as a professor and director at the Escola d’Arquitectura, it was he who designed the now UNESCO-protected Palau de la Musica Catalana and the Hospital de Santa Creu. Both works deserve exploration, although the Hospital is currently undergoing renovation to be reopened as a museum. Domenech i Montaner also designed the Castell de Tres Dragons in the Parc de la Ciutadella, which served as a restaurant during the 1888 Universal Exhibition (and now houses the Zoology Museum) and the building of the Antoni Tapies Foundation, formerly a publishing house.

Antoni Gaudi

The world’s most famous architect took the tenets of Modernisme to daring extremes and developed a style unmistakably his own, from the sinuous facades of La Pedrera to the impossibly grandiose La Sagrada Familia, where Mother Nature is mimicked in virtually every brick. Many derided Gaudi for his ostentatious bad taste at the time, but when he was struck down by a tram aged 74 the whole of Barcelona attended his funeral. Eusebi Guell was his patron in the early days and works like the Guell Palace and Park Guell are a lasting tribute to their partnership. Later La Sagrada Familia came to dominate Gaudi’s life, as the intensely pious architect lived out his final years in the church’s crypt working on a project which is still unfinished to this day. (There is hope the church can be completed for the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death).

Josep Puig i Cadalfach

Another fearsome intellectual and patriot, Puig i Cadalfach took up the presidency of the Institute of Catalan Studies from 1942 to his death in 1956. Born in 1867 he was 17 and 15 years younger than Montaner and Gaudi respectively, and drew from both of them in creating his own masterpieces. Highlights in Barcelona include the aforementioned Casa Amatller (on the Apple of Discord), the Casa Terrades and the textile factory on Montjuic mountain that today houses the CaixaForum. He also designed the La Casa Marti, the building which houses the legendary Els Quatre Gats cafe, where intellectuals and bohemians of the day (including Ramon Casas and Pablo Picasso) met for many a drink and a discussion.

For the most complete guide to Modernista architecture in Barcelona check out the city’s Ruta del Modernisme website, which lists every Modernista building and – in a fascinating foreword by Major Jordi Hereu i Boher – reveals how the city’s artistic legacy was revived after being glossed over and rejected for so long.

Modernisme in Arts & Literature

Far from being confined to the field of architecture, Modernisme was a movement that took place across the spectrum of painting, illustration, sculpture, craftsmanship, music, poetry and prose and engaged all the chief intellectuals of the day as they sought to celebrate and modernise Catalan culture. From around 1880s onwards virtually every art form took on new forms and ideas, and creative genre had its champion. Joan Maragall became Catalonia’s most famous bard, and his poetry – heavily influenced by the ideals of Nietzsche – drew on life and nature to create a style rich in vitality, and dispensing of formality.

Meanwhile Ramon Casas was perhaps the leading light amongst the many Catalan artists who began to abandon traditional painting methods and themes, often taking on influences from the world of graphic design, with flat shapes and bright colours, whilst broadening their range of subjects to include prostitutes, beggars and the peasants – and not just the upper classes or religious allegories. Picasso, who arrived in Barcelona in 1895 and stayed (on and off) for ten years, was also an important part of the movement and his Blue Period can be considered Modernista in style. To view Modernista paintings in Barcelona your best bets are the superb MNAC Museum on Montjuic and the Picasso Museum in El Borne.

About the Author

Duncan the AuthorDuncan established Barcelona Life in 2009, whilst freelancing for the likes of Conde Nast, The Guardian, Easyjet Magazine, CNN Traveller and many more. From interviews with Ferran Adria to revealing the secrets of the city’s poetry brothels, he knows the city inside out… and shares all his best tips right here.

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