Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dazzled by Picasso and Gaudi

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Early on Sunday morning, while the rest of the Youth Hostel residents were sleeping off their weekend carousing, I walked quickly along the Bari Gottic and arrived at the Museu Picasso only to be stunned at the endless line that had formed before the museum even opened its doors. With at least 500 folks on line, I decided to explore the Museu Barbier-Mueller D'Art Pre-Colombi which translates from the Catalonian into the Barbier-Mueller Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. This collection is also located in a beautiful old palau (mansion) on the Carrer de Montecada, right opposite the Museu Picasso, but so gigantic is the reputation of Pablo that no one seemed interested in inspecting the treasure concealed inside--and frankly I did not expect anything too impressive either.

How mistaken I was! One room in particular so seized my imagination that I was glad I gave Picasso a miss until the queues thinned out. The manuscript room was filled with photocopies of the correspondence that ensued between Columbus and the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain who had sponsored his voyages of discovery. Columbus writes in his own hand about the things he encounters in the Caribbean Islands and his disappointment at not finding any gold. The diary jottings of a number of his crew were also on display and I was transported to 1492 as I scrutinized those priceless documents. Seeing these words in black and white (or sepia and white, to be more precise) somehow made history come alive for me and gave it a soul.

Then, I was out on the street ready to join the line for the Picasso Museum. To my astonishment, I entered in less than ten minutes and though the place was filled, it was still possible to enjoy the contents of the many rooms at leisure and study every single one of the exhibits. I found the museum totally fascinating though most visitors are rather disappointed to find that his best-known works are not on display--they happen to be in Paris, of course, at the Musee Picasso (where I had seen them 22 years ago and been profoundly moved).

This time round, I was moved again, but for altogether another reason. This collection showcases Picasso's earliest work, most of which was done when he was still barely out of his teens and while he lived and studied Art in Barcelona's Llotja Art School. It allowed the viewer to see exactly how he progressed from an imitative artist to one who blazed new trails and changed the direction of 20th century Art completely. His earliest self-portraits show an uncanny resemblance to his last photographs taken just before his death. His portraits of his father and his mother are touchingly realistic--such a far cry from the iconoclast into which he evolved. The canvases he submitted to Art competitions while he was still in art school are extraordinarily realistic and show no signs at all of the abstract artist he would become. I found all of this extraordinarily moving. There were a few canvases from his Blue Period and his Rose Period and then the tempo quickened as we moved into his Cubist phase with his take on the work of the Old Masters such as Manet's Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe and, of course, the famous series he did on Velasquez's Las Meninas. This superb collection is an opportunity for any lover of Modern Art to understand Picasso's complex journey and to marvel as its exhaustive invention.

It took me an hour and a half to see it all and then I was on the street enjoying the warmth of the Iberian sunshine pouring down upon me as I decided to spend an hour in the Parc de la Citadella, a green lung of the city that contains some interesting early landscape designs by Gaudi, primarily in the huge Cascade or Waterfall that he created which contains, among other things, statuary, spouting jets of water and terraced basins. The park also is also the location of the Catalonian Parliament but since tours were stopped for the day, I had to content myself with a look-see around the exterior. It reminded me a bit of the Parc de Bieno Retiro in Madrid which included topiary and a lake in which boating was a pleasant weekend past-time. Indeed, the park was empty of tourists and it was great to see the 'locals' taking the air, strolling along with their toddlers and to watch the elderly enjoy a sit-down on the many benches.

Then, began my long walk towards Barcelona's piece de resistance, La Sagrada Familia (the Church of the Holy Family). This iconic image of the city is now familiar to most people but to see it in person is truly a staggering experience. A conception of Gaudi's imagination, work on this Gothic cathedral began over a hundred years ago but came to a standstill during the Communist era of the Spanish Civil War. When construction was resumed, Gaudi make it his personal ambition to get it finished but, as luck would have it, he was mowed down by a tram right in front of the church. Undaunted by his demise, the engineers and architects continued with his vision and the church is described today as a "work-in-progress". Most of the exterior has been completed but the inside is still basically a shell with completion expected only in 2030.

Encrusted with sculpture depicting the Nativity on the back facade and the Passion on the front, Gaudi took his inspiration from nature, his constant companion as a child. This was brought home to me through the small exhibit in the crypt of the church and for that reason alone, I was so glad I splurged on the 10 euros that it cost to enter it. I understood completely the rationale of this genius after seeing that exhibit and perceiving the link between the various images from nature (wheat stalks, lavender, sunflowers, pine cones, etc.) on the artistic and architectural motifs to be found on his buildings and their interiors. Everything that had seemed weird suddenly made complete sense to me and I felt as if I had a revelation, an epiphany of sorts.

I took so many pictures but cameras cannot quite capture the intensity of his vision or the creative zeal that has allowed it to be implemented. The giant columns inside the church, for instance, are multi-limbed trees whose branches form a canopy above--Gaudi's take on Gothic fan-vaulting. The choir stalls at the back of the church are so wide and expansive that, when complete, will hold 1,500 singers. I encircled the building several times both inside and out because suddenly I could not get enough of this revolutionary architect and since I was exhausted by this point, I took the Metro back to Las Ramblas, very proud of the fact that I found my way despite needing to make two changes on two different lines and without speaking or reading a word of Spanish!

Though the evening was still young, I was much too pooped to possibly consider covering any more ground that day. I returned gratefully to the hostel and plopped into my bed where I stayed for the rest of the evening!

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