Homage to Catalonia

John Haber
in New York City

Barcelona and Modernity

Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso

In a "time marches on" version of art history, one heads directly from Impressionism to Cubism. What, then, should one make of Picasso's Blue Period—without a patch of light, a flash of color, or a reconstruction of reality in sight? Must one call Modernism's quickest wit also its slowest learner, or do the roots of the avant-garde spread wider than anyone knew?

If one trusts the Met, they spread to Catalonia. With its title, "Barcelona and Modernity: From Gaudí to Dalí" promises to link two of the century's most extravagant and popular styles, in architecture and painting. One could, however, call the show "From Picasso to Picasso." As they said on Fawlty Towers, "It's all right. He's from Barcelona." Juan Miro's Portrait of E. C. Ricart (Museum of Modern Art, 1917)

It begins with the young artist's late nights out at Els Quatre Gats, the café that he helped decorate and, in turn, left him kind of blue. It can barely represent Antoni Gaudí or Salvador Dalí, and it ends with the Spanish Civil War and Guernica. It asks to see Picasso's career and much else as an anguished response to his homeland. Along the way, it has too many middling artists, forced connections, and pages from a tour guide in place of the real thing, but it has at its heart an entertaining question. Meanwhile, an even more ambitious attempt to root Picasso in Spanish art, "Time, Truth, and History" at the Guggenheim, goes every which way and none at all.

Western civ

The Met has served up surveys of western civilization before, with much the same grab-bag of art, design, and cultures. It has also made overblown claims for a region's influence and local character. Byzantium and Prague looked splendid in the same exhibition space accorded Spain now. Lombardy, in contrast, had little to show for the "legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio" in European painting. It did not even have much in the way of Leonardo or Caravaggio.

This pocket history falls somewhere in between. That makes sense for a province so near the European action and yet so far. Barcelona nestles in northeastern Spain, temptingly close to France or the sea, yet at a fair remove from Paris or, for that matter, Madrid. Like Joaquín Torres-García and Piasso then, it had one eye on modernity and another on its distant past. It could almost have skipped entirely the centuries beginning with the Renaissance on its way to modernity.

Barcelona clearly had some catching up to do. It also had its own notion of rebirth, the Renaixença. An interior by the movement's star, Ramon Casas, half hides a portrait by Diego Velázquez behind a contemporary print. He could be insisting on the omission of three hundred years and of the Spanish court, and that insistence is not unambiguously modern. Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya, Goya portraits, and Spanish art had, after all, inspired Edouard Manet.

Picasso left for Paris and his Blue and Rose Periods as fast as he could. Guernica could go on display only in Paris, at the International Exposition of 1937. Yet Picasso returned to the Mediterranean a moment before Cubism, as if only sunlight could bake those distinct planes into form. Other artists took refuge in Spain during World War I, much as war gave Dada to New York. They might have wondered whether Gaudí's flamboyant arches and encrusted detail belong more to Modernism or the late Gothic.

Barcelona's isolation and modernity, its constant comings and goings, lent it plenty of fresh starts and false starts. No wonder the Met's nineteenth-century galleries plan to add Picasso. Besides, who could reduce half a century after 1889 to a narrative? No show could capture New York or Paris in those years. If one can explain Barcelona so easily, and if its very nature explains so much art, can it have had so important and so global a role?

This exhibition can never overcome that tension between competing claims. Like the city itself, it has enough backwaters and abrupt turns to make its whole premise suspect. It can have little to show of Gaudí's architecture, too. A summary can only rub in what goes wrong.

Something old, something new

Casas dominates the first several rooms, in quantity if not in talent. One painting, a bicycle rider, could well anticipate Francis Picabia in its drab background and schematic outlines. More often, however, Casas tames Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and their Impressionist line, with every hair firmly in place and hardly a hint of primary colors. He seeks avant-garde models for those late nights on the town, so long as they add spice to portrait convention.

He also surrounds one standing figure with daubs of white, straight out of James McNeil Whistler and his Nocturnes. Does that suggest a parallel between Barcelona and London—or America? All felt the temptations of a new art without quite surrendering. They might have to sacrifice too much high style. The parallel returns after Picasso's Blue Period and a look inside Els Quatre Gats, with a sudden turn to Art Nouveau. Furniture borrows stained-glass from the English Pre-Raphaelites, grows more fluid, and all but melts entirely with Gaudí. Maps of the expanding city look too well organized by comparison.

Picasso pops back from time to time, starting with his Rose Period. The Met links his changing palette and peasant subjects to a new classicism, the Noucentisme. However, Picasso had seen the future, and it worked out well for him. After Els Quatre Gats, the cat was out of the bag. Cubism makes a cautious appearance—with Albert Gleize, the French painter, on his way through and Julio González, the sculptor in metal, on his way out.

Picabia turns up himself, while Joan Miró and Dalí create a somewhat more home-grown Surrealism. Miró's early work leans to recognizable landscape and faces, drawn with thick black lines where one might expect folds and shadows. In between, he intensifies the color highlights, especially compared to other Spaniards displayed nearby. One can almost believe a connection to the earlier stained glass, but Miró is really taking the exhibition on another sudden turn. Dalí may appear more mature, but he only underscores how Surrealism had developed as an international movement.

A visit from Mies van der Rohe briefly straightens out the mess. One can still see his right angles, broad windows, and cantilevers in Josep Lluís Sert's Pavilion for the 1937 Paris exposition. Sert had worked with Le Corbusier in Paris before setting up shop in Barcelona, and the large architectural model makes the moment especially vivid. However, a look inside or out brings one instead to the horrors of war. George Orwell had his Homage to Catalonia, and so do the weeping women who end the show. Fascism put to an end the Spanish Republic—and with it this tale of Barcelona and Modernity.

A survey like this has neither the beauty and variety of Byzantium nor, thankfully, a scholar's lame special pleading. That does not make it entirely fascinating or at all coherent. Maybe the very lack of coherence characterizes Barcelona, as never fully Spanish, European, or a culture to itself. Maybe, too, its search for identity, at once local and cosmopolitan, has lessons for identity politics today. That search, however, puts pressure on an exhibition to deliver the goods.

Why he left

Time does not simply march on, at least not without excluding women, cultures, and voices that one should hear. Time does not stand still either. When revisionists set Post-Impressionism alongside academic painting, they only make old-fashioned art history sound even better.

One solution embraces the mess of influences and outcomes, and Barcelona makes a good case for it. I could easily see the intricate, grandiose, and fluid architecture of Gaudí as proto-Surrealism. I could see, too, if one accepts Dalí's self-indulgent fantasies as decorative art. Both might gain in the process—although it says something about the Met's need to prove something that it includes the Spanish acute accent in Dalí, as thus shall I. And then one has that Blue Period.

Art history has had different solutions to that as well. One approach comes close to the Met's. It might see Picasso's lowlifes as a violation of convention and one necessary step in his career. If they seem provincial, so do the Dutch peasants from a young Vincent van Gogh. A consciousness of poverty and absinthe prepared Picasso for Montmartre.

Another solution stresses how much Picasso had to shed. One version even writes off Picasso as a painter who just happened to get it right for a few brief years during Cubism and Picasso's Guitars. The artist learned quickly, but only once he had something to learn. A smooth narrative rooted in Barcelona overlooks his discovery of Paris, the allure of African art and "the primitive," collaboration with Georges Braque, and perhaps competition with Matisse, before Henri Matisse, too, went off further on his own. It misses at least one serious dismantling of painting along the way, Paul Cézanne. It cannot explain the Blue Period's endless popular appeal and the aura surrounding Picasso's personality or Matisse's early color with people who might otherwise hate Modernism.

Another story looks to his years in Barcelona for insight into why he left. Picasso has soaked up the same lessons as Casas, but with a more restless mind. His figures pack tightly, flattening perspective and giving the eye nowhere to rest amid the shadowy crowd. Flashes of black, white, and red disrupt the night. One might try all at once—or even throw in some distrust of his progress toward Cubism as condescension toward mass culture. One could call the continuity narrative Picasso's ego, the uniqueness of Cubism his superego, and the rebellion against Barcelona his id. eyes.

One could try much the same alternatives on others as well. Sert learned not just from Le Corbusier, but also from Gaudí and Socialist Realism. His uncle, Josep Maria Sert, painted the murals for Rockefeller Center. As usual, however, Picasso has a way of summing things up. Casas's sketch of him makes an interest contrast with the artist's own self-portrait. The young man has the handsome features in both and the same charisma, but Casas fills out his cheeks and misses the devilry in his

A postscript: sketches of Spain

Perhaps you read about the theft of a painting on its way to the Guggenheim. It was headed for a grand survey of an earlier Spanish tradition—art from El Greco to Picasso. I confess: it was my fault.

Seriously, the show had not opened, and I was already worried. I was wondering about the paintings that would make it through. I still am. What are they doing there? And what does the Guggenheim think it is doing, other than spending too much money showing off its clout?

An exhibition cannot mimic a survey text in Western or indeed Spanish art, not even with a subtitle like "time, truth, and history." Perhaps it seeks the Mediterranean equivalent of truth, justice, and the America way. It cannot have the depth of centuries of Spanish art. It cannot even borrow the best examples. Inevitably, it must settle for too few artists and unrepresentative work. Is that stolen idyll anyone's favorite Goya?

The ramp almost dooms a blockbuster anyway. Major paintings of the past never look their best—or at least no better than major works of the present. What does that leave, then? The Guggenheim does not even have the excuse of its alliance with the Hermitage, which powered its last foray into art history. And that show, "Russia," was a disaster. It made the Hermitage, the museum I most wish I had visited, look like a dumpster for art history's discards.

Even if the Guggenheim could overcome all this, it would still have the exhibition as art-history slide show or docent tour. Its solution? It intersperses leading Baroque artists with two of the last century's most outsized personalities, Picasso and Dalí. That requires more than a little tinkering with time, truth, and history.

Now, all artists have influences. All rework, rethink, and reflect on tradition, although never so much as since Picasso. With Modernism, reflection and self-reflection became a big part of the story. The Guggenheim, however, settles for a few unrevealing citations, accidental similarities, and irrelevant comparisons. It has to do so, for it sees not just direct borrowing, but a specifically Spanish character to this art. It imagines artists since the late 1500s as obsessed with a handful of themes that not even modernity could wash away.

Smelling blood

At first, the supposed themes amount to little more than the academy's familiar genres. As the only concession to Spain, still life becomes bodegones and landscape acquires the subtitle "blood and sand." I tried, without success, to imagine Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth sitting for Velázquez. Perhaps the first posed as a dwarf and the second as a child princess. By the top of the ramp, the themes have metastasized into such longings for meaning as "knights, ghosts, and ladies."

Picasso himself may suffer most. Starting at least with his 1980 retrospective, his career has recovered its modernist stature. It encompasses far more than lazy choices interrupted by Cubism's key decade. His portraits and masks can now appear less as an affront to women than as a confrontation with himself. These lackluster borrowings, in unhelpful contexts, set his cause back considerably.

A show this large has wonders, only starting with a room for Zurbarán's monks. Few exhibitions look so much better on a second visit, when one can leave expectations behind and focus on what one loves. Contributions from the Hispanic Society remind me how fine a resource remains barely noticed in New York. The inclusion of Juan Sánchez Cotán helps explain how the Baroque evolved. One can see how his dry, light colors and an impression of immediacy gave way to the voluptuous modeling and dark contemplation of Zurbarán's last subjects. This once, too, Juan Gris in his penetrating modern still life puts Picasso to shame.

However, in a great exhibition, the finest artists gain in depth, and the unfamiliar names acquire real interest as well. Here the best work comes as a rude shock. Zurbarán painted nearly identical versions of Jesus as a young man with his mother. One would do well to check out the other version on loan from Cleveland at the Frick, where careful choices and simple chronology bring the European tradition alive.

Maybe worst of all, the exhibition cannot clarify or advance a troubled museum's future. I cannot even say if the Guggenheim still has one. No longer the "Museum of Non-Objective Painting," it has not advanced an alternative mission, other than to promote its directors' art-world stardom.

The Guggenheim should forget Europe, fashion, motorcycles, and the Aztecs: even more, it should forget everything it has learned, get new head curators, and start over from scratch. It can claim at least one good start: the recovered Goya later joined the exhibition.

BACK to John's arts home page


"Barcelona and Modernity: From Gaudí to Dalí" ran through June 3, 2007, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History" at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through May 28.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME