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Not so Minimal

Not so Minimal


Xavier Grau, Sense Titol, 1991.

Caixaforum is one of Barcelona’s top cultural venues. It is located in an old textile factory with a lovely Modernista exterior and run by a bank (La Caixa). It offers a very diverse and abundant cultural menu; mainly concerts, conferences and art exhibitions. La Caixa has a substantial collection of contemporary art and likes to show it every now and then. The selection made for the occasion bears the title of Three Narratives and it is a small show; only a dozen works – and although the pieces are big in size the gaps between them are considerably large. The names, though, are important: Giovani Anselmo, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Andreas Gursky, Xavier Grau, Peter Halley, Jonathan Lasker, Tino Sehgal, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Juan Uslé, Agnes Martin and Bruce Nauman. These names correspond to the Minimal and Post-Minimal international art scene of the last three decades of the 20th century. For those who need further explanation about what a Minimalist piece of art might be, please check it on Wikipedia or buy this: a painting or a sculpture just about not being so.
My favorite piece is a painting by Catalan artist Xavier Grau. It doesn’t look Minimalist at all – it must be Post- Minimalist then. It is an abstract, atmospheric and somewhat playful work in the way the old masters of American abstraction – Pollock and de Kooning – were playful. The most spectacular piece is perhaps a work by Giovanni Anselmo: a stack of large blank canvases supporting a pile of very heavy looking blocks of stone. According to my Contemporary Art Identification Unit I inevitably carry around in my brain, Anselmo’s piece looks more Arte Povera than Minimal Art, but I suppose that these duplicities are as acceptable as coming across cider in the wine section of a supermarket; there is some link.
After giving a good look at most of the other works in the exhibition I realized that I had to revisit my distant art school days and recall the ideological lines that supported the progress of Contemporary Art in order to grasp their meanings. It was either that or to plunge into the convoluted texts included in the show.  In other words: one might think that most of this art only makes sense from an academic point of view and leaves very little for the enjoyment of the lay visitor. But this is not completely true: these works are strongly visual and it is that visual quality that redeems them from the critical jargon surrounding them wherever they are exhibited. Take, for instance, the 1988 painting Cell with Conduit by Peter Halley. It is manufactured in a professional wall paint roller style; no visible layers, no brush work or any other “artistic” trace on the surface. But its magnetic orange glow will certainly attract your gaze no matter what else is being shown in the room.


Peter Halley, Cell with Conduit, 1988.

Other artists take different strategies to steal the show. Bruce Nauman is always very good at that. He is perhaps the biggest name in the exhibition. Again, he can be sorted in different sections of the Art scene (Minimal, Post-Minimal. Objectual, Conceptual, etc.), and I’m not sure why this 1997 piece of his has been labelled as Post-Minimal this time. Its title is Shit in Your Hat- Head on a Chair and consists of a hanging chair with a plastic head on top of it plus a film projected on a screen. The film shows a mime following some spoken instructions. The instructions are dry and abusive (they have to do with the words of the title). It really attracts the attention – and repels the taste.


Parallel lives


Athenea. A poster for a puppet show made by Athenea

The architectural power of medieval Girona dwarfs everything built there since, say, the completion of the huge cathedral’s tower. That is unfortunate in a way because although there is hardly any building of distinction created between the late 18th and the early 20th centuries, Girona contains some very fine examples of early modernist architecture, and those are the houses designed by local architect Rafael Masó .
Rafael Masó started as a follower of Gaudí but his mature style has more connections with what was going on in Vienna at that time – the style known as Sezession. Masó can be described as a (excuse the contradiction), romantic rationalist advocating a sensible compromise between clear structural principle and finely crafted decoration.

Fidel Aguilar

Sculpture by Fidel Aguilar in one of the streets of Girona.

In 1913 Masó, alongside some other artists, founded the artistic society Athenea. He also built its headquarters that incorporated public showrooms as well as studios with the intention to establish an art school there. The building (a very original statement of severe though beautifully ornate classicism), was shamefully demolished in 1975.  The nature of Masó’s cultural enterprise can be better grasped by a foreign visitor if we remember that 1913 was also the year when the Omega Workshops opened in London’s 33 Fitzroy Street to show the work of the Bloomsbury Group.  As far as I know, there wasn’t any connection whatsoever between the artists of Athenea and those of Omega; the Catalan architect had a Germanic more than British inspiration and Roger Fry and his friends did not need any external input; they were following the path opened by William Morris decades before. But although the Bloomsbury Group was basically interested in painting and the Girona artists were centered on architecture and had a more classicist drive, there are obvious coincidences. In both cases the main intention was to incorporate the new formal inventions of the avant-garde into the social bloodstream through textiles, furniture and all sorts of applied arts. The Athenea posters and book covers are deliciously refined, the tile designs are gorgeous and at least one of the artists of the group, sculptor Fidel Aguilar who died at the shockingly young age of 23, was an artist of real distinction -a Catalan Eric Gill, one might say.
Athenea closed down its doors in 1917, Omega Workshops followed one year later.


La Farinera Teixidor.

The end of Athenea didn’t prevent Masó from designing a number of very fine buildings in Girona. The most spectacular of all is La Farinera Teixidor (the premises of a flour company), still reminiscent of Gaudí in its very organic flow of curved shapes and concealed eroticism, it shows a much more restrained and refined use of color. This expansive sensuality of La Farinera is an exception in Rafael Masó’s oeuvre. Following his artistic ideals, Masó teamed up with other artists and craftsmen to find his true artistic self in a soberly compact but very lucid blend of architecture, sculpture and decorated tiles with a distinctive Austrian aftertaste. This northern severity looks surprisingly adequate along the sturdy stone streets of Girona’s old quarters. The Casa Masó is in one of those streets and now holds a museum dedicated to the legacy of Rafael Masó.  It is a large family house with a luminous façade hanging over the river and beautifully crafted interiors in which Masó achieved a perfect balance between sophisticated artistic taste and bourgeois respectability; not quite the libertarian flair of old Bloomsbury but a very interesting parallel to it nonetheless.

North of Easter

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Passion in storage at Església dels Dolors (@bcnartconnection.com)

Easter processions are so popular in Spain that most Spaniards believe that the entire world loves them. But it doesn’t. At least not that part of the world that come to Spain on holidays and inadvertenly bump into one of them.

As you probably know, most Spanish cities and villages celebrate Semana Santa (Spanish for Easter), with long evening processions with heavy images of a bleeding Christ and His agonizing Mother carried along the streets on the shoulders of people. Between those images –often very remarkable baroque wood carvings- runs a parade of hooded figures (yes; the ones that resemble the Ku Klux Klan) and Roman soldiers. Easter processions are so crowded that everyone assumes they are also full of tourists but that is yet to be proved. In my experience, most foreigners have an instinctive dislike for that extremely public display of religious affection.

Religion today, for those who still have it, is an entirely private, intimate affair. Otherwise it can sound either uncivilized or weirdly hypocritical. Processions in Girona (a medium-to-small sized town 60 miles north of Barcelona of which there is so much to say so expect many blog entries), are not, by any standards, as colorful, noisy and spectacular as the ones in the south of Spain. Girona people are rather proud to have it that way and it could be ventured that they tend to consider southerners somewhat uncivilized and weirdly hypocritical people.

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Imperial pride

Some authors maintain that Easter processions were originally an uber-theatrical act involving absolutely everyone in town; crowds attending the parade would play the people of Jerusalem and they would insult Christ along his way to the Calvary and weep over his dead body at the last stages of the procession. A vast cathartic number. I wonder if Girona was ever like that. Today, what the local gentry of Girona really identify with, more than the religious images, is the Roman army. So much so that the procession is commonly known and publicized as the Manaies (local word for Roman soldiers), with no mention to the religious imagery. There is a long waiting list to join the local SPQR ranks and some posts are only accessible by inheritance.  True that the gilded brass armor looks great against the red and yellow shirts or under the bright red cloaks of the officers -as it becomes apparent when you visit the headquarters in the church of Sant Lluc-, but I wonder if there might be a factor of subconscious male longing of wearing skirts in public with no loss of respectability involved. Whatever it may be, Girona’s Easter procession is basically a military parade with a few catholic images sprinkled over it. Some of those images are really good, they are beautifully dressed and make a great spectacle at night surrounded by dozens of lit candles and pointed hoods. The rest of the year they are kept in the Església dels Dolors.  Both churches (Sant Lluc and Església dels Dolors), can be visited on May weekends. Drop by if you are around; I bet you Sant Lluc will be packed.  In Església dels Dolors you will be on your own.

Ho the castle!

Ho the castle!

Lluís Domènech i Montaner was Barcelona’s leading architect at the end of the 19th century. His enormous prestige was only matched by Gaudí. One of his earliest projects was an extraordinary looking Neo-Medieval building in Parc de la Ciutadella popularly known as Castell dels Tres Dragons (“Castel of the Three Dragons”). It is a perfect example of the day dreaming quality of Modernista (Art Nouveau) architecture in Barcelona .

This building was famously praised by local architect Oriol Bohigas as an early example of rationalist architecture . And it certainly is if you manage to mentally erase its crown-like shaped mayolica battelments decorated with painted ceramic shields, the four extremely fanciful towers and the extraordinary wrought iron and coloured glass pinnacle that shoots from one of them.

It is difficult to escape the irony that such a rationalistic space has had so many difficulties in finding a steady, sensible use . It was conceived as a restaurant (Café-Restaurant is its original name), for the World Fair of 1888, a momentous year that marks the beginning of Modernisme in Barcelona. The name Castell dels Tres Dragons (Castel of the three Dragons) comes from the coincidence of its opening with the première of a very popular play of the same name in 1888.


Castle of the Three Dragons

The restaurant did not outlived the excitement of the Fair; few years later became a music school: After the Spanish Civil War it housed a charity dining room and, ever since the decade of 1950, the Castell has been the city’s Natural History Museum. That is what it was when I first visited it as a kid and I think it was a very good building to house such an institution: an old fashioned, strange looking brick pile containing precious minerals, exotic shells and all kinds of scary looking stuffed animals in large glass cabinets. It was perhaps less educational than a David Attenborough video but had the right mysterious atmosphere to fire a child’s imagination about the strangeness of our world.

The Castle has been closed to the public for more than a decade now and its collection of old fashioned marvels have been removed. Local authorities have been considering many possible uses but nothing seems to fit this extraordinary building. The interior space is not an easy one: a large hall beautifully lit by natural light but with an enormous volume of overhead space that was great to hang a skeleton of a white whale but can hardly be given any other use if one must leave the original architecture intact. And that is the whole point: to find something to match the architecture


Not your idea of a romantic dinner. A busy evening in the Café-Restaurant soon after the World Fair of 1888.

The latest idea sounds like a rather good one: a children’s books museum. The problem is that the Castle could have been too large for a restaurant but it is definitely far too small for a mass audience. And who wants a museum without a mass audience today?










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