||Modernisme, between Love and Hate
Josep M. Huertas Claveria
The art critic Francesc Fontbona is right in believing that
Modernisme has gradually become “a kind of magic word within
Catalan culture,” and that “there are those who, without
wishing to, have given it a special charisma as a patriotic emblem
that is totally excessive and out of all proportion” (1).
This has not, however, always been the case, and one might be surprised
to read articles of judicious people such as Carles Soldevila, Josep
Plà and Manuel Brunet, for example, calling for the demolition
of the Palau de la Música because they considered it to be
an architectural aberration. This example is the tip of the iceberg
of clearly anti-Modernista way of thinking that had a decisive influence
on Catalan thought between the twenties and the fifties.
Amidst the love-hate relations that have been unleashed in the
course of the time, Modernisme has a history that is not always
easy to date.
Alexandre Cirici Pellicer, a highly proficient historian
and art critic, set the beginning of Modernisme in Catalonia
in the period 1880-85, when five buildings as different as Casa
Vicens, by Antoni Gaudí; the Víctor Balaguer museum-library
in Vilanova i la Geltrú, by Jeroni Granell i Mundet the
Academy of Sciences in the Rambla of Barcelona, by Josep Domènech
i Estapà; the no longer existing Indústries d’Art
de Francesc Vidal by Josep Vilaseca, and the Montaner i Simón
publishing firm —today Fundació Tàpies—by
Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
As the architect Oriol Bohigas states in a text in defence
of Modernisme, this artistic movement “has such an extraordinary
projection and intensity in Catalonia, and takes on at least
such a sharp and transcendental personality as that of the
foreign movements that were to some extent parallel, such
as Liberty, Secession, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil or the Modern
Modernisme sought modernity on the one hand and cultural
regeneration on the other. A group of intellectuals whose
core was the editorial staff of the weekly magazine L’Avens
gave the movement content. They did not merely promote architecture,
the cornerstone of Modernisme, but also the sculpture, painting,
graphic arts, literature, theatre and the recovery of the
traditional craft trades which were so skilfully used by the
The phenomenon came to an end between 1910 and 1914, according
to Professor Joaquim Molas, in 1911 according to Oriol Bohigas,
and between 1909 and 1910 according to the art historian Mireia
Freixa. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that it was
present in Catalan cultural life for about thirty years, though
some late examples, such as the Casa Planells by Josep Maria
Jujol (1923-24), are considered to be Modernista masterpieces.
|| BRUSSELS, VIENNA, ALESUND
When one travels to a city that also had its Art Nouveau period,
it is easy to establish comparisons, though the styles are highly
different. The Viennese Secession has a more distinct personality,
but some houses of the Brussels Art Nouveau could be transported
to the urban landscape of Barcelona. An interesting case is
the port town of Alesund in Norway, which was destroyed by fire
in the early 20th century. It was rebuilt in only three years,
from 1904 to 1907, and this gave it a unique profile as an example
of Jugendstil in the world. The period of this reconstruction
coincides with that of maximum splendour of Catalan Modernisme,
the first decade of the 20th century.
The men and women who made Modernisme possible formed part of
a privileged social group of manufacturers, investors, bankers
and new nobility who had become rich in the late 19th century,
according to Dolors Llopart (3). A factor that contributed to
this was the repatriation of capital from Cuba after the loss
of Spain’s last colonies.
For this upwardly mobile bourgeoisie, the clearest sign of
distinction was to commission the construction of a new building
in the Eixample, an expansion area of Barcelona that was being
developed at that time. The admiration or envy caused by an
unusual house, such as that of the Batlló family, redesigned
by Antoni Gaudí, led Pere Milà to ask the same
architect to build another one in Passeig de Gràcia,
which became Casa Milà, known as La Pedrera. The institutions
also wished to construct outstanding buildings in Modernista
style, such as the Hospital de Sant Pau by Domènech
i Montaner and the Sagrada Família by Gaudí.
Sculptors such as Josep Llimona, Miquel Blay and Enric Clarasó
excelled in their Modernista statues. Desconsol by Llimona
in the former Arms Yard of Parc de la Ciutadella, and La cançó
popular, by Miquel Blay, on the corner of Palau de la Música’s
façade, are two of the most representative sculptures
of this phenomenon, but not the only ones. Montjuïc and
Poblenou cemeteries, for instance, have a remarkable parade
of Modernista sculptures.
Painters such as Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol
were the main exponents of Modernisme in their art, and the
cafe Els Quatre Gats, located on the ground floor of Casa
Martí by Puig i Cadafalch, was a meeting point for
those who placed their faith in the dictates of the new art
form. Even some posters by Picasso can be considered to be
Modernista, alongside the better known ones by Alexandre de
Riquer and Adrià Gual.
In addition to the posters, there were the covers of some
books printed by publishers such as Montaner i Simón,
and periodicals such as Pèl & Ploma, Joventut,
Hispania and Garba. In literature, Els sots ferèstecs,
by Raimon Casellas, and Solitud, by Víctor Català,
were two of the most important works of literary Modernisme.
The performance in Sitges, in 1897, of La fada, a play by
Jaume Massó i Torrents, director of the weekly magazine
L’Avens, was a special moment in Symbolist theatre,
which went hand in hand with Modernisme.
The concept of a minor art is certainly mistaken, but
it has been used for so long that it allows us to understand
each other. Joan Busquets is one of the major exponents of this
excellent period of recovery of craftsmanship. He came from
a dynasty of carpenters and created some of the most highly
appreciated Modernista furniture of the time. He and the Majorcan
Gaspar Homar were the most important figures in furniture. It
would be difficult not to include in the values of Modernisme
the famous stained glass work.
A work such as the stained glass windows of the Casa Lleó
Morera, by Antoni Rigalt’s workshop, is one of the best
examples of the applied arts of the time. Other important
works are the cast iron produced by the Manyach workshop,
the ceramics of the Pujol i Bausis factory, the mosaics of
the Escofet company, the jewellery of Lluís Masriera,
and the terracotta work of Lambert Escaler.
The spread of Modernisme took place around the turn of the
century, probably due to the impact of the Paris Exhibition
of 1900, and also because at prosperous time in the economy,
the Catalan bourgeoisie felt the need to give their dwellings
personality. It was like a social triumph, and magazines such
as Il·lustració Catalana published examples
of the new houses of the bourgeoisie as positive new features
of urban development.
Another aspect that is not always mentioned, but that was
important in daily life, is the introduction of domestic improvements
such as baths and washbasins, in addition to the use of tiles
in kitchens and the spread of the use of laundry rooms. Not
all have the beauty of the attic in Gaudí’s la
Pedrera, but hygiene and comfort benefited from the advances
proposed by many Modernista architects.
Noucentisme took a hard line with Modernisme, from which
it took over. It considered the more extravagant examples of
the former movement to be in poor taste, and many shops and
establishments were transformed and decorated in a more austere,
discreet and frankly boring style. We still have the photographs
that show us what the Diorama Cinema and the Cafè Torino
looked like, to mention but two of the many works that were
For years not even Gaudí was spared the general scorn,
and time had to pass before he was again appreciated. Alexandre
Cirici wrote in 1948: “When we ask the people who promoted
it about Modernisme, except on rare occasions we are given
the evasive answers of shame, a kind of repentance that wishes
to bury the past. When we speak with members of the generation
under the age of 30, however, we often find a great appreciation
and interest in it (4).”
Few texts are more revealing of the post-war period, when
Modernisme gradually began to be reconsidered. However, this
did not prevent the demolition of Puig i Cadafalch’s
beautiful Casa Trinxet in 1968, and struggle was necessary
to prevent the same from happening to Casa Serra, also by
Puig i Cadafalch, and Can Golferics, by Joan Rubió
In 1968, with a major exhibition and the publication of Arquitectura
modernista, by Oriol Bohigas and Leopold Pomès, the
situation began to change and the interest noted by Cirici
as a sign of the new generations paved the way for the recovery
of a genuinely Catalan artistic movement. Modernisme had aroused
love and hate that had to be overcome in order to contemplate
it as it is, a great moment of artistic and ideological creation.
FONTBONA, Francesc. “Va existir realment el Modernisme?”.
In: El Modernisme, pàg. 45. Lunwerg, 1990.
BOHIGAS, Oriol. Arquitectura modernista, pàg.
225. Lumen, 1968.
LLOPART, Dolors. “De la forma i de l’ús
dels objectes”. In: El Modernisme, pàg. 241. Lunwerg,
(4) - CIRICI,
Alexandre. “El Modernisme vist ara”. In:
Ariel, núm. 18, pàg. 61. Published in 1948.