17 February 2015
Barcelona and the Avant Garde
Barcelona was more open to outside influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than the Spanish capital, Madrid. It witnessed the flowering of modernisme, the Catalan variant of art nouveau, whose most notable exponent was the eccentric architect Antoni Gaudí. He continued his most extravagant project, the Sagrada Familia, until his death in 1926.
However, by 1906 modernisme was considered overly aesthetic and had given way to noucentisme. Initiated by Eugeni d’Ors, this cultural and intellectual movement, literally ‘of the new century’, was urban, middle-class and distinctly nationalist both politically and culturally. In the visual arts and literature, noucentisme can be seen as a return to order, to Classicism and social cohesion after the individualism of modernisme. In fact, Catalan artists and writers were influenced by movements from elsewhere in Europe, but remained true to local traditions, spirit and language. The avant-garde movement in Barcelona should be seen against the background of noucentisme, sometimes emerging from it, at other times provoked by it.
Spain’s neutrality in the FirstWorld War brought a number of foreign artists to Barcelona. They included Serge Charchoune and Hélène Grunhoff, Albert Gleizes, Robert and Sonia Delaunay who went to nearby Sitges, and most notably Francis Picabia who published the first four issues of his Dadaist periodical 391 in the city in 1917 (1960 reprint, British Library X.902/721). Picasso returned from Paris to Barcelona the same year, while Joan Miró continued to study and work in the region.
The key figure in the contemporary artistic life of the period was Josep Dalmau, who had opened his Galeries Dalmau in 1911. The following year he organized the first avant-garde art exhibition in Spain there, the ‘Exposició d’art cubista’ and also exhibited paintings from Picasso’s Blue Period. Dalmau mounted Miró’s first one-man show in 1918. However, with the end of the war, most of the foreigners left the region, while native artists were free again to travel abroad.
The first properly avant-garde movement in Catalonia can be dated to 1916 and the appearance of the first issue of Troços (‘Pieces’), founded by Josep Maria Junoy, a poet and art critic closely associated with Dalmau. Its content set a pattern for similar publications with its mixture of art criticism and verse, often calligrammatic and related thematically to the visual arts. Junoy published a collection of poems, Poemes i cal.ligrames (RB.23.b.6900), in 1920, including a version of his earlier visual poem ‘Oda a Guynemer’ in memory of the French air ace Georges Guynemer. The work earned him the praise of Guillaume Apollinaire.
It was the presence of Miró, the Catalan Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García and the Uruguayan Rafael Barradas that gave greatest impetus to this first expression of the avant garde in Barcelona. All three contributed to the publications initiated by Joan Salvat-Papasseit, arguably the most significant Catalan avant-garde writer in spite of his early death at the age of 30.
Joan Salvat-Papasseit, statue in Port Vell, Barcelona (picture by Tommykavanagh from Wikimedia Commons)
In 1917 Salvat-Papasseit founded the periodical Un enemic del poble (‘An Enemy of the People’, 1917-19) whose subtitle Fulla de subversió espiritual (‘Leaflet of Spiritual Subversion’) is indicative of his political radicalism. Salvat-Papasseit subsequently edited two further periodicals, Arc-voltaic (‘Arc-Lamp’; one issue, 1918) and Proa (‘Prow’; two issues, 1921). In all three there is a similar collaboration between text and image, already manifest in Troços. A female figure by Miró appeared on the cover of Arc-voltaic, while the drawing by Barradas on an inside page is an example of his vibracionismo, a variant of Italian Futurism, illustrating the pulsating dynamism of the modern city. The texts included Italian and French versions of Torres-García’s ‘Art-evolució (a manera de manifest)’, a call for individuality and constant change in art which had already appeared in Catalan in Un enemic del poble the previous year. Salvat-Papasseit himself contributed a calligrammatic poem describing the city of Barcelona. The following year he issued Contra els poetes amb minúscula. Primer manifest català futurista (‘Against Lower-case Poets. First Catalan Futurist Manifesto’), a call for an unspecified modernity in poetry. (Arc-voltaic, Un enemic del poble and Contra els poetes amb minúscula are all reprinted in the 1994 facsimile edition RF.2009.b.12.)
Another volume of avant-garde verse, L’irradiador del port i les gavines (‘The Harbour Light and the Seagulls’), appeared in 1921, and also included a number of visual poems. The poet who showed most clearly contemporary influences from France and Italy was Joaquim Folguera who published Catalan versions of Italian futurist poems and works by Apollinaire in the noucentiste journal La Revista (1917; P.903/309). Some of these were republished in his posthumous Traduccions i fragments of 1921 (YF.2009.a.11345).
The early Catalan literary Avant Garde ended with the military coup of 1923 that imposed the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera and effectively suppressed Catalan nationalism. Dalmau meanwhile continued his work in Barcelona, mounting an exhibition by Picabia in 1922 and Salvador Dalí’s first one-man show in 1925. Miró moved to Paris and Dalí to Madrid, but neither ever severed their links with Catalonia. After the premature deaths of Folguera and Salvat-Papasseit, J.V. Foix remained as the sole major writer of the Catalan avant garde. The author of Gertrudis (1927; 1983 edition YA.1986.a.4647) and KRTU (1932; 1983 edition YA.1987.a.14346), both illustrated by Miró, he also had a key role in the important contemporary journal L’Amic de les arts (Sitges, 1926-29; 2008 facsimile at LF.37.b.135).
Two of the collaborators on L’Amic de les arts were the art critic Sebastià Gasch and the writer Lluís Montanyà. In 1928, together with Dalí, they produced the most strident of avant-garde manifestos in Catalan, the Manifest antiartístic català, but generally known as the Manifest groc (‘Yellow Manifesto’) because of the colour of its pages. It championed modernity: cinema, jazz, contemporary architecture, photography, motor cars and ocean liners, and contemporary figures: Picasso, Gris, Le Corbusier, Stravinsky, Tzara… Its targets however were specifically local, for it attacked modern Catalan poetry and music, while venerable cultural institutions such as the music society, the Orfeó Català, were rubbished as old hat, lacking in boldness and invention.
With the advent of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, Catalan nationalism and cultural life were revived in the visual arts and architecture. Most prominent among the artistic organisations was ADLAN, Agrupació ‘Amics de l’Art Nou’ (‘Association of Friends of New Art’) which was founded in 1932 and became the major champion of the Avant Garde. Its members included Dalí, Miró, Foix, Gasch, the composer Robert Gerhard, the architect Josep Lluís Sert and other members of the association GATCPAC (Grupo de Arquitectos y Técnicos Catalanes para la Arquitectura Contemporánea). ADLAN mounted three Miró exhibitions, the first Picasso retrospective (1936) and the Exposició logicofobista which included almost all avant-garde Catalan artists. It also organized shows devoted to leading figures of the wider avant garde: Alexander Calder (1933) and both Hans Arp and Man Ray in 1935. Concerts of contemporary music, especially jazz, cinema showings, poetry readings (by García Lorca, for example) figured in their other activities. In 1934, ADLAN and GATCPAC were responsible for the special issue, devoted to twentieth-century European art, of the classy cultural magazine D’ací i d’allà (ZA.9.d.386). Miró designed the cover and an accompanying pochoir. All this creative energy and enterprise was crushed by the Fascist uprising of 1936 and the ensuing Spanish Civil War.
Geoff West, Lead Curator Hispanic Studies
This is an edited version of my article in Breaking the Rules. The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937, ed. Stephen Bury (London: the British Library, 2007), pp. 71-73. YC.2008.b.251
You can find out more about the arts in Barcelona at our event ‘Barcelona Kaleidoscope’, on 27 February