Alongside Tàpies, Picasso and Miró, Josep Maria Subirachs (1927–2014) stands as one of Spain’s most important twentieth-century artists. The seventy or so sculptures of his scattered around Barcelona include his Homage to Francesc Macià (Catalonia’s so-called granddaddy) in Plaça Catalunya and the Passion façade of the Sagrada Família Temple. Surprisingly, of these four artists, he is the only one without his own foundation or museum in Barcelona, after the private gallery, Espai Regomir, which had displayed much of his small-format oeuvre, had to close in 2014 due to a bylaw which cancelled its permanent lease. The savings bank, Fundació Caixa Penedès, was to have rehabilitated the parish church of Sant Cugat del Rec in C. Princesa, close to the Museu Picasso, but the crisis forced the abandonment of the project in 2011.
Subirachs began his sculptural career as an adept of Noucentisme (nine-hundred-ism)—named by Eugeni d’Ors in Italianate fashion after the century (e.g. 1400–1499 is known as Quattrocento). “Nou” means both “nine” and “new” in Catalan, and Noucentisme was a guiding stylistic force for the first three decades of the twentieth century in Catalonia. The movement sought to counter the excesses of Modernisme’s effusiveness and fantasy with cool Neo-Classical balance. Many of the spaces created for Barcelona’s 1929 World’s Fair, such as Plaça Catalunya, Plaça Espanya and the landscaping of Montjuïc are the result of this impetus.
So it is unsurprising that Subirachs, born in 1927, should have first been inspired by such Noucentista sculptors as Josep Clarà i Ayats. In fact, Subirachs was to incorporate Clarà i Ayats’ La deessa (The Goddess) into his Monument a Francesc Macià (Monument to Francesc Macià) in Plaça Catalunya in 1991.
Subirachs began in a strongly Noucentista figurative style. Nevertheless, by the mid-fifties, his work was becoming progressively abstracted, experimenting with the angular, erotic forms and haunting vacuums that invert the human volumes, evoking visual paradoxes, midway between architectural elements and organic creations, which would be a hallmark of his work on the Sagrada Família.
His leap into full-on abstraction—a development that, while well underway beyond Spain’s borders, represented nothing less than profanity to the tightly controlled, Neo-Classical aesthetic of Francoist Spain—came with Forma 212 (Form 212, 1957), the first abstract sculpture to be displayed publicly in Barcelona. It is installed outside Llars Mundet, close to Joan Brossa’s Visual Poem.
Being fairly well out of the public eye, that sculpture ducked any polemic; so it was his second abstract work, Evocació marinera (Evocation of Seafaring), begun in 1958, which attracted the ire of the conservatives. The piece was originally sited in front of the Naval Authority—akin to kicking the hornet’s nest of the ageing Francoist dictatorship, so it was quickly moved to its current location.
The piece is not meant to be a simple evocation of the sea, but of our seafaring past. Hence it aims to do more than just replicate marine motifs but rather pay tribute to human beings’ fight for survival in and dominance of this vital environment. So its spiked forms conjure ships’ prows, sails and peaking waves which threaten to break over fragile craft, while the sculpture’s surface texture recalls the degradation of bleached timbers, rotted by the elements.
Controversy was a current against which Subirachs swam throughout his career, and other conflicts followed the fury generated by those first abstract sculptures. Through the sixties, he was active in protests against the Franco dictatorship, contributing with the creation of a medal commemorating the founding of the Sindicat Democràtic d’Estudiants de la Universitat de Barcelona (Democratic Student Union of the University of Barcelona), a union of students and professors against the dictatorship, to help pay the fines and court cases which its members faced after a police siege (known as the “caputxinada”) in 1966.
From 1987 onwards he began to live, as had Gaudí, on-site at the Sagrada Família, where he had been commissioned to create the Passion façade. In 1990, the art magazine Arctus discovered, the night before publication of one of its issues, it had an entire blank page unaccounted for, and so decided to run an article decrying the manner in which Subirachs’ contribution to the Temple was defacing Gaudí’s work.
It should be stressed that Subirachs’ work on the Sagrada Família at that time signified the largest sculptural assembly of any living artist in the world. Though he had planned to dedicate fifteen years to this last major work of his life, he finally devoted over twenty-three, during which time he assiduously studied the New Testament, despite his religious ambivalence.
But the storm clouds gathered apace. The next morning, Subirachs peered out from the scaffolding around the Temple to observe a quasi-religious procession traipsing about the holy site in protest at his sculptural offerings. When asked years later whether the criticism had changed his attitude, his response was:
“No, no, no. … Influence it, obviously. Things don’t happen for no reason. They made me more attentive. I said to myself: ‘Hey, this is something on which everyone pays attention, even those who are against me and are capable of organising a campaign.’ That meant that I was always more lucid, wide awake. I believe I’m doing something that people see and have an opinion on, so I have to look at it even more carefully.”
In a late addendum to that protest, one of Subirachs’ elements on the temple—a sculpted lion that had attracted scathing critical attention—was quietly removed in 2015. The Temple’s management stated it was an apprentice’s poorly executed work, but Subirachs’ critics (who are legion) claim otherwise. The irony of this story is that in 1965, Subirachs had himself been a signatory to a petition arguing that contemporary work on the Sagrada Família was destroying Gaudí’s original genius.
When his Monument to Francesc Macià was installed in Barcelona’s central Plaça Catalunya in 1991, the outrage was no less furious. Subirachs asserted that after that commission, neither the Catalan Government nor the Barcelona City Council would give him any more work, though it should be noted his agenda remained full.
Subirachs’ battles may be largely a result of his lack of diplomacy concerning his fellow artists. For example, he endeared himself to few when he made a comment about Tàpies—possibly one of the world’s twentieth-century greats—and specifically, his Monument to Picasso:
“Definitely, [there are doubtful sculptures]. For example, one that I find horrible and seems strange to me that they have made is the Monument to Picasso. Furthermore, its upkeep costs huge amounts and I truly don’t know what you can conserve from it.”
In the same interview, he said of Roy Lichtenstein’s Barcelona’s Head:
“Yes, he’s an American painter, who is famous as a painter, but I don’t believe he’s ever made sculpture. But, in the end, he sent a design and they’re creating it.”
Such flippant derision towards his contemporaries caused many of Barcelona’s foremost art critics to turn their backs on this enfant terrible, which, in a small city like Barcelona, may have made his millstone somewhat heavier. Nevertheless, Subirachs is undoubtedly one of the heavyweights of twentieth-century Catalan art, so one can only hope that in the future he will regain his former higher standing.
Evocació Marinera / Evocation of Seafaring (1958–1960) by Josep Maria Subirachs. Bronze. Plaça del Mar, Barceloneta.
Forma 212 / Form 212 (1957) by Josep Maria Subirachs. Concrete. Av. d’Arturo Mundet, s/n.