The piece is not meant to be a simple evocation of the sea, but of our seafaring past. So its spiked forms conjure ships’ prows, sails and peaking waves which threaten to break over fragile craft.

Controversy in every angle

Evocació marinera (Evocation of Seafaring, 1958–1960), one of Barcelona’s earliest abstract public sculptures, was originally sited in front of the Naval Authority—akin to kicking the hornet’s nest of the ageing Francoist dictatorship.

Evocació marinera (Evocation of Seafaring, 1958–1960), one of Barcelona’s earliest abstract public sculptures, was originally sited in front of the Naval Authority—which was akin to kicking the hornet’s nest of the ageing Francoist dictatorship.

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.

The piece is not meant to be a simple evocation of the sea, but of our seafaring past. So its spiked forms conjure ships’ prows, sails and peaking waves which threaten to break over fragile craft.

The piece is not meant to be a simple evocation of the sea, but of our seafaring past. So its spiked forms conjure ships’ prows, sails and peaking waves which threaten to break over fragile craft.

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.

From Noucentisme through New Figuration to full-blown abstraction, Subirachs’ art has always created polemic.

From Noucentisme through figuration to full-blown abstraction, Subirachs’ art has always created polemic.

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.

Forma 212 (1957) was the first abstract sculpture to be placed on the streets of Barcelona, but caused little controversy due to its removed location.

Forma 212 (1957) was the first abstract sculpture to be placed on the streets of Barcelona, but caused little controversy due to its removed location.

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.

The sculpture’s surface texture recalls the degradation of bleached timbers, rotted by the elements.

The sculpture’s surface texture recalls the degradation of bleached timbers, rotted by the elements.

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.

Coordinates: 41.375353, 2.189111

 

Forma 212 / Form 212 (1957) by Josep Maria Subirachs. Concrete. Av. d’Arturo Mundet, s/n.

Coordinates: 41.435596, 2.147120

 

References:

www.subirachs.cat

Get the guide BCN Free Art 01: The Port and Barceloneta! Go to www.poblesecbooks.com to purchase a print copy.

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A monument to Catalan independence

Francesc Macià was known as l'avi (the grandfather) of Catalonia

Francesc Macià was known as l’avi (the grandfather) of Catalonia

If you’re following a route down the Rambles in search of free art in Barcelona, pause at Plaça Catalunya for Josep Maria Subirachs’ 1991 Monument to Francesc Macià, which shows the harmonious marriage between a contemporary piece and another artist’s much earlier work.

The Goddess by Josep Clarà i Ayat links Subirachs’ piece to the collection of sculptures you can see installed around Plaça Catalunya

The Goddess by Josep Clarà i Ayat links Subirachs’ piece to the collection of earlier sculptures you can see installed around Plaça Catalunya

The installation acknowledges Josep Clarà i Ayat’s La Diosa (The Goddess) while allowing the earlier work to inhabit its own setting on the ornamental pond. The Goddess links Subirachs’ piece to the collection of sculptures you can see installed around Plaça Catalunya, created for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. She is, nevertheless, a copy since the original was removed to the foyer of the Barcelona City Hall for safekeeping in 1982.

Subirachs—the artist responsible for the Passion façade on the Temple of the Sagrada Família, the culmination of his artistic career—strove in this commission to pay homage to Catalan president Francesc Macià (1859–1933) and Catalonia. Of travertine marble, concrete, iron and bronze, the solid concrete bastion represents Catalonia’s history while the upside-down staircase symbolises the step-by-step construction of the country’s future.

The upside-down staircase symbolises the step-by-step construction of Catalonia’s future

The upside-down staircase symbolises the step-by-step construction of Catalonia’s future

The bust is of Macià himself, a politician and soldier who had been exiled for his involvement in a military campaign to liberate Catalonia from the Spanish dictator Primo de Rivera in 1926. A founding member of the political party ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia, the same that is currently prominent in the campaign for Catalan independence), Macià was president of the Government of Catalonia from 1931 to 1933. Shortly after election, this politician they called “the grandfather” declared a Catalan Republic as “a state of the Iberian Federation”, just a few hours before the Second Spanish Republic was born. However, the initiative was quickly quashed by Madrid and subsequent negotiations led to the compromise of an autonomous region within Spain that was given the historical name of the Generalitat. Macià died in 1933.

Josep Clarà i Ayat’s La Diosa (The Goddess) inhabits its own setting on the ornamental pond

Josep Clarà i Ayat’s La Diosa (The Goddess) inhabits its own setting on the ornamental pond

Continue on down the Rambles for architectural Modernista gems such as the Casa Bruno Cuadros (otherwise known as the “umbrella house”) and Gaudí’s Palau Güell. Otherwise, make a pit stop at nearby Els Quatre Gats, an initiative which the Catalan artists Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol helped found. This restaurant was frequented by many other artists, including Picasso, who held his first exhibition there.

Monument to Francesc Macià (1991) by Josep Maria Subirachs and La Diosa (The Goddess, 1929) by Josep Clarà i Ayat. Plaça Catalunya (at the top of les Rambles).

 

Get the guide BCN Free Art 01: The Port and Barceloneta! Go to www.poblesecbooks.com to purchase a print copy.