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The Artists of Catalonia

February 09, 1986|BETTY LOWRY | Lowry is a Wayland, Mass., free-lance writer. and

BARCELONA, Spain — Picasso never spoke Spanish, only Catalan. He liked to be called "Don Pablo" and preferred the company of his bullfight cronies to the Beautiful People who were his best customers.

In 1971 a Madrid art critic was jailed for daring to call Picasso Spain's greatest living artist while, at the same time in Barcelona, plans were under way for a Picasso Museum.

Joan Miro wintered in Paris, but spent his summers on the family homestead near Barcelona. Although best known for his abstracts, he carried samples of Spanish meadow to Paris so he could complete "The Farm" with utter authenticity.

Miro was modest, reserved, and worked in a spotless studio. He rarely left that Franco-Catalonia corridor, although he was once coaxed to New York to receive the Guggenheim Foundation's International Prize from President Eisenhower.

Salvador Dali's childhood temper tantrums advanced to impromptu jumps from high places and varnishing his hair to get attention. The egg-forms on the roof of his museum are explained as prenatal memories. For all his bizarre behavior in life and art, he always saw and presented his wife, Gala, as beautiful, Catalonia as his home.

Deep Roots in Catalonia

To visit the northeast corner of Spain and the one-man museums of the three great modernists is to understand the claim that modern art may have flowered in Paris, but some of its most vital roots were deep in Catalonia. Nor is it just the shows and tales of the three masters of Cubism, surrealism and symbolic abstraction. Artistic expression flourishes in unlikely places today just as it did at the turn of the century. It is honored and, most of all, enjoyed.

Free-form sculptures sprout in roadside rest stops along the A-17; art that moves and jangles is in the departure area of Barcelona airport. The sight of a crowd in a provincial town very likely indicates the unveiling of a new piece of public art.

While international in their appeal and scope, the arts are displayed for home consumption. Tourists, more welcomed than courted, rarely find subtitles in their language (in at least one museum, the subtitles are in Spanish--after Catalan) or even catalogues in their language. We found the galleries uniformly crowded, the lines at the museum shops long, American accents non-existent. Catalonia is still largely undiscovered by U.S. travelers.

Wonderland of Expression

Barcelona, long Spain's most cosmopolitan city, is a wonderland of artistic expression. Knowing where to begin depends on how far back you want to go. There is the Archaeological Museum (Greek and Roman civilization in Spain), the Museum of Catalonian Art (Romanesque and Gothic periods; the Ceramic Museum is on the first floor), both in Montjuic Park and logically preceding the Museum of Modern Art.

The latter is in La Ciutadella, once a citadel, now the public gardens of Barcelona. This Spanish MOMA contains the work of 19th- and 20th-century Catalans: Tapies, Regolios, Fortuny, Zuloaga and others, including some fine pieces by Ramon Casas who is credited with bringing Impressionism to Spain. There are samples of Miro, Dali and Picasso, though their most significant works belong to their individual museums.

Picasso's is only a few blocks from Ciutadella to the Gothic Quarter's narrow Calle Montcada and the 14th-Century palace of the Aguilar family. Picasso gave 2,500 drawings and paintings to Barcelona for this collection, and more have been given by his widow. Two adjacent mansions have been connected to provide additional galleries, and the setting with its multi-storied inner courtyard is singular.

Don Pablo moved to Barcelona with his family at age 13. The year was 1895, and the city full of political and artistic ferment. It was politics that turned his visits to Paris into permanent exile, but before that his artistic education proceeded formally in Barcelona. The Blue Period is Catalan. His boyhood drawings are of special interest.

Artist in Retrospective

Across town on a hillside in Montjuic Park is the white open contemporary structure where the Joan Miro Foundation presents the artist in retrospective and also holds special exhibits of other contemporary artists.

Miro was 10 years younger than Picasso, although he attended the same art school in Barcelona and followed him to Paris. Miro never became an exile, dividing his year between Paris and Catalonia (he made ends meet by taking his Paris studio off-season) until he semi-retired in Palma de Mallorca.

Miro's move from realism to surrealism to abstract surrealism is easier to show than tell to us non-experts, but he is often referred to as post-modern. The Miro humor is introspective and symbolic; his sculptures often delicate in execution, and all his works require space for full appreciation.

Unlike Picasso who never saw his museum, Miro was able to place his paintings, drawings and sculptures to his satisfaction. The original donation, 290 pieces produced between 1914 and 1975 plus 3,000 drawings, has been enlarged.

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