Barcelona and Madrid have shared quite a long history together. It is no surprise then that the ghost of Barcelona keeps appearing in the main Art Museum of the Spanish capital as well as the street Art galleries in Madrid. Whenever I travel there I can’t help spending most of my time revisiting those wonderful museums. Yes, the food and the nightlife are great there but the pleasure of being transported once again by Picasso’s Gernika or the great works of Goya is something that leaves me very little time for anything else. This is a story of 5 paintings in Madrid… and their Barcelona connection.
Ramón Casas, “Garrote vil” (1894)
It is a cold January morning in Barcelona and thousands are gathering around a central scene. We see police on horses, members of a religious confraternity wearing pointed hoods and a platform where everything is happening. Public executions were a rare sight in the city in those days. 16 years had passed since the last one so Barcelona’s citizens weren’t going to miss it. The victim is a young man called Isidre Mompart. His crime? Murdering 2 children in cold blood during a burglary.
The Catalan artist Ramon Casas was among the crowd that day. As was the custom at the time, the body was left for public viewing until dusk. Casas took this opportunity to create some sketches that he would later use to create his masterpiece. The solemnity of such an event breathes through every single inch of the painting. The exact location of the scene is now a public school in Barcelona and I can’t help but wonder how many of the pupils know about the horrors that happened just outside their window.
Pablo Ruíz Picasso, “The Harvesters” (1907)
Picasso will always have a connection with Barcelona. Here it is when, at the age of 14, he moved with his family and started experimenting with oils, watercolours and life. He frequented the bohemian corners of the city, like the café Els 4 Gats, and he experienced the Barcelona of the lower classes, like in his portrait of the prostitutes at Avinyó street. But he also enjoyed the tranquillity of the Catalan countryside, spending some time in towns like Horta de Sant Joan and Gósol.
The harvesters is a remembrance of his time in Gósol in 1906. A group of peasants work laboriously in the Catalan Pyrenees rushing to collect the wheat. Picasso conceived this painting as a counterpoint to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The former represents rural life, harmony and freedom. The latter, the enclosed and violent space of a modern urban city.
Salvador Dalí, “The great masturbator” (1929)
In one of the four corners of Plaça Reial there is a restaurant with a very confusing sign above the door: Museo Pedagógico de Ciencias Naturales (Pedagogical Museum of Natural Science). It is the only clue telling us that at this same spot there used to be a taxidermist shop. The business closed down in 1991 but for almost 70 years it was one of the main attractions on this side of the city.
Children used to gather to watch the shop’s famous family of stuffed gorillas while Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí were both enchanted by its dreamy presence. Tigers, dogs and all types of birds filled the place with a surreal atmosphere that the Catalan artists couldn’t resist. Dalí had the most unusual requests. Once, he purchased a stuffed baby rhino and photographed himself riding it on the square outside. On another occasion, he ordered the impossible: 100,000 stuffed ants. Maybe for his personal collection or maybe as an inspiration for his paintings, like this one: The Great Masturbator, one of his most striking works.
Jean Ranc, “Portrait of Philip V” (1723)
Proud, powerful, arrogant… These are just some of the words that come to my mind trying to describe the man portrayed here. For better or worse, Philip V will always be connected to the history of Barcelona. It was under his reign and his troops that the city fell in 1714 ending the War of Spanish Succession. The consequences of that defeat are still remembered 300 years later as if his ghost and the thousands who perished, never left.
José Moreno Carbonero, “Prince Carlos de Viana” (1881)
If there is a universal image of the charming prince, this is it. A tall skinny figure with a long and pointed nose, fair skin, bowl haircut and melancholic expression. Except that this is not the happy prince of the fairytales. A lover of art and music, Carlos de Viana will always be remembered in history as “The Prince of Viana” but he could have also been king. As the eldest son of John II, King of Aragon, his rights to the throne were more than obvious.
His story is almost a Cinderella one. All the ingredients are there: An evil stepmother, a jealous step-brother and the chance of being a king for a day. That day was the 12th of March 1461 when he triumphantly entered Barcelona to be recognised as the future King of Aragon. The dream didn’t last long as barely 7 months later, Carlos died in the Royal Palace. Shortly after, his step-mother arrived in Barcelona with her son and they visited the Crypt of Saint Eulalia where Carlos body lay. She paid her respects and kissed the coffin. Her son did not. Maybe he felt he didn’t have to. After all, he was about to become Ferdinand “The Catholic”, Maquiavelo’s perfect prince and a very different one from the fairytales.
If you are into learning about the history of the places you visit and also appreciate Art, you would probably enjoy some of the walking tours we offer in Barcelona.
Photographs by the collections of Museo Reina Sofía, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Museo nacional del Prado