Garish, gargantuan, Gaudi and graffiti: Barcelona is a city of art ‘for the people’
Mention Barcelona, and you’ll often get a sigh in reply: “Ah, Barcelona.” Why does this Spanish city have such an effect on people? Is it the sea, the food, the people? What about the art?
“Barcelona is an outdoor museum,” says María Luisa Albacar, head of foreign relations for the Barcelona Tourist Board. “You can learn about more than 2,000 years of history without getting out of Barcelona.”
Barcelona’s architectural history is well-known – from 19th-century to modern to contemporary – but the city’s energy is reflected in its outdoor sculpture and public parks. This wasn’t always so. Barcelona’s officials pushed for public art in the run up to the 1992 summer Olympic Games hosted by the city.
“Prior to the Olympic Games in Barcelona, our then-mayor convinced excellent artists from all over the world of the importance of having their work outdoors because of the exposure [they would get] during and after the Olympic Games,” says Albacar.
One of the people involved in this effort was Gloria Moure, a freelance curator who was commissioned by the city to plan an exhibition in conjunction with the games. She proposed “Configuraciones urbanas (Urban Configurations),” which can be found in La Barceloneta, the waterfront district. Eight artists created their own pieces for this site-specific work.
“The project was based on a broad idea of landscape, and the selection of the artists revolved around the fact that their creative approaches to memory, language, and history, etc., comprised the usual material of their configurations,” says Moure. An interesting piece is Rebecca Horn’s L´estel ferit. Horn took inspiration from the fact that restaurants were to be torn down along the La Barceloneta waterfront in the name of urban progress. Her falling stack of cubes pays homage to the “”rooms”” that were once there.
There are a number of sculptural highlights in Barcelona that are recognizable to people around the world. Frank Gehry’s Fish sculpture is down on the waterfront, anchoring what was the Olympic Village. It has no head and no tail, but the sleek curve and golden hue is majestic. El Cap de Barcelona (more commonly known as the “Barcelona Head”) is more cartoon-like than natural; a long and colorful piece by artist Roy Lichtenstein that has become almost a symbol of the city. Located by the marina, the colorful ceramics bring the face to life and the sea seems to be sweeping through the female figure’s hair.
After you’ve seen all there is to see on the waterfront and near the Olympic stadium, a languid stroll through one of Barcelona’s many parks is another way to take in the city’s public art. Parc de l’Espanya Industrial was part of another city effort to create more open spaces and was designed by Basque architect Luis Pena Ganchegui. Located near the train station, the park is more concrete that grass, but has a certain appeal. One side is lined with futuristic “”watchtowers”” and there are a number of replicas of ancient statues, like the one of Neptune in the middle of the pond. If you can get past the children climbing all over it, enter into Drac de Sant Jordi, a black cast iron piece by Andrés Nagel.
“Barcelona has a solid tradition and has known moments of intensity for contemporary art,” says Bartomeu Marí, director of Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. “In some ways, the quality of public space is part of the identity of this city and art plays a significant role in it.”
For most, graffiti is vandalism, not an art form. But, for independent art curator Kati Krause, it’s an excuse for a festival.
“Art Brut is a celebration of graffiti,” she says. “The aim of Art Brut was to remind people of the great talent present in Barcelona and a celebration of that talent and of the beauty of artistic creation.”
Krause says that, in recent years, Barcelona was filled with beautiful murals on every street corner. City officials, however, started cracking down, and artists either went indoors (to museums and galleries) or left to share their outdoor work with other cities. Last March, Art Brut brought together 22 artists to decorate three freestanding walls in the Parc de les Tres Xemeneies.
“The result is six walls that in their variety and quality reflect the variety and quality of the Barcelona graffiti scene itself,” Krause says. She has a different view of graffiti than most, and feels it adds to a city’s vibe.
“Unlike much ‘official’ public art, street art in its myriad forms tries to engage the spectator (or rather, passer-by) by catching their attention,” she says. “In a sense, while most public art seems to continue the elitist top-down approach that is practiced by most museums and art galleries and that intimidates a lot of people, street art is art by the people, for the people.”
And an art tour in Barcelona would not be complete with out visiting some sites designed by the city’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudi. His failed residential project Park Güell is now a popular public park and an excellent place to see the Gaudi genius up close. His whimsical structures, colorful mosaics and nod to nature can be seen throughout.
“Art is always an invitation to imagine other possible configurations of the world we live in, other ways to relate to each other and different futures,” says Marí. “In the museum, citizens have a particular access to works of art, and in public space, the rules of perception are very different.”