Neither a saint nor a misunderstood genius: the MNAC dispells clichés of Gaudí's legacy

A major exhibition with more than 650 pieces reveals how the architect was a great aesthetic and political interpreter of his time

7 min
Furniture from the distributor of the main floor of La Pedrera to the great exhibition of Gaudí to the MNAC

BarcelonaThe great exhibition that the Museum Nacional d'Art de Catalonia (MNAC) has put on hits the nail on the head: the intensity of the tour, with hundreds of pieces and a spectacular montage, reveals all the complexity and power of his legacy and frees him from the clichés led by tourist interests and the most conservative Catholicism that undertook his beatification. The discourse on Gaudí in the streets of Barcelona and in the halls of the museum could not be further apart. Perhaps that is why Gaudí's image has been used as little as possible, and the last portraits of him –some hardly known– are placed in a small, almost hidden display case at the end of the tour. "Gaudí has an very powerful presence on historical and present-day Barcelona, and he is always presented through a series of clichés that were already very well established in his lifetime," says Juan José Lahuerta, director of the Gaudí Chair at the UPC and curator of the exhibition.

"The first biographies of Gaudí published after his death are built on the model of the lives of artists, which are not very different from the lives of saints," he explains. So Lahuerta sweeps away the idea that Gaudí was an isolated genius who was naively inspired by nature and disdainful of academic studies. Instead, he reveals him as an intellectual and political figure in dialogue with European and American art, architecture and design of his time.

An intellectual of his time

"We wanted to present Gaudí in two main contexts. One is the international one, in which he is an architect and not a tinkerer like his father and grandfather, an intellectual who studies in a school of architecture that has just been founded and who lives in Barcelona, which we must picture as an empty city when he finishes his degree in 1878," Lahuerta explains. Precisely this sensation of a blank canvas would have spurred the overwhelming creativity of Gaudí and other great Catalan architects of the time, such as Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch. The city walls had been knocked down in 1860 and the Eixample was practically yet to be built," he adds. In this sense it was an optimistic city that wanted to build its great monuments, its new parks and its new institutions".

The other context is the local one, especially in Barcelona. "It is still said that Gaudí was unknown and misunderstood, but the question is very simple: if Gaudí was misunderstood, why was he Barcelona's upper middle class's favourite architect? The Güells and the Comillas were not only the richest in Barcelona, but also in Spain, the most influential from an economic, social and political point of view in the Spain of the second half of the 19th century and the end of this century", says the curator. "If Gaudí was misunderstood, why was he the Church's favourite architect in Barcelona and Mallorca?" he continues. "The most important thing is that we realise that his work comes from his genius, but also from a very complex base, which is the artistic, aesthetic and architectural environment of a time of absolute transformation such as the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century," Lahuerta stresses.

Portrait of Antoni Gaudí by Audouard i Cia
'Auditorium', drawing by Antoni Gaudí
Palau Güell furniture by Antoni Gaudí

"Antoni Gaudí is always in the front row: he builds the Güell palace and park, he influences Colònia Güell, that is to say, he offers the image of a power, of a way of understanding society. He is also the one who built the Sagrada Familia, which summarises the interpretation of Barcelona society made by the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia and the Church", says Lahuerta. The exhibition is entitled (Re)discover Gaudí. Fire and ashes, referring to the violent Barcelona of the Tragic Week and terrorist attacks such as the one in the Liceu, where his work was born. "Gaudí is a political figure, as can be seen in many of the caricatures in the satirical magazines of the time, and he intervenes directly in the construction of the image of Barcelona through a temple that atones for a sin which is, evidently, the sin of the violence of the class struggle". That is why, in a capital of the Roser Chapel of the Sagrada Família, Gaudí makes the devil appear by placing an Orsini bomb –like the one used in the Liceu– in the hand of a worker. "Gaudí's work is absolutely immersed in his time, and it is surely the one that managed to give the most powerful images and symbolic constructions of his time, and that is why it endures," says the curator.

Immersed in the international context

The exhibition includes more than 650 drawings, plans, furniture and objects, documents, photographs and works of art by Gaudí himself and other international architects and artists, such as John Ruskin, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, August Endell, Thomas Jeckyll, Owen Jones and Auguste Rodin. Lahuerta's puts a model for the Nativity façade of the Sagrada Família in dialogue with another for the Gate of Hell, by Rueden. They are opposites, but the two artists dedicated much of their lives to them. In the case of other figures who, like Owen, are considered founders of the concept of design, the exhibition reveals how Gaudí imported their ideas and produced them in factories here.

Also extraordinary are the plaster casts by the Frenchman Geoffroy-Dechaume, in which you can even see the model's cold-chilled skin. As a curiosity, one of the pieces is the head of a girl covering her eyes, like the one Jaume Plensa installed at the Rockefeller Center in New York in 2019. Also noteworthy are all his training drawings, preserved by the Càtedra Gaudí and now restored by the Directorate General of Heritage, where you can already see a sample of his character: his final degree project was for University of Barcelona auditorium. His work was assessed, among others, by Elies Rogent, who designed what was built, and was at the same time the director of the school of architecture. "He is a student of extraordinary conviction, because his teachers are doing these same projects," says Lahuerta, and also points out that Gaudí criticised both his teachers and the architects with whom he collaborated early in his career, such as Francesc de Paula del Villar, whom he succeeded at the head of the Sagrada Família

Recovery of original furniture

In the section on furniture, there are some exceptional pieces that have rarely been seen, such as a chaise longue and a very unusual dressing table that Gaudí designed for Palau Güell, which are now owned by the Güell family, who jealously guard them and do not usually lend them out, and a large part of the large piece of furniture that occupied the hall of the main floor of La Pedrera, which after putting together the jigsaw of the scattered pieces now returns to the light after a restoration that has lasted a year and a half

One of the three painted canvases also shines in the exhibition, the one dedicated to Faith, which Gaudí commissioned Josep Maria Jujol to paint for the ceremony of the Floral Games of 1907. As the exhibition space is fairly, this gigantic painting can be seen from the very entrance to the exhibition. Another find is the bust that was in Gaudí's Hercules Fountain in the Jardins de Pedralbes, recently recovered.

Gaudí hides behind his hat in front of the Sagrada Família
Jujol's canvas for the 1907 Floral Games
Caricature of Casa Milà by Picarol, which appeared in 'L'Esquella de la Torratxa'

From the lowest to the most sophisticated

Another of the main threads of the exhibition, and one of its great successes, is the constant dialogue between low and high culture to show how Gaudí was an omnipresent character, from a postcard and satirical magazines to the most luxurious furniture and a stone column from the crypt of the Colonia Güell that was not be used in the work. "This dialectic is the same as that of the time, between the sophisticated object that can only be found in the bourgeois salon and the cheap paper that is all over Barcelona. Gaudí occupies all these strata, and understanding him allows us to understand Barcelona and our own history, which in Gaudí's time is not just a Barcelona of flowers and violas".

An unused stone column from the crypt in Colònia Güell
Inside of Palau Güell
Casa Batlló loveseat

That is why at the beginning of the tour there is a bust of Eusebi Arnau representing Barcelona as a queen and, next to it, a caricature of this queen as a fallen woman adorned with a rosary of Orsini bombs. And further on you can also see the sketch of the painting by Aleix Clapés for Palau Güell entitled Hercules looking for the Hesperides, hanging next to parodic cartoons, caricatures of Eusebi Güell, Sagrada Familia materials and postcards of the Parc Güell.

Gaudí's workshop at the Sagrada Família around 1926
Gaudí's workshop on fire during the Civil War (1936)
Plaster casts for the Sagrada Família

The exhibition has cost €940,000 and is the result of four years of collective work by all the museum's teams, which has not been delayed despite the restrictions of the pandemic. It will be open until 6 March and after the MNAC it will travel to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris from 11 April to 17 July. "Everything that the exhibition brings will not die, but will become part of the permanent collection when the exhibition returns from Paris," says the director of the MNAC, Pepe Serra. "It will be the first monographic exhibition on the architect in Paris since 1910. He is very famous in France, but at the same time he is misunderstood and known in a reductive way, and in this exhibition Gaudí appears as a European architect with an incredible imagination," the director of the Musée d'Orsay, Christophe Leribault, concludes.