Barcelona celebrates 150 years of Antoni Gaudi

00:00 Thu 14th Mar 2002 |

Q. What's going on, then

A. Barcelona is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of Catalonia's most famous sons, the architect Antoni Gaud�. The city has declared 2002 the International Year of Gaud�, and will be launching a campaign to promote his importance as an artist. It plans to use the year to advance construction on some of the architect's buildings, including the Parc G�ell, the Bellesguard Tower and the Church of the Sagrada Familia.

The anniversary year is to be officially inaugurated this month (March 2002), with a big party in the city attended by Queen Sofia of Spain and Frank O. Gehry, the American architect of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, itself an ground-breaking building, which draws more than a million visitors a year.

Q. Why is Gaud� so important

A. He was a significant participant in the Catalan Renaixensa, an artistic revival of the arts and crafts combined with a political revival in the form of fervent anti-Castilian 'Catalanism'. This flourished until the end of the Civil War in 1939, after which time the regions of Spain were again subjected to relentless Castilianisation by the Franco regime.

Gaud� was the most important exponent of the Spanish style of Art Nouveau, known as 'Modernisme', and his work is remarkable for its unprecedented range of forms, textures and polychromy and for the free, expressive way in which these elements of his art seem to be composed. He was totally dedicated to architecture, which for him was the supreme art form. He has left a unique and indelible stamp on the fabric of Barcelona, something for which the city is rightly proud.

Q. And what's his most famous work

A. Unquestionably the Church of the Sagrada Familia, or Holy Family. Begun in 1883 and still a long way from being completed, Sagrada Familia became Gaud�'s all-consuming passion. For the last 16 years of his life he abandoned almost all other work and even lived in seclusion on the site. By the time of his death only one transept had been completed. It really is one of the most extraordinary buildings you will ever encounter and was the religious symbol of Renaixensa. Other notable works - all in Barcelona - include the buildings at the Parc G�ell and a number of private houses, including the Casa Mil�, the Casa Batll� and Casa Calvet.

Not everyone has been unequivocally in favour of his work, however. In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell says of the Sagrada Familia that it was 'one of the most hideous buildings in the world' and that it was a shame that it survived the war unscathed.

Q. And a quick biography

A. Antoni Gaud� i Cornet was born the son of a coppersmith on the Catalan coast near Barcelona in 1852. He studied at the Provincial School of Architecture in Barcelona, graduating in 1878. His early work shows a rather florid Victorianism, but he quickly developed a manner of composing by means of wild juxtapositions of geometric masses, the surfaces of which were highly animated with patterned brick or stone, colourful ceramic tiles and floral or snake-like metalwork. He worked predominantly in Barcelona, but other works can be found in Le�n and Astorga.

Gaud� was known as an eccentric during his own lifetime. His appearance was so shabby at the end of his life that when he was run over by a tram as he crossed a busy street in 1926, taxi drivers thought he was a vagrant and refused to take him to a hospital. He died three days later, having spent his final year living as a hermit inside his own studio.

Q. What's this about Gaud� being beatified, then

A. Not quite, though it's true that moves are afoot to turn him into St Antoni. So far it has got to the stage of the Vatican declaring nihil obstat, or 'no obstacle', and the wheels are thus in motion. But it's a long process, and a great deal of investigation has to be undertaken before sainthood can be conferred. However, his supporters at the Vatican date from as early as 1915, when Monsignor Ragonesi, Papal Nuncio in Spain, visited the Sagrada Familia when it was in the early stages of construction. 'Maestro, you are the Dante of architecture,' he told the architect. 'Your magnificent work is a Christian poem carved in stone.'

There are many who feel this an inappropriate course, however. Not because Gaud�'s Christian credentials are in doubt - though there are rumours of Masonic affiliations, which would compromise Roman Catholic orthodoxy - but because it would take attention away from his position as an artist. One of the sculptors currently working on the Sagrada Familia has been quoted by the BBC as saying: 'Gaud� was a creator, an extraordinary man, perhaps the greatest artist of our century. But a saint, no. I don't understand it.' He went on to say that the Catholic Church should not be allowed to appropriate Gaud�'s life and memory.

On the other hand, Jose Manuel Almuzara Perez, the president of the Association for the Beatification of Anton� Gaud�, is thrilled by the Vatican's move, saying: 'It's just like someone winning an Oscar or a literary prize. It's our way of saying "What a great man!"' Tell that to one of the martyrs burned at the stake.

See also the answerbank articles on George Orwell and Art Nouveau

For more on Arts & Literature click here

By Simon Smith

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