Canvases of various sizes crowded the walls and floor of Agustí Puig’s studio. Arms folded across his chest, he stood in the middle of them. Behind him, his artwork exploded with color and bold lines. He seemed nervous in the unaccustomed role of model as I watched him through my camera’s viewfinder.
I had come to Barcelona, one of the world’s great art centers, to tour and touch and taste the exuberance of a place known for sensory overload a century after Antoni Gaudí and the Modernistas turned this seaside Mediterranean city into one of Europe’s most charming centers.
Visitors strolling its wide boulevards find much to admire in its history, food and Catalan culture. But at its heart, Barcelona is a place where art and architecture rule. And so I plotted an itinerary that would let me see it through the eyes of its artists.
That’s how I wound up at the three-story studio of Puig, an internationally prominent Spanish painter, sculptor and printmaker known for his abstract, figurative style.
He’s also known for his close encounter with Hollywood: Puig’s studio and paintings were featured in Woody Allen’s film " Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Penélope Cruz, who won a supporting actress Oscar for her role as an artist, became Puig’s student before the film was shot, visiting his studio to learn how to paint in his forceful, energetic manner so she could emulate his style.
Now it was my turn to become his student, if only for a moment. Puig showed me around his studio, a former textile mill, and we talked about Pablo Picasso, who moved to Barcelona in 1895 when he was a teenager and was Puig’s inspiration. We also talked about Puig’s fondness for Barcelona’s liveliness and artistic culture.
While he talked, I photographed him. He tried to ignore the camera, but it made him nervous.
Suddenly, he threw a blank canvas on the floor and said, “Let me show you how I work.”
Released from his role, he relaxed, splashing white and black paint on the canvas, then etching fine lines onto it.
Within a couple of minutes, he was done. I put down the camera, looked at the canvas and gasped. He had created a figurative painting of a man and a woman in the time it would have taken me to sharpen a couple of colored pencils.
“When I start a painting, I never know how it will turn out,” Puig said, smiling at my surprise. “The worst enemy of a painter is to be bored with his work.”
Gallery owner Robin Reiners didn’t seem surprised when I later told her about Puig’s demonstration.
“He’s so full of energy and spontaneity when he works,” said Reiners, who owns Gallery DeNovo in Sun Valley, Idaho, which represents Puig and several other Spanish artists in the United States. “It’s a very physical way of painting.”
Inspired by Puig’s inspiration, I visited the Museu Picasso which pays homage to the 20th century’s most acclaimed artist. The 3,800 works chart Picasso’s early years, including paintings from his Blue and Rose periods.
I browsed through the galleries, pausing in front of masterful portraits painted by Picasso as a teenager: his mother, his Aunt Pepa, a man in a beret. The shapes were round and soft and life-like, a classical style much different from his later square, hard Cubist approach.
Much of his fame grew from those later colorful and imaginative works, but the Barcelona museum gave me a chance to discover the artist as he was discovering himself. The only down side: It displays few well-known works, most of which are with collectors or in the world’s major museums.
When I finished my tour, I spent a little time admiring the museum itself and its leafy courtyards; the complex occupies five beautifully renovated medieval palaces dating from the 8th to 14th centuries.
Then I walked several blocks to reach my next goal, the sleek Museu d’ Art Contemporani de Barcelona (the Barcelona Contemporary Museum of Art), to catch a look at the work of internationally known modern artists such as Barcelona painter Antoni Tàpies. The glass-fronted building, designed by Getty Center architect Richard Meier, features revolving exhibits, so check before you go. I was disappointed in the show on display during my visit, but a solo exhibition of work by California artist John Baldessari began shortly thereafter (and continues through April 25).
By the time I emerged, the sunny morning had turned into a cloudy, chilly afternoon. I buttoned my coat and wished I had an umbrella. It was January, and the sky seemed unpredictable. Should I abandon my plans and retreat to the apartment I had rented with a friend?
Too sensible. Barcelona beckoned.
Besides, I had a ticket for one of the city’s hop-on, hop-off bus companies. That would get me out of the weather. I walked to a bus stop, and a few minutes later, I climbed aboard, my plan intact.
The bus climbed the verdant slopes of Montjuïc, a mountain within the city that contains parks, a castle and some of the region’s finest art collections. I got off and entered Fundació Joan Miró (the Miró Foundation), a spacious, light-filled complex focusing on Barcelona’s best-known 20th century artist. The foundation, launched by Miró himself, contains more than 14,000 of his colorful paintings, sketches and sculptures.
Miró influenced some of my favorite artists — Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Alexander Calder — so I had looked forward to seeing the museum. Like the Picasso Museum, it included early, more realistic paintings, such as the “Chapel of St. Joan d’Horta,” which I could contrast with Miró's later Surrealist works. I strolled through the galleries, enjoying the lively, dream-like images. His work seemed, at turns, both childlike and sophisticated.
By the time I emerged, the afternoon was sliding into early evening and it was colder but still dry. I walked a few blocks to the majestic Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (the National Museum of Catalonia), known for its Romanesque treasures. I did a quick tour, then hurried back outside to catch the last bus.
I had pushed my luck too far, I thought as a curtain of rain fell. I sought refuge under a huge tree, hoping the bus driver would round the corner before I floated out to sea. Three minutes later he arrived, just as the tree began to gush.
Puig had inspired me to visit the city’s art repositories (72 museums in all). Now it was time to seek inspiration and advice from another Barcelona artist.
I found Rotterdam painter Rein de Lege at a juried art market held on weekends in Barri Gòtic, the Gothic Quarter, a beautifully preserved neighborhood of ancient streets, Gothic buildings and medieval squares.
De Lege, who has lived in Barcelona for 20 years, is a masterful technician who paints faces and figures in crowd scenes.
I wanted to ask him about the city, but before I could, a friend who had come with me bought a painting from him. Then a third friend who had accompanied us bought a painting. De Lege was so busy selling and wrapping that my question had to wait.
At last, De Lege had time. The sea, the city and its people have always fascinated him. “And,” he added, “the beautiful architecture. The architecture is spectacular.”
His words became my cue: The second phase of my tour would take me to the city’s architectural wonders. I began with the fascinating winding streets of the Gothic Quarter, which stems from a medieval-era building boom that enlarged the city’s Roman core.
During its heyday, Barcelona was the capital of a Catalan empire that included much of modern Spain and parts of the Mediterranean. Its medieval power and influence are evident in the quarter, one of Europe’s most impressive Gothic legacies.
I took De Lege’s advice and wandered through the atmospheric area, beginning with the 13th century Barcelona cathedral and ending with visits to modern-day tapas bars and shops. The quarter — like the city itself — exudes soul and vitality and quickly became one of my favorite places to explore.
But, like most visitors, I also fell in love with the Modernistas, who splashed their colorful Art Nouveau designs across the city a century ago. With architect Gaudí leading the way, they left an impressive, whimsical heritage.
Again I bought a bus ticket and hopscotched across the city, beginning this time with La Sagrada Família (Temple of the Sacred Family), Gaudí's magical masterwork. The church, with its iconic dizzying spires, has been under construction for nearly 120 years and won’t be completed for more than a decade. But Mass is now celebrated here, and work continues on the cathedral, which is financed partly by the tickets it sells that allow people to see it.
Facades on the front and back have been completed, but the interior is still a work in progress. I felt as though I were getting a course in Cathedral Construction 101 as I dodged work tools, sacks of cement and areas cordoned off by do-not-enter tape. But the construction didn’t detract from the ambitious feat being accomplished.
I took a tiny elevator into one of the stylized spires, its exterior crowned in pinnacles covered in ceramics, for an outstanding view of the city.
The sky was deep blue when I went into La Sagrada. Now, 90 minutes later, clouds were slipping in and temperatures had fallen into the 30s.
I hopped back on the bus and then hopped off at some of Gaudí's other works: the apartment block La Pedrera, his hillside development Park Güell, and beautiful Casa Batlló, designed around a symbolic battle between St. George and the dragon.
Other Modernist buildings drew my attention, especially the city’s lavish concert hall, Palau de la Música Catalana (the Palace of Catalan Music), designed by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
It was completed in 1908 and is considered one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. Its façade is circled by mosaic pillars and brick arches, its ornate foyer adorned with spangled tiles, its concert hall climaxing in a huge blue-and-gold stained glass skylight that showers the auditorium with natural light.
A zest for the city
I had spent a week studying the city’s art and architecture: Picasso, Miró, Gaudí and the Modernistas. It seemed that these men, in what is one of the most traditional countries in the world, made an art of being nonconformist and so gave Barcelona permission to be different from the rest of Spain.
I’d also explored the city’s thoroughfares and learned about its people. I strolled La Rambla, the pedestrian mall that runs from the Mediterranean to the center of the city, I shopped at Mercat de La Boqueria, a cavernous open-air market, and I toured the waterfront and beaches. What had I missed?
I asked that question of Cynthia Fusillo, an American artist who has lived in Barcelona nearly half her life. Fusillo’s recent work has been life-size figures made of sand, dirt, leaves and other natural substances, often combined with her poetry.
She wasn’t the first artist I’d queried, but the others were reserved. Not so Fusillo, whose appreciation of the city bubbled over. “The people, the weather, the food,” she said. “La Rambla — the idea that you can walk right down the heart of the city. I love the Gothic Quarter; I love Gaudí — it’s all wonderful.”
And like Puig, Fusillo is inspired by Picasso.
“I love the Picasso Museum as much as I love him. I used to take a big book of his work to bed with me. I feel like he’s one of my ex-lovers.”
It wasn’t the answer I’d expected, but it didn’t surprise me. Fusillo’s zest for the city was like the city itself: bold and unpredictable.