Having had a very pleasant sojourn in the motherland, Gentle Reader, I’m glad to get back to writing and reporting on areas of artistic interest which, hopefully, will encourage your curiosity and exploration in the year ahead.
One of the most interesting experiences I had during my time away was a visit to the current exhibition, “Barcelona i Els Quatre Gats. Un gir cap a la modernitat” (“Barcelona and Els Quatre Gats: A Turn to Modernity), which is currently being held at the Gothsland Galeria d’Art in central Barcelona. If you get the chance to see it during its run, by all means do so, for not only does it steep the visitor in a wealth of paintings, sculpture, drawings, graphic art, furniture, and decorative objects, but it helps bring into focus an aspect of Western art history that, outside of Barcelona at least, is far less well-known than it absolutely deserves to be. You can check out some of the works on display by visiting the gallery’s Instagram page.
Created over a century ago as a kind of Catalan answer to the famous Le Chat Noir in Montmartre, Els Quatre Gats (literally “The Four Cats” – an expression in Catalan that really signifies something sort of like, “a group of eccentric chaps”) even today remains a secular pilgrimage site for those seeking to understand the origins of Modern Art. Located in a narrow street among the twisting lanes of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, it opened in 1897 inside a building designed by the great Catalan Art Nouveau architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867-1956). A combination of café, bar, restaurant, meeting space, and performance venue, it served as a gathering place for artists, architects, writers, and intellectuals, who came to enjoy spirited conversation, learn about new ideas, and to have a glass (or four) of an adult beverage in pleasant company. Among its original patrons and backers were the Catalan painters Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1932), Miguel Utrillo (1862-1934) – father of the better-known French painter Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955) – and Ramon Casas (1866-1932). Other frequenters included architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), composers Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) and Enric Granados (1867-1916), and a host of artists, poets, politicians, playwrights, and so on.
If the above characterization of its significance seems an overly inflated expression of the place’s significance to art history, consider that Els Quatre Gats was the site of the first-ever solo exhibition of his work mounted by the then-teenaged Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who was an art student in Barcelona at the time. The café also has a connection to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), one of the most important works of art of the 20th century and among the greatest treasures of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was not, as you might understandably be forgiven for thinking from the title, executed in the French city of Avignon. Rather, the title refers to the then-infamous Avignon Street in Barcelona, located not far from Els Quatre Gats. After getting plastered at Els Quatre Gats, the young Picasso would spend his less salubrious evening hours among the denizens of said street, in what we will politely refer to as mixed company. The painting, which he began in 1906, the year he permanently moved to Paris from Barcelona, recalls that period of his life.
Els Quatre Gats was not a rip-roaring success as a business venture, and closed in 1903. As is often the case even today, artistic types tend to be very good with ideas, but less good with practicalities. The tavern only lasted for a few years, and most of its original art was later dispersed to private collections or the National Museum of Art of Catalonia (MNAC). Arguably the most famous example of this is the iconic painting of Els Quatre Gats’ founder and manager Pere Romeu (1862-1908) and Casas riding a tandem bicycle, an image which you see reproduced everywhere in Barcelona. This used to hang over the bar at Els Quatre Gats, but it is now in the permanent collection of MNAC. The magazine named for the tavern lasted a few years longer, but it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the place reopened as a public restaurant, complete with reproductions of many of the original works of art, and a printed menu whose cover was designed for Els Quatre Gats by the young Picasso.
Even as someone who knows a fair bit about the work of many of the habitués of Els Quatre Gats, I was very pleasantly surprised not only by the quality and range of the works in the Gothsland show, but also by some of the connections between artists whom I didn’t realize were friends. For example, the great Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920), who, like John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), was one of the most highly esteemed international society portrait painters of the turn of the previous century, just so happened to have been friendly with Casas, a fact of which I was previously unaware. Casas’ preparatory drawing for a portrait of Zorn is in the exhibition, and I’m still thinking about that relationship and want to do some more research on it.
We’re all aware that the Iberians had a great deal to do with the emergence of what we think of today as Modern Art – as exemplified by names like Picasso, Gris, Miró, and Dalí – but we forget that these 20th century artists didn’t simply emerge from a vacuum. Barcelona in particular, at the end of the 19th century, was an active supplier of artists and ideas involved in the wider European debate about the future of art. This is partly because Barcelona artists were frequently going back and forth to Paris – which at the time was the center of the art world – just like everyone else, and partly because international visitors came to see these artists, in turn. Thus, not only do we see Zorn depicted in the show, but we also see images of other international figures, such as the prominent American art collector and Chairman/Co-Founder of International Harvester Corporation Charles Deering (1852-1927) horseback riding on vacation in Spain, or the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925) shivering in his freezing garret in Paris.
Closer to home, the exhibition features paintings by some of Catalonia’s greatest artists, many of whom are still virtually unknown outside of Spain or even Barcelona, who happened to frequent Els Quatre Gats during its heyday, such as two of my favorites: Isidre Nonell (1872-1911) and Joaquim Mir (1873-1940). There’s even a haunting drawing of Gaudí on his deathbed in 1926, sketched in person by his friend and assistant, the great caricaturist Ricard Opisso (1880-1966), which was published the day after the architect’s death in one of the Barcelona dailies. And for those of you with the wherewithal to afford such things, many of the objects in the exhibition are for sale: a very tempting prospect indeed.
Word of mouth about the show has been getting out, and visitor numbers to date have been quite impressive for a show that isn’t taking place inside one of the city’s main art museums. The organizers, particularly the gallery’s director and President of the Ramon Casas Estate, Gabriel Pinós Guirao, who is currently in the process of putting together the catalogue raisonné of Ramon Casas’ work – Volume 1 of (I believe) 5 is currently available at Gothsland – are happy to have visitors ask questions. He very kindly indulged me in a long conversation about art, and like the rest of his team is hopeful that visitors learn more about and better-understand the superb works of art that they are seeing at the gallery. I’d also hazard a guess that this is particularly the case for visitors from outside of Barcelona (or even Spain), since so many of these important, influential, and interesting artists deserve to be better-known and better-appreciated more widely than they are at present. Both as an introduction to the wealth of creativity that emerged from Els Quatre Gats, and as a jumping-off point for further reading and appreciation, this is absolutely a show you should visit if you get the opportunity.
“Barcelona and Els Quatre Gats” is at the Gothsland Gallery in Barcelona through February 28th.