While Scott worked his evening portfolio review shift, I headed back up the many many steps to the Palau Nacional.
Don’t be fooled. These are only some of the steps.
The admissions clerk told me my ticket was valid for two days, which was a good thing because that first evening, I only had time to visit one floor. I began with the upper story, the modern art wings. This museum, the National Art Museum of Catalonia, is one of the best art museums I’ve ever visited.
The building is a work of art in its own right.
Main gallery, looking up toward the dome.
I wish I could post images of all the paintings and sculpture that blew me away. Artists new to me were Nicolau Raurich and Lluis Rigalt, both of whom had a way of painting luminous skies that reminded me of Maxfield Parrish.
Ruins by Rigalt
I had heard of Fortuny and Joaquim Mir, but had never seen much of their work. Fortuny’s The Battle of Tetuan filled an entire wall and was overwhelming in its scope and detail. Hundreds of small stories are being played out there in the larger battle scene. I loved the wealth of detail in his Spanish Wedding, too. You can view images of these at the MNAC website, but the images (even when you click to enlarge) are too small to show off Fortuny’s genius.
There were a few small Picassos (I never did make it to the Picasso Museum, alas) and one Dali sketch. A larger Dali painting was on loan to another museum. I loved this sculpture by Llimona:
First Holy Communion
And this one by Claraso:
I knew my girls would love this dreamy painting by Joán Brull:
Let me jump ahead now to Friday evening, when I returned for a few hours. This time I wandered through the rooms of religious art on the ground floor. Oh my goodness. Incredible sights to see there. Entire rooms are devoted to murals (or fragments of murals) recovered from old churches across Spain. These once vivid paintings are now faded and patchy, but you get a good sense of their majesty. The museum has replicated the size and shape of the interiors the murals once inhabited: room after room of domed ceilings and arched entrances. Hushed and full of shadows, these are solemn, contemplative spaces, illumined by scenes from the life of Christ in dusky blues and faded golds.
Other rooms contained ornate triptychs and gold-embellished paintings. The collections of Gothic and Romanesque religious art are world-famous, apparently. I can’t begin to do these collections justice, so I’m not even going to try. One image that I saw reprinted all over the place on postcards and book covers was the Christ figure from this twelfth-century altar frontal:
Apostles Frontal from La Seu d’Urgell
My favorite piece of religious art was this magnificent Counter-Reformation painting by Juan de Zurbarán.
In the bookshop I bought a museum guide that contains images of almost everything in the museum, and it’s a good thing I did, because I’d have forgotten most of it already. I hope to track down prints of some of the paintings I loved, but I have to say a preliminary search has not yielded much fruit.
I tore myself away when the museum closed at seven. I knew Scott would be just getting off his shift at the con on the avenue down below. And now comes one of the most magical moments of the whole trip. I started down the first long flight of steps, marveling at how golden and beautiful the evening was and yet a bit wistful that there was an avenue of fountains ahead of me and all of them stilled. And just then, as the stairs took me past the highest fountain—it whooshed into life. Really. It was a waterfall, and as I traveled down the next few steps, the second tier of the waterfall burst over the ledge in a glittering spray. A few more steps, another waterfall—the awakening of the fountains keeping pace with my steps each time. It made me laugh out loud, it was so gorgeously serendipitious. It was like I was a Disney princess. I reached the broad flat level halfway down the hill, where the huge “Magic Fountain” fills the space. A small crowd had gathered round it and as I drew near, there was a sound like the intake of breath and then shhhh, up it came, the water arcing high above our heads from dozens of jets. And not just water, but music and lights. It opened with Clair de Lune, and I was not the only person there who got choked up.
But I didn’t have my camera with me. I know, I know. I had already been up Montjuic four times by this point and thought I’d snapped everything I could possibly snap. But here’s a YouTube clip from two years ago.
Magic fountain indeed.
We left San Diego around midday on Tuesday, and arrived in Barcelona around midday on Wednesday. Five hours to Atlanta, nine hours to Spain, a nine-hour jump in time. Neither of us got much sleep on the plane. We knew we needed to resist the tempation to nap upon checking in at the hotel, and at first the exhilaration of being in Barcelona was enough to keep jet lag at bay. We were met at the airport by our host, David Macho, who represents a number of Spanish artists. Scott’s role at the convention was to, along with a couple of other DC and Marvel editors, meet with would-be, hopeful, and up-and-coming artists and look over their portfolios. My role was to do whatever I felt like. Not a bad deal, eh?
Another con attendee happened to be on our flight from Atlanta, along with his wife and her friend, though we didn’t know that until we met David at the airport. Tony Harris, illustrator of Ex Machina and many other titles, is a wildly popular artist and also does the most killing impersonation of Eddie Izzard impersonating Darth Vader at the Death Star canteen. I had no idea, when I squeezed between Tony and his sweet wife Stacy in the narrow back seat of David Macho’s tiny European car, that I would spend much of the upcoming week weeping with laughter over Tony’s stories.
David pointed out the sights on our way to the hotel, including prepping us for our first glimpse of the Plaça d’Espanya, a large and fairly stunning plaza bounded by the old bullfighting arena (now being renovated to become the world’s largest museum of rock) and our hotel, the Barcelona Catalonia Plaza. The Plaça contains a giant fountain (turned off at the moment, alas) and the two 154-foot tall red-brick Venetian Towers which stand imposingly at the foot of Queen Maria Cristina Avenue. On either side of the towers are large buildings with splendid facades, one of which was the site of the comic con. At the end of the avenue, partway up the hill called Montjuïc, is the Palau Nacional, home of the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Much more on that later.
The fountain and Venetian towers, with the Palau Nacional in the distance
The Fira de Barcelona, site of the con
David was right: we were all pretty blown away by the sight of the Plaça, the towers, the long avenue stretching away toward the mountain with that magnificent building at the top.
By the time we got checked in, it was almost 2pm: time for lunch. Lunch and dinner was provided for us every day in the hotel restaurant. A long table filled the back room, and we were joined there that first day by the Harrises, David Macho and his assistants, and several other comic book artists and writers. We met underground comics superstar Peter Bagge and his family, and the revered artist Michael Golden, a comics legend whom I had met several times long ago during my honeymoon year in New York City, was a wry and jovial presence. Lunch that day included a delicious white bean “fisherman” stew, with a tomato broth and clams, shrimp, and squid. The rest of the meal was somewhat hazy, as jet lag began to get its teeth into us.
Determined to stay awake until night, as one is supposed to do to when traveling to a dramatically different time zone, Scott and I followed lunch—it was after 4pm by that point—with a walk up the avenue to the Palau Nacional. We climbed many, many steps (and rode a few escalators) to the top level and marveled at the views. Looking back down the avenue, past the long rows of hushed fountains, we could see our hotel. From one end of the terrace, we saw the ocean, and in the middle distance, the spires of La Sagrada Familia, surrounded by construction cranes. I didn’t know, then, how important that view was to become to me by the end of the week, nor how much the cranes would be part of the poetry of the place. That first day, it seemed a pity that unsightly construction machinery marred the view; I didn’t yet understand that Barcelona is a work of art in progress, and that the unfolding and ongoing nature of the creation of masterpieces is part of what makes that city so vibrant and beautiful. Its art is not static and finished: walking the streets of Barcelona is like being in the studio of a master sculptor, with astonishing pieces all around you and the greatest piece of all on the work table in the middle of the room, a figure of breathtaking beauty just beginning to emerge from the stone.
La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s cathedral in progress, as seen from the terrace of the Palau Nacional on Montjuic. Click to view larger image.
View of the Magic Fountain, Queen Maria Cristina Avenue, and Plaça Espanya from the steps of the Palau Nacional. Our hotel is the tall, cream-colored, many-windowed building just behind and to the left of the leftmost Venetian tower. In the distance, Mount Tibidabo.
That first evening, all we knew was that the view was lovely, and we were walking dead. Scott exerted heroic efforts at keeping me awake until nightfall. Dinner was at 9:30, but there was no way we were up for that. We collapsed sometime between 8 and 9: I was too far gone to do the math necessary to convert the San Diego time on my iPod to Barcelona time. There were no clocks in the room, nor anywhere in the entire city, as far as I could tell, except the giant one on the front of our hotel.