Research on Antiques & Collectibles

ANTONIO GAUDI:  Art Nouveau or Surrealistic Fantasy?

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Each year thousands of visitors to Barcelona, this Catalan city of four million people stare - some in scorn, some in bewilderment, some in adoration - at the houses of Antonio Gaudi, which look like surrealistic mushrooms oozing with marshmallow syrup. The visitors look, with the same mixed reactions, at his cathedral towers, which the author James A. Michener has described as pretzel sticks studded with salt crystals; at his children's park, which looks like a whimsical dream of the brothers Grimm; and at his mosquelike Arabic towers and Byzantine cupolas, curved and undulating, and glistening with bits of mosaic gilt. What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, what the Statue of Liberty is to New York, that is what the softly rounded, parfait-shaped spires of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) Cathedral have become to Barcelona.

Gaudi left his imprint on Barcelona more than anywhere else in Spain. But even after his death, he has achieved international recognition as one of the greatest architects of modern times. For an exhibition in 1971, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris named Gaudi - along with Hector Guimard of France and Henri Van de Velde and Victor Horta of Belgium – as one of the four men "who opened the way to new architecture." All four broke with tradition around the turn of the century, introducing metal, curving lines and Art Nouveau, urban projects and the idea of designing everything for the house, including doorknobs and the clothes of the occupants.

Antonio Gaudi i Cornet, who was born in 1852, was more than an architect. He was a painter, sculptor, decorator and iron worker. His Barcelona cultists insist that he was to architecture what Michelangelo was to sculpture, and that he should be ranked as a Spanish master, along with Picasso, Miro and Dali. Twenty films have been produced about Gaudi and his startling work. There are some 3,000 books and articles about him. He is immortalized on Spanish stamps and postcards. His furniture and models of his buildings have been displayed in more than sixty exhibitions. There are imitations of his work as far away as Japan. And building in the Gaudi manner continued after his death to finish the Sagrada Familia Cathedral that he started in 1883.

In addition, Gaudi has been called the grandfather of Art Nouveau, although most experts insist he was never really an Art Nouveau architect. But he was indeed a pioneer in using curving lines, and his style apparently influenced other European artists in creating the wildly popular Art Nouveau. His influence is most evident in Barcelona, which abounds in Art Nouveau - shop doorways, drugstore ceilings, stairways, doors, restaurants. His curving lines actually were modeled on plant forms. Chickens, birds, dragons, mice, cats, dogs and other creatures, as well as plants were sculpted into his buildings, gates, fences and furniture. In addition to creating a style that led others to Art Nouveau, Gaudi is credited with influencing Cubism and Abstract Expressionism with the designs he worked out with the bits of tile that decorated his buildings and benches and walls a half century before the abstract art movement.

There is nothing fragile or mincing about Gaudi's furniture. He meant all his works to be functional; he curved chairbacks and seats to fit the human body. Much Art Nouveau furniture fell from fashion and was revived as curiosities or antiques, but Gaudi furniture is as modern as it was at its conception. The curved lines of the chairs indicate that Gaudi tortured the oak to the end of its resistance. One of his co-workers, Juan Bergos, said that during the Spanish civil war a bomb crashed into the Gaudi-designed Calvet house in Barcelona and broke the architect's desk chair. But the chair was so well made that it snapped only at the points of assembly. "It was very easy to put the chair back together," Mr. Bergos said.

Gaudi's own house in Barcelona has been turned into a museum to display the originals of his furniture. Probably the most spectacular piece on display is a dressing table made for the palace that Gaudi built for Count Eusebio Guell, Gaudi's fabulously wealthy patron. The piece mixes the Spanish, Moroccan and nature-inspired themes that show up in Gaudi's architecture. Two of the four legs are carved in the form of horses' shanks. The other two curve perkily. The little feet support a step on which milady puts her shoe to lace it up. The table's pink and gold mirror has undulating lines on one side, like a Juan Gris painting - voila, Cubism. On the back of the dressing table are carved wooden cylinders that open for storing cosmetics and the like.

In Gaudi's living room stand tattered brocaded velvet chairs with gold legs in spiral form - a shape that appears over and over again in his work. A settee has a back six feet high. Its matching chairs have narrow seats that slant downward in back for better comfort. A graceful gray velvet settee has matching chairs in gray, green and mauve cut velvet. Gilded chairs have velvet upholstery in a geometric design. High hallway cupboards that stretch to the ceiling have seats below that lift up for storage. Red, tufted velvet chairs display cats' heads on the backs – and carved mice lurk around the feet.

Gaudi's office is largely as he left it: his cane, pewter cup and saucer, and ancient Royal typewriter are on display. His mahogany desk has metal hinges in the form of a dragon, which holds a leaf that lifts up to form a second working surface. In the dining room are leaflike benches, chairs and tables, with curving, animal-like legs, from Gaudi's best-known house, the Batllo house, also in Barcelona. Tall glass and wood cupboards once held china, and there are small tables with those familiar spiral legs. The original dining room still exists in the Batllo house, which is on one of Barcelona's most elegant streets, Paseo de Gracia. The house, a somewhat ordinary one when it was built for Jose Batllo y Casanovas, a textile manufacturer in the mid-1870s, was given a complete face-lift by Gaudi between 1904 and 1906. Wood paneling, with tiers of slightly scalloped edges, covers the bottom half of the walls. The doors and windows have panes in gently undulating shapes, less swirling and more classic than Art Nouveau.

After the house was turned into apartments some decades ago, the dining-room furniture was abandoned by the Batllo family. In 1960 a foreign antiques dealer was about to buy the ensemble when Los Amigos de Gaudi scraped together the needed funds and purchased it for the Gaudi museum-house. A huge wooden oratory piece from the Batllo living room still decorates the Madrid residence of Felips Batllo y Godo, the son of the textile magnate.

Also on display in Gaudi's residence are the settee and chairs from the ground floor of the Calvet house, a narrow, five-story building in disciplined baroque style that is perhaps Gaudi's most conservative achievement and for which municipal authorities gave him an award in 1900. The oak on the settee and chairs is carved into twisted arms and legs, and the backs have cut-out flowers. Even the seats are carved with circles.

Gaudi designed other homes and furnishings that were destroyed either during the civil war or during the rush toward "modern" styles in later decades. His own house, situated in a housing project he designed for Count Gliell, now known as Guell Park, caused a stir at the time it was built, in the first years of this century. A balcony has twisted iron rails. Typical Gaudi towers are sprinkled with gold and blue mosaic tiles and topped with curving metal spires that look like madcap weather vanes. Many of the inside ceilings have exposed wooden beams. Some ceilings are made of carved plaster, and one, for a glassed-in, second-floor terrace, is painted in Art Nouveau style.

The rekindled interest in Gaudi bloomed suddenly in the 1950s, when supporters of the almost obsessively religious architect and of the Roman Catholic Church started a campaign to finish the Sagrada Familia. The cathedral had been virtually abandoned after Gaudi's death in 1926 and was pillaged in anti-Church riots during and after the civil war. The work, finally resumed in 1974 and was supported entirely by donations. More funds were contributed by the hundreds of thousands of Tourists annually that visit his exhibits. In addition, some residents of Barcelona contributed monthly on a subscription basis. Today, visitors can watch the cathedral just as in past centuries people watched the building of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or the pyramids in Egypt. One has the sense of watching one of the wonders of the world.

But to appreciate the true impact of Sagrada Familia is to look at what Gaudi had already built before its reconstruction began - and preferably with binoculars. The cathedral towers rise from the ground in a gothic manner. They become Art Nouveau-baroque halfway up and end with gracefully tapering spires that suggest Picasso Cubism. The towers that James Michener described as "pretzel sticks" are jagged citadels studded with pieces of ceramic tile and glittering with gilt. At the top of each spire is a spray of tile-flecked balls that look ready for a celestial tennis game.

The facade of the cathedral dizzies the senses; it's like a fairyland sculpture made of gingerbread. Spiral columns support arches softened with dripping curves of leaves, flowers, plants and animals, all melting together. Gaudi's strong love of living things is most evident in his cathedral. More than eighty varieties of animals and an even greater variety of plants are carved on the facade. Statues of Biblical figures stand in niches draped with stone vines. The gargoyles are not the traditional demons, but graceful snails and birds and snakes. Columns soar like trees with stone birds in the branches. In one niche, chickens scratch away. The other side of the facade reveals still another style of Gaudi: geometric shapes in the stone that echo Moslem architecture, but softened by his uneven, parabolic arches.

The influences on Gaudi that resulted in his imaginative works have been debated by experts for decades. Some observers have theorized that his creations reflect the loneliness and the fantasies of an eccentric man who abstained from luxury, never married and lived most of his life with his father and orphaned niece. Some observers see phallic symbols in his cupolas. Salvador Tarrago, a young Barcelona architect who has written about Gaudi, sees his work not as fantasy, egotistical expression or devotion to the Roman Catholic Church, but as an exuberant dedication to architecture and to all living things. Yet, Mr. Tarrago adds, a full explanation of Gaudi's work "awaits a psychoanalytical study of a serious and objective nature," since Gaudi's "complex and contradictory character is inseparable from his architecture."

Meanwhile, in the absence of any such study, most experts are willing to conclude that environmental factors played an unusually strong role in Gaudi's work. There are certainly sufficient indications to support this thesis:

  • From the Tarragon countryside where Gaudi grew up (he was born on June 25, 1852, in Reus, near the town of Tarragona, in the Catalan region of north-eastern Spain) come the natural influences on his work: the animals and plants, the olive trees, the sea life from the glittering Mediterranean.
  • From his family (his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were potters) comes the influence of ceramic work and pottery. Some of Gaudi's buildings are more like clay sculptures than architecture. The staircase of the Batllo house and the facade and terrace of Casa Mila - a commanding corner building in Barcelona that Gaudi built from 1906 until 1910 for one of Batllo's partners, Pedro Mila - look as if giant hands had shaped them out of clay.
  • From his father, too, who also was a coppersmith, seems to come the fascination for the spiral design. Scholars say that the spiral columns and chair legs that occur again and again in Gaudi's oeuvre stem from the spiral tubing his father made for distilleries.
  • In Reus, Caudi learned to be a carpenter, blacksmith, iron forger and potter - all trades that he later made use of in his decorative iron railings and gates and in his sculptured wood interiors.

As a youth, Gaudi determined to become an architect and set off for Barcelona where, in 1873, he was admitted to the University's School of Architecture. He studied the work of the French architect Viollet-le-Duc, who had remodeled Notre Dame. He also studied the Moslem-Moroccan-Arab architecture of Granada and other Spanish cities once occupied by the Moors. From those studies stemmed the gothic and Moslem styles that dominated his early works. Gaudi joined an architectural firm that did such public works as the street lamps on the Plaza Real in Barcelona. He then won his first important private commission - to build a summer house for a wealthy tile merchant, Manuel Vicens. The Vicens house, finished in 1885, is all geometric Moslem-inspired shapes, with minarets and cupolas. Gaudi's next house, El Capricho (The Caprice), built for Maximo Diaz de Quijano in Santander during the same year, followed the same mood. Both had many "contemporary" touches that, for the nineteenth century, were quite radical. During the same period, the architectural firm where Gaudi worked was asked to take over the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, which had been started by another architect but hadn't gone much beyond the excavation stage. The task was given to Gaudi, an astonishing honor for a virtually unknown thirty-one-year-old man.

Gaudi kept modifying the original plan, making it more and more his own design. Actual construction went ahead sporadically, depending on the availability of funds and on Gaudi's other commitments. By 1910, the architect, by then fifty-eight years old, decided to spend all of his time on the church. As his religious fervor grew more obsessive, he became a vegetarian and a recluse, living in austerity and dressing poorly. Eventually he moved into the cathedral. He never intended the work to be finished in his lifetime. Rather, like the construction of medieval cathedrals, this was to be the work of generations. "My client," he once told friends, "is in no rush."

Gaudi's career flourished in a wave of nineteenth-century Catalan nationalism, another element that helps explain his work. Under the spur of the vigorous Catalans and freed from suppression by the national government, Barcelona grew and prospered. Wealthy merchants commissioned architects such as Gaudi; Catalan literature again was published; the city bustled with creation.

Gaudi, then lively, blond and bearded, and with long hair (in later years the beard, now white, remained, but his head was shaved) frequented concerts and theaters. There he met the wealthy Count Gliell, who decided to become the young architect's patron. Gaudi created pavilions for the count at his country estate; today, the estate is the site of the Gaudi Research Library, with its incredible gate in the shape of a wrought-iron dragon, tongue and all. In the estate's gatehouse and stables, Gaudi followed the old Mediterranean tradition of mud houses, using brick and filling the hollow parts with mud. The facades were Arab-gothic.

The Gliell Palace that was built later in Barcelona rivals the architecture of Granada in its Moslem feeling: carved ceilings, a dome that predated the French architect Le Corbusier's free-space decoration. For the palace, Gaudi pioneered a new urban idea: he disguised the chimneys as abstract sculptures and covered the cupolas with bits of ceramic and marble. Picasso once said that he saw the roof from his studio in the old Ramblas quarter of Barcelona; from this, experts speculate that Gaudi influenced Picasso.

A pioneer in urbanization, Gaudi also created a residential park for Count Guell. A gnome-like house guards the entrance. Covered walks for pedestrians have heavy Egyptian-style columns in the form of tree trunks. A children's playground has an undulating snakelike bench formed to fit the body. Reportedly, Gaudi ordered a workman to strip naked and sit on the unfinished bench so that he could design the shape properly. Gaudi used bits of tile because his curved shapes could not take traditional flat tiles. The collages of these tile scraps throughout the park came decades before similar forms were used in abstract painting.

The Guell urbanization employed a wealth of ideas. A huge reservoir collected rainwater, with drains hidden inside columns that comprise a colonnade. The plots for the houses were designed to catch the sun and the view of Barcelona. But only two plots were sold, one of them to Gaudi himself. He built his house and lived there from 1906 until 1925, when he moved to quarters in the Sagrada Familia. Count Gliell finally turned the site over to the city as a public park, known today as Guell Park. Gaudi also designed an incredible brick crypt-chapel for a workers' colony for one of Count Guell's factories. He built churches, college buildings, mansions and a bishop's palace in Astorga.

But the most Gaudiesque buildings of all are the Mila and Batllo houses, now apartments and offices in central Barcelona. In these, Gaudi merged Arab and gothic influences with his own animal-vegetable and wrinkled-squash styles. Even the attics, with their rows of graceful parabolic arches, are applauded as works of art. The roofs, with chimneys and ventilators formed into abstract-surrealistic figures – hooded giants or skeletons of prehistoric animals - are astonishing sights along the Barcelona skyline.

A fervent Catalan nationalist, Gaudi spoke only in Catalan; he refused to speak Spanish. After the Franco regime suppressed Catalan autonomy, the Sagrada Familia and other Gaudi works became a kind of political symbol to Catalans. The cathedral towers, for example, are in the form of a Catalan folklore game in which youths stand on each other's shoulders. Now, with Catalonia granted semiautonomy, Gaudi is even more revered.

Not everyone has been enamored with Gaudi's style. Barcelona newspapers in the early 1900s poked fun at his creations with cartoons and limericks. Some city residents called the Batllo house "the house of yawns" because of its balconies, which look like open mouths or "the house of bones," referring to columns in the shape of human bones. Even today, some Spaniards from the non-Catalan areas are furious at the money spent on finishing Sagrada Familia. Some call it "junk architecture." Non-Catalans refer to Gaudi as a "Catalan crank." But most of Barcelona hails him as a genius; taxi drivers know exactly where the Gaudi buildings are. In defense of his dreamlike buildings, Gaudi has been quoted as saying: "I have imagination, not fantasy. Fantasy is not real. Imagination is to be able to imagine forms in three dimensions." In his only newspaper interview, in 1913, the architect said caustically, "Whoever wants to be an architect, and not everyone can, let him begin as one who seeks to climb a mountain; let him try his strength to see if he is capable of it."

In June of 1926 a streetcar on the Avenida de Jose Antonio hit an elderly white-haired man whose threadbare clothing was held together by huge safety pins. The man lay on the street crying in pain. Two taxis refused to take him to a hospital. Finally an ambulance arrived on the scene and took the apparent pauper to a public clinic.

When Gaudi failed to appear at the Sagrada Familia Cathedral the next day, a search was started, and he was found in the charity ward with fractured ribs. Surrounded by friends and civic officials, he died three days later. His funeral at the Sagrada Familia was attended by thousands.