Sweet Dreams are Made of This
To describe Modernisme as Catalan Art Nouveau underrates its roots but it’s a fair starting point. The style originated in the 1870s when Barcelona was enjoying industrial prosperity and expanding beyond its medieval walls. This expansion, named Eixample, became the home of Modernisme. The relaxation of town planning and the influx of wealth combined with a resurgence of Catalan identity created the perfect climate for new commissions and in turn a new style. Modernisme is a manifestation of Catalan character in stone. And brick. And trencadís (broken ceramic tiles). In homage to the region’s history, Gothic, Moorish and medieval styles were fused with naturalistic motifs of Art Nouveau. Catalan architects superimposed their local customs and beliefs on traditional architecture and made it something new. The epoch ended in 1911.
Who better than Colm Tóibín to capture the spirit of the moment, “The style is known as Modernisme, and it was taken up by Catalan architects at the end of the 19th century as a national style from a number of sources, Art Nouveau and William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement being among them. In 1903, just two years before the Palau de Música was begun, the leading Barcelona architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch wrote, ‘the most important thing we have done is that we have made a modern art, taking our traditional arts as a basis, adorning it with new material, solving contemporary problems with a national spirit.’”
Casa Amatller is a prime example of Eixample Modernisme. Its crazy ziggurat gable and spiky dingdong parapet sew a rich Dutch pattern into the fabric. The fabric of the rich, stitch upon stitch. Casa Amatller is one of three attached mansions, each a wildly varying rebuilding of an existing structure, together known as “Mansana de la Discòrdia” or “block of discord”. Chocolatier Antoni Amattler Costa commissioned Josep Puig i Cadafalch to go for it. Big time. An oriel as big as a planet. It was one of the first houses in Barcelona to have electricity, no less. Modern without the isme too. All that, he did with great aplomb. Almost 120 years after completion, Casa Amattler still has the wow factor. Madness or genius? Chisel or pencil? Fantasy or reality?
Apropos to the source of the dosh, Casa Amatller could easily be a stage set for Hansel + Gretel on speed. Maybe a bit of Rapunzel on acid thrown in for good measure too? Josep’s heroic adeptness at ecstatic playfulness is a trait Postmodernists would strive to emulate but rarely achieve a century later. Colm observes his eclecticism: “His style moved from the strident neo Gothic to the more gentle Germanic.” Peter Thornton, writing about Paris in Authentic Décor The Domestic Interior 1620 to 1920: “Most Art Nouveau was a good deal more sober than is generally supposed.” The same could not be written about its Catalan counterpart. No way, José.
Speaking at the European Commission in Smith Square, London, architectural historian Andrew Saint remarked, “Art Nouveau is really missing in the English context.” He cited Charles Harrison Townsend’s Horniman Museum in London as a rare example. “You can see Art Nouveau as a coalescence of vernacular traditions with an interest in urban politics. The poor old Glasgow School of Art shows that Scottish nationalism was an important force. But that energetic Pan Slavic or Catalan movement is missing in Britain.” There is no British equivalent of Casa Amatller.