Image by Danny Fernandez
It’s the start of the 20th century and masterly minds amble along the city’s shadowy passages. They emerge from colour-drenched studios of stroked canvases, inked papers and clayed aprons to convene in Els Quatre Cats and bellow thoughts on their day’s enterprise. This is the Barcelona of the Modernista movement, where ideas that collide in public squares and cafes are turned into lasting monuments in private workshops. Skip forward less than half a century and Franco’s militia usurp the streets, prohibiting dissenting ideas and vernacular freedom. Great minds retreat to their homes and dare in hushed tones to think, to create. In 1975, when democracy gives the streets back to the people, private doors slowly begin to open and creation once again spills forth, its flow constant and consistent—the strength of the torrent encouraged by the dammed-up impulses. Soon, word of Barcelona as a vibrant artistic hub spreads and the names on the canon of Catalan artistry begin to include not only natives, but others with strange, foreign names, including Tóibín, Enard, Scully and Yamamoto.
Is it the liberal aftermath of repressive political tides that has led to Barcelona attracting scores of foreign creative artists? Or perhaps its attractive geographical positioning, its suave profile, its confident swagger? What is it about Barcelona—described by Joan Maragall as ‘boastful, treacherous and vulgar’—that leads it to be the great enchantress for so many creatives past and present? I spoke to some foreign artists living in Barcelona to find out what the draw is.
Image by Mina Hamada
"Harunohi", Acrylic on canvas 100x81cm 2015.
Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, came to Barcelona on the eve of Franco’s death when “the public realm was intolerable and indoor space was rich.” During his three-year stint in the city, Tóibín witnessed the fervent reoccupation of the public space: parties, protests, sardana dancing and the Catalan language. In fact, Tóibín was enjoying the early democratisation of the country so much that he had to leave in order to write, but the lingering memory of Barcelona and regular visits to the area have informed some of his seminal work, including his early novels Homage to Barcelona (1990) and The South (1990). The dynamic occupation of the urban space has also left its impression on the artists I interviewed. Mina Hamada, an American-born, Japanese-raised artist, said of her first encounter with the city, “There were so many people on the street chatting, walking, sunbathing, doing nothing—but people were outside.” Sally Marks, an English artist living in Barcelona, initially arrived in 1992 as an art student and, like Hamada, was struck by the murmur of life outdoors. “My initial impressions were smells of pan cigarettes and sounds of gas bottle deliveries, of people being outside, not inside,” said Marks.
Image by Sally Marks
Tóibín has referred to the city of Barcelona and the colours of the Mediterranean as “pure excitement”. The unique light and colours warming the cityscape have also attracted my interviewees. “There are such amazing shafts of light creating pyramids on Gothic streets,” observes Marks. “The light of Barcelona has influenced my work; coming across surprising corners where you are suddenly blinded.” Marks stresses that her art, however, is not observational, but “reacting to where I am in some sense because it’s connected to a feeling, a feeling that can reappear anywhere”. The attraction and importance of the particular light of Barcelona is also remarked on by English photographer Danny Fernandez. “The city has a beautiful quality of light flowing through it, making it an ideal location for photographers,” said Fernandez. It seems that there is a deep connection between the vibrant Barcelona, as perceived by Hamada, and her joyous, exuberant work, “Here in Barcelona I found the colours of happiness. Whilst immersed in sun, a good atmosphere and the overall freedom of the city, many colours come to my creations.”
Image by Danny Fernandez
Model: Georgiana EM - https://www.instagram.com/gia.em/
ROOTED IN THE LOCAL
In an article for El País, the late renowned art critic Robert Hughes commented that “all great art is rooted in the local”. German illustrator, Judy Kaufmann, affirmed that it is this sense of the local that she has found in Barcelona which has influenced her work. “When I came to Barcelona, I started drawing a lot of small cities and neighbourhoods. I suppose it was the first time, at 23 years old, that I felt I belonged to a community; a place where you know your neighbours and, in a subconscious way, I was drawing buildings, cars, animals and playgrounds.” Buenos Aires native and designer Carolina Iriarte also credits the familiarity of Barcelona with having played a part in her setting up base here. “Coming from a very large city, where I had to get around on trains and buses, Barcelona seemed small and easy. Getting around mainly on foot and bicycle through the Born, the Barri Gòtic and the Raval gives me the impression of living on a theatre set.” Barcelona’s cosmopolitanism was also a huge draw for Iriarte. “When I first arrived in 2004, I was fascinated that there were people from everywhere. It made me feel that the other side of the ocean was the other side of the world.” It was in Barcelona where Iriarte learned the leatherwork trade and, not least because of the city’s appeal to foreigners, her designer leather goods grew to an international level.
Image by Judy Kaufmann
THE TOURIST PLAGUE
As history shows, the changing tides of city policy and the success of its self-promotion can undermine some of the features upon which that success was built, having a drastic effect on creative endeavour. In recent years, artists—such as internationally acclaimed Irish painter Sean Scully—have bemoaned the ‘tourist plague’ that has engulfed Barcelona as detrimental to the city’s unique identity. After just five years in Barcelona, Fernandez has also noticed the negative influence of tourism on the city. “The replacement of old family-run cafes, bars and shops with generic and ugly souvenir shops is very saddening. I think Barcelona is losing its identity.” This claim is reiterated by Kaufmann, “I don’t know by how much the number of visitors to the city has increased in recent years, but sometimes it’s ridiculous.” Change, however, is embraced by Iriarte and Hamada. For Iriarte, Barcelona’s dynamism makes it “a very stimulating place to live and work,” while Hamada is positively resolute about the city’s evolution. “It may be that Barcelona is changing, but I’m also changing together with the city. My work is progressing and I try to improve it, just as people in Barcelona want to improve the city. I hope we can go along the same path.”
We can only hope that these great creative minds will not, once again, be driven from the public domain—this time by the perceived tyranny of tourism. They may find it uncongenial, but I doubt many will be willing to abandon the light, the colour and the vibrancy, which still embellish the cityscape and have proven such an attraction for them. Nor will they fail to find and establish, away from tourist haunts perhaps, a sense of rootedness, of the local and familiar which informs so much of who they are and what they do.
Mina Hamada was born in Louisiana and grew up in Tokyo, studying Design and Illustration at the Sokei Academy of Fine Art & Design. As an artist, she specialises in painting, illustration and murals. Colour, rhythm and improvisation characterise the work of this Japanese artist, who has lived in Barcelona since 2009.
Judy Kaufmann is a Barcelona-based illustrator who has attracted an international clientele, including Waitrose and Levi’s, through her fresh and colourful style. She also collaborates with the University of Barcelona as a creative instructor for marketing students.
Danny Fernandez is a creative photographer based in Barcelona. Specialising in portrait, wedding and conceptual photography, his passion lies in “recording fleeting moments of raw emotion”. Currently, he has an exhibition at La Clandestina (Baixada de Viladecols 2), called ‘India: Through pictures and poems’.
Sally Marks has been living in Barcelona sporadically since 2002. She takes a keen interest in art therapy, having worked on art projects uniting African refugees and Hong Kong residents. She currently volunteers at Art Solidari, where she delivers workshops. She will exhibit at Olivart Gallery next year.
Carolina Iriarte designs and handcrafts leather bags in Barcelona, combining traditional skills with natural materials. Her bags have been featured in major publications such as Vogue España, Glamour Magazine and The New York Times.