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Photo courtesy of MNAC
The Victim: Gargali's El Violinist
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Full Disclosure 2
Inspecting the X-rays of Majesty Batlló. Photo Courtesy of MNAC.
A special exhibition at The Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya reveals the mysteries buried beneath the elegant surfaces of various masterworks
Mireia Mestre, head of the restoration department in the Museu Nacional de Catalunya (MNAC), was talking to a rather silent press crowd—10am, no coffee offered. “All revealed,” she said, referring to The Museum Explores. Works of Art under Close Examination, the current exhibition in the ground-floor rooms (until 24th February, 2013, free admission) for which she is curator.
The shows features 28 research cases in which her department has been involved, mainly regarding works from the Museum’s collections, plus a couple on loan from local museums in Barcelona, Reus and Montserrat. In an honest, frank way, it offers a rare and candid insider’s glimpse, revealing what collectors, art historians, conservators, restorers and scientists see beneath the surface of a work of art; that which is rarely seen by the rest of us. In the world of art restoration and conservation there is room for as much excitement, disappointment, surprise and anxiety as you can expect from an episode of CSI.
Take for instance the case of the The Violinist (1920, cut lead, 51.3 x 31 x 22cm) by Pablo Gargallo (1881-1934). At a certain point, it started to exude unexpected rust stains and cracks from inside to out. It was only after neutron radiography, carried out in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (built underground near Geneva), that the suspected origin of the problem was confirmed: the contact between the lead sheets and the sculpture’s wooden core produced fatal gases.
But what makes the show really special is that it has a whole section devoted to the failures and shortcomings of the museum itself. From the final decades of the 18th century, fake copies of the widely appreciated Medieval enamel works from Limoges, France, have proved very lucrative. The exhibition displays three Eucharistic Pigeons in enamel that entered the museum as part of the same bequest; thanks to recent analysis, they can now say that only one of them is really 13th-century Limoges. After the show, it will become part of the permanent collection, replacing one of the imposters.
The exhibition is also an invitation to discover the rest of the MNAC. And this museum, unlike some of the world’s important and imposing larger museums—The National Gallery, Metropolitan, Louvre, Prado, Uffizi, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister—well it’s just much less daunting. The MNAC has only one absolute, world famous, unavoidable masterpiece. We are talking about the Pantocrator from Sant Climent de Taüll (Room 5), the 620 x 360 x 180cm frescoes with which an anonymous genius, back in the first quarter of the 12th century, decorated the apse of a surprisingly fine church planted in Vall de Boí, a remote valley in the Pyrenees, only rediscovered in the early 20th century. In fact, it is such an extraordinary work of art, that nobody will take you for a fool if you follow these instructions to the letter: enter the Museum; go directly to room 5; walk straight ahead but keep your eyes on your feet, until you reach the opposite end of the room; then, raise your head, quite slowly, and receive the full impact of this Romanesque wonder. Keep staring at it for at least 15 minutes, while holding your breath in admiration—then take another breath, stare at it for 15 minutes longer, and go back home.
For the rest, the MNAC is full of surprises. You can enjoy all of them without the pressure of the must-see, since the art in this corner of Europe called Catalunya is not the most sought after in the world; though one day, perhaps it may be. Imagine you have been bewitched by Gargallo’s Violinist: you can proceed upstairs to room 87, and pay a visit to his exquisite Large Ballerina (cut iron, 123 x 70 x 50cm, Paris, 1929), in which Gargallo uses the iron cuttings to draw mass and void, and balance and movement. A piece that makes you think, and feel the fire of creativity at the same time.
On your way to this jewel, you will pass through the 19th–20th century sculpture collection, one of the most interesting sequences in the museum. Never believe those who tell you that the MNAC is basically a museum for paintings. This is a common misunderstanding caused by the fact that the most spectacular works in the MNAC are paintings. It certainly lacks the Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque and Neoclassical masterworks that give other places everlasting fame, but some of its Medieval and Modern artworks will amaze you. If, for example, what you are really looking for is that big colonial era painting, full of drama and spirit, that celebrates a heroic endeavour on the battlefield, then head to Room 62 and see Marià Fortuny’s (1838-1874) near-to-lifesize The Battle of Tetouan (oil on canvas 300 x 972cm, Rome, 1862-64).
Paintings or sculptures, you can engage with the collections in the museum by paying close attention to the kind of artwork that is in front of you. To simplify things, let’s say that in the Romanesque section, arguably the best in the museum, three types of artwork dominate: wall paintings (the largest and finest grouping of them in a museum worldwide), church sculpture (don’t miss the Batlló Majesty, wood and tempera, 156 x 119.5 x 20.5 cm, now displayed downstairs in the exhibition), and altar frontals (paintings on panel placed before the altar). The Gothic rooms are a matter of sculpture again, and contain altarpieces; you can easily follow their dramatic growth from reasonably big in the 13th century to gigantic enterprises by the mid to end of the 15th century. The areas devoted to the subsequent centuries showcase the so-called Catalan cultural decay by including fewer works from the country, in favour of a good number of quite fine examples from Spain and other parts of Europe. Then comes the 19th century, in which a reinvigorated social and artistic scene produced sculpture, easel paintings, engravings, photography, and applied arts. These, plus collage, are the art forms of 1900 to 1950— works which lead us to the chronological endpoint of the museum’s collection.
By looking at these works from the point of view of the art forms, you begin to get a richer insight into the subject matter and to see each piece from the artist’s point of view. Be adventurous and avoid following a chronological path from room to room; but rather find your own way by moving back and forth. In Room 32, for example, you will come across Bernat Martorell’s (c.1400 -1452) Altarpiece of Saint Vincent (c.1438-1440, tempera and gold leaf on wood, 288 x 238 x 24.5cm). In Room 34, you will find a group of bigger panels showing the same scenes by Jaume Huguet (c.1412-1492), painted between 1455-1460. At that point, go back to the earlier work, and start making comparisons. After two or three trips, you will be able to tell the subtle differences between the International Gothic style of the beginning of the 15th century and the Gothic style under the influence of the Flemish master’s realism that expanded in Europe at the end of the century.
And so on. The key to the MNAC is that you can treat it as if it is your own private collection in your own private palace. Just pay the €10 entrance price—or treat yourself to the ridiculously cheap €18 annual pass, which includes all of the exhibitions—and spend your time as if you possessed a palace full of artistic treasures.
Yes, there is a danger in it too. Once you are ensnared by one artwork, you find yourself helplessly pushed to answer these questions—what inspired the artist to create it, how it came to be here, and why it moves you. Fortunately, the magnificent Biblioteca General d’Art, one of the best art libraries in the country, is open to you, for free, in the mezzanine at the south side of the great oval hall.