The grandiose building of this museum is familiar to every resident of Barcelona, or anyone who has ever been near the Plaça d’Espanya. But most people are content with looking at its imposing facade and don’t venture inside. Maybe they’re looking for the big international names and the museum’s name puts them off. Should you be in any doubt, though, the National Art Museum of Catalonia’s collections include not just Catalan artists, but also names like Velázquez, Titian, Goya, Picasso and many others of world renown
MNAC is housed in the National Palace, probably the most notable building on Montjuȉc hill. It was built specially for the World Exhibition, hosted by Barcelona in 1929. After it was finished, it was supposed to house a big art collection, but in 1936 the outbreak of the Civil War put an end to these plans. The exhibits had to be rescued. The most valuable were hastily transferred to Paris, where an exhibition of Catalan art had been organised, the remainder were sent to the little town of Olot in the north of the region. After the war the collection was split. The Romanesque and Mediaeval collections remained in the National Palace, while works from the 19th and 20th centuries found refuge in the Museum of Contemporary Art in the Ciutadella park. They were reunited under one roof only on the eve of the 1992 Olympics.
Foreign antiquarians and collectors exploited the absence of laws banning the export of such rarities from Spain and bought up antiquities en masse for sale in the USA
The first thing you should pay attention to is a group of Romanesque frescoes and sculptures discovered in the Pyrenees at the beginning of the last century. Experts spent years on the study and restoration of these fragile discoveries. The wooden statues were restored before being transferred, but moving the semi-circular frescoes was far more complicated. The museum’s specialists solved this problem using unusual supports that copied the walls of the churches. The region’s Romanesque artistic heritage is of interest not only to local scholars. Foreign antiquarians and collectors exploited the absence of laws banning the export of such rarities from Spain and bought up antiquities en masse for sale in the USA. The Union of Museums pooled all its resources and efforts to obtain endangered works, thanks to which Barcelona has acquired a collection of Romanesque art that is probably the most significant of its kind anywhere in the world.
Early and late Gothic art is almost as well represented. Mediaeval Catalan artists followed the custom of the time in creating large-scale altarpieces of the highest artistic standards for the region’s cathedrals and churches. One example is Lluís Dalmau’s Altarpiece of the Councillors. Dalmau was ordered by his patron, King Alfonso V, to go to Flanders to make the acquaintance of Jan van Eyck, author of the Ghent Altarpiece. On his return, he began work on an altarpiece for the chapel of Barcelona’s city council which astonished his contemporaries with its painting technique and exerted a massive influence on Catalan art of the period.
The Madrid Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the second most important in Spain, has placed more than 70 items at the disposal of its Barcelona colleague
The period from the Renaissance to the 19th century is represented at MNAC by El Greco, Titian, Velázquez, Lucas Cranach, Peter Paul Rubens and Francisco Goya. Their canvases are already reason enough to spend several hours in these rooms. The most valuable works were gifted to the museum by the collector and patron Francesc Cambó. Pleasant surprises for aficionados of classical art do not end there. The Madrid Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the second most important in Spain, has placed more than 70 items at the disposal of its Barcelona colleague, including works by Fra Angelico, Canaletto, the Carracci brothers and other great Italians.
Modern art and interior design await the curious on the upper floors. Pride of place is taken by local artists and Modernisme, better known in English as Art Nouveau, which is so central to the spirit of Barcelona even today. Here we find Antoni Gaudí with his twisted furniture created specially for the Casa Batlló; Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol with paintings that look like illustrations of everyday city life; Marià Fortuny and Joaquin Mir Trinxet, who created new styles in Catalan art. Especially noteworthy is Salvador Dalí’s Portrait of My Father from 1925, which allows us to see how the head of the Dalí clan looked in the eyes of his genius son.
The museum also boasts a number of canvases by artists of world renown from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Seeking them out becomes a kind of hunt for masterpieces, an intriguing quest, a game. Here are some of the main landmarks to help you on your way: a painting by Edvard Munch, best known for his The Scream; a work by French artist Eugène Boudin, teacher of the “father of Impressionism” Claude Monet; a piece by Czech master Alphonse Mucha, famous for his posters in the Art Nouveau style; a sculpture by Auguste Rodin and, of course, Woman in Hat and Fur Collar by Pablo Picasso, painted in what many scholars feel to be the artist’s best period.