Thursday, January 21, 2016

Josep Obiols, An “Other Modern” Artist from Catalonia

From time to time, the New Liturgical Movement will cover the work of artists and architects from recent history, whose work, while “modern,” nonetheless took a different and more traditional path than that of the “modernism” of Le Corbusier or Picasso, a path which we call“the Other Modern.”
My Cuban grandfather, José Morell, was never quite sure where his family had come from. Blue-grey eyes and a rather unconventionally un-Spanish last name made him suppose they might have been Basque, or French, or Catalan. A bit of genealogical research and the fact he shares a last name with a very small town near Valencia—where my family, on vacation in 2014, found an open coffee shop and some very friendly if ultimately somewhat perplexed locals—suggests the Morells were probably Catalan at one time. So, when we took a day trip on that same vacation up to the Marian mother shrine of the Catalan people, the mysterious monastery of Montserrat, I took more than a usual interest. As I write, a small black and gold image of La Moreneta—the Black Madonna—watches me from one of my shelves.
Montserrat is worth an article in itself—it is an eerie, moving, otherworldly sort of place, suspended below the great toothed mountain that gives the shrine its name, its slopes spiked with great rocky promontories that appear always on the verge of looking like something else, but never quite do. The Benedictine monastery there has been embellished numerous times over the centuries, the present church having been begun in 1559 and consecrated in 1592, though much of the interior decoration and its apse is in the high-flown nineteenth-century chivalric style of the Catalan Renaixença, and the exterior contrafacciata looks mid-twentieth century—its inscription, “Cataluña será cristiana o no será” is, somewhat pointedly, in alien Spanish.

Much of the excellent painted paleo-Christian style decoration that marks the long rising ambulatory up to the shrine statue dates from this era, and is the work of Josep Obiols i Palau (1894-1967). One of the more distinguished of Catalonia’s twentieth-century painters, after time in Italy he made a name for himself as a muralist, and his work at Montserrat is only part of a larger oevre that includes everything from large-scale work in Montjuïc’s Palacio Nacional to rather sketchy, abstract bookplate designs. An excellent monograph is available on him (Josep Obiols: Pintor de Montserrat by Alexandre Cirici Pellicer et al.), though it is unfortunately only available in Catalan and Spanish.

Most of his work at Montserrat consists of frescoes in an interestingly loose, almost El Greco-esque take on early Christian and Byzantine art, without eschewing a touch of something modern, or at least unique, that nonetheless does not shade into the angular sterility of modernism. Catalonia is full of such apparent and quite triumphant artistic contradictions—indeed, had Picasso bothered to study the Romanesque murals in the Catalan National Museum with more diligence than fervor, we might have gotten quite a few more Pantocrators and a lot less Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Obiols’ frescoes can be seen in the shrine ambulatory, the monks’ refectory (1945), the new sacristy (1944-1945) and abbot’s sala (1951). In addition to his work near the shrine of the Madonna, which also includes some stunning mosaics around the statue itself (1947) and relief work on adjacent doors (1953), he executed a series of stunning marquetry images of local saints and holy figures—including several uncanonized but significant abbots of Montserrat shown with the old square halo, an interesting choice—for the cabinet doors of the new sacristy (1945), as well as for the abbatial throne (1957); it is unclear to me if this is the current abbatial throne in the choir, a former throne there, or a throne elsewhere in the complex; in any case, the insertion of that more “modernistic” element into the lush décor of the main church is a bit jarring.

His is a fascinating style as it owes very little to many of the “Other Moderns” we have discussed before, which often have a far clearer link to Art Nouveau or even Art Deco. There is also a small touch of Art Deco here (mostly in the marquetry), but there is also much that is uncategorizable or perhaps reminiscent of mainstream continental painting of the period, albeit quite successfully blended into the numinous, symbol-rich, yet strangely straightforward art of the early Christians. The fact that an unabashedly traditional artist was working with great, almost medieval-level Church commissions so late into the last century (and not only that, but in 1945, when the rest of the continent was otherwise occupied) only adds to the unique and peculiarly Spanish and Catalan story behind his work. But, considering he sprang from a city whose most daring and avant-garde architect ended life as a reclusive saint living in the crypt where he would some day be buried, it is no surprise that another Catalonian could close that gap so successfully.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: