T he two big shows at the Met this spring—“Barcelona and Modernity: Gaudí to Dalí” and “Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797”—address the sort of subjects that typically defeat a museum. Architecture is arguably the most dramatic character in the story of modern Barcelona, but you cannot, of course, fly Barcelona’s buildings across the Atlantic. The show’s curators must therefore celebrate what cannot be exhibited. (They aren’t ignoring the elephant in the room: The elephant isn’t there.) And if you want to analyze the relationship between Venice and the Islamic world, you cannot simply collect the finest art of the era, which is the surest way to success. You must gather the best evidence for your argument. Thematic exhibits inevitably value the minor—if it helps convey the gist—as much as the major. They seem filled with interesting curiosities found in a corner. A rich man’s attic picked over by scholars.
What, then, makes these two shows stimulating? They send echoes into the present. They celebrate eccentric urban cultures, not unlike New York, that tolerate flux and are more open-minded than their neighbors. Venice and Barcelona were both great Mediterranean seaports that depended upon trade and manufacturing for their livelihood: They instinctively kept an eye on the life beyond their shores. If they did not transcend the societies that surrounded them, they still appeared unusually independent, cosmopolitan, and secular. They could accept impurity better than most places. They resisted the authoritarian center. Barcelona (and Catalan culture in general) recoiled from inward- and backward-looking Spain and became a center of support for the republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Venice chafed when the pope or other European powers tried to pressure the city over its relations with Muslim nations. Like many commercial centers, where the goods of the world mingle, the two cities developed an eye for the outlandish and a ripe taste for fantasy. The bizarre owes a lot to the bazaar.
Barcelona, in the late nineteenth century, became a key outpost of experimental art in Europe. A radical café culture centered around Els Quatre Gats flourished among modernists; the exhibit contains a painting from the café of two men bicycling toward the future, or so it seems, and a café sign of cats that some believe was made by Picasso. Over the following decades, legendary painters—notably Miró, Dalí, and Picasso—and fascinating smaller artists, such as Ramón Casas (who painted the bicyclists), emerged from the city’s milieu. The exhibit, jointly organized by the Cleveland and Metropolitan Museums of Art, contains important examples of their work. What’s relayed with particular power, however, is the city’s paradoxical perspective. On the one hand, Barcelona was unusually open to the crosscurrents of style in Europe: Classicizing artists would soon challenge the city’s early modernists, and they themselves would be confronted by the wildly efflorescent work of the Surrealists. On the other hand, Barcelona cultivated its own private garden of astonishing blooms—above all, the work of the great architect Antoni Gaudí. Barcelona was a city at once restless, welcoming, and rooted in idiosyncratic practice. In short, a great model.
Gaudí will steal any show, even if his buildings cannot quite fly. The exhibit begins with a giant photograph of his dream church, the Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família, and it includes images of the private house Casa Milà and some of his furniture and decorative objects. Many self-taught, folk, and visionary artists have made environments as otherworldly as Gaudí’s; typically, we distance ourselves from such artists, treating them as “outsiders” who went down the rabbit hole with Alice. But Gaudí was a working professional. It seems miraculous that he was able to get anything built. That Barcelona tolerated him (he makes Dalí seem conventional) represents more than an acceptance of novelty. Gaudí conveys a feeling of ineffable possibility: He’s “the palm at the end of the mind.” Partly because his buildings exist, architects like Frank Gehry can today build as well as propose—and architects of the future, with new technical means, may construct what can now only be imagined. One of the best things about “Barcelona,” incidentally, is that it also includes a model of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929—an austere masterpiece shorn of ornament. Mies and Gaudí: It is a useful exercise to keep both in mind at once. The one need not exclude the other.
“Venice” is a sumptuous collection of work—glass, textiles, carpets, metalwork, ceramics, books, prints, furniture, lacquers, paintings, kitchen sinks—that reflects the Venetian assimilation of Eastern ideas over the centuries. Once upon a time, every schoolchild read about Marco Polo and the “spice trade” and the “luxuries” of the East. It was taken for granted that Muslim culture was a focus of desire, yearning, and excitement. (Imagine that …) A fluid city at the intersection of the two cultures, Venice relished not only the business but also the gift of fancy. The East provided her with technical inspiration—Venetian glassmakers, for example, borrowed heavily from Islamic nations—and delightful ways of patterning and form. Lorenzo Lotto liked to depict, for example, an Oriental carpet in his pictures; it brought decorative intensity into sober portraiture. The debt to the East was not just obviously visual. The air of lusciousness in Venetian art, its swooning ways with color and light, owes something to riches from across the water.
The curator of the show, Stefano Carboni, emphasizes the “chameleon-like” pragmatism of the Venetians, who struggled to maintain their markets and connections through the horrific religious wars of the period. The Venetians were wily, of two minds—which, in today’s context, sounds wonderful. Even if they didn’t always say so, the Venetians tended to prefer interaction to war, conversation to silence, business to religion, and compromise to certainty. The art in this show is full of assimilations and seepings between cultures. It was in their interest, and also the world’s, to maintain this perspective. The show’s organizers highlight a marvelous print of an annual Venetian spectacle known as Il Volo del Turco, in which, according to the catalogue, a Turkish tightrope walker ascended from a floating dock offshore “to the belfry of San Marco’s bell tower on a rope; then he descended, turning somersaults, on a different rope into the second-floor gallery of the Palazzo Ducale, landing at the doge’s feet.” The spectacle, while steeped in Venetian ambivalence about the Turks, suggested that the tightrope between cultures (and to heaven above) could be brilliantly negotiated.
A futuristic New York City skyscraper, aptly named Hotel Attraction, was conceived by Gaudí in May 1908 but never realized—some say it was to be built on what is now ground zero. Seven original sketches survive, depicting a multicolored steel structure 1,181 feet tall complete with a shining star up top that would offer panoramic views—think the Empire State Building if it were also a rocket ship. After revisiting the nearly 100-year-old plans, some Catalan artists, art historians, and architects entered the proposed construction into the 2003 ground-zero memorial design competition. It didn’t win.