The Architecture of Splendor

A milestone retrospective at the Musée d’Orsay chronicles Antoni Gaudí’s multidisciplinary career
Graphic done in watercolor.

Above Image: Gaudí’s luminous rendering of a cross-section for a university amphitheater (1877). Graphite, watercolor, and gouache, 65 × 90 cm. Photo © Cátedra Gaudí, ETSAB, UPC / © CRBMC Centre de Restauració de Béns Mobles de Catalunya / Ramón Maroto.

By Aliette Boshier

For the great Catalan visionary Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), architecture was a means of giving order to light. It is there in the filigree shadows cast by the wrought-iron gates of Barcelona’s Casa Milà, and in the hyperboloid vault of the Sagrada Família, where starburst apertures pour sunlight down upon the congregation. His childhood spent exploring the countryside around the town of Reus, a craggy landscape dotted with ancient ruins and almond orchards, imbued him with a joyful reverence for the natural world, never more perfect than when bathed in the brilliant light of the Mediterranean.

(L to R) The glorious front façade and basilica ceiling of Sagrada Familia; portrait of the architect c. 1878. Images of Sagrada Familia from the documentary film Sagrada Família, le défi de Gaudí © GEDEON Programmes. Photo of Gaudí © Museu de Reus.

This deep connection to the land of his birth informs a new exhibition dedicated to Gaudí at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the first of its kind in France for 50 years, which brings together a captivating collection of photographs, video footage, drawings, models, and furnishings that chart the trajectory of Gaudí’s life from his partnerships with patrons like Eusebi Güell to the pinnacle of his architectural achievement: the Great Basilica. While his ardent Catholic faith and ascetic tendencies contributed to the image of an isolated genius, curators Élise Dubreuil, Isabelle Morin Loutrel, and Juan José Lahuerta situate Gaudí as a leading figure of Modernisme, the revival of Catalan culture analogous with other fin de siècle artistic movements such as Art Nouveau. Driven by a rising class of wealthy industrialists and bourgeois entrepreneurs, commissions for homes, churches, and parks from Gaudí and his contemporaries would profoundly shape the visual identity of the expanding city.

An Installation view of the exhibition. Gaudí’s design of an undulating modular wall (1909) for Casa Milà, his residential masterwork. Oak and pale pink cathedral glass. 196 × 400 × 25 cm. Exhibition photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay). Wall photo © Christian Crampon / Sophie Crépy.

Although the enduring air of whimsy attached to much of Gaudí’s work—from multicolored mosaic lizards to fairy-tale turrets—may be a boon for purveyors of Barcelona’s tourist trinkets, it belies a profound knowledge of geometry and mathematics, allowing him to harness shapes like conoids, helicoids, and paraboloids into structures as functional as they are visually arresting. As a student, Gaudí absorbed the writings of the medievalist French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, as well as Owen Jones’s studies of the Alhambra Palace, animating his designs with references to Mudéjar and Baroque styles.

Visitors to the exhibition cross the threshold into Gaudí’s world through the staging of a wood-paneled vestibule from one of the apartments of the Casa Milà. Most striking is the care and attention he channelled into each project, seeing to the design of everything from chaises to chandeliers. True to his love of the curved line, a frameless mirror appears like a quivering drop of quicksilver, while ergonomic door handles, fashioned from gleaming brass, remind that Gaudí descended from a long line of metalsmiths.

True to his love of the curved line, a frameless mirror appears like a quivering drop of quicksilver, while ergonomic door handles, fashioned from gleaming brass, remind that Gaudí descended from a long line of metalsmiths.

Loveliest of all are the hand-painted tiles from the facade of his earliest commission, Casa Vicens, depicting vibrant yellow marigolds in bloom. Upon the architect’s first visit, he is said to have found them carpeting the site and decided to ensure they remained part of that place forever, much like Gaudí himself in the city he helped to build.
A trio of pieces by Gaudí featured in the exhibition: A corner vitrine designed for the iconic Barcelona residence Casa Batlló. Fabricated by ebenistes Atelier Casas i Bardés c. 1904. Molded ash and beveled windows, 232 × 82 × 63 cm. Wall mirror c. 1906. Bevelled glass on a wood core, 52 × 31 × 3 cm. Daybed for the Palau Güell, c. 1886. Wrought iron, wood frame, and velvet, 106 × 196 × 107 cm. Photos of vitrine and mirror © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Patrice Schmidt. Photo of daybed © MNAC, Barcelona, 2022.

Learn more about the exhibition at Musée d’Orsay

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