Interview by Philippe Thiébaut, general Curator at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris with Pedro Uhart in his book "Gaudi Builder of Visions " - Gallimard 2001
A PASSIONATE CONNOISSEUR: PEDRO UHART
Pedro Uhart (b. 1938 in Concepción, Chile) is considered one of the most important private collectors of Gaudí. Uhart took up painting while at law school. In 1962 he left Chile to settle in Europe. In 1971 he began painting sheets, which he called "floating murals" and displayed in the streets and public gardens. One of them, entitled "11 September 1973" and exhibited at the Biennale de Paris, denounces the coup in Chile and the assassination of Salvador Allende. Others were shown in London and New York. In 1976 Uhart began his exploration of colour photocopying and Polaroid photography. Since 1977 his works have been regularly shown in Europe and the United States.
How did you discover Gaudí ?
Together with a Venezuelan friend, also a painter, I decided to tour Spain over our summer holidays in 1965. Our first major stop was Barcelona. We were so overwhelmed by Gaudí’s architecture that I immediately decided to find out more about his work, and I promised myself I’d return as soon as possible.
Several books proved invaluable to my research. I succeeded in getting hold of José Ráfols’ book (published in 1928), in which I saw Gaudí’s furniture and objets d’art for the first time. That and other publications from back then helped me a great deal in putting together my collection – as they had helped Joan Ainaud de Lasarte (1919–1995), Director General of Barcelona’s art museums from 1948 to 1985, who was the first to organize exhibitions on Catalan Art Nouveau and to bring the works by modernist artists like Gaspar Homar, Joan Busquets and Lluís Masriera into the Museum of Modern Art.
In the preface to the catalogue for the Esposición de artes suntuarias del Modernismo barcelonés, which opened in the autumn of 1964, he recounts: “I found myself sleuthing for objets d’art based on Cirici Pellicer’s book (El Arte modernista catalán, 1951), which was richly illustrated; the curators and I realized how much had disappeared and been destroyed unnoticed. Just think how much furniture there must have been to fill the rooms of La Pedrera; all that remained after the sea change in the décor was two small terracotta pieces by Lamberto Escaler."
Gaudí was not shown at that exhibition, by the way, so we had to wait till 1969 for the Madrid exhibition "El Modernismo en España" to see any of Gaudí’s work: for the most part furniture and wrought-iron pieces from the Casa Milá as well as photographs of his works.
How was Gaudí's work generally regarded at the time of your discovery ?
At the time, there was a certain general indifference, a legacy of the Noucentiste movement’s reaction to Modernisme. Proponents of Noucentisme, like Eugeni d’Ors, were forever disparaging Gaudí’s works, going as far as to actually call for their destruction.
So the articles published at the time contaminated a whole generation, even those who’d been Gaudí’s disciples during his final active years. Where are their statements coming out in support of their master? Gaudí was quite alone.
Salvador Dalí was really the first Catalan artist to admire him and stand by his art. Dalí recounts that it was Federico García Lorca who initiated him into the beauties of the Sagrada Familia and recalls Lorca’s words as he stood before the Nativity Façade:
"I hear an uproar of cries to heaven, mounting in stridency till they blend with the angels’ trumpets in a clamour that I could only endure for a few moments."
In 1956 the Barcelona School of Architecture set up a Gaudí department that subsequently held the first courses on Gaudí, published papers and organized exhibitions, like the Gaudí show in 1967.
But in the late ’70s, even as the architect was gaining international recognition, the residents of Barcelona itself still ignored him: they considered him part of the family, to be sure, but half genius, half madman.
His buildings, shrouded in a veil of mystery and impenetrability, gave the impression of being abandoned. Filth piled up on the ceramic bench in Park Güell. The only lively place was the Sagrada Familia, where the construction work was still going on.
Most of the cabinet work and objets d’art I acquired were in a sorry state of neglect and I had to have a lot of them restored to prevent what would have been an irreparable loss: that included the doors to the private chapel and the dining room display case from the Casa Batlló as well as most of the objets and furniture from the Casa Milá.
In the course of your research, did you meet anyone who knew Gaudí ?
I got a chance to meet descendants of Gaudí’s patrons. One descendant of the Batllós told me that in 1936 during the Civil War, the entire Batlló family had left Barcelona to seek refuge in Italy. In spite of the solidity of the shutters on the windows, people got into the house and hauled off part of the furniture. He also told me the mask-shaped balustrades on the balconies were gold-painted on the inside, which added to the iridescence of the façade.
One member of the Güell family informed me than an American wanted to buy Palau Güell – to disassemble it and ship it piece by piece to the United States, but Dona Mercedes, Count Güell’s daughter, chose to leave the building to the Barcelona Diputació on the proviso that it be kept intact. However, the furniture, which the family had preserved, was divided up among the heirs.
He also apprised me, while showing me the big folding screen of Cordoba leather panels (which used to be in the dining room) and the two big armchairs in solid gold-threaded mahogany from the drawing room, that his father had had the leather removed from both armchairs because the children were wearing it away by jumping around on the chairs. When I bought the set, he gave me a series of engravings of Palau Güell that the count had ordered to add to the Gaudí consignment for the Paris exhibition in 1910, plus a publication on the restoration of the Cordoba leathers on the chairs.
I also met a great-granddaughter of Calvet, who was showing me paintings by the sculptor Josep Llimona and gilt-wood furniture by Joan Busquets in her house, when all of a sudden she opened a door and I discovered the Louis XV-style dining room furniture designed by Gaudí, which Casanelles mentioned in his 1965 book.
For some time now, some art historians have been making much of Jujol’s influence when he was young and collaborating with Gaudí. What’s your position on the matter ?
It’s true that several scholars have sparked and continue to fuel a controversy over the relationship between Gaudí and Jujol. Every new publication about Jujol – article, book, catalogue – attributes what I consider an exaggerated importance to Jujol’s influence on Gaudí’s work. It seems obvious to me that Jujol’s architecture has neither the transcendence nor the grandeur of Gaudí’s.
Jujol is credited with the ceramic façade and wrought-iron balconies of the Casa Batlló, which were transformed by Gaudí from 1904 to 1906. That seems unlikely to me, seeing as Jujol took his degree in architecture in 1906 and it was only at the end of that year that Gaudí chose him as a collaborator. Gaudí was 54 years old at the time, Jujol 27: it is inconceivable that it would have been left entirely up to the student to decide the harmonious colour scheme for the façade.
Don’t forget that ever since his first great accomplishment, the Palau Güell, 20 years prior to the completion of the Casa Batlló, Gaudí showed a hitherto unprecedented architectural use of colour in the abstract stained-glass windows on the first floor and the broken ceramic-tile embellishments on the chimneys and air vents. We find these elements at Park Güell, Casa Batlló, Casa Milá, the Sagrada Familia and the Güell Colony Crypt.
What’s more, we have the eye-witness account of a mason, Ramon Dedeu, saying how Gaudí alone oversaw the work on the Casa Batlló façade. As to the Casa Milá, the ceilings are said to be the work of Jujol. But Dedeu also says how Gaudí used a wire-cloth to print the patterns on the ceilings that float like clouds in the sky and, with regard to the design of the owners’ apartment, he marvelled: “I don’t know how to explain it, but the master’s mark was all over the furniture and the decoration.
With regard to the furniture Jujol created, I’d just make one comment. When he was commissioned in 1911 to decorate the Manach boutique, Jujol made a counter, a few cupboards and some chairs for the customers.
This is a set I know well, I examined it a few years ago. The chairs are made of wood and wrought iron, the three feet are joined by a welded ring that gives them a certain stability. But on a period photograph from the Jujol archives, those chairs appear without the ring. So that eight-shaped ring was subsequently added by Jujol when the front foot, attached to the wood by a plate and screws, was worn away with use. This is a case in point of Jujol shortcomings in cabinetmaking. Plus the seat is very uncomfortable.
This is a far cry from the preoccupations of Gaudí, who from the start, as his cabinetwork shows, would have seen to the comfort and solidity of the furniture.
We are also reminded of a line from Enrique Casanelles, the president of the Friends of Gaudí association, in his book Nueva Visión de Gaudí (1965): “Jujol’s colorism under Gaudí’s supervision never knew the shortcomings we see in Jujol’s personal works.”
In your opinion, did Gaudí influence 20th-century artistic endeavours ?
In December 1958 the journal "Los Papeles de son armadans" paid tribute to Gaudí: the cover of that issue showed a lithograph by Miró, and a number of major figures contributed (Enrique Casanelles, Azorin, Benjamin Palencia, Ramon Gómez de la Serna, Eduardo Westerdalh, Anthony Kerrigan, C.L. Popovici, Fernando Chueca Goitia).
One of the articles, Poliformismo de Gaudí, by Alberto Sartoris, a painter/architect from Turin, concluded with the line: “Too much has been said the world over about Picasso and not enough about Gaudí.” Let’s not forget that when he was living in Barcelona, Picasso had a studio facing the Palau Güell; it is more than likely that he saw the cubist stained-glass windows and abstract ceramic tiles on its façade. Miró never ceased to admire Gaudí’s work. When we was young, he got to see the restoration work on the Palma de Majorca cathedral; later on he saw a great deal of Gaudí’s work and particularly appreciated Park Güell. Isn’t the famed trencadís park bench regarded as a Miró avant la lettre? The sculptors Julio Gonzales, who was from Barcelona like Miró, and Pablo Gargallo used wrought iron much as Gaudí did in his architecture.
As to Niki de Saint-Phalle, she considers Gaudí her master. In 1980 she did Le Jardin des Tarots in Toscana, comprising 22 monumental sculptures, which is a real homage to Park Güell.
In 1975 I showed one of my floating murals” at Washington Square in New York: it was called "The History of War" and denounced the war in Vietnam. I talked a lot to one of the artists there about Gaudí. He was especially interested in the trencadís. Later on he was to became famous for his big canvases set on broken ceramic plates. His name was Julian Schnabel.
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