Travel: Culture Vultures: Homage to a Catalonian collection

Continuing our series for art lovers, Gijs van Hensbergen visits the ex traordinary Museo Cau Ferrat, south of Barcelona
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE FIRST thing visitors notice about Barcelona is its tremendous cultural energy. From the soaring facade of La Seu cathedral, in the medieval Gothic quarter, to the inspiring modernista (art nouveau) architecture of Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona breathes thecreative Catalan spirit. In painting and sculpture, too, the city has a rich legacy. Art lovers are drawn mostly to the major galleries and museums dedicated to Catalonia's most famous sons - Joan Miro, Antoni Tapies and, above all, Pablo Picasso.

But connoisseurs of Catalan culture should venture 35 miles south of Barcelona, to the town of Sitges. Here, anchored to a rock overlooking the Mediterranean, is the Museo Cau Ferrat ("Den of Iron") - a capsule of turn-of-the-century taste, an art nouveau shrine.

The museum is an Aladdin's cave, informal and cluttered. The two floors, consisting of three rooms downstairs and the great beamed hall on the first floor, are lined from floor to ceiling with an unrivalled collection of 16th- and 17th-century ironwork. Ceramics, sculpture, stained glass, tapestries, glassware, paintings, Japanese prints and drawings are also packed into this moving monument to the interests and taste of its founder, Santiago Rusinyol.

Rusinyol - art propagandist, artist, poet, playwright, collector, critic, theorist, taste-maker, showman - was the organiser of the Festes Modernistas, the spectacular art happenings that took place at Cau Ferrat during the 1890s. It was here that Barcelona artists gathered to pay homage to their muse.

In November 1894, there were two unexpected newcomers to the third of Rusinyol's festivals - not artists, but paintings. They dep-icted, respectively, St Peter and Mary Magdalene and both were attributed to Spain's most celebrated medieval artist, El Greco. Bought by Rusinyol in Paris, they were carried shoulder-high through the crowds from Sitges station to the Cau Ferrat. That year, they stole the show, and have since become the central images in a unique collection.

In the Prado or El Escorial, these paintings would merit no more than a glance. Distorted, tortured and spiritual to the point of sentimentality, they are the cliche images of Catholic Spain. The artist from Toledo churned out these mawkish paintings by the dozen, and his production line was so efficient that he catered for the almost limitless demands of convent, monastery and palace. But somehow, hanging over the stairwell in the great hall at the Cau Ferrat, they shine. Perhaps it is because their arrival here made Sitges the artistic crucible of Spain, and these paintings a talisman for another age.

Their provenance, too, is a story in itself. St Peter looks suspiciously weak, possibly fake. This might be expected, since on its way to Sitges the picture passed through the hands of Ignacio Zuloaga, a scheming, ambitious and ultimately second-rate pa i nter who hovered on the edges of the late 19th-century Parisian art world. Fashionable and successful, he boosted his income with art dealing, double dealing and optimistic attributions. (One of his major collectors committed suicide on finding out that his string of El Grecos were fakes.) For a mere 1,000 francs, Rusinyol bought the El Greco pair and took them back to Cau Ferrat.

Rarely in the history of art has such a run- of-the-mill exchange given birth to so much. The Cau Ferrat represented the crossroads between the fin de siecle taste of Paris and Barcelona. It was the research laboratory from where the morphine-addicted Rusinyol planned his next moves - a modernist playground soothed by sun and lapping waves. Life there was sociable, monied and comfortable. Picasso came to stay, as did Erik Satie, Isaac Albeniz, Salvador Dali, Garcia Lorca, Manuel de Falla and the Catalanpainter Ramon Casas.

Rusinyol used the place as his springboard to El Quatre Gats, a bohemian Barcelona cafe that Picasso patronised. At Cau Ferrat there are mementoes to these friendships. There is a watercolour of a bullfight by the teenage Picasso where the sun on the sand is laid on like lard. There are four drawings of prostitutes, can-can girls and strippers observed by the priapic young Pablo. There is a portrait, by Rusinyol himself, of a morphine addict out of her senses, abandoned on a bed.

Like his painting, the world that Rusinyol created here was decadent and escapist. In one of his most radical speeches, he proclaimed: "We prefer to be Symbolists and mentally unbalanced, nay even mad and decadent, rather than debased and cowardly; comm o n sense stifles us, prudence in our land is in excess."

It was a grand Latin gesture, the kind of rhetoric that litters the manifestos of modern art. Here, though, the dream became reality. This was indeed the crucible of Catalan talent; now it is a museum of ghosts. Cau Ferrat's dramatic setting and its human scale appeal (there is an inglenook to sit in), but above all the place is a monument to that fleeting moment when, from provincial Sitges Bay, it was possible to be at the centre of the world.

GETTING TO BARCELONA: Airfare Brokers (071-379 5882) offers return flights with Iberia for £145. ITC Ltd (081-514 5400) provides flights to Barcelona for £130. Weekend city breaks are widely available. Time Off (071-235 8070) provides a two-night weeken d stay in a two-star hotel starting at £226. Thomas Cook (071-499 4000) offers a two-night stay in a three-star hotel for £209.

GETTING TO THE CAU FERRAT: Museo Cau Ferrat is at Calle Fonoller, s/n 08870, Sitges (Garraf). Tel: (93) 894 03 64. Trains to Sitges run approximately every hour from Barcelona's Central-Sants or Passeig de Gracia stations. Journey time 40 minutes. The C a u Ferrat is a 10-minute walk away, tucked behind St Bartolome church with its elaborate ironwork bell-tower. Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-2pm. Sunday 10am-2pm. Closed on Mondays. Entrance fee: 200 pesetas.