Picasso, Miró and attracting foreign visitors

The year 2023 is dedicated to Picasso-Miró, since it shall mark the 50th and 40th anniversaries of their deaths, respectively. Among other initiatives, the Fundació Joan Miró and the Museu Picasso will organise a joint exhibition, scheduled to open on 19 October and run until February 2024. The exhibition will reconstruct the two friends’ friendship and conflicts, and their rapport with Barcelona, to which they bequeathed a remarkable legacy.

On one occasion, in discussing the debate between history and memory with Andreu Mayayo, Professor of Modern History at the University of Barcelona, he expressed his views to me on the use and abuse of oral history, saying “First and foremost, the last survivor shouldn’t establish the story of an event with utter impunity”. And that is precisely what usually happens, with the aggravating factor that sometimes it is not the last survivor who may relate an event, but the only person who witnessed it. Or one who did not even experience it and there is no survivor left to contradict them.

Andreu Mayayo’s words bear witness to the truth of one of Barcelona’s most deeply rooted urban legends: the one about the Museu Picasso’s name. Recalling the legend may help us to see how, sometimes, a journalistic inaccuracy means that some facts live on for posterity, not as they really happened, but as the journalist told them or reported them from the mouth of someone who did not remember things as they actually happened.

The Picasso Museum, a gateway to modernity

On 9 March 1963, the Palau Berenguer d’Aguilar on Carrer de Montcada opened to the public with an exhibition of Picasso’s works from the Sabartés collection. The press reports in the days before the opening and the following day concealed the fact that it was the cornerstone of a municipal initiative aimed at creating a major Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Following the inauguration, and for four months, the newspaper listings presented it as “Donación Sabartés de obras de Picasso” [A Donation of Picasso’s Works from the Sabartés Collection]. The reason, later explained in books and newspaper reports, was attributed to the fact that General Camilo Alonso Vega, Minister of the Interior from February 1957, had responded to all of Barcelona’s requests to set up a Museu Picasso with the decision that, while he was in office – a position he held until 1969 – he would never allow a Museu Picasso to be opened in the city. But the shrewdness of gallery owner Joan Gaspar and publisher Gustau Gili, with the backing of Mayor Josep Maria de Porcioles, dodged the interdiction by presenting it as a simple exhibition of works by the Málaga-born painter donated by his friend Jaume Sabartés.

This ploy was subsequently exaggerated, somewhat straying from reality and claiming that the museum, housed in the Palau Berenguer d’Aguilar, had not been able to bear the name of Picasso for many years and that Porcioles had gambled his political career on this move. In fact, it took only four months from the date of the inauguration for the name Museu Picasso to appear in the press. Four months, not years, as occasionally reported.

Inaugurated on 9 March, by 7 July it featured as the “Museo Picasso, horas de visita todos los días de 10 a 1.30” [Museu Picasso, opening hours every day from 10 am to 1.30 pm] in the listings published daily by La Vanguardia Española on “Barcelona Museums and Art Exhibitions”. And so it remained, although Joan Gaspar’s statements in an interview published in the newspaper El País led to the silence about Picasso being repeated and magnified. Government prohibitions could not last long in the face of a reality that was impossible to conceal.

The opening of the Museu Picasso marked a major change in Barcelona’s approach to museums, an incursion into modernity that took the city in a very different direction from the one it had followed for the previous two decades, and the inclusion in the tourist guides of a museum in the heart of the city that was more appealing than those that had existed until then. Now, on the 50th anniversary of the death of the Málaga-born painter, it is a fitting moment to commemorate him, together with the various exhibitions to be held over the coming months in the museum itself, just as it is an opportune time to mention Joan Miró’s unique connection with attracting foreign visitors to Barcelona, 40 years after his death.

The misfortune of Miró’s gift of three artworks

In the 1960s, Joan Miró decided to donate three works of art to the city of Barcelona that would welcome visitors. He would not do so all at once, but at three different points in time. The first would welcome those arriving by air. In 1970, in conjunction with Josep Llorens Artigas, he created a ceramic mural in what is now Terminal 2 of the airport, which was inaugurated on 1 September of the same year. The second would greet those arriving by sea. In 1976, he created a pavement mosaic on the Pla de l’Os section of La Rambla, inaugurated on 30 December. And the third, near Plaça d’Espanya, at one of the entry points to the city by road: the monumental Dona-bolet amb barret de lluna, better known as Dona i Ocell [Woman and Bird] in the Parc de l’Escorxador, inaugurated on 16 May 1983. Miró was unable to attend the event, as he was already very ill. He passed away on Christmas Day of the same year.

Miró’s three works have not had much luck. The mural was created in the only existing airport terminal in 1970. So, when the new one was inaugurated in June 2009, it was relegated to second place with subordinate functions. The one on La Rambla, despite Miró being clear about its purpose as a constantly trodden pavement, has been a permanent victim of stuck chewing gum and, at times, of market stalls placed on top of it. Dona i Ocell has shared the misfortune of the park in which it is located, encroached upon by endless temporary constructions.

Even so, just as the opening of the Museu Picasso marked a milestone in the promotion of Barcelona as a capital of culture, the installation of Miró’s work near to the Gran Via entry point to the city was like the starting signal for a race, just as Barcelona was entering the pre-Olympic period. A race dominated by the city’s transformation into one of the world’s leading cities for attracting mass tourism. A race that altered the everyday pace of life to excruciating extremes, which sacrificed many things for the sake of the restaurant and hotel business. A race whose impact was starkly exposed when the Covid-19 pandemic, which broke out in February 2020, cast the manna out of the city centre, which for three decades had been the arrival of cheap flights and backpacker tourism.

The bad times seem to have passed without us having learned our lesson. The Museu Picasso and Miró’s works look better than ever and are once again the cornerstones of the attractions for foreign visitors and, consequently, for the tourist trade. This was certainly not the intention of the two artists.

Picasso and Miró, Leading Figures
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death, more than 40 exhibitions have been scheduled throughout 2023 in eight different countries. Three of them will be shown in Barcelona and one will have two venues, the Museu Picasso and the Fundació Miró, whose common denominator is the friendship between the two artists.

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler
Museu Picasso de Barcelona
Until 19 March 2023

Museu Picasso Barcelona / Fundació Joan Miró
From 19 October 2023 to 25 February 2024

La voluntat de Picasso. Les ceràmiques que van inspirar l’artista
Museu del Disseny de Barcelona
From 21 June to 17 September 2023

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