With some art collections, you have to accept that you won’t be able to see everything. Like many of the world’s greatest museums, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (handily abbreviated to MNAC) is a mammoth assortment of works – 154,000 in total – taking in painting, sculpture, photography and even coinage.
The process of bringing such a varied collection under one roof began in 1990 and wasn’t officially completed until 2004. MNAC is housed in the exquisite national palace, with its prominent location on the side of Montjuïc making it one of the most iconic buildings in Barcelona. (You may be more familiar with it as the backdrop to the light show of the Magic Fountain).
The national palace was built as the centrepiece of the 1929 International Exhibition, and was renovated to play a role in the 1992 Olympic Games. Areas such as the Oval Hall and the Cúpula area, with its magnificent Òleum Restaurant (which, although pricy probably has a better view than any other eatery in the city) are memorable sites in their own right.
Many of the biggest names in Spanish art such as El Greco, Velázquez, Goya and Picasso can be found under this roof. There’s no single iconic work that people flock to, with the possible exception of Picasso’s portrait of Woman in Hat and Fur Collar (Marie-Thérèse Walter) (1937). You might find the sheer volume of works overwhelming, and if you take on the all four sections – Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Modern Art – you begin to realise that the museum’s tagline ‘One museum, 1,000 years of art’ really can be taken at face value.
The majority of information on each painting is provided in Catalan or Spanish, so if you’re an English speaker we’d recommend getting an audio guide for 3.10 euros.
Catalonia’s heyday as a wealthy medieval trading empire is reflected in the Gothic section, amid an array of martyrdoms and virginal gazes. However, Gothic suddenly transforms into Renaissance and Baroque portraiture, and things get a bit more human.
Ancient and Modern
On reaching the Modern Art collection, the chronological narrative becomes more varied and some great pieces begin to gleam forth. There’s some excellent sculpture, not least a Rodin, and a few interesting diversions, such as several pieces of Gaudí’s furniture, just as innovative and supple as his buildings. Salvador Dalí’s 1925 Portrait of my Father offers an interesting glimpse into the young mind of Catalonia’s most famous painter, while the jagged edges of Juli González’s sculpture end the modern art collection on a provocative note.
Without a doubt, the jewel in the crown of this sprawling collection is the Romanesque section. Romanesque art was neglected for centuries, written off as simplistic and rustic, and it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that it came to the attention of art historians. The MNAC collection is one of the most important of its kind.
It brings together a variety of sculptures, paintings and carvings from the 10th to the 13th century, including several frescoes that were painstakingly removed from the walls of remote churches in the Pyrenees. There’s a real vitality to these works, populated with animals, bright colours, and often gritty depictions of religious scenes. At the same time, artefacts such as the Batlló Crucifix demonstrate that this was a sophisticated pan-European art movement.
Barcelona may not be able to compete with Madrid’s role as the centre of Spanish art. However MNAC proves just how significant Catalonia has been to the world of art, from the humble journeymen painters of the Romanesque period, to international superstars such as Dalí. MNAC leaves you in no doubt that for the 1,000 years Catalans have been making challenging works of art with skill and originality at every turn.