Although Catalonia lost its autonomy in the War of the Spanish Succession at the beginning of the 18th century, it steadily regained its vitality via trade with the colonies and as the Industrial Revolution progressed. However, population growth in urban areas led to a worsening of public sanitation, and in 1859 Barcelona adopted Ildefons Cerdà’s urban expansion plan. Old walls were torn down and modernization proceeded apace with districts laid out like checker boards. In 1888, the Barcelona Universal Exposition was held. The Renaixença movement to restore the unique language and culture of Catalonia also flourished, and the region’s cultural identity was established.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the wealthy bourgeoisie tried to outdo one another in the homes they built. Casa Lleó Morera (designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner), Casa Amatller (designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch) and Casa Batlló (designed by Antoni Gaudí), which are built in Passeig de Gràcia, now in central Barcelona, are all famous buildings from that era. Their interiors were adorned with decorative craft design and delightful paintings. Meanwhile, disparities in living conditions bred discontent amongst the working class and often led to rioting, so light and shadow coexisted in society.
At the end of the 19th century, many artists felt a great admiration for Paris, including Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol who shared lodgings in Montmartre for two years. While in Paris, Rusiñol gained a feel for new artistic forms of expression, and after returning to his homeland he organized a “Festival of Modernisme” in Sitges, a small village on the outskirts of Barcelona. He was aiming for an integration of the arts that transcends the genres of art, music and acting. Meanwhile, artistic movements other than Modernisme were also coming into being, such as the Cercle Artístic de Sant Lluc, which was based on Christian moral values.
[Modernisme: The Catalan word for “modernism”. An artistic style that flourished around the turn of the 20th century and was centred in Barcelona. It was also influenced by Art Nouveau and medieval styles, and had a wide influence in fields such as architecture, literature, and the fine arts.]
Inspired by the Parisian café Le Chat Noir, Ramon Casas, Santiago Rusiñol and two other friends opened Els Quatre Gats on Carrer de Montsió in Barcelona in 1897. The café became a meeting place for artists and intellectuals, and became a platform for the transmission of Catalan culture, holding many exhibitions, concerts, puppet shows and public readings, and even publishing a magazine. The young Picasso sketched many of the Els Quatre Gats regulars, and it was here that he held his first exhibition.
As a result of Spain’s 1898 defeat in the Spanish–American War, conservative thinking which emphasized their own ethnicity gained strength in Catalonia, a region where clashes with the central government had become more intense. In the arts, a movement called Noucentisme (literally “1900s-ism”) came into being. It was characterized by a return to a Mediterranean civilization that flourished in the past. The 1929 Barcelona International Exposition was an occasion that underlined how the main force in Catalan arts had changed from Modernism to Noucentisme.
At the urging of Galeries Dalmau, Miró and Dali followed in Picasso’s footsteps and moved to Paris in the 1920s. It was not long before they played a leading role in the Surrealist movement. There was also an avant-garde movement in the world of architecture, with a group being formed by Barcelona architects who had been influenced by Le Corbusier. And then the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. The Rebel faction led by Francisco Franco fought against the Republican faction, which included Catalonia. During the struggle, the Rebel faction bombed the Basque town of Guernica. Picasso and many other artists were galvanized into action.