By the time you receive this newsletter, Jim and I will be on our way home from Spain where we visited Granada and Seville, then toured the Picasso Museum, Gaudí destinations, and Basilicas in Barcelona. Travel and history have been catalysts for artists’ work for centuries, and I’m excited to return to my studio fueled by all that Spain offered.
In Seville and Granada, we toured Alcazar and the Alhambra, where we were surrounded by the influence of Islamic art and architecture on the Moorish culture; their most striking feature was the absence of human and animal imagery. In the Quran, humans and animals are sacred; thus, their visual reproduction is forbidden. We did find a couple of narrative paintings in the Sultan’s private quarters. The Sultan hired a Flemish painter to make the paintings and circumvented the Quran by commissioning a Christian to create the scenes.
If humans and animals are forbidden, what exactly adorned the walls of Alcazar and the Alhambra? The golden reliefs and silk tapestries that once graced these palaces were pillaged long ago, but their mosaics and plaster reliefs remain as excellent examples of Islamic art. Plaster reliefs filled with Arabic calligraphy and intricately cut mosaic patterns line the walls of Alcazar and the Alhambra. The written Arabic language, comprised of densely compacted, sweeping lines, graces these walls with writing from the Quran. For an artist who studies the history of line, this is fascinating fuel for paintings and drawings, especially the allusion to movement these lines create within a dense, compact space.
Having soaked up calligraphic imagery and mosaic patterns in the south of Spain, we moved on to the Picasso Museum as well as Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Família and La Pedrera where we were presented with epic examples of historic reference in art and architecture. Gaudí’s architectural style, drawing inspiration from the natural world, is a highly personalized modernist remix of Gothic style. His most famous work, the Sagrada Família Basilica, was initiated in 1882, and its completion, in 2026, will commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. Many architects and sculptors have continually worked from Gaudí’s architectural drawings long after his passing in 1926 to bring his vision for the Basilica to fruition. At Sagrada Família, one sees traditional Christian themes sculpted with simplified planes, doors inscribed with the Lord’s prayer translated into fifty languages that welcome all, and traditional Gothic columns replaced by columns constructed with tree-like branches that support the ceiling’s weight with futuristic efficiency.
While Gaudí’s style blends gothic architecture, Catalan modernism, and natural forms, Picasso’s mature paintings deconstruct historical painting. At the Picasso Museum, I was most struck by Picasso’s study and reference to Velazquez’s painting, Las Meninas (1656), which served as the catalyst for 45 paintings of various sizes from large to small created by Picasso between August and December of 1957. Here, we see Velázquez’s sepia-toned Las Meninas deconstructed and recreated in primary colors, presented from multiple viewpoints with fractured cubist forms and heavy lines that give the paintings a raw and bold new energy. The child, Margaret Theresa, is often extracted from the narrative altogether and brought to the surface of the painting as its sole subject with bold, colorful planes.
Picasso’s deconstruction and reference to historic painting and Gaudí’s personal, seamless blending of styles exemplify masterful use of the past in capturing the zeitgeist of the present and, in some cases, even the future. Their work, invoking a sense of awe, challenges me with many questions and suggests new ways of working. The calligraphy, pattern, and Moorish style of southern Spain offer linear formations as well as movement to study and better understand. With line and historical reference paramount in my own work, I am leaving Spain fulfilled and excited to return to the studio.