RIHA Journal 0134 | 15 July 2016

(No) Laughing Matter: Modernism and Xavier Nogués’ Cartoons1

Begoña Farré Torras
Instituto de História da Arte, FCSH-Universidade Nova de Lisboa

This paper discusses the notion of modernism by relating it to three artistic movements – Modernisme, Noucentisme and the Avant-garde – which developed in Catalonia between the 1880s and the early 1920s. From a common commitment to modernity these three movements produced, nonetheless, widely different aesthetic proposals. Notwithstanding their differences, this paper identifies common features in their artistic practices in order to contribute to the ongoing critical review of modernism. Thus, rather than a self-referential, medium-specific quest with abstraction as a natural endpoint, modernism is presented here as an open, interrogative artistic practice engaged in a debate in pursuit of ‘the modern’. This understanding of modernism is then tested against the case of Xavier Nogués, an artist associated with Noucentisme, and his contribution to the artistic debate of his time through the necessarily figurative language of caricature.


[1] In the basement of Galeries Laietanes, an art gallery founded in Barcelona in 1915,2 visitors came face to face with an unusual art display. The walls of the basement’s two rooms were covered by several colourful compositions of large-scale cartoon-like characters celebrating wine and Mediterranean living under classically inspired arches complemented by popular sayings on the virtues of this beverage (fig. 1-4, 10 and 11). The theme was aptly chosen for a basement which, up to that point, had been the building’s wine cellar. When in 1915 art promoter Santiago Segura (1879-1918) set up the gallery on the ground floor, he decided to turn the basement into a venue for tertúlia, or informal discussion among artists, writers and critics on matters related to art and culture. The cellar indeed became a hub of activity attended particularly (but not exclusively) by figures associated to Noucentisme, a major artistic, cultural and political movement in Catalonia at the time.

1 Xavier Nogués, partial view of the mural paintings at the Galeries Laietanes cellar, Barcelona, 1915. (Xavier Nogués: Pintures murals procedents del celler de Les Galeries Laietanes, exh. cat., Barcelona 1984, 12-13)

2 Xavier Nogués, partial view of the mural paintings at the Galeries Laietanes cellar, Barcelona, 1915. (Xavier Nogués: Pintures murals procedents del celler de Les Galeries Laietanes, exh. cat., Barcelona 1984, 16)

3 Xavier Nogués, partial view of the mural paintings at the Galeries Laietanes cellar, Barcelona, 1915. (Xavier Nogués: Pintures murals procedents del celler de Les Galeries Laietanes, exh. cat., Barcelona 1984, 9)

4 Xavier Nogués, fragment of wall decoration, originally at Galeries Laietanes, 1915, tempera on plaster, 83 x 70 cm. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (© MNAC, Barcelona, 2014, photograph by Jordi Calveras)

[2] The basement’s decoration had been commissioned by the gallery owner to Xavier Nogués (1873-1941), an artist in the noucentista circle. Renowned for his engraving and caricature work, Nogués devised a composition that required taking the language of cartoons out of its traditional printed medium and applying it in full colour and large dimensions on plaster. His innovative display of mural caricature was very well-received and earned Nogués the recognition of his peers. However, this artist’s concerns never travelled the route of formal and aesthetic exploration followed, at the time, by the avant-garde sectors of the Catalan art scene which would ultimately be considered truly modern by international standards. This raises issues as to the art-historical interest of works such as this by Nogués which, however unconventional and appreciated by his contemporaries, appear detached from the stylistic, self-referential enquiries historiographically attributed to the modernist avant-gardes. Why, then, even consider this work in a volume devoted to modernism? Precisely, one could argue, because it poses the problem that Hans Belting described as the historiographical “embarrassment about non-avant-garde in and after modernism, which yet defies classification”.3 In other words, taking into account its lack of affinity to any post-impressionist, cubist, futurist and/or abstractionist premises, what does a work like Nogués’ mural project bring to the art-historical narrative about the development of modern art?

[3] In order to address these questions, this paper builds on the ongoing critical review of the notion of modernism, which proposes a broader definition of the term not restricted to a formalist reading. It then considers how this more comprehensive understanding of modernism fits in with the Catalan art scene of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it moves on to ascertain the contribution of an artist such as Nogués to the development of modern art in that milieu regardless of its degree of affinity to a formalist modernist canon.

A broader understanding of modernism

[4] In a general sense, modernism has been defined as a consciousness of modernity, a positive inclination to ‘modernize’, a strive for ‘the modern’.4 When applied specifically to art, the term has long referred to a pursuit of the modern through a narrowly defined “intentional and self-critical preoccupation with the demands of a specific medium, and its originality with regard to the precedent that medium avails”.5 It is an understanding of modernism, theorized among others by Clement Greenberg since the late 1930s, that stresses the autonomy of art with regard to society, its focus on innovation and its preoccupation with nothing outside the medium itself, therefore tending towards abstraction.

[5] Though hugely successful, this understanding of modernism has been the subject of increasing scrutiny since the late 1960s when critics began to question the exclusively formal pursuit it claimed for modern art. This revision broadened the field of study to other artistic proposals that had striven for modernity in a variety of ways. In time, it also led to a wide acknowledgment that “the larger story of modernist painting in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that of a plurality of modernisms or, say, of modernist adventures”.6

[6] Faced with this diversity, then, the question arises as to what all of these ‘adventures’ have in common to allow us to label them modernist in one way or another. Departing from the formalist canon, Christos M. Joachimides proposed a more comprehensive definition of modernism as “an artistic attitude […], a dialectical quest […] with an inbuilt theory of innovation”.7 The dialectical and innovative dimensions of this definition would certainly encompass the purely aesthetic concerns championed by formalist modernism, but they would also explain the broader range of modernist proposals that entered the art debate in the 20th century (and beyond, according to Joachimides). The debate, in this author’s view, revolved around four pairs of key concepts: reality-distortion, abstraction-spirituality, language-material, dream-myth. Leaving aside the precise terms of the debate proposed by this author, it is rather his underlying understanding of modernism as a modern artistic practice rather than a formal canon, as an artistic debate through innovation – or rather experimentation – that I will be exploring here for the Catalan case.8

[7] It is worth noting, however, that for all the critical revision undertaken of the concept of modernism, the exclusionary formalist view of the term appears to have retained some of its appeal. As noted by Christopher Wilk as recently as 2006, “this widely accepted definition, with its emphasis on aesthetic formalism and its rejection of any relationship between art and society, especially with popular culture, [has] survived remarkably intact and is still used, with some modification, today”.9

[8] The endurance of this definition is countered in turn by initiatives such as the 2015 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou under the title Modernités plurielles.10 In the accompanying catalogue Catherine Grenier calls it a “manifesto-exhibition, presenting a refreshed and broadened view of modern art” which pays tribute to “the exceptional diversity of artistic forms created from 1905 to 1970”.11 Here, too, modernism is defined as “a dialectical relationship”, a rich and complex debate taking place between two poles: partaking in the transformations of modern life, and reflecting on the nature of art.12

[9] A key aspect of this exhibition, for the purposes of this article, is that it also paid particular attention to the art being produced outside the main artistic centres, both in Europe and beyond. And it did so from a fresh perspective, by

[bearing] witness to the open and discontinuous temporalities that generate the exchanges and processes of reaction from artists to propositions formulated by the avant-gardes. By confronting the canonical perspective of a linear succession of artistic movements to a history drawn from the margins and peripheries, [the exhibition substituted] a cartography of connections, transfers, but also resistances, in lieu of the history of influences.13

[10] In this regard, the exhibition recognised the key role played by art magazines in the construction of the modern artistic space beyond national borders,14 an aspect that will also be looked at below in respect of the Catalan case.

Modern art in Catalonia

[11] Barcelona constitutes a clear instance of artistic activity developed outside the main centres, though in close dialogue with them, thus offering the types of connections, transfers, and also resistances described above by Grenier.

[12] Grasping the development of modern art in Spain in the first decades of the 20th century becomes particularly complex in the case of Catalonia due to the co-existence in the region of two different yet interrelated currents: Noucentisme and the Avant-garde. Considering these artistic currents in the light of a critical revision of the concept of modernism is further complicated by the presence in the region of an additional movement that preceded both Noucentisme and the Avant-garde and called itself Modernisme, the Catalan word for modernism.

[13] For the sake of clarity, the historiographical convention for these three categories could be summarized in very simplistic terms as follows: Modernisme developed from approximately the mid-1880s, started to wane at the turn of the century, and can be largely (though not solely) associated with European art-nouveau movements, albeit – and of particular interest for this article – much less so in painting;15Noucentisme, for its part, emerged in 1906 as part of a broader political and cultural renovation programme promoted by the local bourgeoisie and, in artistic terms, advocated an art that was both modern and Catalan, open to the European avant-gardes, but in touch with the region’s classical Mediterranean heritage and its popular culture;16 finally, the Avant-garde developed in parallel to Noucentisme, but was more confrontational and even more receptive to the formal artistic enquiries pursued in major European centres, most notably Paris.17 In the Catalan context, based on this characterization – however flawed by its simplicity – only the artistic proposals identified as avant-garde would qualify internationally as modernism under a strictly formalist definition of the term. And yet, however short they seem to fall on the ‘formal modernity’ scale when compared to their avant-garde counterparts, works by self-acknowledged modernista and noucentista artists had an unequivocal modernizing intent, too. An intent, a belief in modernity, and a strive to bring it to the arts that led the first of these artistic movements to actually adopt ‘modernism’ as its name long before formalist modernism was theorized. Indeed, in the Catalan context, the term modernist was used for the first time in relation to art, as a positive characterization,18 in 1884 in a literary criticism magazine entitled L’Avens (later L’Avenç, meaning advance or progress). The purpose of the magazine was stated thus: “L’Avens advocates (and will always attempt to advocate) the cultivation in our country of an essentially modernist literature, science and art.”19 It was this same intent, belief in and striving for the modern that led the second of these movements to take on the name of the new century (Noucentisme, literally twentieth-century-ism) as an expression of belonging to an even newer time, one that had ostensibly moved on even from Modernisme.20

[14] What we see, therefore, is a general commitment to modernity that was very much palpable in Catalan society, particularly its elites, from the closing decades of the 19th century. This consciousness and strive for modernity in a general social, economic, technological and cultural sense was embodied, for instance, in Barcelona’s enthusiastic organization of its Universal Exposition of 1888. This event “offered Catalans a historic opportunity to evaluate their region in the context of vanguard European culture, technology and industry; it also established a decisive formal precedent for a modern cosmopolitan outlook.”21 Artists, too, shared in this drive. In the art scene it took the form of a concern with artistic modernity that sought to leave behind academic constraints and that was pursued, albeit in a diversity of styles, by all three currents: Modernisme, Noucentisme and the Avant-garde. What can be seen in the Catalan milieu of the time is therefore a common and multifaceted commitment to the modern in art, an existence of plural modernities – to borrow the term from the Pompidou 2015 exhibition –, as has already been acknowledged and explored in depth in Barcelona and Modernity: Picasso, Gaudí, Miró, Dalí,22 a comprehensive 2007 exhibition encompassing these three movements in art and architecture.

[15] However, the modernising intent observed in Modernisme, Noucentisme and the Avant-garde, by itself, does not justify bringing them under the ‘umbrella’ of modernism. For this, it would also be necessary to ascertain these movements' degree of engagement with the notion of art as a critical debate with a focus on experimentation. This, in turn, should provide a way to account for the contribution of artists not aligned with the formal avant-garde, such as Xavier Nogués, to the development of modernist art in Spain through the specific context of Catalonia.

The modern practice of art: Modernisme, Noucentisme and the Avant-garde

[16] Modernisme, Noucentisme and the Avant-garde are rightly treated in historiography as three distinct categories. Even allowing for the considerable diversity that can be seen within each one, and for any aesthetic overlaps between them, they can be understood as three different artistic propositions with which practitioners generally identified themselves. From a non-formalist perspective, however, they also have much in common both between them and with the modern practice of art developing elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

[17] Firstly, as has already been mentioned, all three movements were characterised by a striving for artistic modernity, a will to create art that was ‘modern’. The inverted commas here are used to stress the imprecision of the concept. References to ‘modern art’ crop up in the art magazines of the time whether they are associated with Modernisme, Noucentisme, or the Avant-garde. Yet exactly what was meant by the term is seldom clearly specified. ‘Modern’ seems to refer to something desirable in art; some quality that distanced it from outdated academic teachings – that valued illusionistic effects, compositional principles and highly polished renditions of subjects neatly ranged in genre hierarchies – and instead turned it into an innovative form of expression attuned to its time.23

[18] A second feature that all three movements have in common is an experimental approach to artistic practice. Unfettered from academic constraints, artists searched for that desired modernity by trying out new forms of expression, new subjects, new concepts. In the concrete field of painting, the emergence of a formal investigative approach, which was unprecedented in the Catalan art milieu, has been credited to modernista artists Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol following sojourns in Paris.24 Pictorial enquiry was equally pursued by Isidre Nonell, traditionally presented as a second-generation modernista, and by Pablo Picasso, who at the close of the century was working in Barcelona in close contact with the modernista circle.25 It can also be seen in the work of noucentista artists such as Joaquim Sunyer (fig. 5) who is often cited as this movement’s most noted representative.26 And it took its most radically anti-academic form in the work of avant-garde artists such as Rafael Barradas and his vibrationist paintings.

5 Joaquim Sunyer, Paisatge de Mallorca (Majorcan Landscape), 1916, oil on canvas, 125.5 x 100.5 cm. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (© MNAC, Barcelona)

[19] Experimentation, however, was not limited to the purely aesthetic. Artists were also asking themselves about what constituted a relevant subject for a modern painting or sculpture, and indeed also questioning how much that subject actually mattered. Furthermore, artistic enquiries went beyond form and subject. The period also saw artists testing new media and pushing the boundaries of what could be considered a work of art at all. Thus, practitioners who had been conventionally trained in drawing, painting and sculpture began to take an interest in forms outside of the ‘fine arts’ category, such as graphic design, ceramics, glass and metalwork, among others. An illustrative example of this in the Catalan milieu is provided by posters, ceramics, glass and textiles, which became collectable forms of modern art thanks to the innovative exploration of these media initiated by modernista artists27 and subsequently pursued by both noucentista and avant-garde practitioners. This resulted in a “transition of the traditional to the modern vernacular”,28 an ‘elevation’ of popular crafts to the category of modern art that is visible in Modernisme, Noucentisme and the Avant-garde.

[20] Thirdly, in all three movements, and unlike any preceding practice, artists were willing to engage in a mutually critical process in their search for an art that deserved to be called ‘modern’. No longer subject to crucial assessment by an official academy, artists promoted their own platforms to discuss and judge each other’s work as well as the artistic propositions being developed elsewhere in Europe. This critical debate took place through artists’ groupings or associations that organized their own exhibitions, promoted cultural events and met regularly to discuss their artistic concerns. These included, for instance, the Modernista Festivals promoted by Rusiñol in Sitges between 1892 and 1899; the artists’ association Les Arts i els Artistes, created in 1910 and mostly linked to Noucentisme; the Athenea association in Girona, also noucentista; and Agrupació Courbet, initiated in 1918 and generally related to the Avant-garde. The modern practice of art required artists to develop a greater consciousness of their practice and discuss it with their peers. Lively discussions became a fixture for modernista artists at the Quatre Gats café in Barcelona and Cau Ferrat in Sitges; for its part, as already mentioned, the cellar at Galeries Laietanes, also in Barcelona, was actively promoted as an artistic den. Though largely frequented by noucentistes, it also attracted other more avant-garde practitioners of the Catalan art scene whose work was exhibited in the gallery above.

[21] Crucially, the period in question also saw the emergence of periodicals – often with the financial backing of members of the bourgeoisie – that for the first time made it their explicit purpose to serve as platforms for debate with a view to modernizing art and literature. Examples include the aforementioned L’Avenç (1881), Pèl i Ploma (1899), Forma (1904), Futurisme (1907), Correo de las letras & de las artes (1912), Revista Nova (1914), Vell i nou (1916), Un enemic del poble (1917) and L'Instant (1918) among several others. These can be variously associated to Modernisme, Noucentisme and the Avant-garde, but especially in the period of Noucentisme/Avant-garde some titles seem not to fit exclusively into one or the other category, rather sharing in aspects of both at the same time.29 As pointed out in the Modernités plurielles catalogue, these played a key role in the international dissemination of, and local reaction to, artistic proposals being developed throughout Europe. They offered critiques on exhibitions and literary works both at home and abroad – with extensive coverage of the latter – through contributions not only by critics, but, crucially, by the artists and writers themselves. Additionally, most of these publications also included summaries of art-related articles published in foreign magazines.30

[22] This critical debate, moreover, was not exclusive to artists and critics, but rather was made accessible to the general public, too. From the first exhibitions of modernista works by Casas and Rusiñol in the 1890s we hear of “particularly bitter critical battles” and “vigorous public dialogue concerning the purpose and character of modern painting”.31 It was the same concern with the purpose and character of modern painting that was subsequently taken up in noucentista and avant-garde circles with echoes in the general press. In particular, public awareness of the debate on modern art grew considerably through Página artística, a weekly section created in 1909 and devoted to art criticism in Catalonia’s main daily newspaper, La Veu de Catalunya.

[23] The three common features just described – a commitment to modernizing art, a willingness to experiment, and an engagement in an informed, critical debate on what constituted modern art – are in line with the dialectical innovative quest that characterizes the broader understanding of modernism discussed earlier. They characterize a modern approach to producing art without precedent in the Catalan art milieu. This is not to say that previous artistic practice lacked any degree of experimentation or debate, but when these existed they were sporadic and in any case restrained by academic expectations and by an absence of alternative debate platforms. Also, if any such experimentation or critical debate did occur, they were not associated with any notion of art modernity as this appeared only in the late 19th century.

[24] Based on this, the modernity of art produced by modernistes, noucentistes and avant-gardists can be assessed not on its degree of adherence to a formal canon issued abroad, but rather on its engagement with this investigative, challenging and critical debate on what modern art should be. This debate no doubt included positions championing the “self-sufficient rightness of colour and shape”32 that would come to be synonymous with formalist modernism; but neither was there a consensus on this point nor was this the only issue at stake. Both in their practice and in their writings, we see artists adopting a firm anti-academic stance – common to modernista, noucentista and avant-garde positions33 – to then discuss a broad range of issues related to the nature and purpose of modern art: to what degree should it be socially engaged or pursue purely (or rather, predominantly) aesthetic concerns;34 whether painting should aim at flatness or it could also legitimately contemplate volumetric effects;35 whether it should attempt a clean break with the past, or rather incorporate any of its own traditions;36 whether it should concern itself with human emotion, reason or spirituality;37 whether it should somehow try to capture the vibrancy of modern industrial life, or find instead a transcendental essence in some form of perceived primitiveness;38 and whether “popular” and “low” art forms constituted worthwhile pursuits for artists,39 among other issues.

[25] Again, it is this understanding of modernism – not as an artistic canon that judges the modernity of a work of art based on exclusively formal criteria, but rather as an experimental, informed, critical approach to creating art in pursuit of modernity – which allows the art-historical value of work such as Xavier Nogués’ to be assessed on the grounds of its contribution to the contemporary critical debate on modern art.

Xavier Nogués’ engagement in the modernist debate

[26] Xavier Nogués (1873-1941) combined training in his native Barcelona, from the age of sixteen, with a formative period in Paris where he travelled in 1901, set up an atelier with Alejandro de Cabanyes and attended two art academies, Colarossi and Vity. He subsequently stayed in the French capital in 1903-04, 1912 and 1921.40

[27] Despite his early training, he devoted himself to art relatively late in his life. The card players, considered to be his first major work, was published in Papitu magazine in 1909, when Nogués was already 36 years old. Previously, his only known works are a number of landscape paintings from a formative phase (dated 1903-1904) and occasional illustrations published from 1902 in several general-interest magazines.41 Nogués was a keen observer of the social reality and popular culture around him and, by his own admission, preferred caricature to any other form of art.42 Thus, from the moment he began his artistic practice more fully he quickly gained recognition as an engraver and cartoonist43 with regular contributions to satirical magazines such as Papitu.44 This magazine was founded and edited by fellow caricaturist and writer Feliu Elias (a.k.a. Joan Sacs)45 with whom Nogués would go on to work closely in other editorial ventures.

[28] Nogués shared fully in Noucentisme’s purpose to modernize Catalan art. In 1910, he was a founding member of Les Arts i els Artistes, a group of artists “formed in response to the wish for artistic regeneration [which] brought together the most shifting sectors of the art world and represented the most innovative production of the day. [It was] initially, a revulsive in the Catalan art scene.”46 With the backing of figures from the artistic and political scenes, the group’s (largely unrealised) goals included organising two annual exhibitions and founding a museum of contemporary art. In 1911, Nogués contributed to Almanach dels Noucentistes, a kind of manifesto for the movement, and he became increasingly active in the artistic debate taking place in Barcelona at the time involving both Noucentisme and the Avant-garde.

[29] Before proceeding to discuss Nogués’ role in the Catalan art scene of his day, it is worth focusing for a moment on the interplay between these two currents. The distinction between Noucentisme and the Avant-garde, though useful for operative purposes, can at times be blurry. To a large extent, this is due to the internal diversity and lack of stylistic cohesion within Noucentisme. In effect, the aforementioned Almanach dels Noucentistes – a publication promoted by art critic and essayist Eugeni d’Ors – acted as a manifesto of sorts, but did not actually issue stylistic guidelines for artists. Instead, it expressed a new endeavour, a generational break, and a consciousness of the new century while including “works by a wide range of writers and artists who did not necessarily subscribe to one another's postulates”.47 As a result, art produced within this movement was actually highly heterogeneous.

[30] Noucentista art could indeed take many forms, but it was generally underpinned by a common belief in the social role of art. Thus, all its subscribing practitioners were called upon to contribute to the collective project of bringing Catalonia in line with what were perceived to be the most advanced countries in Europe.48 Notwithstanding the movement's admiration for such nations, however, the brief was to create an art that was both modern and Catalan, as opposed to a mere import of foreign novelties.49 One way to go about it was to tap into Catalonia’s classic Mediterranean heritage, with a firm focus on order and structure, as theorized by Eugeni d’Ors. In this sense, noucentista art criticism even advocated a “Mediterranean School of Painting”;50 this view placed modern Catalan art within a supra-national cultural region that also encompassed Southern France, Italy and Greece. Another major tenet of Noucentisme art theory, determinedly promoted by critic Joaquim Folch i Torres, was that the essential Catalan values that would guide this modern project were to be distilled (not merely transposed) from popular art and culture.51

[31] However, this quest for Catalan-ness in art never stopped the noucentista milieu from also taking a keen interest in the avant-garde enquiries emerging around Europe. While refusing to uncritically adopt foreign novelties, Noucentisme was curious as to what these could bring to its project of modern art. In this regard, for example, a part of Noucentisme saw great value in the constructive intelligence and focus on structure it perceived in Cubism.52 Thus, the arrival of the first cubist exhibition in Barcelona in 1912 gave rise to a heated discussion of its perceived virtues and shortcomings in several issues of the noucentista Página Artística de La Veu de Catalunya.53

[32] Still, the bourgeois social context from which Noucentisme emerged, however keen on progress, conditioned the movement to pursue “a controlled evolution, not a revolutionary adventure”.54 Thus, the most radical avant-garde proposals, though considered and discussed, struggled to gain acceptance. Particular resistance was shown to tendencies towards abstraction as they ran counter to the social role attributed to art by Noucentisme. At any rate, the engagement of artists in this debate resulted in a heterogeneous artistic production that is sometimes difficult to class as either noucentista or avant-garde: artists like Pablo Gargallo, Manolo Hugué, and Josep de Togores oscillated between both currents; others, including Juli González and Joaquín Torres-Garcia, initially aligned with, even heartily championed, Noucentisme, and subsequently veered towards more avant-garde positions.55 It was all part of a dynamic art scene which gained further complexity during the First World War with the return to Barcelona of Catalan artists based abroad and the arrival of foreign ones drawn by Spain's neutrality in the conflict.

[33] Xavier Nogués’ place in this scene appears to have been one of engagement in the debate from a critical standpoint towards certain aspects of both noucentista and avant-garde positions. As already noted, a substantial part of the discussion on modern art took place in the pages of art magazines. Nogués took an active role in this novel form of discussion when in 1914 he became co-editor with Feliu Elias of Revista Nova. This new magazine, financially backed by Santiago Segura (founder of the Galeries Laietanes a year later), was conceived with an explicit modernist intent, as expressed in its statement of purpose:

Unlike current art publications dealing mostly with old art and archaeology, and only incidentally with modern art, this magazine will analyse and bring forth almost exclusively the latest artistic trends, so that the energy and anxieties of people with a new spirit will not find themselves unsupported as they have until now.56

[34] It was through his cartoons at Revista Nova that Nogués expressed his views, for example, on Cubism; contrary to the interest raised by this avant-garde proposal among some noucentista artists, Nogués takes a satirical view of Cubism (fig. 6). To a self-acknowledged cartoonist, draftsman and engraver, enquiries so deeply centred on the construction of the pictorial field through colour may have seemed somewhat removed from his own formal concerns; moreover, Cubism’s disregard for subject matter was at odds with Nogués’ own focus on daily reality and social dynamics, which was a key aspect of his critical practice. His own experimental endeavours would necessarily take other paths.

6 Xavier Nogués, cartoon “The Victim”, published in Revista Nova 12, 27 June 1914, 11. Caption: “I think I am actually beginning to look like my cubist portrait now”

Noucentista ideals and the ‘picturesque’ Catalan reality

[35] Nogués’ attention to the reality around him went hand in hand with his interest in popular culture and art which, as mentioned before, was a key component of the noucentista artistic agenda. From 1914, he began translating this concern into a series of cartoons – published initially in Revista Nova – that gave graphic expression to phrases and sayings used in colloquial language. The humorous depiction of aphorisms and proverbs was far from a new practice, but Nogués' intention with this series of cartoons departed from this tradition. Eschewing the moralising, paternalistic tone often found in such representations, and taking instead his lead from Goya, an artist he greatly admired,57 Nogués gave his cartoons an unequivocal critical tone mostly directed at the Catalan elites, thus implicitly critiquing Noucentisme from within. Indeed, Eugeni d’Ors’ Noucentisme promoted an idealised image of Catalonia to be achieved through social, cultural and technical progress, in a process which reserved a major modernising role for art. In the face of this, Nogués composed instead a critical survey of the reality of Catalan society through its colloquial everyday language translated into cartoons. The result was not a flattering picture; the series showed a society of carefree drunkards, thieves and idle types prone to brawling, often before the eyes of a ridiculed bourgeoisie. Members of this class, recognisable by their top hats and black tailcoats, took the brunt of Nogués’ social critique: before a society in disarray, they appeared outraged, alarmed, puzzled, or even joining in the ruckus, but invariably powerless to uphold order. When not having to witness lawlessness and disturbances, they were shown as socially unaware and pretentious, given to frivolous pursuits, outsmarted by the popular classes, or as pompous characters who enjoyed being fawned over (fig. 7). Nogués’ message seems clear: if this was the society to be modernised through Mediterranean ideals and the civilising powers of art, Noucentisme had a monumental task ahead, and the bourgeois powers promoting it needed to ask themselves whether they were fit for the job.

7 Xavier Nogués, Gastar fums (Acting self-important), c. 1914, published in Xavier Nogués and Francesc Pujols, La Catalunya pintoresca, Barcelona 1919, 10.

[36] Furthermore, challenging d’Ors’ classicist insistence on order, structure and beauty, Nogués executed these cartoons with particularly harsh lines and disorderly compositions, leaving little room for aesthetic enjoyment. In a further turn of the screw, he later compiled the series into a book ironically entitled La Catalunya pintoresca (Picturesque Catalonia)58 which has been considered “the masterwork of critical Noucentisme”.59 Rather than graphically commenting on current events and political figures of the time, as caricature often did, what Nogués brought forth was a collective look in the mirror, one that forced Noucentisme’s utopian bourgeois ideology to consider its grasp on reality.

[37] There are mixed reports as to the reception of the Picturesque Catalonia cartoon book at the time. In the preface to the book’s second edition, Nogués himself maintains that the first one was a failure.60 This, however, contrasts with a report by art critic Joan Sacs on the complete success of that first edition, which, he claims, immediately sold out.61 Judging from contemporary articles, Nogués’ grotesque, often unpleasant depiction of Catalan society was labelled monstrous by some, and several artists and critics then felt the need to defend his work from such criticism.62 Crucially for the purposes of this paper, the controversy generated by Nogués’ work touched directly on the question of its perceived modernity. Indeed, the value of humour and satire as a critical means to artistic renovation – namely, in the field of literature – had been explicitly underlined in the aforementioned 1884 L’Avens article that first introduced the term modernist in the Catalan art scene:

We believe that the lack of discussion in literatures is the reason that they lead an impoverished life and sooner or later die of consumption; that it is necessary to foster criticism and that this must err more on the side of severity than that of indulgence, if we want the Catalan rebirth/renaissance to bear ever more fruit of real worth both here and abroad; that the humorous and satirical criticism that such good results gives in other literatures must be put in practice in ours.63

[38] Thirty-five years on from this article, the same held true in the Noucentisme and Avant-garde context. Authors writing in support of Nogués’ work greatly valued his grotesque, unforgiving cartoons because of the collective self-criticism they prompted, which they considered an essential condition for modernity, both social and artistic. In the eyes of one of these authors, the fellow noucentista painter Josep Aragay, Nogués’ caricatures forced the movement to rethink some of its basic tenets, in particular those associated with Eugeni d’Ors’ emphasis on classical order and beauty:

To those who have ever criticised the monstrous picturesqueness of his [Nogués’] drawings, he can reply by laughing at their dreams of harmony and classicism, because such dreams conceived within the monstrosity of their spirit are nothing but a melancholy claim to ancient culture, and cannot go out onto the street other than shrouded, and artificial, and dead as all the dead in the cemetery.64

[39] Even from a strictly art-theoretical perspective, an unidentified author devoted an article to Nogués’ work in Vell i nou magazine asserting the value of caricature’s conceptualism to avant-garde artistic enquiries and progressive concerns:

Lately, the intensifying and conceptualist (symbolist) character of caricature has influenced pure art, as attested to by some of the schools of a more cerebral nature: Futurism, Cubism, even Literary Cubism. Today, only backward or barbarian peoples don’t know caricature, and conversely, developed peoples are those who have practised it the most.65

[40] Nogués’ positioning within the most restless sectors of the noucentista art milieu may explain his close interaction with the Catalan Avant-garde. This translated, for instance, into his participation in exhibitions organised by Agrupació Courbet, a group of avant-garde artists founded in 1918 by Joan Miró, Enric Cristòfol Ricart, Joaquín Torres-García and Josep Llorens i Artigas. Agrupació Courbet’s exhibitions also included works by other artists more or less associated with Noucentisme, such as Joaquim Sunyer, Manolo Hugué and Josep de Togores.66 We also find Nogués contributing to such a committed avant-garde magazine as Un enemic del poble. This publication, subtitled “folio of spiritual subversion”, was named after Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An enemy of the people. Founded in 1917, the magazine was edited by avant-garde poet Joan Salvat-Papasseit and operated from Galeries Laietanes. Its May 1919 issue features a cartoon by Nogués criticising bourgeois greed (fig. 8) through a well-fed character in a tailcoat vomiting coins when pressed in the stomach by a mugger. In spirit, this is not far from the only known war-related cartoon published by Nogués shortly after the start of the Great War. As part of the Popular Types series in Revista Nova and under the title Mr. Cannons (fig. 9), the cartoon denounces the destruction of civilization through war and death fuelled by capitalist greed.

8 Xavier Nogués, cartoon published in Un enemic del poble 18, May 1919, 1

9 Xavier Nogués, "Tipus populars: El Senyor Canons" (Popular Types: Mr. Cannons), published in Revista Nova 22, 3 September 1914, 13

[41] As contradictory as an anti-bourgeois stance would appear in an artist associated with Noucentisme – given the firm bourgeois backing of this movement – this facet of Nogués’ work has attracted surprisingly little scholarly attention. A rare work addressing Nogués’ political dimension is by Alexandre Cirici. This author rightly draws a clear distinction between Nogués’ class-conscious, critical work in the 1910s and his subsequent “bourgeois integration” in the 1920s.67

[42] Thus, despite Nogués’ lack of interest in purely formal artistic enquiries, we find him associated with elements of the Catalan Avant-garde. His readiness to be critical of Noucentisme, even from within the movement, and to satirise the bourgeoisie promoting it, appears to have earned him credibility among those sectors of the Avant-garde that advocated a socially destabilising role for art, and recognised the artistically subversive potential of caricature.

The Galeries Laietanes project

[43] Shortly after the controversial cartoons of the ‘picturesque Catalonia’ series began to appear in Revista Nova, the magazine’s promoter and financial backer, Santiago Segura, asked Nogués to undertake the decoration project in the cellar of Galeries Laietanes. Nogués already had some experience in mural painting, gained under Aleix Clapés at Gaudí’s Casa Milà between 1904 and 1906.68 At Galeries Laietanes, however, he opted for a completely unconventional approach to this medium by using caricature to cover the walls of both rooms in the aforementioned celebration of Mediterranean life and wine culture.

[44] The mural decoration he designed stayed in situ until the 1940s when it was stripped off into panels and put up for sale. With the exception of some elements that were purchased by private collectors,69 most of the composition is currently kept, and partially exhibited, at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. An in-depth monographic study of the Galeries Laietanes project has yet to be carried out. This would allow to determine, for example, the precise location in the cellar of each of the thirty-odd panels that it was broken up into.70 It would also help to establish how they related to one another in the original composition and what meanings might be inferred from these relationships. However, a basic survey of the extant disconnected panels already suggests that Nogués took the mural as an opportunity to further his internal critique of noucentista principles.

[45] The classical and Mediterranean element championed by Noucentisme is clearly part of the cellar decoration: from the wine theme to the arcades opening up (in some cases) to idyllic land- and seascapes, or the numerous Renaissance and Baroque ornamental citations.71 These set the scene for a complete gallery of Nogués’ trademark characters, which are reminiscent of the Revista Nova / La Catalunya pintoresca cartoons. They are shown in various states of inebriation, enjoying life, misbehaving or just idling their time away under rows of arches complemented by popular sayings celebrating wine and its virtues. Again, an especially derisory treatment is reserved for the members of the bourgeoisie; characters in top hats and tailcoats are once more depicted powerlessly observing in dismay the antics of common people having a good time (fig. 10).

10 Xavier Nogués, fragment of mural paintings, originally at the Galeries Laietanes cellar, 1915, tempera on plaster, 210 x 365 cm. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (© MNAC, Barcelona, 2014, photograph by Jordi Calveras)

[46] In one of the cellar’s largest panels (fig. 11), one such character is used as the decorative sculpture topping a fountain that sprouts wine instead of water. In an outraged hand-on-hip posture (also visible in the bourgeois character in fig. 10) and with his hat resting directly on his nose, he watches from his high position as a man strangles a cat while another struggles to stand upright under the effects of drink. Above, an inscription offers a popular saying: “meat makes flesh, and bread makes belly, but wine leads to dancing”.

11 Xavier Nogués, fragment of mural paintings originally at the Galeries Laietanes cellar, 1915, tempera on plaster, 209 x 272 cm. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (© MNAC, Barcelona, 2014, photograph by Jordi Calveras)

[47] Amidst all the merry drinking and carefree enjoyment of life, a single female figure appears oddly out of place (fig. 12); tucked under one of the arches and soberly wrapped in a blue mantle, she represents La ben plantada, a cherished icon of Noucentisme.