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Sitges Reopens its Temple of Modernism

Sitges Reopens its Temple of Modernism

Sitges Reopens its Temple of Modernism

About 100 years ago, Sitges was a humble fishing village. Today the Catalan seaside destination is one of the most gay-friendly towns in Spain, and two of its museums have just been refurbished.

Photography © Angeles Marin Cabello

Renowned for its splendid art nouveau architecture, its annual film festival, and its arty bohemian vibe, Sitges is a labyrinth of steep and narrow white-walled streets—filled with classy boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, cafes, and tapas bars—that wind down to the sea. There’s a beach for gays, a beach for families, a beach for nudists: 17 beaches altogether, which are a vital ingredient in Sitges’ unique cocktail of art, architecture, tolerance, and sexual freedom under the Mediterranean sun.

Earlier this summer, its artistic side got a huge boost with the reopening of its two most important museums, the Cau Ferrat and Museu Maricel, after a four-year refurbishment. Both museums played a vital role in how Sitges was transformed from anonymity into the heady epicenter of Catalan creativity. With their reopening, Sitges “reclaims its place as the reference point for Catalan Modernisme and contemporary art," according to TV personality Ana Isabel Albares.

Improbably enough, it all started with a visionary Catalan artist and a United States agricultural machinery tycoon. In 1891, when painter, writer and fervent Moderniste Santiago Rusiñol arrived in Sitges, he fell in love with the town’s light and location, sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the dry hills of the Garraf Massif. He bought two seafront fishermen’s cottages and set about converting them into Cau Ferrat, his home and workshop. In time, Cau Ferrat would become known as the "Temple of Modernism."

Rusiñol held his legendary Moderniste Festivals in Sitges, attracting the leading Catalan artists, writers, and musicians of the day. In his studio, you can still see the piano in one corner where Pau Casals played, while the walls are crammed with paintings, including four drawings by a very young Picasso, bought by Rusiñol because he saw some promise in the young Malagueñan. Gazing out to sea from the studio window, in a room so crowded with the ghosts of great artists, one can only imagine what heady affairs Rusiñol’s festivals must have been.

Then, in 1909 American industrialist Charles Deering arrived in Sitges to meet his friend Ramon Casas, another Moderniste and prominent painter of the local Luminist school. As soon as he saw Rusiñol’s house, Deering wanted to buy it. Rusiñol flatly refused, and there always remained a certain rivalry between the two. Both were avid art collectors and both were captivated by the Cau Ferrat’s gorgeous seafront setting. Deering persisted in his dream of creating an art center in Spain and to this end he bought the house next to Rusiñol’s, and even the local hospital next door, after proposing to the local city hall that he’d build another one.

Enlisting the help of artist, engineer, and decorator friend Miquel Utrillo, Deering had the buildings converted into what today is Museu Maricel. He also bought up the remaining fishermen’s houses on the other side of the road and turned them into the Palau Maricel, today another museum. Together the two Maricel buildings form a marvel of Noucentista architecture, and together with Cau Ferrat and the iconic 17th Century San Bartolome church, they make the Raco de la Calma (Peaceful Corner) where they stand Sitges’ most outstanding beauty spot.

With Utrillo’s aid, Deering scoured Spain for priceless art treasures, and brought them back to his Museu Maricel, including works by El Greco, Zurbaran, Goya, Assyrian seals and Chinese bronzes.
But then, one fine day in 1921 after disagreements with Utrillo, Deering abandoned Sitges, taking his entire art collection with him. Most of it now stands in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Thankfully the museum has been replenished with a superb collection of works ranging from 10th century Romanesque and Gothic, passing through Renaissance and Baroque, up to Moderniste, Luminista and Noucentista. Following the refurbishing, the Maricel is now an elegant, airy and very modern gallery, while still retaining its original historical sweep, full of innumerable delights, particularly the ground floor with its three marble nude statues by Joan Rebull which stand before large windows looking out over the sea where little white sailing boats fleck the sapphire waters. Under the Gothic arches of the former hospital chapel hall, summer concerts are now staged. Within the cool shade of the thick stone walls, it’s easy to forget about the blinding sun that blasts the street outside.

Cau Ferrat has been left exactly as it was in Rusiñol’s day, at the painter’s bequest, so it retains all the feel of an artist’s home-cum-studio. And it’s a treasure from top to bottom. The walls of the first-floor kitchen-salon (painted deep blue to ward off mosquitoes) are a riot of paintings, ceramic picture-tiles and rustic plates. A large ornate ceramic fountain stands in the middle of the kitchen. Elsewhere, a whole floor is given over to Rusiñol’s collection of wrought iron and glassware.

From the windows you begin to understand why the reform process took so long. The house is built on rocks that rise straight out of the sea, and so many decades of salt water had begun to eat away at its foundations. But it’s been worth the wait.
The two museums have been connected by a short gallery so that you can now visit both with one ticket, passing from one building to the next. With their reopening, Sitges feels complete again.

For more information on the museums of Sitges, visit the website.

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