In June 2018, I traveled to the Marès Lace Museum in Arenys de Mar, about an hour north of bustling Barcelona. From the central Plaça de Catalunya I took a train and soon the crowds disappeared to be replaced by peaceful palm trees, endless beaches and a simmering morning…
As happened with the other applied and decorative arts, lace-marking underwent a complete transformation during the Art Nouveau era, which is known in Catalonia as Modernisme. The museum at Arenys de Mar houses one of the largest collections of Modernist lace in Catalonia. A guided tour – including not exhibited collection holdings – by expert Joan Miquel Llodrà i Nogueras was part of my itinerary for the coupDefouet International Congress.
Joan Miquel Llodrà i Nogueras, as it turned out, is an art historian descending from a family of lace makers. Being the local councilor for cultural affairs, as well as an experienced author and editor, he was once asked to publish an article about the regional lace making industry. “Before I knew it, I got sucked into the history of lace making. I learned more and more as it was all so interesting… and then one day, I had become the local expert!”
Josep Fiter i Inglés (1857-1915)
As one of Spain’s leading bobbin lace manufacturers, Josep Fiter is a key figure in the history of Catalan lace. He was an active member of the Catalan bourgeoisie who wrote and talked a lot about the industry. In his lectures, Fiter criticized the lack of specialist schools and stressed the importance of museums as places where artists and designers could pursue their training. He called for the creation of a museum devoted exclusively to this industrial art. Sadly he passed away long before the opening of the Museum of Lace in the Palau de la Virreina, in 1968. But he did contribute to the compiling of a lace collection for the Museum of Decorative Arts that would open in 1902.
Whereas the School of Arts and Crafts in Barcelona, the Llotja, focused on design, Fiter insisted on the importance of a technical training as well. He knew about the schools of lace that emerged elsewhere in Europe, like the Royal Central School of Lace in Vienna. And those schools provided a theoretical ánd a practical training. Design artists ought to be technically proficient and well acquainted with the materials in order to be able to design high quality lace.
Fiter also pointed out the fact that lace designers, who had worked in anonymity for centuries, started to seek credit for the originality of their designs. At last, they were considered as artists. Many lace competitions would be organized in the first quarter of the 20th century, as was the case in neighbouring France.
In the generations that followed Fiter, we find Marià Castells and Aurora Gutiérrez. Both of them regularly participated in exhibitions of artistic industries, presenting the centuries-old art of lace making into every variant of the new aesthetic in Europe, Art Nouveau. Their illustrations preserved at the museum in Arenys de Mar reflect Symbolism, the Art Nouveau coup-de-fouet (whiplash), the geometry of the Secession and references to a Neo-Gothic past.
Marià Castells i Simón (1876-1931)
Even though the art of lace making is intrinsically linked to the female world, both the design and the commercial aspect continued to be dominated by men. One of those men, Marià Castells, was a leading Catalan designer of modernist lace. Together with his brother Joaquim, he spent most of his working life in the Fabrica de Blondas y Encajes de seda, lino y algodón founded by his parents in 1862. Castells took elements from nature as a basis for most of his compositions. He depicted stalks, leaves and flowers characterized above all by flowing lines. On other occasions nature was represented through the style of the Secession, the Austrian version of Art Nouveau. In these pieces the floral decoration is placed inside a grid. The natural elements though, inside this apparently simple motif, are all but reduced to geometric shapes. The legendary coup-de-fouet, which came from French Art Nouveau, is also present in some of Castells’ designs.
Aurora Gutiérrez i Larraya (c. 1880 – 1920)
Aurora Gutiérrez Larraya was another trendsetter responsible for reviving the arts of lace making during the Modernista period. After studying at a school for drawing for women and girls, she enrolled the Barcelona School of Industrial and Fine Arts in 1904. Aurora concentrated on bobbin and needle lace making, embroidery, textile printing and other crafts such as batik and leather embossing. Her skills and talent were soon recognised, as shown by the number of prizes and distinctions she received. In 1904, for example, she participated in the exhibition organised in Barcelona by a group of promoters of the decorative arts, showing a bobbin-lace pattern for a fan titled Chrysanthemums.
In 1909, Aurora moved to Madrid, where she studied and taught, and continued to enter competitions and art shows hoping to obtain a scholarship from the Spanish Government to perfect her art abroad. Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Vienna were the places where she refined her techniques and learnt new ones. But also where she became acquainted with the latest patterns and designs adapted to modern tastes, which soon found their way into her work. Sadly, in 1920, for reasons that are still not clear, Aurora died at the height of her career. Not many of her lace designs and even fewer examples of her embroidery have been preserved. Nevertheless, the surviving drawings – most of them held at the Marès Lace Museum – show her to be one of the most interesting exponents of Catalan Modernisme.
So, if you would like to escape the overcrowded streets of Barcelona to enjoy a lazy day at some sleepy town in the middle of nowhere, get on a train and discover the extraordinary Art Nouveau gems this tiny museum has to offer. And while you are there, you may want to include a stroll to the cemetery. It contains sculptures by Josep Llimona and the Vallmitjana brothers, and a slender Neo-Gothic temple by the architect Enric Sagnier with ornamentation attributed to Eusebi Arnau. You’ll love it!
Museu Marès de la Punta, Carrer de l’Església 43, Arenys de Mar
Art Nouveau European Route: Arenys de Mar
VisitMuseum: Arenys de Mar Museum. Marès Lace Museum
A Poster for Casa Fiter, Lacemakers (PDF)
Bobbin lace in modernista catalonia: the search for Europe and the search for modernity (PDF)
Estudi del fons industrial tèxtil de Catalunya (PDF)
Coup de Fouet Magazine – Aurora Gutiérrez Larraya (PDF)
Website of the (Lace) Museum in Arenys de Mar
Modernist designs at the Casa Castells (PDF)