“You have
such pearly white teeth. I had better pluck them out of your mouth, just in
case you fall or forget to brush your teeth.”

Said the MNAC
(Museu Nacional de Arte Catalonia) to the caves and small churches dotted
around the country.

“I love the
way you’ve done your walls! Look at that mural of Jesus at the Last Supper. Where
did you get those colours? Fabulous”. “I’d better be taking those back to
Barcelona with me”.

This is the conversation that went through my head in a recent visit to (points to whoever guesses first) the Museu Nacional d’Art Catalunya. (Incidentally, while you are all reading, I hate museums. I am a self-confessed philistine and appallingly comfortable in my ignorance. This was the result of a cultural overdose I suffered during my 2-week visit to Cuba a couple of years ago. I think I visited every single museum, art gallery and possibly Church in the (entire) country. I could not – even under Soviet torture interrogation – tell you a single fact I learned. What a waste of half a month of Cuba Libre rum cocktails at the beach. Hemingway was much more sensible).

I digress. Back to the Museum. The building itself is an enormous palatial structure at the top of a hill. Ostentatious, wonderfully extravagant, fountains and towers galore. Some would call it a Neoclassical eyesore and an imitation of Italian architecture (it is part of the National Palace of Montjuïc built for the 1929 International Exhibition) I do love it. The outside that is. Art museums, fascinating and impressive as they are, just make me feel artistically hopeless and remind me of my sieve-like memory. Why the trip then you may ask?

I bent my ban on museums in order to spend time with my Aunt Jane, who was visiting from Cape Town. To her credit she made it much more fun and paid not only for our entrances but also the very fancy audio guides*. I have to admit, I loved the permanent exhibition and was enthralled by the haunting scenes of demons wrestling with saints in the International Gothic section. Fantastical imaginations aside, the technical ability of the artists in this room was simply staggering. Crowded scenes of velvet clad aristocrats leering over a martyred saint. The transparent lace adorning the Madonna and child.

I sense I
am losing you…you finger is hovering over the kill tab button. My apologies,
back to the argument at hand, between the glorious MNAC and those grotty
grottoes around Catalonia.

We began our tour of the MNAC in the Romanesque section. It was no mere hall but the simulation of a Church interior. They had even gone to the length of building arches, naves and aspes. The high ceilings were turreted. All to display the magnificent Romanesque murals and frescoes which had been beautifully displayed with dim lighting to simulate a church interior.

Mestre de Pedret - Absis de Santa Maria d'Àneu - Finals del segle XI – inicis del segle XII

How on earth
did they remove murals and paintings that had been painted onto the stone walls
of churches around the Pyrenees? Thank goodness for my guide. I watched a short
clip showing how they remove the paintings.


The Strappo Technique. First, they clean the paint before
applying an isolating agent. A clean canvas is then glued onto the
painting. When the canvas is pulled away, the painting stays stuck onto
the fabric and can then be transferred once more onto a new surface.
Italian in origin, it is thought to be one of the least invasive and
most effective means of preserving and moving frescoes and murals.

The exhibition was an outstanding collection of Catalan Romanesque art, bringing together restored frescoes, sculptures and paintings on wood. It provides a wonderful window into 10th century Catalonia in all its empirical glory and is thought to be one of the most extensive and impressive collections of Romanesque art in the world.

What, you may
rightfully wonder, is my problem?

The decision to move the paintings to the MNAC was made in the early 20th century by the then museum director Joaquim Folch i Torres. It was a move to protect and conserve the Romanesque art of Catalonia, following the discovery that some paintings had been removed from the Monasterio de Santa María de Mur in Pallars Jussá.

Resultado de imagen de Santa Maria de Mur, in the Pallars Jussà

My question is simply…why not let them be? Surely the original purpose of these paintings was to honour the house of God and bring colour and beauty in the community. The artists did not slave away, presumably, with the end goal of one day being scrutinized by some art historians and tourists in the MNAC. I presume (or perhaps I assume, making an ass out of you and me!) that they were of religious intent. Paid for by the Church, commissioned to exalt and bring life, education and meaning to the otherwise plain and dark interiors of small churches and chapels in rural Catalonia.

Of course, by not removing art we run the risk of losing it. To theft, mildew, damage. Graffiti, even, by bored village youth. We run the risk of losing not only art, but all the historical, cultural and societal information that we learn through each painting.

Again, as a
philistine and museumophobe, I wonder, if it is not a risk worth taking? Leave
the art where the artist painted it. Leave it for the villages and communities
to whom it was bequeathed. Instead, let us paint copies. Take photos. With the technology
today I have no doubt that experts could create imitations that only the most informed
eye could tell apart from the original. Those could be displayed in all their identical
glory in museums all around the world.

If you really want to see the original, well you would have to travel in person. Book a flight to Girona. Climb aboard a local bus. Make three changes. Stay in a village pension. Sample the local cuisine. Who knows, you might have a great time!

Let the murals and frescoes be. Go to the museums and see what they look like. As for the originals, let them rot and mold away on their cold, damp Church and cave walls. They are at home!

*The “audio” guides were in fact very top of the range digital tablets (iPads possibly?). Each section was accompanied by short videos and pictures of each work of art. So you don’t even have to look at the painting itself!