Mountain monks and modern art, best museum in Europe

Mountain monks and modern art
By Harry Eyres 7/19/15 at 12:59 PM
Sean Scully crosses in church
The altar and two crosses Scully donated to the churchMuseu Montserrat

Filed Under: Culturesean-scully-crosses-church

The jagged mountain has inspired creativity before. Anyone seeking the source of Gaudi’s joyful fantasies in stone need only marvel at the organ-pipe rock formations of Montserrat, the isolated massif 40 miles west of Barcelona that also shelters one of Europe’s most venerable monasteries, Santa Maria de Montserrat. Now abbey and massif have been united with an artspace devoted to the work of the Irish-born, American-based abstract painter Sean Scully, who celebrated his 70th birthday at the space’s recent inauguration.

In an act of great generosity on both sides, Scully has donated 22 works – including six abstract paintings and three murals, the series Holly-Stationes, stained-glass windows, an altar and two crosses – for permanent display in the modest Romanesque church of Santa Cecilia in the abbey precinct, restored and purified by the local architect Xavier Guitart with funding from the Diputación (Provincial Council) of Barcelona.

The only obvious comparisons, in terms of the marriage of avant-garde art and spirituality, are Matisse’s chapel at Saint Paul de Vence and Rothko’s at Houston. Scully, who has risen to international prominence with no gimmicks, as a serious painter in the tradition of abstract expressionism, does not shy away from such references.

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“Rothko is the closest,” he admits, but goes on to say that he finds Rothko “depressing and bleak”. “I had an idea I could humanise abstract art,” he goes on; “I saw a potential in abstract art which had never been unlocked. I wanted to make it like Matisse or Picasso, so people would enter it.”

I first came across Scully’s work at an exhibition in Barcelona in 1995. I was immediately drawn to what seemed a marriage of warmth and rigour, strong emotion and tangible earthiness confined within powerful and cogent structure. As well as Rothko, Mondrian is obviously also an influence on Scully, who uses grids and squares of colour; at the same time, the Irishman is quite unlike the otherworldly Dutch master. “He is pure and I am dirty! I love sex!” he exclaims.

The work in Santa Cecilia covers a far wider emotional and spiritual gamut than the sombre meditations of Rothko or the cool, quasi-mathematical constructions of Mondrian. Most Rothko-like is the huge and impressive triptych Doric Nyx, which suggests profound grief and spiritual deprivation. But the predominant tone is far lighter, more joyful and even playful. Most intellectually rigorous is the large ochre and red painting Cecilia (Landline Cecilia), which is in part a meditation on music. Facing it is Barcelona Wall of Light Pink, whose horizontal bands of blue, pinky-grey, blue again, red, and finally blue evoke all the voluptuousness of Mediterranean light, landscape, sky and sea, with almost unbearable sensuous intensity.

It is not by accident that Scully has established his spiritual home and monument in this particular corner of Europe. He came to live and work in Barcelona through the offer of a studio by a friend in 1994. Since then he has acquired a deep love and knowledge of the autonomous region, its vibrant capital, and what he calls Catalans’ abiding concern with “liberty”, which he associates with the struggles of Ireland.

In a moving speech at the inauguration, Scully said that the “generosity” he encountered working with the Catalan monastery “would have no parallel anywhere else. I could do what I wanted, I could have painted pictures of elephants and they would have said ‘bueno’ [that’s fine].”

The Sean Scully-Santa Cecilia de Montserrat Art Centre, and the associated Sean Scully Institute of Art and Spirituality, which opened to the public on 2 July, are not just an apotheosis of Scully, but a testament to the open-mindedness and cultural reach of this very special monastery. Of the 50 monks, the Abbot Father Josep Soler told me, “maybe 40 have PhDs”. He went on to remind me of the abbey’s long history of intellectual openness and ambition. “In 1498 we had a printing press brought over from Germany.”

Scully himself professes no particular religious faith but seems reconciled with his Catholic upbringing. “With religion I’ll sleep with anyone,” he says, his mischievousness masking an unmistakable seriousness of spiritual purpose. Suddenly he remembers a poem by Seamus Heaney which contains the line “an astounding crate full of air”. It seems not a bad description of his own work.

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“Best modern art museum we saw in Europe” 5 of 5 stars

Review of Centre Pompidou

“Best modern art museum we saw in Europe”
5 of 5 stars Reviewed 19 July 2015 NEW

This is far and away the best modern art museum we saw on our recent trip to England, France and Italy. Names I knew and names I didn’t know amongst the artists and sculptors displayed, and almost all of it good or very good or excellent. A stunning Dali creeps up on you around a corner. If you like modern art and are in Paris, don’t miss this. We were there a happy hour and a half and there were no lines to enter. Unusual building. We really only looked at the Modern Art floors and the outdoor part there- great views too by the way. We could probably have stayed longer if we had time.