Spanish Art & Culture


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Spanish Art & Culture

Spain has a very rich literary tradition.

Posted by Dreamer

An introduction to Spanish art and culture – past and present – including architecture, dance, fashion, film, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

Long influenced by Europe, North Africa, and the wider world, as well as drawing upon Spain’s own layers of tradition and deep regional roots, Spanish culture has been one of Spain’s greatest sources of pride – and one of its greatest exports.

From tall Gothic spires to the unmistakable sounds of flamenco-rock, Spain and its cadre of artists, writers, and architects have long been both cosmopolitan and inward-looking, able to live in the world and apart from it, often managing to combine both at the same time – all in the name of Spanish culture.

Spanish Architecture
Spanish Dance
Spanish Fashion
Spanish Film
Spanish Literature
Spanish Music
Spanish Painting and Sculpture

Spanish Architecture

The Romans left their mark on Spain, leaving behind the aqueducts, bridges, and theatres that we can still see today. The same is true of Spain’s other rulers: Visigothic churches with horseshoe arches, pre-Romanesque churches from isolated Christian rulers in northern Spain, and fine Islamic architecture built under Moorish rule that made extensive use of arches, tiles, geometric patterns, and courtyards, the zenith of which can be found in Granada’s Alhambra palace.

The struggle between Christian and Moorish Spain brought about a cross-pollination of techniques and styles, bringing Mozarabic, Mudéjar, and Romanesque architecture to light. These styles are most evident in the churches that litter the Spanish countryside. Spain’s Gothic and Renaissance architecture is also best remembered for its religious manifestations: the towering cathedrals of Burgos, León, Toledo, Sevilla, and Granada, as well as a great number of churches.

In the 20th century, Modernisme (known as Art Noveau in other countries) left its mark mostly on Barcelona, of which Antoni Gaudí’s efforts are the best known. This was followed by Art Deco in Madrid, mainly concentrated along Gran Vía, and then a later, sober Francoist style.

Today architect Santiago Calatrava’s white City of Arts and Sciences complex in Valencia and (American) Frank Gehry’s undulating titanium of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao best exemplify contemporary architecture in Spain.

Spanish Dance

Regional popular dance has traditionally been a staple of dance in Spain, which includes the intense, highly-acclaimed flamenco from Andalucía; sevillanas, also from Andalucía, with dancers paired into couples but still bearing many similarities to flamenco; sardana from Cataluña, a group dance performed in a circle; and muñeira from Galicia and Asturias, accompanied by percussion instruments. The jota, danced with castanets, can be found all over Spain, though there are many regional variations to the dance.

Today Spain’s dance panorama is best celebrated in the theatre and is dominated by contemporary “Spanish dance” – a fusion of Spanish styles as exemplified by the Spanish National Ballet (Ballet Nacional de España). Other excellent and not-to-be missed styles include modern flamenco, flamenco-ballet, and contemporary dance.

Spanish Fashion

Using a lot of black, Spanish fashion was preeminent in Europe during the Golden Age (the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th century), but then later lost out to French fashion as the model to emulate. In the 20th century, influential fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga – one of the grands couturiers along with Christian Dior and Coco Chanel – continued the Spanish tradition by using a lot of black in his creations.

These days the epitome of Spanish fashion can be found twice a year at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Madrid, previously known as Pasarela Cibeles and Cibeles Madrid Fashion Week. This is Spanish fashion’s international showcase of the latest styles from Spanish designers like Victorio & Lucchino, Maya Hansen and Devota & Lomba. As is often the case with high fashion, Madrid's Fashion Week tends to offer up more art and luxury than accessible, wearable clothing, leaving the high street chains to provide the bulk of everyday fashions for the Spanish populace with Spanish stores like Mango, Springfield, Pull and Bear, Zara, and Desigual prevailing.

Spanish Film

Apart from the strong tradition of historical films, the Spanish film canon is largely an absurdist delight. Though Spanish filmmaking began at the end of the 19th century, modern Spanish cinema could be said to have begun with Luis Buñuel, a surrealist filmmaker, whose first film, Un chien andalou, was a collaboration with surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. He went on to make classic films in Spain, Mexico, and France. Spanish cinema’s current leading figure is filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, whose first film was the strange, early Movida-fuelled Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón. His subsequent films have been heralded as contemporary pop classics.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao best exemplifies contemporary architecture in Spain.

Spanish Literature

Spain has a very rich literary tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages and has its roots in different forms of poetry and prose, such as the poetic jarchas, the minstrels’ Mester de Juglaría, and the Mester de Clerecía – a form of narrative poetry. Spanish Renaissance literature made use of new themes, such as nature and love, but remained dedicated to prose and poetry.

Spanish Baroque literature saw the rise of the play – at the hands of playwrights like Tirso de Molina and Félix Lope de Vega – and the novel – with the appearance of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. Spanish Enlightenment literature was strongly influenced by the themes of English, French, and Italian writers and Spanish Romantic literature focused on raw emotions and nature, while Spanish Realist literature was derived from realistic depictions of everyday life.

In 20th century Spanish literature, three schools or generations were prominent: the Generation of 1898, the Generation of 1914, and the Generation of 1927. Among these groups were writers such as Pío Baroja, Miguel de Unamuno, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, Federico García Lorca, Antonio Machado, and Jorge Guillén. Great Spanish literature today can be found in the books of Juan José Millás, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and Rosa Montero, among many other Spanish authors.

Spanish Music

Early Spanish music was highly dependent on models from abroad: Roman music, Moorish music, and in turn, Italian music, though a few genres of specifically Spanish music, such as the religious Mozarabic Chant and zarzuela – thought to be a form of light opera – also developed.

In the 20th century, Spanish musicians appropriated rock and pop from abroad for their own purposes. From the mid-1970’s to the late-1980’s, however, Madrid’s Movida movement electrified Spain’s music scene and served as a hotbed for innovation. Mecano, Héroes del Silencio, Gabinete Caligari, and Alaska were some of the best musical groups of this period. 

Spain’s current musical panorama includes its own forms of rock, pop, punk, and to a lesser extent, hip-hop. A popular genre of Spanish techno is known as bakalao. Current popular Spanish musical groups include Los Planetas, Amaral, Reincidentes, and singing in English, Dover.

Flamenco music is also reinventing itself for a new era with the appearance of Nuevo Flamenco, flamenco-rock, and flamenco fusion. The group Chambao is one such example of flamenco fusion.

Spanish Painting and Sculpture

Spanish art has existed almost as long as the Iberian peninsula has been inhabited and you can look no further than the Altamira cave paintings (which are located in Cantabria, but a reproduction can be seen in Madrid) as proof.

As you can appreciate in many of Spain’s fine museums, religious themes dominated medieval and Renaissance art, which was heavily influenced by Italian and European art.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, El Greco and Diego Velázquez represented the pinnacle of Spanish painting, just as the celebrated Francisco Goya did in the 18th century and early 19th century.

Highlights of 20th century Spanish painting and sculpture include the maximum exponents of Cubism – Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris – and those of Surrealism – Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. Also influential in sculpture was Eduardo Chillida, whose art was mainly destined to public spaces.

Last updated 08 04 2014

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