Life, art and a few blue periods

February 24, 1995

Tony Tysome finds that studying for an art MA in Barcelona isn't all sun, sangria and surrealism. It sounds like an artist's dream: nine months of soaking up the sights, sounds and culture of one of Europe's most colourful cities.

The lure of Barcelona, along with the promise of expert tuition and advice from resident and visiting artists, centrally-located studios, and access to a wide range of museums and galleries, is strong enough to attract a growing number of painters and printers from all over the world to Winchester School of Art's MA European fine art course.

The programme was launched in September 1991, on the back of long-standing links between the college and the University of Barcelona and the rapid expansion of the city, which had gained new impetus through the massive investment which went with hosting the 1992 Olympics.

The purchase of a warehouse studio in the Paulo Alto region of Barcelona was one of the college's first acts of independence after freeing itself from local authority control. Another studio, in the city's famous Gothic quarter - and a stone's throw away from the Picasso Museum - was also leased with the approval of Barcelona's council in city hall.

Katharine Crouan, Winchester's director of academic affairs, described the conditions which helped persuade college heads it was time to risk setting up a new outpost.

"From the mid-1980s onwards, it became clear the cultural life of Barcelona was really taking off. There was the expansionist policy of the regional government and city hall, as well as the big push to host the Olympics. If you wanted to send young artists and designers there, you were sending them to a place which was both stunningly beautiful and fast moving. You also had a city which moved incredibly easily between fine art and design in a way which in Britain we often find difficult to comprehend," she said.

The college measures the success of the venture not only in terms of the survival and growth of the course, but also the high calibre and numbers of applicants, and the quality of the work the students produce. When I visited last summer, 28 students were exhibiting work in the city, and preparing to pack the products of nine months' labour for the return journey to Winchester, where they would complete the remaining three months of the course.

Picked from an application pool of 180, they had come from all over Britain, Ireland, the United States and Mexico; in many cases uprooting themselves from their families, their jobs and their studios. Some were looking forward to leaving, and the chance to develop new ideas and techniques in the comparatively well-equipped studios in Winchester. Others were wishing they had another year in the city they felt they had only just begun to know. Was it the artistic credentials of the course which had brought them there, or was it the rather more obvious allure of Barcelona itself. Had they learned more than they would have had the whole of the course been based in Winchester, and had it lived up to their expectations?

It did not take long to discover there was a downside to Winchester's Barcelona experience. On the first day of my visit, teaching staff made it abundantly clear they were not prepared to sing the praises of a programme they felt they had been left to run on a shoestring. In fact, by the end of the day, the chance of any on-the-record comments from apparently disenchanted staff had all but disappeared. Suddenly everyone was too busy to talk. Fortunately, the students were only too willing to be interviewed. And if they had not been happy to reveal the source of discontent, well, there were clues posted on almost every wall. A full-page article from The Observer on how higher education institutions were running tightly-budgeted overseas courses as money-spinners had been photocopied and pinned up all over the studio.

One of the most striking things about many of the students was how much they had given up and how much disruption they had been prepared to take in order to join the course. Not only were there the loss of income and course fees to meet (in 1994 Pounds 2,770 for UK and EC students, Pounds 6,250 for overseas), but for some it meant either leaving behind or temporarily relocating their families. Any shortcomings in the course under such circumstances were bound to be seen as a major disappointment. It was not surprising, therefore, to find those who had sacrificed the most were the loudest critics.

Lesley Collins, 38, had left her two children to be looked after by her husband, who had taken voluntary redundancy so that she could go to Barcelona. As well as her family life, she had interrupted her work as an artist and lecturer at Grimsby College. So she was unhappy to find she was unable to work in her usual way, on the floor, because her allotted studio space was so cramped.

Jo Allen, 44, left behind her job as a teacher and artist at a college in Cork, and went to the trouble of finding her young daughter a temporary school place in Barcelona. She, too, was unimpressed with the studio space, facilities and technical support.

It soon became clear that each of the studios presented their own set of problems for the students based in them. In the one in the Gothic quarter, where Lesley and Jo were, the spaces were cramped and there was little natural light. At Paulo Alto, there was more space and lots of natural light, but also plenty of sweltering heat and no electric lights. Lack of equipment was a general problem. One student claimed the only tools she had to work with were a rusty screwdriver and a hammer.

Katharine Crouan admitted the amount of space and equipment provided in Barcelona placed restrictions on the kind of work the students were able to do. The college is now ploughing more resources into student and staff support on the course, and negotiating relocation of the studios on to a single, larger site in the centre of the city in an effort to ease the problems. But she says the college was "completely up-front" with students about the limited facilities when they were interviewed.

"We are disarmingly frank about it. We tell the students they will need the basic tools, and they will not be able to operate as if they were at an English art college.

"Southern European art colleges are always very low on equipment because they tend to run courses which concentrate on concepts rather than practice. We have inadvertently created a course based on this model," she said.

Despite the criticisms, most students were impressed with the quality of tuition and advice on the course and acknowledged that the sparse facilities had in many ways added to its rigour. They had been forced to explore new techniques using very basic materials and, in keeping with the tradition of many Catalan artists, making creative use of "found objects" picked up from around the city.

Lesley Collins was a case in point. Some of her work was composed of discarded earrings and bangles, while her need for more space pushed her out into the city and the domain of graffiti art. She discovered new territory with "illegal paintings" on walls next to art galleries, to the unofficial approval of the authorities.

"I have taken into consideration this cramped space and tried to go beyond it," she explained.

For Carmen Mariscal, a 26-year-old Mexican, Barcelona's waste bins were a gold mine of interesting objects to feed the imagination. She used models of feet and hands - religious symbols hung in the churches of the city. The cramped spaces and tall, dark buildings of the Gothic quarter were also reflected in her work.

"A lot of us at one moment or another have been influenced by the narrow dark streets of the Barrio Gothic. Sometimes it's like a dungeon; during the winter everyone's paintings suddenly went dark," she said.

To Paul Danks, who joined the course after gaining a fine art degree at Newcastle University, the experience of Barcelona had brought home the importance of being an "image-maker" rather than just a painter. Some images which might seem commonplace to local people, such as rows of hams hanging on meat hooks in a bar, stuck in his mind and found their way into his work.

"All I can remember is going for a drink under this great layer of pigs. It was typical of Barcelona to have something quite barbaric done in a decorative way," he said.

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