Victoria Lopez-Trujillo: Beauty in the Natural World

A comparative reflection of aesthetic values between Spain and the United States

My goal in this project is to reflect on the use of aesthetics and contemplative art in Spain and how they are valued culturally. I saw that this affected me quite personally so I will be talking about it from a personal point of view, as well as critically thinking about how art and aesthetics developed in Spain and how it is different than the mindset with which it is viewed in the U.S.

For my vuelta project, I decided to research on contemplative art and aesthetics as they are valued in Spanish culture. I was drawn to this research because of the comparisons and differences that I can see based on my previous knowledge and experiences of these things in the United States and the Americas. I am especially interested in the effects that valuing art and aesthetic has in philosophical, social, and cultural movements throughout Spanish history.

During our study abroad trip to Spain, I was deeply impressed by the priority that is placed on aesthetic pleasure. Walking throughout Madrid, the contemporary capital of Spain, where I expected to see skyscrapers, parking lots, and an excess amount of concrete buildings, instead I found carefully maintained trees, parks, and gardens. Between grocery marts, tobacco shops, and dumpsters, I found small clean plazas lined with benches, bushes, and trees. This was a pattern I could see throughout the entire country. In areas where I expected construction scaffolding, I found intricate pattern-work outlining historic buildings. Where I expected drab city colors and uniformed paint jobs, I found faded reds, bright yellows, fresh blues, and calm whites. Most surprisingly, where I expected blocky, shiny, public art erected between benches for the sake of using space, I found sculptures of nude bodies, regal animals, or legendary figures.

El Retiro Park Lake in Madrid
By Victoria Lopez-Trujillo

My focus on this drew out my curiosity on the subject even more. I started to look toward my expectations as part of the equation. In our daily walks throughout our hosting cities of Madrid, Sevilla, and Barcelona, I couldn’t help but feel taken aback by my own exposure to sheer beauty and my inability to process what I felt. Why was I drawn to the simple fact that I was stumbling into flowering gardens during my city walks? Was the priority of aesthetics in Spain calling out to me because it was forward and overwhelming? Or were my expectations flawed by my South Florida experiences of blocked city streets and abundant uses of concrete?

During my time in Spain I discovered that the European view of aesthetics and art was much different than that in North America. Instead of being measured by its value in profit or numbers as would be the focus in the United States, the value of spending on urban landscaping and gardening in Spain is measured by what it brings to the people. It is seen as innately important to the wellbeing of the cities’ citizens that they be surrounded by beautiful things. Using an empty plot of land to create a garden or tree-lined plaza in a U.S. city might not be a popular option among those who can decide what to do with the plot.

Philosophical movements and the value of Aesthetic

This contrast between both countries in the value given to aesthetics and intangible profit provides a lot of insight about the influences that can be attributed to the development of each country. Some of the largest influencers in defining what is valuable, beautiful, etc. are the philosophical movements that were pertinent at the time: Enlightenment in the \United States and Romanticism in Spain.

The 18th century is known as the age of Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that would greatly influence the course of history. The ideas highlighted in the Enlightenment movement argue that humans could use reasoning to discover and explore truths about different aspects of life, such as religion and politics. Writers of the enlightenment such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, discussed and reflected on the importance of religious tolerance, freedom, skepticism, and improvement.

Apart from being the era of Early Enlightenment it also marks a very definitive era of development for the United States. It was in the late 1700s that the young American nation was fighting for its independence, and the fight was directly influenced by the Enlightenment rationale. Thomas Jefferson, an Enlightenment scholar himself, wrote up the declaration of independence in line with the popular philosophical movement, founding the new country upon the Enlightenment ideal that society should be defined as a contract between those who govern and those who are governed.

The effect of the Enlightenment as the basis of the American society is reflected in the popular mindset of many of its citizens. This mindset is brought about through efforts of tolerance, scientific reason, political correctness, and the common “pursuit of happiness.” However, because there is a constant push toward bettering the future, there is little focus on the pleasures of the current moment. Although Early Enlightenment thinkers praise the laws of nature, there is little appreciation for the natural world and for what it is in the present.

This is contrasted by the popular countermovement to Enlightenment that was more prominent in Spain in the 19th century: Romanticism. Romanticism is considered a reaction against the Enlightenment movement’s praise of materialism and rationalism. While the Enlightenment thinkers focused on how the world could be improved for the benefit of humanity, Romanticism was oriented toward the individual person and a praise of the emotional. It rejected the popular ideals of order, balance and rationality in favor of irrational, subjective, and transcendental aspects of life. Because of this, the movement was associated with a profound appreciation for beauty, nature, emotion, and the spirit.

Gardens and Parks

Rose Garden in El Retiro Park
By Victoria Lopez-Trujillo

In Spain, we can see the values of Romanticism clearly portrayed in the culture’s mindset toward art and beauty. There is a full, public appreciation of nature and emotion that remains faithful to the movement of 200 years ago. One way that this appreciation is practiced in public projects that keep the people in contact with beauty.

The main examples I found of these types of public works were the El Retiro Park in Madrid and in the Maria Luisa Park in Sevilla. These are both beautiful, large public gardens spanning tens of city blocks. In Sevilla, the Maria Luisa Park is like a jungle with hundreds of birds resting among the diverse and numerous trees and ponds spread throughout the park. There are fountains and benches and bridges scattered within the grounds for people to sit in silence or converse with a partner. In El Retiro park in Madrid, green lawns stretch across the park where people can be seen playing, sleeping, kissing, and eating under large, leafy trees. In the center of the park, a perfectly kept rose garden with hundreds of flowers of orange, pink, and red. A short walk from that is a lake, Estanque grande del Retiro, where people can enjoy short ferry rides or rent a boat to row across to each side.

Plaza in Sevilla
By Victoria Lopez-Trujillo

My first instinct in each of these inspiring parks was to ask, “so how can they profit from this?” But obviously, a public work is just that. Public. It is payed for and maintained by the government to allow access to everyone and anyone who desires to stroll its interior. In cities like Miami, we have no such thing. There are parks, public landscaping works, grassy fields, playing areas, but nothing like these gardens and parks that you could walk through for hours without noticing. Instead, in the U.S. the mindset is more often focused on profit. Land that could be used for parks or gardens instead goes to parking garages or large skyscrapers that can be sold as office space, possibly a sign of the Enlightenment values taken to a certain extreme. In urban U.S., there is a constant need to make everything bigger, taller, more efficient, less wasteful. But there is less and less often a movement towards the beautiful and inexplicable.

The Human Body

In the U.S., the quest for complete political correctness has hushed much public appreciation for the beauty of the human body. There has been a blurred line that differentiates the obscene and the sensual, and it seems that the majority of the time in popular culture, both are grouped into one category. Walking around the most popular U.S. cities will immediately reveal that nudity is not an accepted area of exploration for public art.

Art in the States is more commonly defined as part of the abstract and modern movements. Instead of mimicking a classic and representational focus, artists whose works are featured on the streets of U.S. cities highlight different aspects of art that are not commonly explored. For example, works in Miami often become famous for their interactivity. This is a blatant aversion from traditional values, including aesthetics. Public art in Miami especially strays from classic forms of creation, but even in cities with less praise for abstract art, the public appreciation of the naked body is lacking. Although this is something that is not necessary, it is certainly removed from the Romanticism that still finds itself in Spanish public art.

In Spanish cities, this is completely replaced by a public and popular embracing of the human body as beautiful. In squares, parks, and other public areas, I was always surprised to be the only one glancing confusedly at a nude sculpture of a human body. Others around me either walked past without noticing, or stared appreciatively at the bright white statues in contemplation. Growing up studying about the ancient Greeks’ respect for the human body and analyzing sensual works of art, I can’t say I was completely taken by surprise.

Nude woman in the Crystal Palace in Madrid
By Victoria Lopez-Trujillo

The nude statues and paintings projected in public areas throughout Spanish cities weren’t the thing that surprised me; instead, what caught me off guard was the response to them. It was almost completely silent, as if the street had suddenly taken the identity of an art museum. Lavapies for example, a neighborhood in Madrid encompassing locations such as the Museum of Reina Sofia, is one example of contemporary appreciations of beauty and the human body. It is an artistic location with many works featured especially in the form of wall art. Here, I found a respected mural of a group of colored women facing the audience with their bare backs. Though the piece was informal, painted onto the side of a corner store, it was still respected in that it was not even really given much attention. There was no graffiti over it; no lewd comments sprayed around or onto it; no sign covering anything in an attempt to censor the work. It just stood as it was, even without having the esteem usually associated with a statue or sculpture, and people passed by it with the greatest sense of normality. To me, this in itself was a surprising reception of that kind of art.

Nude mural on a street corner in Madrid
By Victoria Lopez-Trujillo

Conclusion

While the Spain and the Americas share many influencing ties with one another, during my journey throughout Spain I felt that one of the stark differences between this country and the U.S. was the way in which beauty is valued and appreciated. Each country has its own culture and priorities that set them apart from each other; however, philosophical movements play a big role in their development. In the U.S., the Enlightenment era played a crucial role in shaping the new nation. In Spain, on the other hand, Romanticism swept the land in the 19th century. Romanticism contributed to Spain its strong characteristics of defining beauty.

Today, Spanish culture cultivates a strong appreciation for nature, beauty, and aesthetics. We can see this quite clearly in the care and priority that they give relevant public works, including parks, gardens, public artworks, etc.

References

Duignan, B. (2019, March 29 Published). Enlightenment. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Enlightenment-European-history

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, January 21 Published). Romanticism. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/Romanticism

Victoria Lopez-Trujillo – España as Text

Victoria is a senior at FIU graduating through the Honors College with a BA in Communication Arts in May 2020. She is a proud Miami native who loves to explore new cultures. Here are her personal reflections during the FIU Honors Study Abroad trip in Summer 2019.

Madrid as Text

An evening at Plaza de Toros

Sitting in the Sol y Sombra section of the 20th-century, Moorish-influenced stadium, a group of us sit with our faces scrunched under the conquering sunlight. The stadium was full of people, and the enthusiasm of the crowds spread quicker than fire. We found ourselves squinting around at anxious faces and absorbing the emotions we found in faces, words, and cheers.

The first bull came out. The stadium roared while the small group of us stared in awe. The animal spared no time. Aggressive, wild, confused.

The first round of fighters came out with bright pink and yellow capes to commence The Cape Stage. Subalternos y matadores. They are meant to protect the main bullfighter, who we could not distinguish at that moment. They taunted the bull into the walls of the ring until the animal was convinced running was pointless. Until the fighters changed the game. Two men mounted on padded and blinded horses, armed with spears, appeared on the sides of the doors. The Stage of Pikes. Picadors. The bulls charged them only to be impaled from above. And still, while blood flooded its sides, the animal continued to fight. The blinded horse struggled to stay standing without knowing the threat surrounding him. Suddenly, the bull overtook the horse, and in a flash, the horse was on the dirt motionless.

“Uh… can you remind me why we came to this?”

We fanned ourselves with crumbled brochures and pamphlets we had gathered throughout the day. We fanned ourselves to relieve ourselves in the heat, to feel better about being in the stadium in the first place, to get rid of our preconceptions of cruelty, abuse, animal rights, and entertainment. “What is this?”

And before we could think about the answers, matadores ran out into the ring with harpoons decorated in brightly colored cloth. They revive the fight by stabbing the bull and decorating him with the bright colors, provoking the animal while making an art piece of it. And finally, the work of art was put to the test; one it couldn’t even possibly win. A fight between an advanced, armed actor and a pitiful, weary animal.

“Well. It’s Spain.”

Segovia as Text

The Keystone

How on earth?

No mortar.

No cement.

Hearing this can make someone think that a structure this grandiose could only be built to stand by the gods (Lucifer maybe). Layers and layers, stone blocks on top of stone blocks, at its tallest reaching over 90 feet. I pause and stare with the rest of my classmates. I’m inclined to take my phone out for a picture, but instead I realize I can’t move. I’m completely in awe.

A structure of almost 30 meters held together entirely by weight?

When the Romans built the aqueduct 2,000 years ago, they had the structure prepared with a wooden mold, which they removed when the weight was equally distributed among the arch. But the whole structure would crumble to the ground if not for the keystone, the last stone block placed at the center of the arch. This stone pushes the weight of the blocks onto the column and makes them stronger. Only one stone has this kind of power, and without it the arches would not stand.

Every community has its keystone. And if the keystone were removed, the community would fall, and another community and another keystone may take its place. However, if the keystone remains, the community around it can change without falling. In 1492, Spain set a keystone in America: the church. The wooden structures were removed when Americans began to spread Catholicism on their own, and practice it on their own terms. Damage to the structure included the independence movements of the individual communities that drove out the Spanish government; however, Catholicism continued to grow and stand tall throughout the 20th century.

Cordoba as Text

The Mosque Cathedral

A cathedral within a mosque…

Did I hear that correctly?

Stepping into the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain, you wouldn’t think anything different. I had never been inside a mosque before. The extent of my exposure to Islam had been very controlled by my Catholic upbringing. I did not know anything about the religion, save several crossovers between Christianity and Islam. I assumed that religious establishments would be quite similar to one another, as they are all meant to worship and glorify. However, I immediately knew I was wrong when I saw the interior of the Mezquita.

When the structure was first built in the 8th century as the Giant Mosque at the order of Abd Al-Rahman, it was originally intended to be one of the largest mosques in Islam. Normally, at the time, mosques were humble sights of worship. The Great Mosque would challenge many norms in the Islamic world, including a rule as stead-fast as facing Meccah. The rest was built quite traditionally: there was minimal use of furniture, simple floor tiles, decorated pattern artwork along selected walls, arches and structures that promised to send sound waves as far and intensely as possible so that the Khatib’s voice would be heard throughout the service.

The Giant Mosque continued to be expanded over the next few centuries by other Muslim rulers. Over hundreds of years, walls were torn down and rebuilt tens of meters further to make room for committed worshippers and great expectations. The mosque was meant to be a growing symbol of contemporary Islam. A religion that is alive and growing. With every breath that the mosque took, it expanded and never contracted.

When I saw the Mezquita, I imagined that it hadn’t changed that much from the last moment it had been used as a mosque 700 years ago. I stepped between the dimly lit archways that seemed to go on forever, hearing soft murmurs of tourists who were just as curious as I was as to why this was called a cathedral for Catholics when it was so obviously not. And then I saw it; the hole that was carved deep into the center of the mosque to create. Suddenly, the weight of the building shifted. Beforehand, I had been drawn to all sides of the building, vowing to myself that I could walk for ages exploring the new concept of the “mosque” and what it meant to me personally.

Now, my attention was drawn to the familiar center of the building. A weight concentrated at the hole that Catholicism had created in the history of Islam in Spain. I struggled to wonder the purpose of keeping a significant building that has been completely stripped of its purpose. A building meant to worship Allah in the way the Quran had described is instead now worshipping a god of a different name in a different and inappropriate way.

But the fact that we can have a conversation about it will always be the most important part. I do not applaud the Catholic church for absorbing a building of cultural importance, but I do recognize that if it had been torn down completely for the sake of a new cathedral, a large part of Islam and its historic presence in Spain would have been forgotten.

Sevilla as Text

The View from Above

While looking down at Sevilla from the roof of the city’s veteran Cathedral, I tried to take it all in. This city is one of the most beautiful I had ever visited. Parks and trees scattering layouts of every neighborhood; grandiose plazas bustling with tourists and locals alike; vintage districts with small and winding pathways. In each of these aspects, I would find such aesthetic and cultural pleasure that I had not been able to encounter anywhere else. Whether it was the Mudejar designs plastered on popular Moorish-influenced structures or the city’s familiar highlights of warm yellows and reds, there was something about this place that made both my mind and my eyes restless. I felt it when I traveled within the narrow lanes of the Jewish quarter every time I made a turn into a corner that smelled strongly of empanadas and wine, that echoed with the minor chords of softly strummed guitar strings. I felt it when I strolled along the river on the side of Triana in the middle of the night, watching locals slowly trickle out of small bars and restaurants, speaking their sensual, desert Latin as the full moon hung brightly in the sky. I found this feeling so often in the city streets, parks, buildings and people, but I was not at first able to understand what it was.

I did not understand it until I stood at the roof of the Cathedral, who’s layers loomed solidly over Sevilla. The Catedral, originally built as the Almohad mosque in the 12th century, was completed as a Catholic cathedral in the early 1500s. The building’s stained glass windows, leaning arches, and vaulted ceiling give it away immediately as a gothic work of architecture. While walking onto one of the many roofs during our tour, our guide remarked that one of the key elements in Gothic architecture is the value given to the aerial view of buildings. There is no perspective more important than that of God, the all-knowing and all-powerful. Because of this, the most decorative parts of gothic cathedrals are located towards the top, and a lot of importance is given to how the church can be seen from above, normally taking the shape of a cross. The view from heaven always supercedes the view from the streets below, or from the leveled windows across. To understand the value of Sevilla, I had to change my perspective.

No matter how much I want to view Sevilla’s narrow streets, local accents, and beautiful art from the ground level, I had to elevate my mind to understand the history and its influences on the present.

This perspective altered many views. The Jewish quarter I so admired: a neighborhood of tragedy and blood, where Jewish people had been denied their rights to life by those same Christian’s that claim to have contributed so much to the city. The Plaza of Espana, where I had enjoyed music and dance: a failed attempt to bring Spain into the international playing field until its major delay due to the outbreak of civil war. The statues and sculptures dispersed throughout the city’s parks and gardens hailing the discoveries of Christopher Colombus and the generosity of Isabel and Ferdinand: blatant symbols of a country turning away from horrors and bloodshed caused by its own historic victories.

Sevilla’s beauty as a city and attractiveness as a culture are woven together by a history that must be acknowledged for it to be appreciated in its entirety. I can take the view from the streets, looking over only the surface that I choose to see. Or I can take the view from above, a view that embraces each piece of the puzzle that has made Sevilla what it is today.

Barcelona As Text

A Brief Intermission

Barcelona; the home of Modernisme, Catalan pride, and our final destination this summer. Throughout our adventures in Spain, we have encountered more beauty in three weeks than I could handle. I find it fitting that right at the heart of the powerfully stimulating city of Barcelona, I learned a valuable lesson on how to cope with overwhelming beauty.

The beauty of the Palau de la Musica Catalana is obvious at first sight. Hailed as a palace of Modernisme (pronounced modernism-a in Catalan), the music hall was always meant to be an inspiring sight. From its patios to its stained-glass ceiling, it is an intricate glorification of the nature around us. This is one of the artistic elements of the modernist movement in Barcelona, and was the clear intention of architect Lluís Domènech I Montaner when he built the music hall in the early 1900s.

As I was walking through the entrance of the hall myself, enjoying a cafe con leche and a butter croissant for breakfast, I could not help but overlook the beauty of the foyer, with its giant brick columns and classic stained glass. Sitting by the bar, I did not take a glance into the rooms beyond the archways or let my eyes wander up the grand staircase at the hall’s entrance. I did not brace myself for what was to come.

It only took me until the beginning of the tour to realize I should have taken several breaths before entering the performance hall. Upon exiting the elaborate intermission room, I could see where I had made a mistake. The intermission room itself was the simplest in the building; a large empty room with a small colorful balcony lined from the inside with tall, only partly-stained glass doors. The only thing in the room was a small bust held on a simple pedestal by the left-most wall. The rest of the room was entirely empty, except for the numerous amounts of people chatting and walking in and out of the room.

Our tour guide mentioned that this was typical of intermission rooms. For obvious reasons. To allow people to group up or walk through the room freely, I thought, only taking note of the rooms emptiness. But what our guide was really referring to was the simplicity of the room compared to other parts of the music hall.

To let the mind rest.

And even without entering the giant concert hall, I could feel its beauty. Without seeing Antoni Rigalt’s stained glass skylight, or the muses that dance on the walls behind performers on the stage, I knew this hall would require full attention and restless eyes. In this intermission room, where members of the audience come to collect themselves after being overwhelmed by beauty in every sense, I learned the importance of reflection. The best way to appreciate and understand beauty is to take it all in, with a brief intermission every so often to reflect.

Sitges as Text

Bought and Borrowed

Spain has found itself in Miami in many ways. Spanish language, food, music and art has explicitly made a home for itself in the growing city in several different forms throughout its history. The most straightforward of these that I’ve seen in terms of Spanish art and architecture is the representation of these two in the Deering Estate. I never understood its influences entirely until I met the Palau de Maricel in Sitges.

Upon my first encounter with the buildings that make up the Maricel Museum, I was immediately brought back to the waterfront, stone house that sits along Old Cutler Road back in Miami. The walls, balconies, and arches almost directly resemble each other. I was able to support this idea having known that Deering did in fact draw his inspiration for his residency in Miami from Spanish architecture, but I was not exactly prepared to understand the extent to which he was involved with the Maricel Palace himself.

Apart from using it as his residency in Sitges for about 10 years, Charles Deering stored art collections in that house as part of a collaboration project between him and artist Miquel Utrillo. That is, Utrillo devoted himself to helping collect art for Deering’s Hispanic art collection. Together, they collected amazing art works by artists such as El Greco and Goya. They repurposed a private hospital and residence into the Maricel residence where they could store the art. The building would essentially characterize the rest of the neighborhood.

Then suddenly, in 1921, the two collectors ran into a disagreement, and, in a move that surprised me entirely, Deering eventually removed all his pieces from the Maricel to bring them to America. All the work that had been put into the collaboration of this project, and all the pride that Maricel had originally housed, was suddenly taken from it. Charles Deering took everything he could, including the house’s coat of arms that was initially taken from the cover of a prayer book: a sun setting over the sea. More importantly, Deering removed significant Spanish art works from their place of origin and brought them to Miami to keep in his residency to himself.  All the work that had been put into the collaboration of this project, and all the pride that Maricel had originally housed, was suddenly taken from it.

Now, after years of struggling to redefine itself, Maricel museum stands powerfully over the shining waves of the Mediterranean Sea, housing amazing works by Picasso and El Greco. Still, it surprises me that Deering, an American philanthroper and collector, had threatened that only some decades ago.