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Barcelona is a city that has embraced art like no other and it is reflected in the buildings, across the streets and in its many famous galleries.

Leaving aside Antoni Gaudí for a second, architecturally speaking, Barcelona is one of Europe's great Gothic treasure chests, and it was largely from these jewels that Gaudí and the Modernistas of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries took their inspiration, adapting the old rules and techniques to fit their new ways of seeing and building.

Catalan Gothic took its own unique course. Decoration was used more sparingly than elsewhere and, most significantly, Catalan builders championed breadth over height. Stunning examples include the Palau Reial's Saló del Tinell, the Drassanes (the former shipyards that now house the Museu Marítim) and the glorious Església de Santa Maria del Mar. Modernisme emerged as a trend in Barcelona during the 1880s, the city's belle époque. While the name suggests a rejection of the old, the pioneers of the style actually delved deep into the past for inspiration, absorbed everything they could and then ripped up the rulebook.

For many, Modernisme is synonymous with the name Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). His works (starting with the unfinished La Sagrada Família church) are the most daring and well known, but he was by no means alone. Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923) and Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867-1957) left a wealth of remarkable buildings across the city.

They range from Domènech i Montaner's gorgeous Palau de la Música Catalana to Puig i Cadafalch's playful medieval-Dutch-looking Casa Amatller. The many differences between all their designs underline just how eclectic and individual the Modernisme movement was.

Contemporary Barcelona is proving no slouch either, and a slew of local and international architects continues to contribute daring new elements to the city's skyline. The most spectacular is Jean Nouvel's cucumbershaped, multicoloured tower, the Torre Agbar. The most visible development has been on the northeast stretch of the coast, now home to the Parc del Fòrum and the surrounding Diagonal Mar residential district.

Look to the streets, squares and parks of Barcelona which are littered with the signatures of artists past and present, famous and unknown. They range from Modernista sculptors, like Josep Llimona, to international star sculptors, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Fernando Botero. Picasso and Joan Miró both left lasting reminders in the city.

Since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, the town hall has not been shy about encouraging the placement of sometimes grandiose and often equally incomprehensible contemporary works in the city's public spaces. Reactions range from admiration to perplexity.

Justly proud of its rich street-art heritage, the council has also created an extensive archive of it all (click on Art Públic). The site is rich in description of hundreds of items scattered across the city, and includes commentary on the history of the city through its street art.

The best thing about art in the streets is that it is open to all comers.

Three of the great names in 20th-century art are associated with Barcelona, and two left behind considerable legacies in the city. Having admired early Picasso and the breadth of Miró's work in their respective Barcelona museums, it would be a shame to miss the loopiness of that doyen of daftness, Salvador Dalí, a train ride away in Figueres.

In the wake of the big three, Barcelona has been a minor cauldron of activity, dominated by the figure of Antoni Tàpies (b 1923). Early in his career (from the mid-1940s onward) he seemed keen on self-portraits, but also experimented with collage using all sorts of materials, from wood to rice. A poet, artist and man of theatre, Joan Brossa (1921-98) was a cultural beacon in Barcelona. His "visual poems", lithographs and other artworks in which letters generally figure, along with all sorts of objects, make his world accessible to those who can not read his Catalan poetry.

Joan Hernández Pijuan (1931-2005), one of Barcelona's most important 20th-century abstract painters, produced work concentrating on natural shapes and figures, often using neutral colours on different surfaces. Jaume Plensa (b 1955) is possibly Spain's best contemporary sculptor.

His work ranges from sketches, through sculpture, to video and other installations that have been shown around the world. Susana Solano (b 1946), one of Barcelona's best painters and sculptors, also works with video installations, collages and jewellery. Jordi Colomer (b 1962) makes heavy use of audiovisual material in his artworks, creating highly imaginative spaces and three-dimensional images.

© Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Barcelona's surreal world of art’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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