I walk quickly through a labyrinth of cobbled streets before a vista opens in front of me in rectilinear precision. I’m at the Eixample, a district surrounding the medieval city of Barcelona that started to develop in the nineteenth century. With houses designed by Modernista architects, like Gaudi, this is the heart of Spanish modernism, and a small sample of the technical, innovative and scientific progress growing in the city. In the distance smoke bellows from the chimneys of textile factories, drawing a line that extends along the railway to the rocky seaside.
At El Quatre Gats I order a long drink and look at the drawings of a young artist: Pablo Picasso. In the café I soon recognize that the crowd is mainly made up of artists, I can hear them talking heatedly and words jump from mouth to mouth: INNOVATION! MODERNITY! AWAY WITH CONSERVATISM! STOP LOOKING AT THE PAST!
Paranoid as I am, I can see their eyes observing me. I’m 114 years away from home.
Suddenly, outside, a startling sound interrupts the gaze. Groups of workers run through the streets, riots, protests, barricades, in the distance churches are burning.
I find refuge at the library of The Modern School. I read the titles of the school’s modest red teaching manuals: science, history, literature. I try looking for a book about art, but it’s nowhere to be found.
In 1901 Catalan pedagogue Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia founded La Escuela Moderna (The Modern School), a primary school for children based on freethinking, rational, secular, universal and egalitarian education. At a time in which education was under the auspices of the Catholic Church and focused on capitalist, imperialist and nationalist values, Ferrer i Guàrdia was influenced by the oppositional revolutionary message that anarchists and freethinkers were spreading among the new social groups formed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. In a milieu of great technical progress, with an expanding industrial workforce lacking organization, the school that Ferrer implemented was intended to create the foundations of a strong combative labor movement, as well as to implement a radical educational change where the goal was to prepare students to not be subjected to totalitarian powers and teach them egalitarian values.
The mission of the modern School is to secure that the boys and girls who are entrusted to it shall become well-instructed, truthful, just, and free from all prejudice.
To that end the rational method of the natural sciences will be substituted for the old dogmatic teaching. It will stimulate, develop, and direct the natural ability of each pupil, so that he or she will not only become a useful member of society, with his individual value fully developed, but will contribute, as a necessary consequence, to the uplifting of the whole community.
Ferrer in La Escuela Moderna, p. 14
For Ferrer, promoting free thought, not offering rewards or punishments and without exams or competition was key for a fairer society. He invested in a co-education of social classes and genders and aimed at dissolving the intellectual and emotional prejudices that separated these groups. He qualified his educational program as rational and scientific, where the study of sciences was key for a pedagogical revolution and emancipatory education towards fighting the power of the state and religious dogmas. Not surprising then that Ferrer’s project is, at times, called a nursery of rebellious citizens of Barcelona. Indeed, one could say that some of the teachers had sympathies from the ideologies spreading through the libertarian and anarcho-communist groups of the time. Ferrer is accused of being the instigator of the antimilitarist, anticolonial and anticlerical riots of the Semana Trágica (Tragic Week, July 1909), a series of bloody confrontations between the Spanish army and the working class. Ferrer was executed by firing squad in October 1909 after a trial conducted without any proof against him, and the Modern School closed it’s doors. His execution brought a wave of protests around Europe and America, and in Spain.
Despite it’s short existence, La Escuela Moderna published more than 40 books and school manuals in an attempt to brake away from other school programs they considered incoherent: “a mixture of science and faith, reason and unreason, good and evil, human experience and revelation, truth and errors in a word, totally unsuited to meet the new needs that arose with the formation of a new school.” (Ferrer, La Escuela Moderna, p.41) In this collection of red pocket books we find titles focused on the natural and social sciences, such as Nociones De Geografía Física (Notions of Physical Geography), Evolución De Los Mundos (Evolution of the Worlds), Creación Y Evolución (Creation and Evolution), plus books focused on Arithmetic, Universal History and Psychology. Other books were more ideologically charged, offering a critical standpoint on patriotism and colonialism, the “horrors of war, and the iniquity of conquest”. Literary pieces depicted “social evils” (Ferrer, La Escuela Moderna, p.42), such as Las Aventuras de Nono (The Adventures of Nono) by Jean Grave, a story book about little boy travelling through the country of Autonomy, a utopian place where boys and girls are equal, where there is no ill treatment or punishment and where one can enjoy freedom. In the country of Autonomy, the names of the story’s characters give us an insight into its ideological charge: Solidarity, Sincerity, Freedom and Labor.
Looking through the material of La Escuela Moderna, and from the perspective of an artist, I was surprised not to have found a book about Aesthetic Education. Since the development of the School was stalled so abruptly in 1909, we can only wonder why art was not implemented, or what approach to art would have been like: What artists would have been studied? What texts would have been used? What position would The Modern School have taken in relation to the diversity of artistic and discursive practices of the time?
More than cultivating an appreciation for Art, schools of this period were preoccupied in developing working habits, a sense of effort, patience and perseverance in the students: abilities needed to generate efficient industrial labour, but also a sense of rectitude. Art education was instrumentalized for that effect. Art exercises were not only based on repetition, but also focused on the discipline of technique, with the line being key. This appears to be a moral, as well as aesthetic issue: the discipline of the hand that draws is connected to the discipline of the body and moral conduct in general.
In the Boletín de la Escuela Moderna, a monthly newsletter published by La Escuela Moderna, we soon realize that the school would not have promoted this approach to aesthetic education. In the last newsletter, published just before the execution of Ferrer, we find an article entitled ¿Y el Arte? (What about Art?), a question that resonated with my own at the start of my research. It consists on an excerpt of Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread – The Need of Luxury (1892), asserting that literature, science and art must be cultivated by free man, in order to become emancipated from the repression of state and capital.
These ideas are also shared by the Spanish libertarians of Ferrer’s time, seeking to destroy the status of the work of art as the exclusive enjoyment of the wealthy classes and as an exclusive product, giving it the right to be enjoyed and created by every individual. Had the school not been closed so abruptly, this last article could lead us to think that the emphasis of La Escuela Moderna would be to follow an artistic praxis of a social and political art, giving art the mission of cultivating morals and constructing a fair society, revealing the ills of capitalism while still give an optimistic glimpse of the great human future.