Catalan crisis: museum row becomes flashpoint

Pro-independence camp claims Madrid has ‘plundered’ artworks in show of power

Mossos d’Esquadra (Catalan regional police officers) keep protesters back from the entrance of the Lleida Museum after police entered the museum to take some 40 contested artworks. Photograph:  Albert Salame/Reuters

Mossos d’Esquadra (Catalan regional police officers) keep protesters back from the entrance of the Lleida Museum after police entered the museum to take some 40 contested artworks. Photograph: Albert Salame/Reuters

 

In recent days, visitors to Lleida Museum will have noticed, among the wealth of sculptures, paintings and ceramics, seven empty shelves. Each had held a tableau or other pieces of religious art dating back to the 15th century, but in the early hours of Monday morning, a group of civil guards arrived to take away these artworks and 37 others to a monastery in the town of Sijena, an hour’s drive away.

Their removal came after a judicial ruling which itself followed two decades of dispute over the issue between the regional government of Aragón, where Sijena is located, and that of neighbouring Catalonia, Lleida’s region.

“You think of a museum as a cultural, pleasant place, not somewhere for armed police and judicial rulings,” one member of the museum staff, who watched as the civil guard loaded up the works of art and took them away, tells The Irish Times. Hundreds of protesters surrounded the museum on Monday morning, some of them grappling with police.

“It was a very strange day, we’re still coming to terms with it,” she says.

It is quite possible that if this episode had taken place at any other time, it would be seen as little more than a dispute over some valuable art. But given that it unfolded right in the middle of a high-stakes Catalan election campaign, the Sijena-Lleida dispute has become a flashpoint for Spain’s territorial crisis.

Removal of art

Catalan nationalists have claimed that the timing of the removal of the artworks, which were sold by nuns to the Catalan government in the 1980s and 1990s, was no accident. They say it was directly linked to the Spanish government’s decision, at the end of October, to trigger article 155 of the constitution, allowing it to introduce direct rule in Catalonia. Madrid took that measure in response to a bid by the Catalan government to break away from Spain via a unilateral declaration of independence.

Since then, the members of the Catalan government have been deposed, with central government ministers in Madrid taking control of their portfolios. Also, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has called a Catalan election for December 21st, after which a new government will be formed and article 155 is expected to be lifted.

Although a court ruling ordered the return of the artworks from Lleida in 2015, it was never fully acted upon. In mid-November, the judge handling the case asked the Spanish culture minister, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, to ensure the ruling was implemented, given that he is temporarily also overseeing the Catalan culture department. Although there has been some confusion over how much of a role Méndez de Vigo had in the return of the artworks, many Catalans see him and the Spanish government as being the cause of it.

“The empty shelves of Lleida Museum are the image of article 155,” said Carles Puigdemont, the deposed president of Catalonia, during a speech on Monday. Puigdemont was speaking in Brussels, where he has been taking refuge since his independence bid failed. While the Spanish judiciary wants to try him for sedition and rebellion, he has been campaigning from afar for his Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCat).

Deliberate humiliation

“Why would they do this now and in this way?” asks Gemma Espigares, a local politician in Lleida who is a candidate for the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC). Speaking to The Irish Times in her party’s offices, Espigares describes the removal of the artworks as a “plunder” by the Spanish state.

“It’s to humiliate us,” she says. “It’s to show they can use their power to do anything.”

Espigares says the whole affair is a reprisal by Spain against the Catalans who voted on October 1st in an outlawed independence referendum. “After so many defeats, they need a victory and for them this is a victory,” she says.

However, many would argue that it is the independence movement which now desperately needs a victory, after the traumas of the autumn. As well as the temporary removal of Catalonia’s autonomous powers and the flight to Belgium of Puigdemont and four of his former ministers, four other independence leaders are in prison pending trial, including ERC leader Oriol Junqueras.

Together, ERC, PDeCAT and another pro-independence party, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), have been marginally ahead of the unionists in polls. But they could struggle to secure the majority they would need to bring Catalan secession back on to the political agenda.

Article 155 and the ongoing judicial action against pro-independence politicians have been at the centre of the election campaign for the secessionist parties. One ERC campaign poster carries the slogan: “Let’s empty the prisons of injustice and fill the ballot boxes with votes.”

Critics of the independence movement see the Lleida art saga as a contrived ploy to cast the Spanish state in a negative light.

Playing the victim

“The return of Sijena’s cultural heritage to its place of origin has allowed Catalan nationalists’ tendency to play the victim to be used by them as electoral ammunition,” wrote political commentator José María Calleja in El Diario newspaper.

Outside the museum, local man Najim Tami is also sceptical about how the issue has been politicised. “With all the stuff that’s going on right now, this has been used as a political tool, but it really shouldn’t have anything to do with politics,” he says.

Tami opposes Catalan independence and will vote for the pro-union Socialists on December 21st. Since the October referendum he has found it difficult to talk politics with pro-independence friends. “Both sides have become more entrenched since then,” he says.

On Friday, the Lleida art controversy took a new twist, as an appeal was filed by the Catalan regional administration demanding the return of the works to the museum, on the grounds that correct procedures had not been observed on Monday. The minister, Méndez de Vigo, said he had been unaware of the appeal and denied reports that he had approved it in his capacity as acting Catalan culture minister.

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