Cultural Crossroads: Gijs van Hensbergen – ‘I’m a Euro-mongrel’About Gijis van Hensbergen

Gijs van Hensbergen is a Dutch art historian, food critic and expert on Spain. He is an authority on Picasso and the author of six books, including Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon, a biography of Gaudí, and most recently The Sagrada Família: Gaudí’s Heaven on Earth.

1. You’re Dutch, were educated in Britain, and yet developed a life-long passion for Spain and Spanish culture. How did this fascination begin?

As a child we did the cheap-and-cheerful camping holidays to the Playa Dorada near Tarragona. Which child doesn’t love a beach? Snorkelling, dancing at night, the naughty drink behind the railway bridge… The big change was when my elder sister Marianne met a local girl in the camping shop. Teresa Bargallo adopted our family, took us into the mountains and introduced us to her family in Montroig del Camp to see the local fiestas and religious processions, and allowed my brother to camp in the field next to Joan Miró’s famous farm – no one knew who he was back in the 60s; even the villagers thought he was mad, eccentric and doubted his supposed success.

2. Where is ‘home’ for you? Do you find different sides of your character engage more with the respective cultures you’ve connected to?

I’m a Euro-mongrel. Born in Belgium, moved to Helsinki, learnt to speak Finnish and Swedish and aged five moved to the UK. Home is where the heart is. I have an Anglo-Saxon brain and a Spanish soul, with Dutch thrown in for good measure. Where I will rest for eternity is on a hill above my village in Spain, Arevalillo de Cega in the province of Segovia. I owe the village happiness, a sense of belonging and a profound sense of past, and deep, deep nurturing friendships. London, Dorset and Oxford have been wonderful UK homes.

3. You’re a leading authority on Picasso, who also moved across several cultures. What bearing did this have on his work?

Within Spain – which is also a collection of countries – Picasso grew up in Andalucia, Galicia and Catalonia. He always said that Barcelona and the mountain village of Gosol gave him core values and the inventiveness to be an artist. After moving to Paris in his early twenties he travelled relatively little. In Paris the whole world came to him. He was right at the heart of the avant-garde. After the war, the Côte d’Azur became his home. The Mediterranean pulled him, but like a time traveller he went back to Rome, to classical Greece, to Crete and ancient worlds – nothing was dead. Only Spain remained closed to him. And, the longer he was denied his mother country the deeper grew his longing, nostalgia and his deep Spanish character with its profound creative urges.

4. Your latest book is on Gaudí’s Barcelona masterpiece, the Sagrada Família. The Basilica is the most visited site in Spain. What’s its secret?

The Sagrada Família’s secret is out in the open. It is dramatic, sensational, spectacular, gigantic, riotous, engaging and sensuous. Under the surface lie all the secrets – Gaudí’s orthodox Catholicism, his engineering genius, his flair for design, his unusual process that included casting live animals in plaster – an entire universe. Gaudí’s genius was to harness the power of popular art verging on the kitsch and tease the viewer into engaging with his private world of faith and creativity. Everyone fancies they can create a little corner of their garden into a Gaudí, or try a mosaic, but few ever succeed in creating anything convincing. His genius, like Picasso’s, is to push art and architecture to the very borders of good taste.