The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

It’s early morning in Barcelona’s Barrio Gòtic, a neighborhood at once trendy and medieval, bright and darkly mysterious. While my wife is back at the hotel sleeping, I’m winding through narrow streets and alleys that were built centuries ago to accommodate carts and pedestrians. I’m looking for a kiss. Not just a kiss, I’m looking for the kiss. I mean why settle for just a kiss.

I know that the kiss I’m hunting is somewhere in Gòtic’s confusing web of alleys and small placas (the Catalan word for plaza). I’m just not certain that I’ll find it. I’m depending on Google Girl to get me to the kiss, but given her recent history of sending me on snipe hunts and roads to dead ends, I’m feeling that my trust is misplaced.

Early morning can be the best time to explore the warren of ancient alleys and streets. But for a few street cleaners, early rising shop owners, and a smattering of tourists, El Gòtic is empty just after sunrise. In the early light, puddles from the previous night’s rain reflect the dark, ancient buildings, adding to the mystique of the old district.

I’ve got some serious misgivings as I follow Google girl’s instructions. “In 190 meters turn right on Placa Dels Pexios.”

In Google girl’s defense, during three weeks in Spain I’ve learned that finding street signs and placa designations can be a challenge, as the signs are often posted (sometimes camouflaged) on the sides of the old buildings. The mistake is an easy fix when you’re walking. Driving past a sought out street can lead to the drive of the damned.

“In thirty meters, turn left towards Carrer dels Capellans.” Stop. Look. Follow – and hope.

“Slight left onto Placa D’ Issidre Nonell.”

“You have arrived.”

Okay, I’ve arrived – at Placa D’ Issidre Nonell. At least so I’ve been told by a Google Girl who, for all I know, has sent me on a wild kiss chase. In front of me, there’s nothing. To my right is the street that I just came from, and to my left a bar, waiting to be opened. I’m just about to call BS on Google Girl yet again as I turn around to gaze on El Peto de Joan Fontcuberta.

Going in I had no idea what I would find. I knew that it was a draw but I never bothered to pull up an image on the internet. One doesn’t need that validation. Once you see El Peto you know you’ve found it.

You’re mesmerized.

El Peto, The Kiss, is enchanting. Standing a good twenty yards from the mural I see a mosaic of tiles depicting a sensual kiss. The tiles though, are clearly not plain.

Each tile appears to have a unique design and so I move towards the kiss to get a closer look.

As one approaches the mural, the depiction of a kiss, and what is assumed to be a sensuous central theme, disappears and the genus of the piece is revealed as the viewer is presented with a collage of emotions and stories and, foremost, of freedom.

When the mural was unveiled on September 11, 2014, it was meant to be a temporary exhibition commemorating the anniversary of Catalonia Day, when, on that date in 1714, Barcelona surrendered to Bourbon forces during the War of the Spanish Succession. Catalonia day doesn’t commemorate the loss of a battle, rather it honors the ideal of freedom and the lives lost during a 14 months long siege.

El Peto began as a request by photographer Joan Fontcuberta, asking readers of the newspaper El Periódico, to submit photographs depicting their personal moments of freedom. With the help of ceramicist Toni Cumella, Fontcuberta transformed 4,000 photographs into 4,000 ceramic tiles and then arranged them by color and tone so that from a distance, the collection would depict the image of a kiss.

El Peto is the essential public art. Not the work of a single muralist, El Peto represents the art, the emotions and 4000 distinct moments in the lives of 4000 individuals, all melded into a single exquisite piece.





It’s my last full day in Spain. An earlier afternoon downpour sent tourists and residents alike scrambling for shelter; under trees, beneath awnings and in the entryways of shops. Under clear blue skies, I decide to pay El Peto a final visit. The mural is calling to me. Maybe it’s because I was so touched by it the first time that I needed one final look. Maybe it’s because I’m headed home and I want a last taste of the Spain I’ve come to appreciate. It’s part of the depressing realization that in many places in America, the state of Florida comes quickly to mind, the public depiction of a passionate kiss would be immediately ordered removed. And there it sits, the unabashed irony, that a mural inspired by the ideal of freedom would be banned in my own country, a place that boasts of freedom, while at the same time becoming increasingly repressive.

On my initial visit I had El Peto all to myself. The locals had their early morning routines to tend to and the few tourists who were out were headed for other attractions. This afternoon I’m sharing the mural with small crowds of tourists. They come in pairs and in groups and a few, like me, arrive solo, and every one who comes to see will stop for the long look and then approach the mural to study the individual tiles. This time around I find that watching the viewers is as intriguing as watching the visitors as they engage with the mural and with each other. They gaze from a distance and then move inches from the mural pointing out a tile or tiles that resonate in some way. This is a place of joy, of happiness, of pathos.

Three weeks prior, Cora and I had been to El Prado. We spent the better part of a day walking through the halls and great rooms admiring works that have stood for ages as masterpieces. As grand as the works in El Prado are, they are not the people’s art. Many of the paintings in the great museums honor a church that, at the time the works were created, had little connection to the people.

At El Prado, people, by and large, would gaze, awestruck, for a few moments at the magnificent detail in Ribalta’s Christ Embracing St. Bernard. They shuddered at the dark apocalyptic works of Bosch and felt privileged to be able to appreciate Goya’s, “Saturn Devouring His Son.” And yet there’s no bond there. One looks, one marvels and then moves on and by the end of the afternoon, one feels exhausted and overwhelmed.

Standing back from El Peto I see a piece of art that matters, in some personal way, to everyone who stops to look. Taken by itself, any one of those photographic tiles wouldn’t draw a second look, yet as one four thousandth of the whole, any random tile manages to inspire some connection.

El Peto represents the soul of public art. It was created by an interaction between the public and the artist to create a piece that inspires interaction between the art and the viewers and the viewers with each other.

Off to the side of the mural is a plaque with an inscription that reads, “The sound of a kiss isn’t as loud as a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.”

This post is my contribution to this week’s Lens-Artists Challenge hosted by John of Journeys with JohnboThe topic this week is Art in the Park, a celebration of public art.

16 thoughts on “The Sound of a Kiss

  1. Toonsarah says:

    Wow, this is totally awesome – and I use the word advisedly. Public art at its best, drawing a response from all who see and engage with it. Our visit to Barcelona pre-dated this but if ever we go back I will definitely seek it out. Thank you for sharing it with us 🙂

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Sarah,
      It is most certainly worth a visit. Just minutes from the gothic cathedral but a little bit hard to find – especially if you’re relying on Google to get you there.

  2. Great story and pictures Paul! What a marvelous idea of Fontcuberta. And how well executed! Personal happyness combined in a general act of love. What more can one wish.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Peter.
      So true. Visiting this mural was originally just an afterthought but it was so inspiring that I chose to visit it one last time during my last day.

  3. JohnRH says:

    Well! THAT’S different!!! Amazing.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello John. It is certainly a unique example of public art.

  4. What an absolutely inspired – and inspiring – piece of artwork. And poignant to make the connection between freedom and an expression of love. These days, with freedom having completely revised meanings, there is no way a piece of artwork such as this, would be accepted, depicting as it does a heterosexual, caucasian couple. Not how “freedom” works now. Modern day Freedom (of expression) has boundaries, the very antipathy of the concept of freedom. Anyway, on to Goya. His dark period, represented in El Prado, is the most disturbing gallery I’ve ever visited. I remember walking away unable to begin to fathom what must have been going on inside Goya’s head to even conceive of such extreme nightmares, let alone get them down on to canvas.

    1. Paul says:

      I’m not so sure about any problems with the heterosexual, white couple but I can say for certain that the tile with the two men kissing would have the whole kit and kaboodle banned in Florida and other states in America. Doesn’t matter that the context of the photo is missing. Two long separated friends meeting? A poignant goodbye? Doesn’t matter. Two men kissing is verboten.
      I was fascinated by the Goya’s dark paintings. I find that sort of thing fascinating, which is probably why I spent so much time in the gallery containing Bosch. Now THAT was one disturbed fellow.
      Just another note about freedom and receptiveness. While we were visiting El Prado, there were a number of school children visiting on field trips. I remarked to my wife that in many parts of America, bringing a class of children to a gallery with so many breasts and penises could get a teacher fired. When one visits certain parts of America, it’s not just sight seeing, it’s time travel – back to the early 1950’s.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  5. Paul,
    Your prose is as beautiful as the images you shared here. I am as enthralled with the artwork as much as I am disappointed in not knowing of this plaza when we were in Barcelona in April.

    1. Paul says:

      So sorry you missed it. It’s located minutes away from the gothic cathedral. But for the mural there would be little to recommend the little plaza.

  6. Leya says:

    Paul, I read without breathing, totally absorbed by your words and the story you unfolded and beautifully connected to your own country and our world (And that is the situation for some other countries as well…) We will be going back to Barcelona when Gaudis masterpiece is finished, and we will also certainly look for El Peto. Thank you for sharing the amazing story!

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Ann-Christine.
      Thank you so much for the kind words. I LOVED Spain and would’ve stayed and sent for my dog. El Peto is relatively close to the gothic cathedral.

      I assume you’re speaking of Sagrada Familia which according to what we’ve read on the internet is expected to be completed in 2026. Our guide told us that 2026 is very optimistic given the progress on all of the towers so I would advise you to just keep checking on the progress. I went to the top of the Nativity Tower and the view was spectacular.

      Thank you again,

  7. That mural is so inspired, and I love the fact that each tile contains someone’s interpretation of freedom. I imagine as a piece that one could go back to again and again and never tire of imagining the stories behind each tile. Your post was such a wonderful introduction to the piece, being in search of a kiss…

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you for the kind words. El Peto was more or less an afterthought before we arrived in Barcelona but it was so inspiring the first time that I was drawn to it again before we left. It is a very touching place.

  8. Chris says:

    Thank you, Paul. You zipped me straight back to indelible Spain — my head spun a bit while reading these posts (I was just there again in, was it?, November). Many great graphs and descriptions and truths. I highlight this one:

    “Why am I avoiding tourists? Simple. I came to Spain to experience Spain and gathering with the British, the French, the Germans and the Americans, especially the Americans, runs counter to that goal. I didn’t spend thousands in coin of the realm to sit next to some good ol’ boy wearing an American flag t-shirt bearing the slogan, ‘These colors don’t run.’”


    1. Paul says:

      De nada, Chris. I thought about you and your posts while I was in Spain, recalling how much you enjoyed that wonderful country.

Would love to hear from you

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