Lonely Planet Writer

Abstract art and historic medieval edifices make unusual bedfellows in the Spanish town of Cuenca

Stacked on a steep promontory of land between two deep river gorges, the Spanish city of Cuenca is a medieval masterpiece in central Spain.

Cuenca, Spain.
Cuenca, Spain.

Yet, despite its age, Cuenca has somewhat ironically established itself as a vortex of modern abstract art. Several of the city’s most iconic buildings house modern galleries, including the emblematic Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, which in June 2016, will mark its 50th anniversary by opening up a new extension filled with probing cutting-edge art.

Hanging houses - home of Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol.
Hanging houses – home of Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol.

When Unesco listed Cuenca as a World Heritage site in 1996, the award was more for its historical legacy than its genre-bending art. But, what makes Cuenca so compelling in the eyes of many modern visitors, is the unlikely way in which it has assimilated avant-garde creativity into a crusty ancient core. Cuenca’s love of abstract art can be traced back to the 1950s when a loose collection of locally-based artists formed what became known as the ‘Cuenca School’. One of the group’s early leaders was Fernando Zóbel, a Spanish-Filipino painter and collector who, together with fellow artist, Gustavo Torner, opened up the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in 1966 inside the city’s historic ‘hanging houses’.

The interior of Cuenca cathedral.
The interior of Cuenca cathedral.

This bizarre juxtaposition of new and old was a surprising hit. Encased in a row of timber-framed houses that jut out over Cuenca’s precipitous gorge, the museum’s beautifully curated exhibits are showcased in a series of stark white minimalist rooms. The collection has since morphed and inspired others such as the Fundación Antonio Pérez set in an old Carmelite monastery and stuffed with a litany of head-scratching modern works from Warhol to Antoni Tàpies. Elsewhere, Cuenca’s abstractness extends to churches and museums.

Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol.
Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol.

The brilliant stained glass in its 12th century cathedral was fashioned by Torner in the early 1990s to create a whimsical hybrid while the recently reopened Museo de Paleontology with its cube-like display halls pays more than a passing nod to avant-gardism.