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There’s an old Spanish story about how the blacksmith, when cutting out metal for a weather-vane, must take into account every angle of his creation, as it will be constantly shifted by the wind. The moral is that visual sophistication can be found in the humblest places, perhaps – or could it be that Spanish blacksmiths were proto-cubists all along? It is curious that Pablo Gargallo, acclaimed at his death in 1934 as one of Spain’s greatest modern sculptors, was rumoured to be the son of a blacksmith. Such a juxtaposition of tradition and modernity is perfectly expressed in the Gargallo retrospective now showing in Barcelona’s La Pedrera: here is an old-fashioned master metalworker who at the same time helped forge, quite literally, the modernist age.

Gargallo’s father was in fact a fireman, and it was almost certainly the family’s move from rural humility to Barcelona that brought the young Pablo into contact with sculpted metal. The city is crammed with wrought-iron, the wonder-material of the 19th century that married industry with beauty. And where better for a sculpture show than inside Gaudí’s own great sculpture of the Pedrera, with its foliage coils of wrought-iron around the windows?

Inside, Gargallo’s career is mapped out, beginning with works that clearly manifest the traits of the century before. A 1904 piece, “The Couple”, for example, has the lovers’ heads swan-necking to kiss, their long arms flowing with Rodin’s dynamism. Yet while Gargallo always strove for this expressive power, his entire later career would be dedicated to wresting metal into the modern idiom, almost – though never entirely – expunging it of 19th-century exuberance.

His key year was 1907: not only the start of Gargallo’s first proper stay in Paris, but also the year of his friend Picasso’s “Les demoiselles d’Avignon”. It was the same year, too, that Gargallo produced “Little Mask with Lock of Hair”, beaten out of copper sheet. Barely eight centimetres high, it was nevertheless a turning point. Masks are normally convex but, as Gargallo proved, they can also be concave: it would be his radical juxtaposing of these forms that later marked his most brilliant, experimental phase.

For all that Gargallo’s posthumous fame was to be overshadowed by the curatorial dreariness of postwar Spain, his masks were what he would be best remembered by. Leaving aside their experimentation, it is their sheer expressive power that compels.

His “Portrait of Picasso” of 1913 has to be one of the wittiest takes on his compatriot: a roguish, lopsided smile, the right eye obscured by a lock of hair. Fringes recur in Gargallo’s masks, often taking the form of curled sheet-metal shavings. And while the Picasso portrait is more properly a “head” than a mask, the fringed eye, with its suggestion of secrecy, is essentially mask-like.

Many of Gargallo’s contemporaries were intrigued by masks. Picasso himself painted masked harlequins, sad symbols of the alienation of the artist from modern life. Gargallo in turn produced a series of harlequin heads, their features increasingly minimalist, in the mid-1920s. Fashioned out of copper sheets, these are marvels of craftsmanship, through which Gargallo fully explored the mask’s concave possibilities.

Just before the harlequins series, Gargallo had produced highly original pieces that used hollowed-out forms to present mass. At first, “Reclining Woman” of 1923 looks like a normal bas relief but this tiny, seminal piece is far from normal. Her body’s natural hollows – the groin and the gaps between her fingers – are in fact convex, while her limbs are concavities.

Such formal inquiries aside, Gargallo never lacked a lighter touch. His “Kiki de Montparnasse” of 1928 is a witty commentary on the fads of his times. Man Ray famously portrayed Kiki from behind as the violin woman; in Gargallo’s version, her head is a bronze shell, her features fixed over the void. A sensuous half-mouth leads to the arch of the eyebrow, which in turn curves round and thrusts back out into space and ends in a bud-shaped eye.

If this final art nouveau flourish lends Kiki a poisonous, shallow beauty, Gargallo takes his critique of celebrity further still in his “Greta Garbo”. Here, there is no “framework” for the head at all. Garbo’s features – hair; mean, beautiful mouth; massive eye – “hang” from a central support. A personality that is everywhere yet nowhere, she anticipates Warhol’s negatives of Marilyn Monroe by more than a quarter of a century.

For all his fascination with the stars, Gargallo has to be one of the least frivolous sculptors imaginable. By the late 1920s his will must have been as unyielding as the iron that he had taken to using: to see “Large Dancer” here is to feel muscular grace conjured, apparently effortlessly, from iron sheets as thick as your finger.

Yet nowhere in Gargallo’s output does such rigour, both technically or thematically, emerge more than in the uncharacteristically tall figure that looms near the exit. His most justly remembered single sculpture, 1933’s “Great Prophet”, comes towards the close of Gargallo’s sober “iron age”: by the next year he would be dead, leaving this unsettling figure to cast an eternal shadow over his wittier, daintier works.

Life-size, filled with light from all angles, the figure’s right arm is raised in fury, his mouth agape in some unheard admonition. What is he prophesying? The rise of Hitler, Spain’s doomed Republic? What is certain is his impact: modern expression perfectly coupled with classical severity. This is the figure who, staring out some unspeakable Dark Age, will haunt and puzzle the mind long after this remarkable exhibition.

‘Gargallo’, La Pedrera, Barcelona, until January 28. Tel +34 902 400 973

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