Domènech i Montaner was very young when he first began to take part in Catalan cultural life, an activity that brought him into contact with the first Catalanist movements. Despite having been one of the chief representatives of political Catalanism and a member of the Spanish parliament in Madrid, his political relevance has waned over time and has been undervalued by new generations of politicians.
As mentioned, his early involvement in Catalan cultural life went hand in hand with his militant Catalanism. In 1870, almost twenty, he co-founded Jove Catalunya, a group of artists and intellectuals with an openly Catalanist spirit that gathered at the Cafè Suís and in the back room of the chemists in Plaça del Pi. Although his café companions were young, their table had been christened as that of the ‘wise men’. The group’s first mouthpiece was the weekly publication La Gramalla, succeeded by La Renaixensa. Domènech contributed a number of articles to this journal; especially famous in the historiography of Catalan Art Nouveau – modernisme – was the one entitled ‘En busca de l’arquitectura nacional’ published in 1878. In 1881 La Renaixensa became a daily newspaper and Domènech designed its masthead.
The Centre Català (Catalan Centre) was a Catalanist organisation founded in 1882 that strove to unite the Catalan people. The idea had originally been formulated by Valentí Almirall at the First Catalanist Congress held the previous year. Almirall became the leader of the Centre Català until the organisation was dissolved. The intellectuals grouped around the La Renaixensa project, Domènech i Montaner among them, soon joined forces with the Centre Català. One of the most important events involving Catalanist militancy was the presentation of the List of Grievances to King Alfonso XII in 1885.
In 1887 a division in the Centre Català led to the birth of the Llliga de Catalunya, or Catalan liberal party, of which Domènech i Montaner was a co-founder. The new political formation also managed to get its message across to the Spanish monarchy, in this case to Maria Christina of Austria, Queen of Spain as the second wife of King Alfonso XII. During her visit to Barcelona to inaugurate the Exposition Universelle of 1888 she was handed a document signed by 2601 people requesting autonomy for Catalonia. Drawn up by Àngel Guimerà, the document expressed the ideas of the Catalan liberal party and of the group behind La Renaixensa. That same year Domènech was elected President of the Lliga de
Shortly afterwards, in 1981 a new political group was founded, Unió Catalanista (Catalanist Union), designed to bring the different sensibilities existing in Catalan nationalism to a common political space: on the one hand, historical and cultural nationalism (around the sphere of La Renaixensa journal) and, on the other, militant political nationalism (represented by Enric Prat de la Riba). Domènech was involved in the creation of the group, and the following year was appointed President while Enric Prat de la Riba became the General Secretary. The organisation held its 1892 Assembly in Manresa, where the so-called Bases de Manresa, or First Convention for Catalan Autonomy, was signed. The document was the first written expression of the political objectives of Catalanism and laid down the conditions for a Catalan Regional Constitution. Domènech, as President, chaired the Assembly and made the opening and closing speeches.
The loss of the overseas colonies in the so-called Disaster of ’98 created a climate of political crisis that in Catalonia led to a strengthening of Catalanist movements that criticised the Spanish government and called for regeneration. The group of politicians known as The Five Presidents, which included Domènech, delivered a second message to the Regent Queen, ten tears after the first, voicing the demands of Catalanists.
The differences within the Unió Catalanista that drew together the divergent sensibilities eventually triggered a split and those who were against the party’s apoliticism left. In 1899 those in favour of acting within Spanish politics, Domènech among them, founded the Centre Nacional Català (Catalan National Centre). The Unió Catalanista sector that followed the apolitical policy remained in close contact with the circle of La Renaixensa newspaper.
A short time afterwards, Domènech and other militants from the Centre Nacional Català joined forces with the Unió Regionalista, clearly in favour of negotiations with the Marquis of Polavieja (a general who had fought in the Rif War as well as Cuba and the Philippines), and founded the Lliga Regionalista (Regionalist League). Originally made up of sectors of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes disappointed with the regeneration movement known as ‘Polaviejisme’ (named after its chief representative, Polavieja), the Lliga Regionalista mobilised against the government’s repression of a taxpayers’ strike (known as the tancament de caixes, or closing of cash boxes). La Veu de Catalunya newspaper was their mouthpiece. These sectors pushed for a free, strong and autonomous Catalonia, and their candidates sat for the parliamentary elections of 19 May 1901 and for the municipal elections of 10 November of the same year on the list of The Four Presidents, four personalities who supported the candidacy of the Lliga Regionalista: Domènech, as ex-president of the Ateneu Barcelonès, Bartomeu Robert, ex-mayor of Barcelona and ex-president of the Economic Society of Friends of the Country, Albert Russinyol, ex-president of Foment del Treball trade union, and Sebastià Torres, ex-president of the Lliga de Defensa Industrial i Comercial (League of Industrial and Commercial Defence). These candidates were elected and Domènech would become a member of parliament in Madrid from 1901 to 1903 and then again from 1903 to1905, when he was re-elected in the local elections. During this second term of office, however, the Lliga Regionalista lost a great deal of popular support and showed internal differences. On 16 April 1904 Alfons XIII visited Barcelona. The Lliga Regionalista published a manifesto calling for people to boycott programmed acts in protest at the king’s lack of sensitivity regarding Catalanist aspirations. Yet Cambó and the regionalist councillors at the Town Hall attended the reception. An internal division was produced in the party, led by Prat de la Riba. Domènech was greatly disappointed and left the party. During his second term in office he hardly attended parliament.
Some of those who split away from the party formed a left-wing group that gathered around the weekly newspaper El Poble Català. Yet ideologically he didn’t quite see eye to eye with this political group, and so he soon left. After this experience, Domènech gradually distanced himself from his comrades in political struggle and resumed his life as an architect and teacher. He continued to be very present in the country’s social and cultural life, was re-elected president of the Ateneu Barcelonès and made a number of highly successful architectural works. He continued to write articles and open letters to El Poble Català, in which he argued with Pijoan and Puig i Cadafalch about the Biblioteca de Catalunya (Library of Catalonia) or the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, and protested against the bombing of the Cathedral of Reims by the Germans.
Despite having been a leading figure in the political Catalanist movement for many years, Domènech’s relevance has waned over time and he has been undervalued by new generations of politicians.