Homage to the Provinces

Michael Wood

  • Barcelona by Robert Hughes
    Harvill, 575 pp, £20.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 00 272078 7
  • Barcelonas by Manuel Vazquez Montalban, translated by Andrew Robinson
    Verso, 210 pp, £17.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 86091 353 8
  • Cities of Spain by David Gilmour
    Murray, 214 pp, £17.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 7195 4833 0
  • Red City, Blue Period: Social Movements in Picasso’s Barcelona by Temma Kaplan
    California, 266 pp, $30.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 520 07507 2

The funicular railway takes you to the top of the mountain with the strange name: a nonsense word, a child’s burble, Tibidabo. You see the city of Barcelona spread out beneath you; beyond it the Mediterranean. Très beau panorama, the Michelin guide says, as well it may, since the name is not the nonsense word it looks but the Devil’s Latin, part of the sentence in which he offered to Christ the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them: Haec omnia tibi dabo si cadens adoraveris me, ‘All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.’ I don’t know when the mountain received its name, but there is obviously a pretty complicated joke in the folk memory here. Is this the world Christ rejected? The Devil’s world? Or did Christ make a mistake? Perhaps the suggestion is that Christ didn’t take enough time to think, that a little Catalan pragmatism would have allowed him to reject the Devil but keep a piece of the worldly kingdom and glory.

Catalan pragmatism is the great regional myth, peddled in all kinds of forms. It is usually opposed to Castilian abstraction and rigidity, and there is a Catalan word for it: seny. This untranslatable term means, we are told, something like common sense, or the spirit of compromise, but it is also rendered as wisdom and intelligence, and Temma Kaplan associates it with solidarity. ‘The man of seny,’ we learn from a Catalan writer quoted by Hughes, ‘renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.’ Sounds altogether reasonable, but not as if it needs a special word. What the concept actually seems to do is to convert a complex bundle of morally ambiguous habits into a virtue: it is pragmatism in its best possible light. The Vicar of Bray wouldn’t have seny, nor would your ordinary malleable politician, but a slave-owning Catalan who built a handsome church might. It’s clear, in any event, that whatever moderation is associated with this idea is entirely mythological; the sort of myth needed, perhaps, only by truly extreme types.

Barcelona at the end of the 19th century was a ‘bourgeois paradise’, Hughes says. It also held, according to Engels, the world record for barricade construction. Manuel Vazquez Montalban, who quotes this interesting assertion, doesn’t tell us what the record was for; quantity, say, or the speed with which the barricades were put up. It’s certainly an interesting legacy for an Olympic city. ‘Between 1919 and 1923,’ David Gilmour writes, ‘there were more than seven hundred political assassinations in Catalonia’; and Temma Kaplan documents in some detail a large number of bombings, strikes and executions. The bourgeois paradise was also the Anarchists’ headquarters, and we need reflect only for a moment to realise that this is not a paradox, or a contradiction, but only a description of the same scene from different angles. The metaphor of several cities enshrined in Vazquez Montalban’s title and used several times in the book, is both eminently sensible and, if it merely suggests a relaxed pluralism, a little too easy. Different Barcelonas have frequently been at war with each other, accumulating astonishing losses of life. The factions are in this sense fighting for a single space; if they had a Barcelona each there wouldn’t be a problem. No wonder the place needs a myth of moderation.

Hughes reminds us that Barcelona contains, in its Gothic Quarter, ‘the most concentrated array of 13th to 15th-century buildings in Spain, and, not discounting even Venice, the most complete in Europe’ – but we do need reminding, and I wonder why. Partly because Catalan Gothic, as Hughes says, is unlike French and English Gothic, a matter of mass rather than aspiration: ‘Catalan architects did not want to imitate the organic profusion of detail in northern Gothic. They liked a wall. Their bell towers ended in flat roofs, not in spires.’ At the same time they produced the austere and haunting arches of the Salo de Tinell, a banqueting hall that later served as a parliament, and the interior of the church of Santa Maria del Mar, than which Hughes says ‘there is no grander or more solemn architectural space in Spain.’ But mainly, I think we need reminding because we don’t picture Barcelona as a Medieval city at all. It is too much an invention of the 19th century for that. It has a Medieval city in it, but that is not what it is.

What is it? Memories and impressions will differ, of course, but Barcelona brings three principal images to my mind, and I would guess to the minds of many: the Ramblas, with their fountains, trees, cafés, and crowds of cheerful people who seem never to have heard of sleep; the great 19th-century grid of avenues and apartment-houses known as the Eixample, a wonderful instance of humane geometry; and the weirdly ornate and undulating buildings designed by Gaudi. It is a city for people who live on the streets, and who are prepared to be both rational and frivolous about their architecture. There is nothing particularly moderate here – unless of course we take seny as precisely the quality which allows these extravagances their day: not pluralism, but a willingness to go in wholeheartedly for quite different things.

Barcelona is now a city of nearly four million inhabitants, the size of Sydney and Los Angeles, as Hughes says. The mention of Sydney is not an accident, since one of Barcelona’s appeals for Hughes is that it is ‘provincial’, an attraction ‘no doubt ... involved’, he says, ‘on a none-too-subliminal level with the fact that I am a provincial, an Australian’. Hughes had intended, he says, a thinner book; an account of Art Nouveau work in Barcelona, the movement which the Catalans call Modernism. In one sense the thinner book remains within the bulkier one, since what holds the attention here is Hughes’s discussion of the modern, from Gaudi to Miro, along with his splendidly sympathetic account of the modern city and its culture, particularly his attention to the Catalan language, and to surprising instances of popular art.

  If you find yourself in Barcelona just before Christmas, go to the Cathedral and browse the stalls that have been set up in front of its façade, where figures for the crèche are sold. They are what you expect: the shepherds, the Magi, Mary, Baby Jesus, the sheep, the oxen. But there is one who is a complete anomaly, met with nowhere else in the iconography of Christendom. A red Catalan cap, or barretina, flopping over his head, the fellow squats, breeches down, with a small brown cone of excrement connecting his bare buttocks to the earth. He is the immemorial fecundator, whom nature calls even as the Messiah arrives. Nothing can distract him from the archetypal task of giving back to the soil the nourishment that it supplied to him. He is known as the caganer, the ‘shitter’, and he exists in scores of versions.

One of the versions is in Miro’s painting The Farm, Montroig, which Hughes calls ‘a palace of recollection’. An infant squats in a world of rural memory: ‘this boy is none other than the caganer of Miro’s childhood Christmases.’

The rest of the book is good too, a genial and often witty ramble through two thousand years of history which non-Catalans certainly know all too little about. But it is history offered as anecdote, abounding in figures like Wilfred the Hairy and Pedro the Ceremonious, and it is not until Hughes reaches the 19th century that the story escapes the picturesque and becomes something we can urgently engage with. There is a partial exception to this rule whenever architecture comes up; the writing sharpens, and Hughes’s eye becomes keener and meaner. But the work effectively centres on the Eixample, and on Modernism, and Hughes’s long chapter on Gaudi is undoubtedly the best thing in the book.

Gaudi was a pious Catholic many have mistaken for a proto-Surrealist. He was a Catalan nationalist, and a man of great personal austerity. He was run over by a tram in 1926, and put in a public ward at the hospital because no one knew who he was. His architecture – the Palau Güell, the Parque Güell, the Casa Mila, the ill-fated and still unfinished Sagrada Familia – was, in Hughes’s terms, ‘the delayed baroque that Barcelona never had’: ‘It is mystical, penitential, and wildly elated by turns, structurally daring and full of metaphor, obsessed with its role as speculum mundi, “mirror of the world”. Gaudi was the greatest architect and (many would say) the greatest cultural figure of any kind that Catalunya had produced since the Middle Ages. His work dominates Barcelona as Bernini’s does Rome, setting a scale of imaginative effort against which one is apt to measure everything else.’

Gaudi was a craftsman, the son of a metalworker, endlessly interested in experimentation with materials, and he was an architect who did not like to draw. ‘He thought,’ Hughes says, ‘entirely in terms of relief, of bulges and hollows, rather than flat planar arrangements ... Of course, no building can be fully imagined from its plans. But the spaces and columns Gaudi eventually created in his mature buildings cannot be imagined at all from flat drawings.’ And Gaudi was not really a Modernist. He wanted, Hughes suggests, ‘to find radically new ways of being radically old: a fiercer project altogether’.

That all sounds fine to me, an old Gaudi fan; particularly the last sentence. But I wonder whether the earlier conventional vocabulary – ‘baroque’, ‘greatest’ and, elsewhere, ‘genius’ – doesn’t make it rather hard for us to see how curious and compelling a figure Gaudi is. Surely the interesting thing about him is that he is not a great artist by the standards we are most familiar with, even when those standards are pretty catholic. He looks like a man who set out for Disneyland and got lost. But if he wasn’t that man, who was he, and what does he do to our notion of art? Hughes brings us close to an answer when he speaks of the Güell Crypt as creating ‘the impression of an ancient building that has been dramatically deformed’. This is not a revival, or a return to the Gothic, it is a kind of sombre, manic homage, all leaning pillars and cave-like vaulting. We could call it a parody if it wasn’t so weighty, and if it didn’t create such a powerful and eerie effect, as if a mind had found faith and torture both at once.

Vazquez Montalban is best known as the author of a series of thrillers starring the radical bon vivant detective Pepe Carvalho. He lives in Barcelona, and his book on his home town has a dry wit and some fine illustrations, mixing history, architecture and anecdote in a relaxed manner. But it’s a bit sour, and you may need a little time to get into its mood. ‘The dialectic between the old and the new which I have charted throughout Barcelona’s history in this book has been resolved by the imposition of the inevitable. It often happens. In the final stages of the contest between the old and the new, the inevitable often slips through unnoticed.’ He means the Olympic Committee has merely gentrified bits of the city, thereby missing a great chance for genuine urban renewal. ‘Barcelona’s politicians ... stand accused of having wasted the first opportunity in the history of the city to put a model of democratic growth into practice.’

Vazquez Montalban can be very funny, as on the subject of the water of a famous fountain, said to be so sweet that those who drink it can never leave the city again. ‘In the Fifties the loss of the water’s magical powers was cruelly demonstrated when Alfredo di Stefano was photographed drinking from the Canaletes fountain just after signing for Barcelona Football Club. A few months later he was playing for Real Madrid.’ Vazquez Montalban notes, too, beyond the joke, how important and how political football is in Barcelona: ‘When Franco’s occupying troops entered the city, fourth on the list of organisations to be purged, after the Communists, the Anarchists and the Separatists, was Barcelona Football Club.’

But ironic regret is Vazquez Montalban’s main angle: what he himself calls, in relation to a foiled plan for redesigning the city in the Twenties, ‘a nostalgic yearning for what might have been but was not’. It’s true that bad things come to an end, that ‘Franco’s death proved once and for all that nightmares are finite’; but Vazquez Montalban also believes that utopias have ‘always had sad endings’. ‘Perhaps,’ he says grimly, ‘future historians will be able to explain the gradual mutation of the expectant city of the mid-Seventies into the mediocre, self-conscious city of the end of the decade.’ This is a complaint often made about Barcelona: as long as Franco was alive, it was a centre of resistance, radical, cosmopolitan, connected to Europe when the rest of Spain was not. When Franco died, in 1975, Barcelona lost its oppositional identity, and became a busy, rather inward-looking city, torn between its ambitions and its myths.

There is probably some truth in this argument, since both natives and foreigners are making it. David Gilmour thinks the formerly stiff and slow Madrid took over from Barcelona as the country’s cultural capital some time after 1978, the year of the new constitution granting Catalunya its own parliament and government and language. ‘Spaniards without a special loyalty to either city would in 1978 have gone to Barcelona to pursue an artistic career; a decade later they would have preferred Madrid.’ Against this, though, we have to set the statistics Hughes offers. A 1986 census showed that of the people in Catalunya who had grown up under Franco 89 per cent could understand Catalan, 59 per cent could speak it, 55 per cent could read it and 20 per cent write it. Among younger people, educated after Franco’s death, the comparable figures were 95, 73, 75 and 48. The language survived, as Hughes says, because of ‘a tenacious oral tradition’, and because it was the language of dissent: but it increased because it was taught and required and officially used. An internationalist might find this inward-looking, but for a regionalist it’s a triumph.

David Gilmour devotes a chapter to Barcelona in his engaging Cities of Spain, which is already a compliment, since he has dropped Granada, on the grounds that ‘it is no longer possible to enjoy the city as a whole.’ But he doesn’t have a great deal of enthusiasm for Barcelona, gives us only a fairly dutiful run through its history and monuments, and finds the city ‘rather provincial’, as if that were not what capitals of provinces were supposed to be. He is reacting, I take it, to the cosmopolitan claims of Barcelona, and perhaps to its aggressive charm. When he says Madrid ‘may not seduce but it does attract’, I think the implication is that Barcelona does the opposite. Certainly Gilmour is at his best when writing slightly against the grain, disbelieving Spanish claims for Toledo, for example, but understanding why they are made; taking pleasure in the tattered beauty of Cadiz, enjoying the rainy melancholy of Santiago de Compostela; insisting that ‘people who say they adore Spain but dislike Madrid cannot really understand the country.’ The last remark is a bit dogmatic, and I’m always suspicious of people who say they do really understand countries, but the point about Madrid is a good one. Even under Franco, Madrid was energetic and interesting in all kinds of (rather complicated) ways, and I can’t see why anyone who doesn’t have to should want to take sides between Castilia and Catalunya; and shouldn’t just savour the difference. Gilmour’s other cities are Cordoba, Seville, Salamanca and San Sebastian. He looks at them one by one, a series of informative mini-essays, discreetly evocative.

Temma Kaplan takes us back to an earlier Barcelona, from the late 19th century to the end of the Civil War. Her interest is popular culture and politics, or, as she puts it, the ‘cultural battles that traditional political, social or economic history often overlook’. She describes parades and processions, puppet shows, café life, popular painting, hoping to ‘account for the peculiar sense of solidarity that the citizens of Barcelona developed between 1888 and 1939’. I’m not sure she accounts for it, but she does document it, with a helpful emphasis on the role of working women in the construction of this consciousness. Picasso keeps appearing in the wings of the story, and the place is described as ‘Picasso’s Barcelona’ in the book’s subtitle. But he appears only to disappear again, not as radical as he looks, not a Catalan, and for much of the time, not in the country at all. To say that, although absent, he was ‘not entirely out of touch’, seems a particularly frail way of keeping him in a book that scarcely needs him. On the other hand, the Catalan culture that Kaplan evokes – processions, miracle paintings, comic strips and the rest – manifestly is behind much of Guernica, a world of images where several Spains cross and suffer.

What about the question of provincialism, however, which is the big unsettled issue lurking in these books? I suspect we’re all committed to double-think here, even when we are trying to address the issues as straightforwardly as possible. Hughes, drawn to Barcelona because it was ‘provincial’ – his quotation marks indicating perhaps that he intended to drop the word when it got awkward – finally decides he likes it because it is not, because it is possible to be ‘both Catalanist and international, proving that a vigorous regionalist culture does not have to be a provincial one, in Barcelona or anywhere else.’ So regionalism is the right sort of provincialism; an instance of seny perhaps. Similarly Gilmour praises Madrid for ceasing to be ‘a provincial city aspiring to be imperial’ and becoming instead ‘a cosmopolitan city preserving the provincial characteristics which it values’. What do we want? We want, it seems, to be cosmopolitan but not rootless, rooted but not trapped. We should remember that the Miro painting Hughes discusses so brilliantly was begun at home in Catalunya, on the farm it depicts, but finished in Paris a year later, a portrait not of loss but of what the artist had voluntarily left behind. The provinces are what provincials give up or would like to give up; the ones who remain contentedly at home don’t think of themselves as provincial, they live in their own world-capital. It is a sign of our bewilderment, about cities as about much else, that we have started to envy the stay-at-homes, without having the faintest desire to join them.