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Homage to Barcelona, the City and Its Art 1888-1936;introduction by Marilyn McCully (Thames & Hudson: $22.50; 328 pp.)

July 26, 1987|Hugh Thomas | Thomas is an English historian. The most recent edition of his history of the Spanish Civil War was published in 1986 by Harper & Row

Every generation or so, Barcelona seems to become, for a few months, the center of the world. It was so in 1888 at the time of the Universal Exhibition held in the city and again in 1929 when an International Exhibition was mounted there. It was so in 1909 and 1937 when, in very different ways, the political crisis of the constitutional monarchy and of the Second Republic came to a head there. It will be so again in 1992 when Barcelona will act as host to the Olympic Games: The cultural side of the games will be specially emphasized, so recalling the original Greek idea of an interchange between poetry and athletics.

The impression that Barcelona gives to the world is thus like that of a star that shines intermittently: rather like Halley's comet. The rest of the time, Barcelona appears to turn its face away from the world.

But this is the appearance, not the reality. Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, now an autonomous nation in the new free Spain, has had a consistently interesting history over the last 100 years and, if the world has not always paid attention, it is perhaps because the main theme of this history has been a self-conscious Catalanism, based on a unique language and markedly individual dances, buildings and paintings: a cultural efflorescence with political implications and an intellectual and economic underpinning of the first importance. These things in turn have seemed till recently to have made Catalans seem a determinedly obstinate people always difficult to fit into usual European patterns of behavior: Thus, most of local nationalism in Europe has been, like Ireland, Corsica or Sicily, the reaction of poor people protesting against neglect by a rich center--not, like Catalonia, a rich nation protesting on the edge of a poorer one.

The exhibition shown last year in London entitled Homage to Barcelona was a good corrective to this parochial neglect. The catalogue is now published in New York. It is not only a fine guide to the exhibition but also a splendid introduction to the entire history of modern Barcelona, worthy of a permanent place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in 20th-Century art and history. The catalogue is in the form of a collection of essays by scholars dealing with different topics: Thus, Roger Alier talks of music, Alan Yates of literature and Guillem-Jordi Graells of the theater. Several authors discuss painting and architecture. Isidre Molas, the well-known historian of the Catalan nationalist party the Lliga, gives the political perspective and Salvador Giner, newly returned from England to his native city as Barcelona's first professor of sociology, an excellent general picture: He there makes the essential point that Barcelona's cultural development largely derived "from private initiative and flourished, more often than not, in the face of official comprehension and even opposition." He also draws attention to the "exceptional proliferation of voluntary associations," which even now characterizes Catalan life in a way that makes them closer in spirit to Anglo-Saxons than to Castilians. The foundation of, and until recently maintenance of, a great opera house, the Liceu, without any public funds was unique in Europe.

There are weaknesses in all collections of essays. The chief textual weakness is that there are repetitions. Doubtless the editor, Marilyn McCully, did her best to get rid of these. All the same, most writers in anthologies feel constrained to give an indication of the background to their particular theme. There are too many such paragraphs. The absence of a Spanish (Madrid or Castilian) contribution also diminishes the impact: Surely Spain has something interesting to say about the character of its "vital member," as the Catalan political leader Cambo put it.

In the end, the biggest impression made by this book is that of the painters. Poets such as Father Jacint Verdaguer are not easy to appreciate in translation, and in the original now read very much like (in Lord Hervey's words) "the faded beauty of a last century toast": The music is hard to describe and the life of the theater elusive (Graells' essay is short). But the works of interesting painters scarcely known outside Catalonia are beautifully illustrated--in particular, Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusinol, both being evidently inspired by their long periods in Paris. (The neglect of Sert is a little surprising.) Casas' pain1953066599London must have been the first time that anyone outside Catalonia has been able to see these at all.

There is a strong element of tragedy in all this. At the beginning of the first film made in Catalan since the civil war, in 1976, "La Semana Tragica," there is an extraordinary scene of a massed choir of Catalans singing on the slopes of the mountain known as Montjuic, saluting the first day of the new century. What disillusion, bloodshed and oppression lay ahead for these Catalans, what years of exile and prison! On the slopes of that same Montjuic, there would be more executions this century than in any other. It is as well once again to be reminded that Catalonia and not just Spain experienced a marvelous cultural effloresence in the early years of this century--a cultural revival that long preceded the recovery of Spain's economy. But that revival seems to have excited passions all the more and led to the outburst of hatred and violence of the civil war in which all these wonderful buildings so well illustrated here were often put to bizarre misuses.

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