Swans Commentary » swans.com March 14, 2011  



Stalking Utopia In Barcelona


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - March 14, 2011)   Ghosts argue back and forth in the old heart of Barcelona. One of them, George Orwell, was caught up in urgencies that left no time to gape at the sights. He arrived in the city in 1936 as a writer curious about the Civil War. His better self took over and he signed up to fight for the Republic as a volunteer with the POUM workers' militia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). He spent 150 days on the Aragon front. His entire Spanish adventure is set down in that monument to plain speaking and literary modesty, his Homage to Catalonia.

Orwell returned to Barcelona from the front exhausted. His soldiering struck him as useless. The fighting had been spotty and inconclusive, a version of trench warfare between rag-tail proletarians and frightened peasant recruits. The two sides mostly avoided contact. But as he ordered his thoughts he would change his mind and come to feel that the 150 days had given him something "strange and valuable." He had experienced a foretaste of utopia. At the front there had been no class differences, snobs, bosses or money grubbing.

Now in April 1937 Barcelona showed another face. Orwell saw that his first impression of it as a revolutionary city had been in part the result of bourgeois survival tactics, camouflage and hypocrisy. Nothing indicated that the working class was still on top. Blue overalls and the slapdash uniforms of the militias had disappeared. "Fat prosperous men, elegant women, and sleek cars were everywhere." Orwell's innocence ended and his political education began. It would take place amidst violence along Las Ramblas.

In the Middle Ages, Las Ramblas had been a ditch that delivered sewage through the old town down to the sea. Filled in, it becomes a wide tree-lined promenade that pedestrians could ride downhill like a spirited steed. If cities have a main artery, Las Ramblas was and remains Barcelona's jugular. Rich and poor live beside it. It connects the brain to seats of civil and religious clout while gathering in the city's social exuberance and generously leaving space for charlatanry and petty crime.

When in May Orwell and his wife settled into a hotel for a rest, it was naturally on Las Ramblas. One day strolling downhill he noted commotion at the Telephone Exchange on Plaza de Catalonia. At the time the various militias held different strong points and the Exchange was in the hands of the anarchists. But the Republican government, now Communist dominated and Popular Front orientated, had begun to suppress the militias. The POUM had some anarchist sympathies, and Orwell, who had fought for the Republic, joined in the defense of the Exchange.

So began a period of street fighting with quiet interludes when armed opponents stood staring each other down, one side as unsure and jumpy as the other. It was a time of betrayal, treacherous power shifts, and lying press reports. Orwell, who had tasted utopia, felt he was now in a city of evil. Food ran out for the militias and the poor. The Orwells survived on a wedge of goat cheese bought earlier passing through the neighborhood market. (You can still get good cheese and superb Spanish ham there.)

Orwell was assigned duty on the roof of the Poliorama Theatre. (It too still stands and entertains, but let's hope the 1930s fare was richer than the Flamenco for package tours presently dished up.) On the roof for three days and nights running, he staved off boredom with a pile of Penguin Books. Occasionally, in the dark, a Socialist Party (i.e., Communist) enemy on another rooftop would shout across to Orwell not to shoot him when he lit a cigar, because he was a worker too. They exchanged the anti-Fascist salute.

It was a devastating introduction to factional realpolitik for a straightforward person like Orwell who had simply wanted to kill Fascists. He was only too happy to get on with that and returned to the front. On May 20 he barely escaped death when a sniper shot him through the throat. He made his way from hospital to hospital back to Barcelona. There he learnt that the Republic had outlawed the POUM and begun a brutal suppression. POUMists who weren't shot outright were sent to prison without trial.

Orwell couldn't stay with his wife who was being watched. The Barcelona hotel keepers, after sucking up to the militias, were now spying for the Republic. The Barcelona newspapers and the press abroad called the POUM "Franco's Fifth Column." (And we think the subservience of our mainstream media is new!) Orwell dressed like an English tourist and walked Las Ramblas during the day, sleeping rough at night. It was another month before he and his wife could escape into France.

From his perch on the Poliorama, Orwell had observed "fantastic curly roofs with brilliant green and copper tiles." These were the buildings of the architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926). In Barcelona today, Orwell's presence is limited to the spiel of the manager of the retro hotel, now part of a chain, where he supposedly stayed. Tourists are told they could very well be sleeping in Orwell's room. But from the look of these international shoppers chattering in the lobby, Orwell's ghost might not want to haunt them.

The Catalan Gaudi, on the contrary, is Barcelona's one-man, ever-expanding tourist industry. There is no doubt whose side he would have been on in the Civil War. He was a fervent, not to say fanatic, Catholic and his masterpiece was the La Sagrada Familia Church. Orwell described it:

A modern cathedral and one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It has four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up though they did hang a red and black banner between its spires.

But, then, Orwell classified the Catholic hierarchy with the Stalinists who, to his mind, ran a "Communist racket": "To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, [the Roman Catholic Church was] a racket, pure and simple."

Gaudi nonetheless was also a utopist, and not only in his church-mouse posture or his Disneyland creations, but in the way of a modern architect. There was no doubt of his creative power or excellence as an engineer. When an inhabitant of one of his curvy mansions complained that she had no place to stand up her piano, the maestro told her to try playing the flute.

Art nouveau (Secession, Jugenstill, Liberty) was a style that sprang from the speculations of John Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc. Belgium was its cradle, but Catalonia, where they called it Modernismo, became its greatest conquest. This was largely due to the genius and obsessions of Gaudi. In the 1890s conditions were ripe in Barcelona for a building spree and he would call the shots. Gaudi considered the curve to be the essence of the cosmos and rounded lines and elaborate wrought iron work would mark his adoption of Moorish and medieval forms.

Gaudi's inventiveness in a retro mould can or cannot be considered an advance in architecture. In his way he was a reactionary utopist dreaming of a Catholic fairyland. Today crowds storm the ticket booths of his buildings, just as they press in on Disney-franchise fun fairs. His Sagrada Familia Church, not the black flag of the anarchists, has become the official symbol of Barcelona.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) -- no surprise -- wanted to "send Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia to hell." His European, French modernism, sprung from Cézanne, had nothing to do with Catalan Modernismo. Picasso painted his Blue Period across the street from the Palau Güell, a Gaudi-built residence that gleamed like a jewel. This was in the rakish El Raval quarter, then a center of lowlife off Las Ramblas, now populated by hard-working Pakistanis and a few leftover streetwalkers. Where in 1890 Gaudi polished a façade for his richest patron, in 1907 Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. He originally called it The Brothel of Avignon, after a handy establishment in Avinyó Street.

No Catalan, Picasso nevertheless considered Barcelona his true home. He moved there with his parents in 1895. Afterward he would go back and forth to Paris. Since it was in Barcelona and Catalonia that the Malaga-born artist's gifts developed and blossomed, it's fitting that the city dedicates a serious, even solemn, museum to him. This, also fittingly, concentrates on his formative years, leaving a complete retrospective of his work to institutions in Paris and elsewhere.

If, to the man in the street, the word Picasso calls up "painter," the name Salvador Dali (1904-1989) suggests "clown," maybe in a frilled collar of mystery. It's hard not to be dismissive of Dali. The original surrealists, whom he plagiarized and deserted to go his commercial way, called him -- in an anagram of his name -- Avida Dollars. A Franco-supporter in the Civil War, he sat out WWII in America making money. At his death several Dali "Museums" existed around the world showing inferior or counterfeited work. Rumor had it that he signed blank canvases that others could paint on and sell. He was a dandified anti-clerical in the inconsequential Latin tradition, ending up back in Mother Church with a discreet cross on his tombstone.

All the same Dali was a talented inventor. A Catalan, he kept away from Barcelona out of megalomania and disinclination to share a stage or, perhaps, from an aristocrat's fear of the mob. There are only a couple of his tamer paintings in the National Museum of Art of Catalonia. Dali built his own museum, two hours by train from Barcelona, in his home town of Figueres, an otherwise non-descript place. The structure, partly inside a burnt-out theatre, houses his best work and his playful hand is evident in the overall design. There's a Halloween spookiness about the dim premises that together with the cramped dimensions make it hard actually to contemplate anything. But that doesn't deter international visitors who are more concerned with snapping photos than seeing.

Dali may have stayed away from Barcelona simply to avoid comparison with Picasso. Both were too imaginatively prodigal to be confined to one approach and manner. Picasso, however, left every style he used stronger before moving on. Dali had a good hand for design, but only some of his dream visions will stand the test of time. They will send us back to post-war pop-Freudianism, as in Hitchcock's Spellbound, in which Dali collaborated. His surrealist imagery has already become the stuff of department store window dressers, whereas it takes a muscular plagiarist to exploit Picasso. Dali made a joke of his self-absorption, but there's no doubt that in his utopia there was room for only one inhabitant. The inimitable Picasso for his part never stopped remaking the world with added thunderbolts of meaning. That was his utopia.

Joan Miró (1893-1983), a son of Barcelona, had no painterly biceps. He seemed to work with his fingertips and speak sotto voce. Only a dozen years younger than Picasso, he profited from the older man's prodigious clearing of the decks. No jack-of-all-trades, Miró sought a single groove he could deepen.

Gaudi died before surrealism got under steam as a movement though its proponents would honor him with a proto-surrealist accolade. Picasso absorbed the Parisian surrealists like so much else and made them part of his thrusting imagination. Dali simply co-opted their discoveries and trusted that his fertility and histrionics would sideline them and leave him in the limelight. But Miró in Paris amongst the surrealists went back to zero. He said, "I want to assassinate painting." In painter-speak that meant simply that he wanted scrupulously to follow a new line from scratch. And that is what he did from the mid 1920s till his death.

El Raval was not for Miro. Barcelona did well to build the splendid Joan Miró Foundation high on the city's fetish mountain, Montjuic. His works belong up there among the clouds. They are celestial doodles that see, hear and speak no evil. When Miró supported the Republic from exile in France during the Civil War, his work darkened. WWII found him holed up in Normandy and near personal breakdown. He had to escape reality or perish. He began the Constellations, a long series that would be his utopia, the simplest of caressed forms afloat in a gentle cosmos of childhood.

Painting in the city returned heavily to sea level at the Antoni Tàpies Foundation, just around the corner from where George Orwell, noblesse oblige, pitched in to help the anarchists defend the Telephone Exchange. The Barcelona-born artist (1923- ), though very much on the experimental fringe, had no qualms about choosing to settle his 800 works in a stout Moderniste building of 1885. (It's the work of Domenech, second only to Gaudi as a fin-de-siècle Barcelona architect.) Tàpies opposed the Francoists in the 1960s and 1970s, waiting until they were out of the way before rooting his work again in his native city.

Like his illustrious precursors, Tàpies began in the surrealist camp, but soon found his way into the "informal" school, which glories in thick, heavy paint for its own sake. Examples hang on the Foundation's walls now like a reminder of the Spanish earth beneath the boisterous city. There is no doubt what Tàpies's utopia is composed of. He speaks of "a sort of interior prime matter," which isn't "a world apart, ideal and supernatural, but a unique, total and true reality, of which everything is made."

In Barcelona it's quite possible and even likely, just as in a travel chronicle, to have too much art and too much of the exalted utopias of artists. The remedy is to make your way to the MACBA, The Museum of Contemporary Art. (Don't harrumph! Wait for the irony.) At first glance an industrial barn, a second look reveals the Richard Meier building's (1995) massive beauty. Spotless white, perfect in proportion, it glows with carefully modeled ramps and angles. From the shady side of the Plaza of the Angels, the south-facing, glass-fronted four stories of Meier's utopia is bright in the sun. It recalls a huge display case. The exhibition rooms against the back walls could be drawers that a shopkeeper opens and closes.

This morning you have only come to look out from inside the museum on the slightly scruffy Plaza. The skateboard kids won't have appeared yet. A few people, mainly men but women too, begin to swarm. They greet each other like long separated friends, with hugs, backslapping, and mild pawing. Kisses come in several versions. These people in fact screamed at each other the night before and several faces dripped blood. But that doesn't count. They have just had their first drink of the day and a new life is beginning.

This first stage of the clochard utopia overflows with generosity. A dark-skinned man with hedgerow hair and several mufflers appears with an open liter bottle poking out of a paper bag. He's welcomed like the Prodigal Son bringing the Holy Grail home in his backpack. No racism here in the morning. Everyone has a swig and no one seems worried that a buddy tilts up the bottle too long. A seated woman who could have passed for a museumgoer suddenly gets up and goes over to Mr. Muffler. She knows him, maybe even well, and takes a ladylike gulp.

A skinny old guy keeps just beyond the group after he's been waved in for a sip and then out. He compensates for his physical detachment with a beaming grin. Everyone is talking except the temperamentally mute like him. But even they aren't listening. Nobody has to listen in utopia. A dangerous-looking four-square frowning fellow rushes in like a thrown stone. But no one takes it amiss. They even lift the bottle to his mouth as you would to a baby. He then retires, disappearing at the same speed like a bounced ball. A couple more associates arrive, popping cans of beer. They're welcomed. They're family.

There's time now to look through your newspapers or toy with your electronic doodads. Sitting on that knee-high concrete wall in the sun isn't uncomfortable. In an hour, stage two begins. You look around then, resting your eyes, and think the stalwarts of the bottle have gone. But no, they've only changed mood and found a corner still in the sun. Four sit on the pavement around a mat playing cards. Two, still stuck in the earlier mindset, buzz in and out on shaky legs. But these are serious card players, males at their sport, and they swat off interruptions. Bottle goods have now reverted to individual ownership, tucked carefully under the knee. The silent old guy, no kibitzer, is allowed to squat nearby. He's still smiling.

It's a good time to hit the market where Orwell bought goat cheese. If you find a seat, brace your knees against the bar and shout loud for the Catalan sausage and beans. Afterward, don't go out into Las Ramblas. You can also forget the Plaza of the Angels, which is devilish and empty without the sun. Go to nearby San Agustin Church. While Filipinos worship inside, an endless one-deep line of the hungry file along the long rough-stone side. It's a silhouette out of Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Our thirsty friends of the morning are thinking about a late lunch, stage three. Some nuns run a soup kitchen behind the church.

San Agustin's front gives on a little square. At one corner there's a decent café where you can retire to watch, postprandial, as the knights of the road struggle to top up their utopia in stage four. But don't get too thoughtful and wonder why that unspoiled-looking young girl has skipped the intermediate stations and gone right to the end of the line. Don't ask yourself why the bent-over granddad can look after the fox terrier he cradles and not himself.

Under the chestnut trees, the square boasts a low monument with a built-in stone bench. It honors the shoulders and head of a local actor, dead in 1915, who from the angle of his ears had to be a comedian. Those seated slouch and dwindle with the setting sun, sinking like their utopia. Thoughts of a hole to pass the night in absorb the whole of stage five. A couple of nail-thin wraiths linger, interminably rolling a joint with fingers that won't listen. It's better to leave then because, if they ever finish, they are not going to have a match and you are going to have to explain guiltily that you are a non-smoker, which just might bring a grin to the front of their skulls. George Orwell, a heavy smoker, would have lit them up. The author of Down and Out in London and Paris might even have got a meaningful conversation going with the pair. But this is 2011 and you can only watch.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 14, 2011