BARCELONA By Robert Hughes (Random House, $34.50, 573 pages)
To read Robert Hughes, Time magazine’s art critic since 1970, is to encounter a vigorously original personality—erudite and irreverent, probing and robustly irascible. He is at once a refined, sensitive observer and an earthy sensualist with a taste for smutty humor. It is not surprising that someone like Hughes found himself drawn to Barcelona. The major urban centre of Spain’s Catalonia region has a long history of being a study in opposites: inherently conservative but prone to anarchy, provincial but full of cosmopolitan aspirations, subjugated
but bristling with separatist sentiment. Barcelona covers nearly 2,000 years of the city’s social, political and artistic history. However, while Hughes’s 1987 history of his native Australia, The Fatal Shore, was a resounding triumph, Barcelona is like a lot of cities: full of life in some sections, but somewhat dreary in others. Hughes notes in his preface that he originally planned to write a history of the modernista (modern) style, a hybrid of art nouveau’s curvilinear grace and traditional Catalan themes that flourished in Barcelona between 1875 and 1910. Antoni Gaudí i Comet, architect of the profoundly strange, molten-looking Sagrada Familia church and other local landmarks, is the best-known name linked to the movement. The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona will attract droves of tourists, and Hughes envisioned his book as a companion for them. But he realized that much of the 19th-century art created there was “grounded in a strong, even obsessive, sense of the Catalan past.” Writing about modernista without delving into Catalonia’s history, he coneluded, would be like “examining the foliage of the tree without considering its trunk and roots.”
He looks at Barcelona from its origins as a Roman colony in the first century AD to the death of Gaudí in 1926. By the Middle Ages, Catalonia had developed into a distinct society with its own language, Catalan. Hughes notes that the region’s characteristic prickly, independent spirit emerged early, citing the oath of allegiance of Aragon and Catalonia, whose political union existed from the 12th to the 15th centuries. The oath: “We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws—but if not, not.”
Hughes rightly argues that the art of 19thcentury Barcelona cannot be understood without a knowledge of Catalan history. But sum-
marizing 1,700 years in the first 200-odd pages forces him to move so fast that Barcelona occasionally becomes a textbookish blur of names and dates. In the remaining pages, Hughes concentrates in greater detail on the 19th century—and the book comes alive. Barcelona’s revival of interest in its past during the 1800s generated a political and artistic surge of Catalan nationalism.
Hughes writes about how Catalonia’s renaixença (renaissance) began in 1833 with a single poem, “La Pàtria” (The Fatherland), by Bonaventura Carles Aribau i Farriols. Castilian was then the standard written language even in Catalonia. But Aribau wrote: “When I find myself alone, I talk with my soul,/it speaks Catalan, it knows no other tongue.” And he wrote those words in Catalan. Soon, a mania for Catalan heroes and folklore, and for the language itself, seized Barcelona.
Hughes devotes his final chapter to a vivid profile of the architect Gaudí. Although Gaudi’s exuberant, flowing forms have much in common with modernista art, the author points out that Gaudí, a devout Roman Catholic, did not believe in modernity. “He wanted,” Hughes writes, “to find radically new ways of being radically old: a fiercer project altogether.”
For its part, Barcelona is striving to reinvent itself for the future. The city has spent more than $2 billion on the 1992 Olympic facilities and astoundingly ambitious urban renewal projects. But, amid change, the Catalan language continues to thrive. In Robert Hughes, Barcelona has found an eloquent historian, one capable of capturing the city’s paradoxical verve.
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