Considering what a unique, populous and proud city Barcelona is, and by extension the rest of Catalunya/Catalonia, it’s a bit odd that its artistic heritage is primarily in its buildings, a bit in its literature, and very little really of fame in the visual arts. It’s not like Paris, Rome, Berlin or any of the other competition. It doesn’t come close to Madrid in that respect, as the obvious rival conurbation.
Rumbustious Aussie art critic Robert Hughes‘ excellent homage to Barcelona – 500+ pages of discursive history and opinion – makes this point well (Hughes’ own potted history of the place is here). Relatively few tourists flock to the externally impressive Palau Nacional for its contents, which are “the country’s (but mainly Catalunya’s) art history from early medieval times to the mid-20th century”, which sounds great but there’s an emphasis on ‘specialist’ stuff such as early Spanish Romanesque. That sounds harsh on the Catalans, but it’s not the mighty Prado.
Hughes however specifies a few works, and one caught my eye. Here’s his description of Modest Urgell’s El toc d’oracio:
Which may sound a bit sentimental or cheesy, but I think it’s superb. Including the bat.
If you want to read wondrous, effortlessly descriptive prose, then try Laurie Lee. School children often get Cider With Rosie as a set text (and enjoy it). I’ve just read, for the first time, the magical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and in terms of evocative writing it is sensationally good. The subject is Spain, and if there is a country that lends itself to vivid writing, this is it. That in itself probably made Lee’s task a little easier. It’s entirely understandable that he wrote it more than 30 years after the events in the book – a walk through Spain from Vigo to Andalucia, in 1934. Spain stays locked in your head.
The Knife spent 4 weeks in Andalucia in the summer of 1982, teaching English in a school on a mountain top in the Sierra Blanca. The best World Cup of them all (1,2) had just finished, with tattered posters for the Mundial everywhere. The next year I spent another 4 weeks on the train around the Iberian peninsula. 3rd class carriages with no windows and wooden bench seats, remote spaghetti western towns, terrible sanitation if you could actually find los lavabos (I once had to go under a tree on a roundabout in Granada), but still wonderful. I’ve been back lots of times since then. If anyone’s interested, the best meal I’ve ever had was in the Asador Donostiarra in Madrid, and the best breakfast in the charming Venta el Buscon, also Madrid.
1983 was the year I was ‘rescued’ in Algeciras, a grubby town which judging by Laurie Lee’s affectionate description, had suffered a bit in the interim 50 years. In the early 80’s Franco (died in 1975) still cast a long shadow in Spain. Despite what you will be told these days, rightly or wrongly, plenty of people mourned his departure. That whole secular/Catholic, left/right wing, Spaniards/separatists set of dichotomies is still a key part of understanding this country. Beevor’s book on the civil war is pretty balanced, in the way that many of them are not. If you want to really understand the unique nature of that conflict and its aftermath, Javier Cercas’ mesmerising novel Soldiers of Salamis is a nuanced and compelling tale. The fact that the Valle de los Caidos is still there (1, 2 a fascinating piece), still getting many, many visitors gives a clue as to how schizophrenic Spain remains on this topic**.
That said there are plenty of standard travelogues about, but quite a few tend to fall short in some way. The highly regarded Jan Morris’ Spain is chock full of adjectives but in the end, it’s a bit dull. Older writers like the admirable and prescient Halliday Sutherland (here) and the…er…controversialHV Morton (here) do a better job in summoning up the uniqueness of the place. In the modern age Christopher Howse (1,2) with an enthusiasm for remote monasteries, back roads and railways does the best job. He completely gets the enduring religiosity which you can still see in places like Valencia’s cathedral, where pregnant women (who often seem to be with their mothers) do 9 circuits before praying at the statue of the Virgen del Buen Parto.
Which emphasises just how key the whole Spanish Catholic intensity is in understanding the place and the people. That holds today, where the counterpoint of this intensity is a suffocating and aggressive secularism. The civil war all over again. So you need to experience Zurbaran, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila (a proto-feminist, believe it or not). If you sample the origins of the much maligned Opus Dei you’ll get an idea of the rooted nature of Spanish Catholicism. In fact, if you seek the best translation of the poems of St John of the Cross, by that remarkable man of action Roy Campbell, you will be back in Laurie Lee territory, as the young writer stayed with the older man in Toledo, as the civil war was beginning to rumble, in which Campbell played a valorous role.
There are lots more: Goya, Don Quixote of course (it’s not boring), George Orwell, even the tiresome Hemingway. The latter claimed that “For one person who likes Spain there are a dozen who prefer books on her”. If he’s right, then I hope this post gives some pointers. A better quote is from the tragic Lorca, which captures that uneasy feeling you get as you descend the stairway to the royal tombs and el pudridero in the mighty Escorial:
In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.
**when I first wrote this, I neglected to mention the great Stanley Payne, a true historian of Spain in every era, and an expert on the whole Franco/Civil War thing (1,2)