Monthly Archives: February 2015

Barcelona and the Avant Garde

This post is reproduced with permission from the British Library European Studies blog: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/european/2015/02/barcelona-and-the-avant-garde.html

Barcelona was more open to outside influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than the Spanish capital, Madrid. It witnessed the flowering of modernisme, the Catalan variant of art nouveau, whose most notable exponent was the eccentric architect Antoni Gaudí. He continued his most extravagant project, the Sagrada Familia, until his death in 1926.

However, by 1906 modernisme was considered overly aesthetic and had given way to noucentisme. Initiated by Eugeni d’Ors, this cultural and intellectual movement, literally ‘of the new century’, was urban, middle-class and distinctly nationalist both politically and culturally. In the visual arts and literature, noucentisme can be seen as a return to order, to Classicism and social cohesion after the individualism of modernisme. In fact, Catalan artists and writers were influenced by movements from elsewhere in Europe, but remained true to local traditions, spirit and language. The avant-garde movement in Barcelona should be seen against the background of noucentisme, sometimes emerging from it, at other times provoked by it.

Spain’s neutrality in the FirstWorld War brought a number of foreign artists to Barcelona. They included Serge Charchoune and Hélène Grunhoff, Albert Gleizes, Robert and Sonia Delaunay who went to nearby Sitges, and most notably Francis Picabia who published the first four issues of his Dadaist periodical 391 in the city in 1917 (1960 reprint, British Library X.902/721). Picasso returned from Paris to Barcelona  the same year, while Joan Miró continued to study and work in the region.

The key figure in the contemporary artistic life of the period was Josep Dalmau, who had opened his Galeries Dalmau in 1911. The following year he organized the first avant-garde art exhibition in Spain there, the ‘Exposició d’art cubista’ and also exhibited paintings from Picasso’s Blue Period. Dalmau mounted Miró’s first one-man show in 1918. However, with the end of the war, most of the foreigners left the region, while native artists were free again to travel abroad.

The first properly avant-garde movement in Catalonia can be dated to 1916 and the appearance of the first issue of Troços (‘Pieces’), founded by Josep Maria Junoy, a poet and art critic closely associated with Dalmau. Its content set a pattern for similar publications with its mixture of art criticism and verse, often calligrammatic and related thematically to the visual arts.  Junoy published a collection of poems, Poemes i cal.ligrames (RB.23.b.6900), in 1920, including a version of his earlier visual poem ‘Oda a Guynemer’ in memory of the French air ace Georges Guynemer.  The work earned him the praise of Guillaume Apollinaire.

It was the presence of Miró, the Catalan Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García and the Uruguayan Rafael Barradas that gave greatest impetus to this first expression of the avant garde in Barcelona. All three contributed to the publications initiated by Joan Salvat-Papasseit, arguably the most significant Catalan avant-garde writer in spite of his early death at the age of 30. JoanSalvat-Papasseit2

Joan Salvat-Papasseit, statue in Port Vell, Barcelona (picture by Tommykavanagh from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1917 Salvat-Papasseit founded the periodical Un enemic del poble (‘An Enemy of the People’, 1917-19) whose subtitle Fulla de subversió espiritual (‘Leaflet of Spiritual Subversion’) is indicative of his political radicalism. Salvat-Papasseit subsequently edited two further periodicals, Arc-voltaic (‘Arc-Lamp’; one issue, 1918) and Proa  (‘Prow’; two issues, 1921). In all three there is a similar collaboration between text and image, already manifest in Troços. A female figure by Miró appeared on the cover of Arc-voltaic, while the drawing by Barradas on an inside page is an example of his vibracionismo, a variant of Italian Futurism, illustrating the pulsating dynamism of the modern city. The texts included Italian and French versions of Torres-García’s ‘Art-evolució (a manera de manifest)’, a call for individuality and constant change in art which had already appeared in Catalan in Un enemic del poble the previous year. Salvat-Papasseit himself contributed a calligrammatic poem describing the city of Barcelona. The following year he issued Contra els poetes amb minúscula. Primer manifest català futurista (‘Against Lower-case Poets.  First Catalan Futurist Manifesto’), a call for an unspecified modernity in poetry. (Arc-voltaic, Un enemic del poble and Contra els poetes amb minúscula are all reprinted in the 1994 facsimile edition RF.2009.b.12.)

BarradasArc
Barradas’ ‘Vibrationist’ image from Arc-voltaic

Another volume of avant-garde verse, L’irradiador del port i les gavines (‘The Harbour Light and the Seagulls’), appeared in 1921, and also included a number of visual poems. The poet who showed most clearly contemporary influences from France and Italy was Joaquim Folguera who published Catalan versions of Italian futurist poems and works by Apollinaire in the noucentiste journal La Revista (1917; P.903/309).  Some of these were republished in his posthumous Traduccions i fragments of 1921 (YF.2009.a.11345).

Irradiador
Joan Salvat-Papasseit, L’irradiador del port i les gavines (Barcelona, 1921). YF.2009.a.11418

The early Catalan literary Avant Garde ended with the military coup  of 1923 that imposed the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera and effectively suppressed Catalan nationalism. Dalmau meanwhile continued his work in Barcelona, mounting an exhibition by Picabia in 1922 and Salvador Dalí’s first one-man show in 1925. Miró moved to Paris and Dalí to Madrid, but neither ever severed their links with Catalonia. After the premature deaths of Folguera and Salvat-Papasseit, J.V. Foix remained as the sole major writer of the Catalan avant garde. The author of Gertrudis (1927; 1983 edition YA.1986.a.4647) and KRTU (1932; 1983 edition YA.1987.a.14346), both illustrated by Miró, he also had a key role in the important contemporary journal L’Amic de les arts (Sitges, 1926-29; 2008 facsimile at LF.37.b.135).

Two of the collaborators on L’Amic de les arts were the art critic Sebastià Gasch and the writer Lluís Montanyà.  In 1928, together with Dalí, they produced the most strident of avant-garde manifestos in Catalan, the Manifest antiartístic català, but generally known as the Manifest groc (‘Yellow Manifesto’) because of the colour of its pages. It championed modernity: cinema, jazz, contemporary architecture, photography, motor cars and ocean liners, and contemporary figures: Picasso, Gris, Le Corbusier, Stravinsky, Tzara…  Its targets however were specifically local, for it attacked modern Catalan poetry and music, while venerable cultural institutions such as the music society, the Orfeó Català, were rubbished as old hat, lacking in boldness and invention.

With the advent of the Second Spanish Republic  in 1931, Catalan nationalism and cultural life were revived in the visual arts and architecture. Most prominent among the artistic organisations was ADLAN, Agrupació ‘Amics de l’Art Nou’ (‘Association of Friends of New Art’) which was founded in 1932 and became the major champion of the Avant Garde. Its members included Dalí, Miró, Foix, Gasch, the composer Robert Gerhard, the architect Josep Lluís Sert and other members of the association GATCPAC (Grupo de Arquitectos y Técnicos Catalanes para la Arquitectura Contemporánea). ADLAN mounted three Miró exhibitions, the first Picasso retrospective (1936) and the Exposició logicofobista which included almost all avant-garde Catalan artists. It also organized shows devoted to leading figures of the wider avant garde: Alexander Calder (1933) and both Hans Arp and Man Ray in 1935.  Concerts of contemporary music, especially jazz, cinema showings, poetry readings (by García Lorca, for example) figured in their other activities. In 1934, ADLAN and GATCPAC were responsible for the special issue, devoted to twentieth-century European art, of the classy cultural magazine D’ací i d’allà (ZA.9.d.386). Miró designed the cover and an accompanying pochoir.  All this creative energy and enterprise was crushed by the Fascist uprising of 1936 and the ensuing Spanish Civil War.

Geoff West, Lead Curator Hispanic Studies

This is an edited version of my article in Breaking the Rules. The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937, ed. Stephen Bury (London: the British Library, 2007), pp. 71-73. YC.2008.b.251

You can find out more about the arts in Barcelona at our event  ‘Barcelona Kaleidoscope’, on 27 February.

 

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Diamela Eltit: escribir bajo Pinochet

Diamela Eltit opened this term’s Latin American History Seminar series by discussing her life as a writer under the Pinochet dictatorship, which ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. Addressing a packed seminar room at the Latin American Centre, Oxford, Diamela stated that the theme of writing under dictatorship was a challenging one. Writing that takes place in a particular context is just one version of many possibilities, which vary with individual experience.

She spoke of the years leading up to the dictatorship as ones of great social emancipation and cultural revolution, which caused a paradigm shift in attitudes towards women and family. This led to a rethinking of norms surrounding the body, particularly the female body, and sexuality. Traditionally, Chile has always been a conservative society; for example, Chile was the last country in the western world to legalise divorce in 2004, and abortion is still illegal without exception.

Week 1, Diamela Eltit, Escribir bajo Pinochet

These pre-dictatorship years also brought political changes and economic, social and agrarian reforms, particularly during the Frei administration from 1964 onwards. However, as time went on, Frei encountered opposition from the Left, who felt that the reforms were insufficient, and the Right, who felt that they were too excessive. In the 1970 election, Salvador Allende was elected in a presidential runoff, despite only having achieved around 35% of the initial election votes. Diamela discussed the effect of this on notions of power, democracy and majority. Unusually, a minority had power over the majority. This may have caused a greater politicisation of society, as people everywhere discussed political questions. Even everyday activities such as a catching the bus or going to the cinema seemed to be impossible without encountering political discussions. However, Diamela stated that she herself was happy with the political changes and atmosphere of emancipation that pervaded Chile at this time, despite the politicisation of society. For once, the working class had a voice. However, as she herself was not militant she sometimes felt distanced from those who were more radicalised.

Then, in 1973, came the coup. Despite saying that everyone knew there would be a coup, Diamela said that there was still a sense of shock when it happened. She also stressed the economic impetus of the coup, stating that this was a far more powerful reason than the ideological differences cited. From then on, Chileans had to re-learn how to navigate the public space. There was a curfew and mandatory ID requests, as well as other changes in the law. The city became another, and this had a great impact. Diamela remembers tea breaks with colleagues where the only possible topic of conversation was the weather. Any other conversation was simply too dangerous. People felt under pressure to follow a set way of talking, dressing, expressing likes and dislikes. There was a hierarchical militarisation of the country, Pinochet’s “sueño del control total.”  This was the context in which Diamela’s literary career started.

It took Diamela seven years to write her first novel, Lumpérica, published in 1983. She explained that it was difficult to find the right register. By that time, Chile had no cultural spaces, many publishers had closed, and museums were ideologically aligned to the Pinochet government. Added to that, the new phenomenon of the disappeared made for a very bleak panorama.

Selection of books by and about Diamela Eltit, including her first novel, Lumpérica.

Selection of books by and about Diamela Eltit, including her first novel, Lumpérica.

All publications were subject to censorship, so this did have an effect on her writing. It was strange to write under these conditions, as they took away the final responsibility of the author over their work. Passing the censor could also be slightly depressing in some ways; did it show that you simply conformed to the system? However, she stated that although she was aware of the censor she never wrote for the censor. Many newspapers had ceased to circulate, and those still in print had redacted or blank sections. She did find herself wondering about who actually read all of the material submitted. The permission to have her novel published was signed by an Under Secretary in the Ministry of the Interior (equivalent to the Home Office). Who really was the censor?

Although censorship had an undeniable impact on her writing, Diamela explained that it also affected the literary landscape in general. There was no literary market as such, or literary critics, and there was no strong guiding force from publishers. In a way, this gave a freer ideological rein to writers who were not under pressure to write bestsellers or fit in with a particular publishing or literary trend.

During the 1980s there was a sea change, almost a “segundo femenismo”, as more women entered the workplace. This was partly due to men being imprisoned as well as other social difficulties. The literary canon was male-dominated, and Diamela started to think more about what it meant to be a writer, particularly as a woman. Traditionally, women writers had been confined to the domestic sphere. Diamela decided to break free from that, and particularly made the decision not to talk about her family.

A selection of critical works on the writing of Diamela Eltit.

A selection of critical works on the writing of Diamela Eltit.

Whilst learning to live under the dictatorship was hard, so was learning to live without it. In the 1990s she travelled to Mexico as a cultural attaché and worked with political organisations. She spoke of the difficulty of reclaiming words once prohibited, and recalls feeling shocked by the freedom of the press in Mexico after so many years of living with censorship.

At the end of the talk, Diamela was asked whether she wrote as an act of resistance. She answered that it wasn’t, not really; writing for her was more of an exploration of the limits of literature. She felt that she would have become a writer under any circumstances. One audience member asked whether she felt fear during the dictatorship, as she had not mentioned this as a particularly strong factor in her life. Although society was militarised and there were armed police on the streets, she remembers feeling part of a community of artists who opposed the dictatorship, even if they were not militants.

In answer to a question about memory and the continued impact of the dictatorship on society, Diamela remarked on the massive consumerism of neo-liberal Chile in the 1990s as a way of not remembering the past: “el consumo para impedir la memoria.” She herself had always been more interested in the periphery, where there was high inequality, and this is reflected in her literary and artistic activities.

A collection of manuscript and typescript drafts of and notebooks related to Diamela Eltit’s works, personal and work-related correspondence mostly from the mid-1980s to 1990s, and other miscellaneous personal and work-related papers, are held at Princeton University Library. http://findingaids.princeton.edu/collections/C1457