Robert Hughes is the art critic who taught many of us to enjoy modern art, and I will always be grateful to him for that. Back in 1980, the ABC broadcast his TV series, The Shock of the New and a whole generation of people were introduced to various art movements since the Impressionists, which had been, for most of us, incomprehensible. He was witty, urbane, and immensely knowledgeable, and everyone I knew made sure not to miss an episode because this was in the days when most of us didn’t have video recorders. It was a few years before I could afford to buy the book of the same name, however, but now it’s an indispensable reference book on our ‘art shelves’ at home.
In 1987 just in time for our bicentennial, Hughes wrote what came to be a best-seller, The Fatal Shore. It was a history of Australia’s early days as a penal colony, but it was written in an accessible style. It may even have been the first example of what is now called ‘popular history’, and it was memorable for its evocation of the horrors of transportation; the difficulties that settlers faced; and the harshness of the land. He really is an excellent writer.
So when I discovered that Hughes had written a book about Barcelona, I didn’t hesitate, and I haven’t been disappointed. I think it’s wonderful. It’s a survey of the city’s history and how that has influenced its architecture. It’s full of all kinds of interesting anecdotes, and it makes what is really rather a complex political history palatable while also explaining much about the Catalan character.
Until I went to Spain, I had no idea how much politics matters here. Our first port of call was San Sebastian, but the locals call it Donastia. That’s because it’s in Basque country and San Sebastian is its Spanish name. While I had heard of the activities of ETA (the separatist movement responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in Spain) I did not realise that an innocuous remark such as ‘I like Spain’ could be deeply offensive. All the street signs are in both languages, and many people speak Basque not Spanish either on principle or because they’re not really all that fluent in Spanish.
(Another thing I’ve learned since being here is that there are people who were children during the Civil War (1936-39, i.e. they would now be in their 80s) who were denied education. If their town or village was ‘on the wrong side’ and their parents had died, these children had to fend for themselves and never went to school. They communicated in their local language and it was hard for them to acquire an adult mastery of the Spanish vocabulary and grammar without secondary education.)
Robert Hughes explains with wit, wisdom and affection, the reasons why in Catalonia there is long-lasting hostility to Madrid and the Castilian language i.e. the Spanish that is the national language. Along the way he explains why their Gothic churches are completely different to everyone else’s, and why you can find remnants of Roman and medieval walls but not one stone of the hated Bourbon walls. I often found myself wishing that I had an edition with good quality colour photos instead of the too-small and rather dingy B&W pictures in my copy, but I suppose that’s because Hughes wrote the book a while ago now (1992) and it’s amazing that it’s still in print at all.
As you’d expect, he writes extensively about Gaudi and the Modernisme movement in Catalonia. I was especially interested in what he has to say about the way Gaudi was feted during the Swinging Sixties as a kind of hippie architect because (he says) Gaudi was deeply religious and very conservative and his work is about religious symbolism not flower-power. Hughes is also very alert to the ‘problem’ of Gaudi’s unfinished church Sagrada Familia: it can’t, he says, be finished true to the spirit or intentions of Gaudi (a) because he tended to complete his designs as he went along and (b) what plans there were, were destroyed in another round of Catalonian anarchic arson after Gaudi’s death. On the other hand nor can it be left unfinished because of Gaudi’s reputation and its value to tourism and anyway extra bits have been added to it already. He says it’s just as well that the Japanese have taken a shine to it and are pouring megabucks into completing it….
Even if Barcelona isn’t on your travel itinerary, this is a delightful book. It’s quite long (573 pp) including an extensive index) but if you are interested in other countries and cultures, this is one of the best.
PS I hesitate to add this postscript because I love Colm Toibin’s fiction, but I also bought his Homage to Barcelona but found it so dull I didn’t get past the first couple of chapters.
Author: Robert Hughes
Publisher: The Harvill Press, 2001 (paperback)
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Book Depository.
Availability: Book Depository: Barcelona