Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2010

Barcelona (1992), by Robert Hughes

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
Title: Barcelona
Publisher: The Harvill Press, 2001 (paperback)
ISBN: 9781860668247
Source: Personal library



  1. Well, I didn’t know he’d written that and will keep it in mind for when we make the trip over there in a year or so. Meanwhile, related but very different, is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, about the Spanish Civil War. Have you read that? I liked it a lot.


    • Hi Sue, yes I have read the Orwell, a while ago now, and The Spouse is reading it at the moment. It’s a great book, and essential reading, I think – but if I had to choose I think I’d read Hughes’s book because it’s more ’rounded’ about the city.


  2. Barcelona is one of my favourite cities in the world, so I might just have to give this one a go I think!


  3. I think Hughes’ strengths, aside from his evident and seductive intelligence, are his feeling for the carnal, his eye for detail, and the attention he pays to combat. The feeling for the carnal, in particular, makes him a singular art critic; he not only discusses the ideas behind a piece of work, and its history, he allows himself to be ravished by it. He’s meaty, direct, but in him, directness doesn’t mean the plainness of a Hemingway. He doesn’t sacrifice his vocabulary, he never pretends to be your ordinary plain-speaking man on the street. For example, this ‘viaticum,’ next to the slangy weight of that ‘fat angel.’

    When Castilians looked at Catalans they had their way too. Catalans were dull. They were pedantic and resentful by turns, usually both … No Catalan, in their view, could see beyond the pig in his yard, the fat angel sent to earth by God to supply Catalans with their daily viaticum of butifarra and ham.


  4. I agree, Deane. I can’t tell you how much my reaidng of this book enriched my experience of Barcelona!


  5. I started reading Barcelona when it was released, got half way through and put it aside. I was reading several books at the time. I think it got a bit slow. I meant to get back to it later. Your review has made me dig it out finish it.


    • Hello Greg, welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers. I think I probably enjoyed this more because I was planning a visit to Barcelona, but I also think it would have been a better book if it had had illustrations.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: