Like a lone night watchman—as he was in his youth—the statue of Joan Salvat-Papasseit (1894–1924), one of Catalonia’s preeminent poets, stands alone on the Moll de la Fusta (the timber wharf).
In 1909, the eruption of the July revolution—an anticlerical and anti-establishment uprising that the upper classes christened the setmana tràgica (tragic week)—gave the fifteen-year-old poet his formative political education. This was not the only tragedy that marked him for life: the early death of his father, a ship’s stoker, meant that from seven to twelve years old, he was raised in the naval orphanage due to his mother’s poverty. But by eighteen, he was writing unpaid articles of an anarchist viewpoint under the nom de plume Gorkiano (meaning ‘Gorki-like’) and earning his living as a night watchman down here on the timber dock. In his poem Nocturn per acordió (Nocturne for Accordion), he recalls seeing “the rain / in buckets / drenching the boats, / and the coin of anguish shivering beneath the timber; / beneath the flanders / and the pinewood, / beneath the sacred cedars”.
Initially, when Barcelona was undergoing its hectic 1992 facelift, the City Council’s plan was to install six sculptures in this newly rehabilitated waterside space. These were finally reduced to two, one at each end, which is fortuitous since Papasseit, on his basalt plinth, is of such a moody nature, he stands better alone.
The artist, Robert Krier, and his younger brother, Léon, the architect who made the base, hail from Luxembourg. They are both exponents of New Classical architecture, a movement which has sought to renovate historicist tendencies and return to more conservative values. This melds well with early twentieth-century Noucentisme (the name coined in Italianate fashion after the century, the 1900s), which aimed to supersede Modernisme. The New Classical style sought to counteract the furious exuberances of turn-of-the-century expression—aesthetic explosions such as Gaudi’s Sagrada Família at one end of the century, or Roy Lichenstein’s pop-art Barcelona’s Head at the other (and at the other end of the dock). It is ironic that such a classicist sculptor should accept a commission to depict a revolutionary poet.
Timber, right through the first half of the twentieth century, was a key commodity for both commerce and war. The timber section of the anarchist CNT union was the most powerful body of manpower in the city, even more so than the various army and police corps. This they proved on the outbreak of the fascist coup that led to the Spanish Civil War when, after ‘liberating’ a large stash of arms, the CNT militia became a key force in defeating Francoist rebels throughout Catalonia.
The section of poem below, from Nocturn per acordió (Nocturne for Accordion), reveals Salvat-Papasseit reminiscing about his solitary nights on the timber dock.
NOCTURN PER ACORDIÓ
[ … ]
Vosaltres no sabeu
guardar fustes al moll.
Ni sabeu l’oració dels fanals dels vaixells
—que són de tots colors
com la mar sota el sol:
que no li calen veles.
NOCTURNE FOR ACCORDION
[ … ]
You don’t know
what it is
to watch the wood on the wharf.
Neither do you know the prayer of the ships’ lights
—which are so many colours
like the sea beneath the sun:
which needs no sails.
You can find more translations of Salvat Papasseit’s poetry here.
To Joan Salvat Papasseit, Robert Krier (sculpture, bronze) and Léon Krier (plinth, basalt). 1992. Moll de Bosch i Alsina (Moll de la fusta). Coordinates: 41.376190, 2.179507
Poetry translations by Dominic Keown and Tom Owen