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Anarchy on a classical plinth

Salvat-Papasseit recalls seeing “the rain / in buckets / drenching the boats, / and the coin of anguish shivering beneath the timber”

Salvat-Papasseit recalls seeing “the rain / in buckets / drenching the boats, / and the coin of anguish shivering beneath the timber”

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”.

The sea was a huge influence in Salvat-Papasseit’s life. After his father’s death, he was interned in a naval orphanage

The sea was a huge influence in Salvat-Papasseit’s life. After his father’s death, he was interned in a naval orphanage

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.

Revolution formed the basis of Salvat-Papasseit’s political education at the age of fifteen. He was a dedicated anti-capitalist and anarchist

Revolution formed the basis of Salvat-Papasseit’s political education at the age of fifteen. He was a dedicated anti-capitalist and anarchist

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

què és

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

References:

Poetry translations by Dominic Keown and Tom Owen

http://www.anglo-catalan.org/downloads/acsop-monographs/issue02.pdf

https://directa.cat/90-anys-de-mort-de-salvat-papasseit

 

Get the guide BCN Free Art 01: The Port and Barceloneta! Go to www.poblesecbooks.com to purchase a print copy.

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The capital A’s sharp lines erupt from the vegetation like a futurist manifesto

Walk through a poem in Horta

Poetry, theatre, prose, sculptural works and even experimental film: his output was prodigious in all these media yet Joan Brossa described himself solely as a poet, and he is remembered as one of Catalonia’s greatest. So to understand Brossa’s sculptural installation, his visual poetry as he called it, you need to understand a little of the man.

Set among olives, cypresses and carobs, this Mediterranean poem in three tenses visually conjures a Greco-Roman past

Set among olives, cypresses and carobs, this Mediterranean poem in three tenses visually conjures a Greco-Roman past

As a child and adolescent, though unable to apply himself at the several schools his parents enrolled him in, he was an avid reader at home. His other lifelong passion was magic, and he would visit Barcelona’s first magic shop, El Rei de la Magia – one of the city’s oldest businesses – which still operates today at C. de la Princesa, 11. It’s well worth a visit if prestidigitation is your thing.

During the Civil War, he gave free magic performances at different centres of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) until he was called up to serve on the Lleida front in 1938. A few short months later, he was wounded in the eye at the Battle of the Segre, and invalided out of action.

In the late 40s, in a country still devastated by the Spanish Civil War, Brossa burgeoned as a poet. He was able to do so thanks to the tutelage of J. V. Foix, a brilliant noucentista poet, and by joining a clandestine study group, where he learned Catalan, which had been outlawed by Franco’s dictatorship.

The capital A’s sharp lines erupt from the vegetation like a futurist manifesto

The capital A’s sharp lines erupt from the vegetation like a futurist manifesto

As a founder of the Dau al Set (seven-spotted die), an artist group and magazine which included Catalan artists such as Antoni Tàpies, Modest Cuixart and Joan Ponç, Brossa penned their revolutionary manifesto, “La presència forta” (The Strong Presence), a quasi-futurist attack on the rigid retrograde values of Francoism that controlled post-war society. The Dadaist-inspired work they produced showed the influence of experimentation with surrealism and existentialism, and later, the political awareness of Marxism.

Brossa’s sculptural and urban installations owe as much to his passion for magic as to his growing experimentation with conceptual art. The playful idea of a magic trick predominates in his Accessible Visual Poem in Three Tenses: birth, journey – with pauses and intonations – and destruction. It is a journey on which you are invited to embark.

Punctuation symbols – “with pauses and intonations” – lead viewers on a journey, representing life’s many joys and tempests

Punctuation symbols – “with pauses and intonations” – lead viewers on a journey, representing life’s many joys and tempests

Joan Brossa was given this commission by his friend Esteve Bonell, one of the architects who designed the Horta velodrome. The poet conceived one of his visual poems for the adjacent park. The installation is meant to be experienced in three separate tenses: from the capital letter A, which forms an entrance arch sixteen metres high – on the crown of the hill to emphasise its stature – to the ruins of a similar letter, symbolising destruction, decline and of course, death. Along the way, a journey of punctuation symbols – exclamation, quote and question marks, colons and brackets – scattered across the grass represent the many ups and downs of life’s adventures. Brossa originally wanted swings instead of benches in the park, to accompany the Mediterranean vegetation – olives, cypresses and carobs – but a fear of vandalism foiled that idea.

Among other of his works scattered around Barcelona, you can see his Poema visual Bàrcino (Visual Poem Bàrcino, 1994) next to the Cathedral, Lletres Gimnastes (Gymnastic Letters, 1997) in carrer Rauric, and A–Z amb figures antropomòrfiques (A–Z with Anthropomorphic Figures) in the gardens named after the poet, up on Montjuïc Mountain.

Brossa’s sculptural and urban installations owe as much to his passion for the playfulness of magic as to his growing experimentation with conceptual art

Brossa’s sculptural and urban installations owe as much to his passion for the playfulness of magic as to his growing experimentation with conceptual art

Poema visual transitable en tres temps: naixement, camí – amb pauses i entonacions – i destrucció (Accessible Visual Poem in Three Tenses: birth, journey – with pauses and intonations – and destruction). Sculptor: Joan Brossa. 1984. Jardins de Marià Cañardo (Horta Velodrome) Coordinates: 41.437235, 2.148552
Other Joan Brossa work:
Poema visual Bàrcino (Visual Poem Bàrcino, 1994). Plaça Nova. Coordinates: 41.384167, 2.175000.
Lletres Gimnastes (Gymnastic Letters, 1997). C. Rauric, 6. Coordinates: 41.381392, 2.174852
A-Z amb figures antropomòrfiques (A-Z with Anthropomorphic Figures). Jardins de Joan Brossa, Montjuïc Mountain. Coordinates: 41.368117, 2.166818

The ruins of the once-majestic capital A symbolise destruction, decline and of course, death

The ruins of the once-majestic capital A symbolise destruction, decline and of course, death

References:

http://www.escriptors.cat/autors/brossaj/pagina.php?id_sec=3042

http://www.fundaciojoanbrossa.cat/

Actualitat literària sobre la revista Dau al Set a LletrA, la literatura catalana a internet (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)

http://www.fundaciojvfoix.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Arthur-Terry_Readings.pdf

Sited on the crown of the hill to emphasise its height, the capital letter A is the first hint you have that a Brossa work inhabits the vicinity

Sited on the crown of the hill to emphasise its height, the capital letter A is the first hint you have that a Brossa work inhabits the vicinity

Get the guide BCN Free Art 01: The Port and Barceloneta! Go to www.poblesecbooks.com to purchase a print copy.