Joan Salvat-Papasseit – Fighting Time

The Avant-Garde of Catalonia is unthinkable without one Joan Salvat-Papasseit (what a name, by the way). In his tragically short life Salvat-Papasseit took an obscure, abstract idea and made it into personal, lived reality, spearheading a movement that sent cultural shockwaves through Catalonia and into Europe beyond.

Born in Barcelona in 1894 and raised within a working class background (greengrocer’s apprentice and seafront nightwatchman are a couple of his early jobs) the desire to see social reform was present in Salvat-Papasseit from a very early age. His membership to the Catalan Socialist Youth and his leaning towards Anarchism testify to this. This desire led him to the Avant-Garde movement.

Statue of Papasseit on Barcelona waterfront (Wiki Commons)
Statue of Papasseit on Barcelona waterfront (Wiki Commons)

While today Avant-Garde has come to be almost uniquely seen as a cultural movement, pushing at the accepted boundaries of art, it originally also encompassed a strong desire for social reform. The Avant-Garde saw themselves as the cultural vanguard, using their cultural non-conformity not simply to raise stiff eyebrows, but to push and break-up the social status-quo, thereby freeing the working class masses to march up behind them and secure better lives.

Salvat-Papasseit founded the Llibreria Nacional Catalana – a grand bookstore – which became a focal point for the Catalan Avant-Garde, and in the process formed important friendships with other artists encompassed under the Avant-Garde umbrella such as the surrealist painter, Joan Miró and the Constructivist painter, Joaquín Torres Garcia. These influential artists would, along with others, contribute to the various Avant-Garde publications Salvat-Papasseit produced, thereby raising its (and his) prestige and spreading awareness among Catalan society.

Work by Joan Miro - 'The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings' (1953)
Work by Joan Miro – ‘The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings’ (1953)

Careering down the path of socio-political activist, Salvat-Papasseit continually met with road blockages along the way caused by his fragile health, which resulted in frequent stays in sanatoriums throughout the Pyrenees. His times in these solemn yet tranquil settings, coupled with the obvious deterioration of his health, had a deep impact on his writing, none more so than in turning his focus towards poetry, a focus he never lost, right up to his death.

Painting - 'El Puente de Les Escaldes' (1933) by Catalan artist Joaquim Mir i Trinext. Les Escaldes was one of the sanatoriums in the Pyrenees were Salvat-Papasseit stayed during poor health (reproart.com)
Painting – ‘El Puente de Les Escaldes’ (1933) by Catalan artist Joaquim Mir i Trinext. Les Escaldes was one of the sanatoriums in the Pyrenees were Salvat-Papasseit stayed during poor health (reproart.com)

Salvat-Papasseit very much took the Avant-Garde ethos into his poetry, which was consistently concerned with themes such as freedom, youth, sincerity, heroism and struggle. He advocated a poetry in line with the fledgling Futurist movement in Italy, which admired technology and the triumph of man over nature, praising originality and newness over traditional ‘good taste’ (while still managing to express strong nationalist tendencies). This was tempered with the simplicity of Le Corbusier’s L’esprit Nouveau – an art ideal that sought newness in ‘pure’ geometric forms, rather than the complexity of Cubism – and ‘Nunism’, a movement that celebrated the here and now, placing the present, earthly moment above any transcendent realm or heavenly future.

Futurist work by Giacomo Balla - 'The Flight of the Swallows' (1913) (Wikiart.com)
Futurist work by Giacomo Balla – ‘The Flight of the Swallows’ (1913) (Wikiart.com)

Salvat-Papasseit’s focus on humanity’s mastery of nature, his need to be in the present, and his urge to bring the future into that present are perhaps best understood when taking his physical state into account. Throughout his life, his health was of such delicacy that the spectre of death could not but help hover over his imagination. Encased in his fragile, frustrated frame and forever having the eternal unknown held before his face, it is unsurprising that Salvat-Papasseit reveled in Human triumph over Nature, and looked to bring the bright, hopeful future into his present reality.

It’s perhaps the biggest truism there is, but death comes to us all, and when it does, it seems that a person’s real, deep feelings finally come to the fore, no longer obscured by fancy and vain hope. This can be seen in the late poetical works of Salvat-Papasseit – In La gesta dels estels (The epic of the stars – 1922) he set about mythologizing everyday reality, perhaps as a way of reaching out to something more magical he hoped was beyond the reality he lived. Finally in Óssa Menor: fi dels poemes d’avantguarda (Ursa Minor: An End to Avant-garde Poems – 1925) he abandons all that has concerned him in his day to day life, as he prepares for the anguish and nearness of his death.

Salvat-Papasseit near the end of his life (bcncultura.cat)
Salvat-Papasseit near the end of his life (bcncultura.cat)

Joan Salvat-Papasseit died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 30. His influence on early 20th century Catalan culture is all the more remarkable considering the bitterly short time he spent here. We all know how tragedy can raise a profile, but this man’s earnestness and intensity are surely rightly celebrated. At the end of his life, I really hope – as I do for everyone – that he found the future he had been longing for, even if it probably wasn’t as he’d expected.  

This post owes a lot of thanks to the biography of Salvat-Papasseit at http://www.lletra.net/en/author/joan-salvat-papasseit

Rambling thoughts – On ‘Rambla de Catalunya’ by M.C. Ferreres

“RAMBLE [ram-buh l] v. – To wander around in a leisurely, aimless manner.”

Being no linguist, I would merely have to hazard a guess that this English word and the Spanish Rambla come from the same source. Even if I am wrong, this definition of ‘ramble’ seems to resonate perfectly with my most recent translation ‘Rambla de Catalunya‘, capturing the essence of M.C. Ferreres’ Catalonia – leisurely, aimless, wandering…

In trying my hand at interpreting this poem, the first image I meet is the broad and bustling avenue, the ‘rambla’. This is the main artery of the city, where you experience the flow of its life-force. I immediately assumed the city in reference was Barcelona, and mention of ‘Tibidabo’ (line 6) – a mountain just on the outskirts of Barcelona – confirms this. Barcelona is undoubtedly the beating heart of Catalonia, and so by extension, we can see Ferreres’ Rambla as an image of Catalonia itself, as the flow of life that sustains it.

Gaudi's Casa Mila, or 'La Pedrera' (Ben Wright, 2013)
Gaudi’s Casa Mila, or ‘La Pedrera’ (Ben Wright, 2013)

Yet this beating heart is not a healthy one, but one whose tubes have become greasy through years of inert indulgence, clogged with the trappings of modern high society (‘lordly decay’ in my translation). ‘Modern’ here refers to the time when Catalan culture was experiencing a glorious and powerful resurgence, be that in the modernist buildings of Antoni Gaudí, the surrealist paintings of Joan Miró or the noucentist poetry of Josep Carner.

So, while from within, Catalonia appears to be at the height of progress – a burgeoning, fashionable city full of art, culture and riches – Ferreres takes a step back and what meets his eye is much less agreeable…

The fashionable hat (I assume!) worn by the well-to-do says “good day” – yes, a good day for you wearing it perhaps. But a ‘good day’ for the workers in your factory, the servants in your house, or the beggars you walk past on your Sunday ramble? Then there are Barcelona’s cultured class, sitting in cafés that line La Rambla. But from their lips comes no stimulating or incisive social comment. Instead, you might hear something more along the lines of ‘Eh Joan, did your hear of young Pere? What a scandal!’  And finally, passing by these gossips sipping their ‘Orxata’ (a creamy drink made from tiger-nuts, milk and water) are the nannies with their master’s children. No longer do families spend their time together; parental duties are delegated – even for something as simple as a Sunday stroll – to the nanny.

'Els Quatre Gats' by Ricard Opisso, showing the creme de la creme of Catalan fin de secle intellectuals and artists (credit: grupferre.com)
‘Els Quatre Gats’ by Ricard Opisso, showing the creme de la creme of Catalan fin de siecle intellectuals and artists (credit: grupferre.com)

To me, Ferreres paints a picture of a society in the thralls of decadence, unaware, unable, perhaps even unwilling to stir itself from its luxurious slumber. The ‘lordly decay’ is emphasised by all these acts taking place on a Sunday, the traditional holy day for Christians (the Catalan word ‘diumengera’ roughly translates as “of or pertaining to Sunday”).

Dismay is not all Ferreres expresses though, for there is undoubtedly a note of threat in the last line of the poem:

Al fons, el Tibidabo t’espia.

This literally translates as: “In the background, Tibidabo watches you.”

This unholy frivolity – Ferreres warns – is not going unnoticed. Tibidabo is a mountain on the outskirts of Barcelona, visible from practically anywhere within the city. Upon its summit stands the Sagrat Cor, the ‘Sacred Heart’ Temple, and upon this stands a sculpture of Christ. This makes me wonder whether Ferreres (continuing with the thought of desecrating the holy day) felt that Catalans were bringing righteous judgement on themselves.

credit: conocerbarcelona.com
Sagrat Cor, Tibidabo. Credit: conocerbarcelona.com

 

Interestingly (well, I think so anyway!) the name ‘Tibidabo’ means ‘I will give to you’ and comes from the Latin translation of Matthew 4:9: “All this I will give you,” he [the devil] said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” This is where Satan took Jesus, during his period of temptation, to a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the earth (Matt 4:8) and promised to give them to Jesus if Jesus would worship the devil. Tibidabo, according to Catalan folklore, is that very mountain. Has Catalonia sold its soul in order to reap earthly reward?

Away from religious imagery, another thought I had is that Tibidabo represents the watchful eye of Spain, jealous of Catalonia’s success, irate at its confident self-expression, and ever-ready to break both. It’s just a tentative thought, but nonetheless interesting to note that by the mid-1920s Catalonia was under a temporary military dictatorship and would soon become a victim to one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century – the Spanish Civil War. The times of Sunday walks along the Rambla would not return for a long, long time…

What do you think? Do you agree, or have a different interpretation? I’d love to hear from you!