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

Josep Carner – ‘Prince of Catalan Poets’

It’s not without considerable effort that one becomes initiated into royalty of any kind. Impossible, you might say. Perhaps then royalty is inherent in some, ready and waiting to be discovered and gloried in.

Josep Carner i Puig-Oriol, to give the man his full name, must have known from a young age that he was uncovering artistic greatness. He was 12 when he first saw his articles in print. By 18 he had gained a law degree, and by 22 – as if being a law graduate wasn’t enough – he earned an Arts degree too. Throughout the following years he unleashed an incredible amount of poetry, articles and translations (as diverse as writers such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens) on the Catalan public. Small wonder then that by his mid-30s he had earned the epithet ‘Prince of Catalan Poets’.

Eugeni d'Ors, coiner of the term 'Noucentist'.
Eugeni d’Ors, coiner of the term ‘Noucentist’ (credit: udg.edu)

Carner’s work – particularly his poetry – is characteristic of a cultural movement that emerged in Catalonia in the 1910s, Noucentisme.

The term ‘noucentist’ – coined by Catalan essayist and philosopher, Eugeni d’Ors – was meant to capture the movement’s desire for newness. It played on the Catalan word ‘nou’ which means both ‘new’ and ‘nine’, signifying the ‘ninth’ century of the millennium, and its potential for new ideas.

It was also a term designed to distance itself from the ‘modernist’ cultural movement, with its radical, individualist perspective, preferring instead the order and objectivity of classicism.

Noucentist art - 'Apollo and two nymphs' by Joaqium Torres Garcia (credit: sidissabteplou.cat)
Noucentist art – ‘Apollo and two nymphs’ by Joaquim Torres Garcia (credit: sidissabteplou.cat)

For poetry then, this meant a painstaking attention to word selection and meaning, to verse form, and – of course – to metre and rhyme. While both Carner and Joan Maragall (almost contemporaries in Catalan cultural circles) believed in the power of the word, the modernist Maragall felt that spontaneity was required to draw a true essence of that being represented. In contrast, ‘noucentist’ Carner held that to represent beauty needed full consciousness, and truth was only kept by absolute control of words used and their meanings.

That Carner had significant influence in the institutionalization of the Catalan language will therefore come as no surprise. He was invited to join the ‘Institute of Catalan Studies’ where he collaborated with  Pompeu Fabra, a man who is synonymous with standardising the Catalan language, i.e. forming a common language for all of Catalonia, where before local dialects could be quite different.

Pompeu Fabra, standardiser of the Catalan language (credit: nuvol.com)
Pompeu Fabra, standardiser of the Catalan language (credit: nuvol.com)

Noucentisme was strongly allied with Catalan politics, and along with his influence in linguistic matters, Carner also walked in high political circles. This was in particular thanks to his friendship with Enric Prat de la Riba, first Catalan president (1914-1917). Yet his political position meant he and his family faced real dangers as the sociopolitical situation in Spain darkened. In 1921 he left for Genoa, Italy where he was Spanish vice-consul.

In 1939, General Franco’s victory in the Spanish civil war was confirmed. Carner – a Catalan nationalist – became a full exile. He moved to Mexico during the War, then to Belgium afterwards, where he taught at the Open European University of Brussels.

Nationalism is just as fierce today as in Carner's day, in Catalonia especially (credit: Guardian.com)
Nationalism is just as fierce today as in Carner’s day, in Catalonia especially (credit: Guardian.com)

Until his death in 1970, Carner – despite what he had witnessed, and despite his own nationalist sentiments – was a strong pro-claimer of Europeanismbelieving in a shared European identity based on common norms and values that transcends those of individual nationalities. What ‘Europe’ is, and whether its people have a ‘European’ identity is hotly debated – anyone living in Europe knows that all too well. This lack of definition is what makes ‘Europe’ so easy to attack by the ‘Euroskeptics’.

Perhaps (and this is only a unthought-through final thought!) Carner’s noucentist approach of truth and beauty through order and objective clarity could be adopted as a framework for European identity? But then what is truth? What is beauty? Can anything be truly objective? 

Sources: http://www.lletra.net/en/author/josep-carner/detail;  http://www20.gencat.cat/portal/site/culturacatalana/

Joan Maragall – ‘The Most Marvellous Thing…’

Joan Maragall is a name you’re unlikely to be familiar with if you’re not Catalan. Yet read on just a little, and I think in this century-old Catalan poet, you might find some familiar traits and recognisable desires.

Barcelona, 1860, and Joan Maragall i Gorina is born into a family of wealthy textile merchants. He grows and quickly becomes initiated into the life and customs of the Barcelona bourgeoisie, the powerful, the wealthy, the cultured strata of Catalan society. His privileged position frees him to foster and pursue a growing passion for writing. Is this still the case today, or has capitalism democratised culture and creativity? Hmm, discuss!

credit: joanmaragall.cat
credit: joanmaragall.cat

Maragall’s bourgeois upbringing is critical in developing his writing style, for a simple reason: he finds it lacking. Surrounded by safety, by comfort and an unimaginative, conservative conformity, Maragall feels stifled and smothered by the stultifying stew of ‘high society’. Though later in life he will turn and point an accusing finger at the privileged classes, initially he sees himself as an inner agitator, stirring to life a somnambulant and indifferent goliath toward a dynamic, cosmopolitan ideology.

All through his life Maragall will feel proud of his homeland, and identify with Catalan nationalism. Having studied law at University it is only to be expected that this wealthy, educated nationalist will accept calls to join the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat. But he doesn’t (incidentally his grandson, Pasqual Maragall, did enter politics, becoming President of the Generalitat from 2003-2006). For Maragall, there is another way of changing the current order of things, and it lies not in the cold, hard power of politics, but in the more subtle and personal – but no less powerful – form of the ‘living word’.

writing

Words, claims Maragall, have a life force. They are not merely marks on paper (or type on tablets, in 21st century speak, sigh…) but are linguistic expressions of an individual’s being. Therefore the more fervently the poet, the novelist or the journalist expends themselves in their writing the greater punch their words will pack. You might call it ‘writing from the heart’. But what message is Maragall trying to get across? Take a look at what he says here in these quotes, then have a read of one of his poems on Project Poesia (see sidebar):

“I believe that the word is the most marvellous thing in this world, because in her are embraced and entangled all corporeal wonder and all spiritual wonder of our nature. It seems that the earth expends all its efforts in leading mankind to a higher sense of itself; and mankind expends all the strength of his being in producing the word.”

– From Elogi de la paraula (Praise of the word)1903

What do you think? Personally I think his poems are beautifully in-sync with what he wrote above. The words of Pirinenques and La Fageda d’en Jordà are infused, even saturated, with the spiritual. Not the ‘religious’, I hasten to add, but filled with a hunger for and awareness of a transcendental reality, of something ‘more’ beyond.

La Fageda d'en Jordà (Ben Wright 2013)
La Fageda d’en Jordà (Ben Wright 2013)

Tantalizingly close, but ever just beyond our reach, in Maragall’s poems it is in Nature that we come closest to this other reality. In the natural, the wild and the wondrous places we find a beauty, a purity and a stillness that stirs us to feel as close as we can to that something other. Feeling is key for Maragall. Introspection can only take us so far towards true self-recognition. For this, we need experience, we need to go out there and experience sublime nature with all five senses (and maybe some others we don’t have names for).

When we experience this – and describing what ‘this’ is, is the fuel for myriad poems – we are spoken to in something other than mere physical sensation. Seek that! – Maragall cries through all his living words of poetry – Hold on to that unexplainable life society tells you is imagined, that inexplicable voice they say is just in your head…

It could just be the most real thing you ever know.

 

Click here to see a more detailed biography of Maragall (in Catalan) and some beautiful old photographs of the man himself.