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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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