Architecture, Picasso- Barcelona, Spain.
The first thing that hit me once we started flying over Spain was the dearth of clouds, as if weather had just completely disappeared. Upon landing, the bright light flooded my vision so that it was difficult to look out. I don’t believe that unvarnished sunlight was completely lacking in Ireland, but it certainly seemed to me as if this was a whole new version of sunlight- unalloyed, unlikely to dim, safe from the 4 seasons a day that one is prone to in even the best days in Ireland. I was unexpectedly thrilled to be in the sunlight, and don’t remember ever feeling that excited to be bathed in it so- even waiting in line to buy a bus ticket was deeply enjoyable as I squinted at the ticket station amid all the reflected light from the stainless steel and whitewashed airport buildings. For the first time, I viscerally got why people are just dying to get out of Ireland to someplace with sun. Waiting for the sun there is like having someone you love in the next cell over, or waiting for Godot, or a Buddhist exercise in developing patience. Here it’s just a given- yeah yeah, another amazing day, whatever.
Due to an amazing series of coincidences and gaffes, I had about 11 Euro ($14) when I touched down, with no prospect of getting any more money until late in the day. Problem was, the bus into Barcelona, where I was to stay the next two days, was 12 Euro. I got out of line, asked a bus station manager where I could get money, he waved at me and started chattering halfway through my question in what I discovered to be the standard Spanish greeting of tourists- it means ‘hold the fuck on, Christ, you’re in Spain ya goon, lemme get someone who gets whatever the hell it is you’re babbling about’. The manager comes over, listens to my query, shruggs his shoulders, asked me how much I needed. I told him 1 euro and he gave it to me. It felt amazing. I hadn’t had any time to worry between finding out I was short and getting his help, hadn’t expected the 45 minute bus ride to be that expensive. So it was a nice way to begin my time here. He didn’t act like it was a big deal, but how often does a stranger give you $1.30? But then again, maybe it just meant his 5 euro kickback was only a little smaller: they do that sort of thing here.
I dropped off my things at the excellent hostel and wandered around without a penny for about 10 hours, waiting for a wire to come through so I could eat. I’m not sure that I spoke with anyone, other than a few people for directions, during that time. The problem for an American in Spain is that English is not their second language- I’m not sure that they have a second language, but at any rate it ain’t English. It is, of course, unfair of me to expect or even hope that there is a great deal of English spoken here, but I have been spoiled by my travels elsewhere. It is frustrating, because it is difficult for me to do my main activity, that of hanging around and soaking in the natives of an area.
But there are some indications and commentaries from others that Spain is a relatively insular society. They’re clearly not as high-strung as Italians by a long shot, though they seem a bit more tightly wound than my countrymen. They are not even in the same ballpark as Ireland in terms of charm and friendliness, but then few are. Walking out in the country, for instance, they do not wave at passing cars in the unstudied way that happens in many other places, like America.
I spent two days walking in Barcelona, mostly taking in the tremendous architecture. Perhaps architecture is boring to talk about, but the variety and the daring buildings all across the city must be unparalleled- certainly I have never seen anything like it. Barcelona is a very old and storied town, with Caesar Augustus living nearby for a few years around 37 BC while consolidating his European empire. There are many Roman ruins in the general area, but most of the old buildings in Barcelona seem to date from about 1200, with many of the most interesting ones dating from around 1900 and very recent. The word ‘gaudy’ in English stems from the work of a local architect, Gaudi, in the early 20th century, whose dozen major modernist pieces, from a park design to a cathedral to individual homes, are astonishing in their complexity and variance of texture and color. Ironically, it is not fair to call the work gaudy, because it isn’t necessarily ostentatious- his work was almost always complicated, but not necessarily as flashy as, say, Baroque designs. They have been building a cathedral of his design for about 70 years, and will be at it for another 30 (and they are really building it- these are not finance-related delays- maybe 100 men and 3 cranes were working full time when I was there). You can look it up on the web- Sagrada Familia. The building is- incredibly involved. Most of it looks like melted chocolate outside- Gaudi was a modernist, but not like we usually think of modernist, as in ‘gee, let’s make this elegant, sleek, 21st century looking, cold, and hella sophisticated’. Gaudi actually completely avoided clean lines, though there is a fair amount of near-symmetry.
Anyway, architecture can be boring to talk about. But the giant Olympic Village by a bikini-infested beach (built when Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympics), the 4 billion palaces and churches downtown, the modern giant skyscraper that looks like an egg on a diet, and the Frank Gehry giant-bird-made-of-bright-metal-bits sculpture/plaza, all in one day, made the sore feet very worthwhile.
As I do in any major city, I enjoyed digging into the subway system and figuring out how to get around- the subway is a de riguer part of any amateur cultural anthropology in my opinion, because it reveals a lot about a city’s soul. But Barcelona’s is really something special. First of all, the trains pretty much all travel every three or four minutes, they’re very predictable, and they’re so popular that they’re probably profitable. More importantly, Barcelona is fairly concentrated, so you’re in and out very fast. I zigzagged around, not really caring how far away things were because it really didn’t matter. You’re sitting somewhere wiping mayonnaise off your shirt, you think of a random place, get on and off the metro, and walk to it- the entire strategy/tactics/execution is 10-15 minutes for about 80% of everything you can think of.
The most fun place to actually walk, though, was quite near my hostel, a street called Rambla. The similarity to the word ramble is pure coincidence, as the root of the word is riverbed, from when people could only walk it in the dry season in the middle ages. But it sure is an amazing coincidence, because hundreds of people walk down a street 90 percent devoted to pedestrians, walking up to 30 abreast down the middle, with vendors, statue actors in funny outfits, and shell game con artists all vying for attention. It is the coolest place for people watching I’ve ever seen, especially since all around are a great deal of expensive fashion outlets. There was also the best and cheapest vegetarian food I could find there, sprinkled in with the most expensive restaurants.
The primary tourist attraction is a Picasso museum, and it is a worthy, beautiful effort. All the pieces were donated from several key sources: Picasso himself, who considered himself from this area; his last wife (the old womanizer lasted 20 years with her); and especially his best friend and secretary. The pieces were concentrated on his very early and very late work, with a smidgen of cubism, mid-career portraits, and later ceramics. I hadn’t realized that he was quite so devoted to ceramics his last 20 years.
I took pictures of some of the portraits and other works, some of the ones that I hadn’t seen before that moved me. This is illegal. It is illegal in every museum. This annoys me. It more than annoys me. Because museums are basically trying to sell postcards and art books under a deal with the artist’s family, who typically had nothing whatsoever to do with the art, but are being made rich through it. And because the actual implemented capitalist version of intellectual property law is completely mean-spirited, unduly international, counter-productive, and- well, capitalistic. So I always take pictures. In Europe I think I am an ugly American because of this: uninvolved natives certainly stare at me as if I have swallowed their National Canary when I am caught (I always do take pictures until I am caught). I am usually very careful to represent America adequately- I don’t jaywalk, talk loudly in English, I use my manners, etc.- but on this very specific point I am, admittedly, on a slightly irrational mission. Anyway, don’t get your panties in a knot about me ruining it for you- almost all Europeans are horrified when someone doesn’t fit in, for any reason- they’re always staring at some poor guy not worth staring at, and it’s often not me, OK? It sometimes seems like it’s their version of TV.
After the moment that the guard’s loud, upset ‘Senor, Senor’ arrives, usually just before taking a picture ( I always take the shot anyway, the better to act dumbdumberdumbest), I become open-mouthed and no-speeky and no-know this, sorry, and make a great flourish of turning off my camera. This partially satisfies the less sophisticated, though for the rest of my visit I’m a marked man, and they pass on to their compatriots in the next room that they’ve got a bad apple in the bunch- the guards have a very boring job, so I become the main event. I always seem to get followed after that by a guard with ambliopia, you know, that condition where one eye wanders away but they keep one firmly fixed on you? One of those guys. They actually physically follow me around. Unfortunately for them, though, nobody is stealing paintings that day, or even sucking their souls into a camera. Days like that suck.
The more sophisticated ask me to show them the pictures and please delete what I took. This is a little more of their language than I can understand you see, this is that where I am the nodding, and I am saying OK, OK, and the camera is that suddenly in my pocket?, so all done!, and Yes!, well I am a must horrible, and I am not smart, is picture lousy probably, excuse me?, o yes I go to the next hall right away, I am wave bye bye, are you toodeloo with me, ok??…at some point, one of these guys is going to ask me to delete it in English, and I’m going to have to either do it or pretend to not speak English. This is not the hill I choose to die on, so I will delete it.
I do not take pictures again in that museum after getting caught, because my passive-aggressive protest is complete. But if I ever have to delete my pictures I will go the next hall, or the next, and I will take more pictures, because it is simply not right to prohibit that. The guy’s dead. They can kick me out if they want. I own that image now that it’s out of the artist, not some pimply, rich 2nd cousin…see? I’m such the fervent activist, I tell you…and sure, my pictures are always lousy- so what? The beauty of the paintings always makes up for that. The trustees for the estate of Carlos Ruiz Picasso can kiss my ass.
The most striking aspect of the Picasso collection, for me, was his very early work. When he was 15 and 16 he had already achieved some of the finest portraits I have ever seen. One knows, of course, through aspects of his later work, that he was a brilliant portraitist, but it is quite another thing to see the actual work, and then to watch him choose the great, fresh, and idiosyncratic paths he took as he suddenly climbed, by 19, beyond what any other man could teach him. He ditched art school classes and would spend hours copying the masters in museums locally, until he finally just quit school altogether. Two large works, both of which were awarded adult all-of-Spain awards at a competition, were completed when he was 16: in one, his treatment of his father- the light across his downcast face, the sober and proud expression at his daughter’s first communion- moved me greatly. For me, the museum was the highlight of the city, by far. It was a great meditation to see his masterful work ‘evolve’, and then suddenly be brought into the late, utterly primitivist and seemingly crude ceramics that were pretty much ignored by the world.
Picasso has always been important to me, because of his utter devotion to art, and his ability to reinvent himself and steal successfully from others (Rembrandt, Cezanne, other modernists) continually. Spain is incredibly proud of him, and I believe that he is an important reason why there is such a clear emphasis on art for no reason other than aesthetics, which one sees a lot of in Spain. I love it: they have ‘wasted’ a lot of public money on big sculptures and odd architecture, and all the daring and freshness can be a little surprising to a visitor, when the country in general feels both very old and a bit backward in places.
One can argue that Picasso’s polygamist personal life and explosive personality are inconsequential compared to the importance of his body of work, but this is shallow: in reality, he was the most personal of artists, painting his lovers and friends constantly, compulsively, trying desperately to swallow their bodies and personalities whole, to deliver what he saw or felt. There is a consuming aspect to his work somehow, as if it was a way for him to ‘eat’ life- he painted incredibly quickly, and he chugged away at a very particular idea (sometimes seemingly banal ones) often with 30 or more canvases, until he had gotten something out of himself, or, as he admitted sometimes happened, until he had to give up getting it out, and would have to move on. When one is involved in his work, and knows a bit of biographical detail, it becomes difficult to extricate his life and lifestyle from his gifts. In that regard, this exhibition was particularly moving, because two of the three people arguably most important to him (his mother excepted) gave the museum swaths of works that were portraits of them. His secretary/friend has maybe 12 portraits, and his last wife, Francesca, is probably represented with 20 pieces. I was moved to tears at the variety and insight of the portraits, particularly of Francesca, but also those of some of his other lovers and wife. Who is to know or say what love is for another? How does one judge a man who so lived through his eyes and his hands? It is hard to see the cavalcade of portraits, at turns astounding, fearful, gentle, tortured, and dignified, of his many lovers and wives and deny the love he felt for them, deny the way he must have struggled to understand and integrate them into his life. Almost all of them went to their graves attesting he was their great love. Personally, I think that the thousands that stream through his exhibitions throughout the world attest to the power and unexpected permanence of his love and passion.