Wednesday, 23 March 2016


Image result for barcelona palau guell

We have just been to Barcelona.

Never been before. It is the fifth most popular tourist destination in Europe after Venice, Florence, Paris and Rome. I believe it, the streets were heaving with people mainly texting on their phones rather than gasping at the beautiful buildings but absolutely heaving. Lots of cheap taxis which make it easy to get around.

I liked it, liked it a lot actually. None of the suffocating Catholicism I found in Seville a couple of years ago when I noted on the blog that there seemed to be a convent and a cross on every street corner. I hadn’t appreciated either the extent to which the City had suffered under Franco. They lost. And Franco seems to have more or less burned whatever remained to the ground. All the churches and all the gorgeous stained glass have little notices advising that it has been rebuilt as a result of a fire in 1936.

For several reasons, I returned reminded of Bob Dylan’s incredible, understated song-poem Boots of Spanish Leather. When I was younger I thought these were the most beautiful lines:

    But if I had the stars from the darkest night
    and the diamonds from the deepest ocean,
    I'd foresake them all for your sweet kiss,
    for that's all I'm wishin' to be ownin'

But now I'm older I think these are the lines:

    Oh I got a letter on a lonesome day.
    It was from her ship a-sailin'.
    Sayin' "I don't know when I'll be comin' back again.
    It depends on how I'm a-feelin'.

I love this song; in some ways it says everything that can ever be said about what love is. The contradictions you never admit even to yourself. There are millions of versions, outtakes, live performances, bootlegs but the original version, on Times They Are A-changin’ is the one. Sounds simple, one man and a guitar and a microphone but it is what Hammond was a master at . . .  getting it just right. The pace is perfect.
It’s a in the form of a dialogue between a man, Dylan and a woman and each party takes alternating verses putting as it were their side of the story. Anyway, it works for me. It is in every major poetry anthology that matters and is universally regarded as a masterpiece.

When we were there we visited the Picasso Museum and the Miro house and gallery and also spent the best part of an afternoon at Palau Guell, Gaudi’s first major commission, built between 1886 and 1900 in what has come to be called, Art Nouveau style. I like Picasso, particularly the early works as I noted on the blog a couple of years ago when we went to Malaga. Miro, I cannot comprehend. There are over four hundred works there and his early sketches and watercolours are very strong but like Picasso, he wanted to extend himself and separate from the mainstream. He was drawn to Surrealism as a means of expression whereas I suppose Picasso was drawn to well . . . . lotsa things. Gaudi on the other hand had wealthy clients from an early stage of his career one of whom was the Guell family.

I thought Palau Guell was astonishing. My only sense of Gaudi before I went was the Barcelona Cathedral, the Sagrada Familia which Orwell described as the world’s ugliest building. I wouldn’t disagree with that view. But Palau Guell is incredible. Very, very creative and pushing the boundaries of what I understand to be Art Nouveau; maybe pushing the boundaries is a poor choice of language. It’s not what we commonly think of as Art Nouveau, the stuff you see around Brussels it’s a particular Spanish interpretation of the stylistic details. Moreover it has all recently 2009-2013 been restored to its original form and character. No modern interpretations or interventions: more or less exactly as it would have been. Must have cost an absolute arm and a leg. It was funded by a bank. For someone like me who has worked on some amazing and very prestigious restorations, it was just jaw-dropping. They used the same limestone from the same quarry; the same marble from the same quarry; the same clay from the same earth . . . The clever little roller lock on the first-floor door meticulously put back together; and I know how hard that can be; all the windows with working espagnolette bolts and all the mirror glass renewed, which can be so, so costly. The tiling repaired and properly re-grouted. I could go on for ever.

In the mistresses’ upper bedroom there is a noticeable change of style, as though she wasn’t too sure about all this modern Art Nouveau stuff Mr Gaudi insists upon. There is extensive use of carved dark wood, maybe ebony not sure, probably teak around the door frames. I can’t tell if the work is original but if it was ‘restored’ I hesitate to think what must have been involved in finding a craftsman to do it. Superb craftsmanship in fact everywhere you turned.

So now to my point about how Dylan, Miro, Gaudi and quite possibly Picasso all executed their best work and lasting legacies when they were young tyros, working their socks off on their first real commissions never knowing if this would be their one and only chance of making their mark on the world; no possible concept of what the future might hold.    

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