Ah, Barcelona. If Madrid be the capital city of Spain and the earthly presence on the Iberian Peninsula, then Barcelona is ethereal and fleeting from the mundane boundaries of ordinary cities. In lieu of fogging up the essence of Barcelona with confusing metaphors, a little history lesson is in order (without getting too rigorous).
Just prior to WW2, the Republican Government of Spain was overthrown in a bloody coup by a terrible Nationalist Dictatorship led by Francisco Franco. More specifically, this coup took about 3 years and was known as the Spanish Civil War. Now theres no such thing as a “good war”, but I can only imagine Civil Wars are some of the worst. Not only are you forced to fight your neighbor, but once the war is over you have to live next to him again. Probably this is why there is so much resentment on either side for years after the war; can you imagine being a Yankees fan living in Worcester after blowing the 3 game lead in 2004? All that pent up anger never gets resolved.
As Franco swept through the heart of Spain with the aim of unifying the regional cultures of Spain into one Nationals entity, he systematically purged the beautiful cultural pockets sprinkled across the country. In particular, the Catalonian region of Eastern Spain (where Barcelona is located) found itself on the wrong side of the war, and after strongly resisting for a few years, Barcelona fell to Franco – Madrid and the rest of Spain were soon to follow. Now, I dont think that Franco ever forgot the trouble Barcelona gave him. Francos reign would last through WW2 and all the way into the 70’s and during this time he made sure to stomp out the glowing embers of life that still remained in Catalonia.
There are rumors that Adolph Hitler helped Franco with the revolution so that he could hone his army for the blitzkreig of Europe that was soon to come. Others say that Hitler wanted to awe Europe with the power of his war machine. Whatever the reason, Franco employed the Nazi’s Luftwaffe to help him shore up the storming of the last outposts of resistance, including the rural city Guernica. In short, this tiny and relatively unmilitaristic city was ruthlessly firebombed out of existence on a monday (when everyone would be in from the surrounding farms to join in the farmers market) and then strafed with fighters to rub out any surviving civilians. As military moves go, this was like killing a mosquito with a shotgun.
Of course, the world was appalled. Picasso, a native Spaniard who spent a great deal of his professional career in Barcelona and the other Republican regions, based one of his most famous pieces on the firebombing of Guernica. I dont mind pretending I know something about art every now and then, but I cannot justify explaining the genius that is Guernica in words and I dont think its fitting that I show it in a stupid blog. Look it up, not just online, but in an art book and try to understand the pain and sadness that this represented for not just a culture, a country, or a group of people, but to the whole world who were still reeling from WW1 and maybe, maybe knew that they were on the brink of another world war. I urge you to go see it at the Reina Sofia in Madrid if you ever get a chance. There is literally a whole floor of the museum dedicated to this painting, with a historical preface to the Spanish Civil War and bombing of Guernica as well as Picasso’s preparatory sketches and paintings. It was one of the most powerfulexperiences of my life. Sometimes I wonder what genius takes. Somehow I imagine Picasso never doubted what the final painting would look like; he just knew in his mind. I see him smearing paint, swirling his brush with tears and acrylic. You know that scene in “No Country For Old Men” when Josh Brolins character comes across the drug deal gone bad, and there is one survivor who is mortally wounded but still alive and begs for water, but Josh Brolin just says “I aint got no water”. But then later that night, Josh Brolin lies sleepless in bed and finally gets up and goes back to the desert to give the dying man water? Somehow I think thats what it was like for Picasso. Written in the blood of men is a code of honor that demands a certain respect for another, especially those toeing the cold edge of death. I imagine Picasso had many of those sleepless nights, tired and dinnerless, where he painted for those who died, and every burning building, screaming face and shattered perspective weeps in comfort beside the city of Guernica. As an interesting aside, the Guernica painting is replicated in a giant tapestry that hangs in the United Nations building as a memorial to the toll of war. When the Bush Administration announced the beginning of the war in Iraq from the UN building, they covered the Guernica tapestry with a blue cloak… I will let you piece together that irony yourself.
The point of this little aside is to develop some sort of understanding Spain and the of the city of Barcelona today. The tyranny of Franco ended with his death in the mid-1970s (any opposition to the State before his death was violently stomped out). After so many years of gloom under the Franco regime, Barcelona still celebrates life reemerged from the abyss. Barcelona is very much a city of brightness and color, basking in the mediterranean sun. To me, Barcelona is a revival, a symbol of youth regained despite terrible violence and repression. Nothing represents this liveliness more than the architecture of Gaudi – some of his most famous works are pictured below. These were all taken by me in late June/early July 2008 in one of my favorite cities in the world.