Brassaï "Sense títol. Graffiti. Sèrie VII: "La mort'", ca. 1930. Tiratge ca.1950
Le Corbusier and Jean Genet in the Raval
The superimposition of the experiences of Le Corbusier and Jean Genet in the city of Barcelona in the early 1930s invites us to consider a modernity close in space and time. Le Corbusier toured Barcelona's urban centre with the intention of evaluating and reforming it. The proposal of the Macià Plan for a 'New Barcelona' was, therefore, based on hygienic principles aimed at eradicating the social degradation of the area. In contrast, Jean Genet, who wandered the same streets in the old town soon after Le Corbusier, found a great deal in common with the most abject aspects of the place. His novel, The Thief's Journal, published in 1949, is an account of his time in Barcelona and other European cities. Therefore, two aspects of modernity – one associated with rationalism and committed to physical and moral cleansing, the other exploring the informal and marginal – coincided in time and space in the Barcelona of the 1930s. In the current presentation of the MACBA Collection, the aesthetic implications of these two ways of life are related to urban conditions. The diorama of the Macià Plan at the centre of this section sets the scene for these tensions. But the projected vision of a modern city and the ambitious destruction it entailed was never realised. The Spanish Civil War put a stop to any plans of urban reform.
In the year 2000, a documentary film by José Luis Guerín, which would become a referent for the new documentary cinema produced in Barcelona, unfolds in the manner of a frieze around the urban transformation that, after a process of cleansing, would lead to the Raval as it exists today. En construcción (Under Construction) documents the demolition of buildings and the arrival of new inhabitants in the area around MACBA, a dynamics of progress supported by gentrification. In one of the better-known scenes in the film, the camera records the comments of a group of neighbours. The discovery of ancient tombs provokes a fortuitous encounter between people of different origins whose voices recreate a remarkable heterogeneity. Their way of asking about the history behind the bones found in the tombs is expressed in a demotic language, typical of the popular classes. The tension between the different representations of the city – as seen from the street or encapsulated in the idea of the city as a project – produces an interesting documentary saga around urban conflict in the city of Barcelona, which could be said to begin with this film by Guerín.
However, this representation of the popular can also become a drawback when it colours the perception of an urban area such as this. In the late 1920s, Barcelona's District v was already the object of media coverage for its moral and physical degradation. Such accounts acquired the category of the journalistic gender. The explosion of reporting turned the so-called Barri Xino (the seedy streets of the old town) into a cause celèbre, associated with night life and danger, and as such the object of front covers of magazines such as Estampa, Crónica, La Linterna and Imatges. Even critics such as Sebastià Gasch spoke of their incursions into the District v, avidly searching for a disconcerting aesthetic repertoire incompatible with good taste. In an article published in La Veu de Catalunya in 1929, Gasch was adamant that he would rather get inspiration in those streets than by visiting exhibitions. 'I love live things. I hate dead things.' Then he suggested an itinerary round the streets where he found 'all those insignificant wonders that we discover with emotion – Joan Miró and I – during our frequent excursions to the streets of the old town, and which are more impressive than many itineraries, stifled by dead archaeology.' The photographs of Brassaï's graffiti could be seen as the reverse of this dead archaeology. In this instance, the street produces a repertoire of signs that amounts to an authentic language, free of mediations and inscribed on walls that will later become aesthetic objects. Antoni Tàpies' research on matter painting is the answer to that.
The places described by Gasch reappear in a photographic sequence made in 1932 by Josep Domínguez, a civil servant responsible for a document on the state of the streets for administrative purposes. The streets known as L'Arc del Teatre, Carrer de l'Est, Carrer del Migdia, Carrer de la Volta d'en Cirés, configure a geography that will provide real-life locations for films such as La bandera (The Flag), 1934, where a runaway delinquent, escaped from Paris, finds refuge among the riffraff of Barcelona's densely populated streets. Le Corbusier's notebooks from the time he spent in this part of Barcelona are full of female nudes. The attraction he felt for prostitutes and gypsy women suggests that the famous Swiss architect identified the city with the female body and thought its exoticism in need of normalisation. In one of the notebooks, we can see Barcelona's skyline from the sea, with the mountain of Montjuïc in the background and the skyscrapers projected by Le Corbusier in the foreground. The silhouette of the city traverses the naked body of a drawn woman, an example of the feminisation of the city. Countless titles in popular literature, narrating this sexual perception of urban degradation, express the degree to which the city had become a woman.
Beyond a modernity close in space and time, as represented by Le Corbusier and Genet, there are no aesthetic productions, other than documentary practices, assuming these urban conditions. The sculptures and reliefs by Joaquín Torres García and Alexander Calder's mobiles, both made in Barcelona in 1931, and Construcció lírica (Lyrical Construction) by Leandre Cristòfol, 1934, open the MACBA Collection to a period that extends to the 1950s. In the same way as Cristòfol's sculpture from the early thirties can be indistinctively associated to Surrealist objects and to the tradition of Constructivist sculpture, equally Antoni Tàpies, Lucio Fontana and Salvador Dalí are proof of how insufficient a category such as Informalism can be.