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‘Noucentisme’ and Avant-gardes

In 1924, Josep Pla would describe ‘Noucentisme’, as a ‘movement of ideas’. The truth of the matter is that during the first decades of the twentieth century, politics and culture formed an alliance, as did the bourgeoisie, Catalanism and the country’s intellectuals which led to the institutionalization of Catalan culture.

‘Noucentisme’ and Avant-gardes

The term would be coined by the essayist and philosopher Eugeni d’Ors, who would fill it with theoretical content from the pages of the newspaper ‘La Veu de Catalunya’, for which he produced the section called ‘Glosari’ [Glossary] (1906-1920) under the pen name ‘Xènius’. The denomination has its origins in the appeal to the new century, to 1900, but also to the adjective ‘new’, as opposed to ‘old’, and banishing the concept ‘modern’ in order to clearly differentiate itself, from Modernism. The new aesthetical and ideological postulates of the ‘Noucentisme’ would put an end to the modernist, artistic perceptive, which had prevailed until then, and recuperate the sobriety of Greek and Roman classicism, creating a linguistic and iconographic rich symbolic universe.

The ‘Noucentisme’ movement would last from 1906 until 1923: its starting date coincided with various related events and occurrences that would outline a historical, political and cultural division: the birth of the ‘Lliga Regionalista’ [Regional League] (1901), which would have in ‘La Veu de Catalunya’ (1899-1939) its principle broadcasting platform; the ‘Solidaritat Catalana’ [Catalan Solidarity]; the publication of ‘Els fruits saborosos’ [The tasty fruits] by Josep Carner, a poetry book which would become a representative of ‘Noucentisme’ classicism, or the hatching of ‘La nacionalitat catalana’ [Catalan Nationality] by Enric Prat de la Riba. Together with the ‘Mancomunitat’, in 1914, he would propel forward the political project of auto determination, as well as a series of cultural institutions which would lay down the building blocks of modern Catalonia.

During this period, the ‘Institut d’Estudis Catalans’ [Institute of Catalan Studies] (1907) would be created: this organism, which was conceived as the maximum academic authority with regards to the field of literature and scientific research, would charge Pompeu Fabra, the President of the Philological Section, with the establishment of the linguistic rules for the Catalan language. This process would take form in the elaboration and publishing of the ‘Normes ortogràfiques’ [Orthographic rules] (1913), the ‘Gramàtica catalana’ [Catalan Grammar] (1918) and the ‘Diccionari general de la llengua catalana’ [General dictionary of the Catalan Language] (1932). The Library of Catalonia, which would be conceived as a national library, would organise the first librarian system of the country by creating the ‘Escola de Bibliotecàries’ [School of Librarians] (1915) or the ‘Biblioteques Populars’ [Popular Libraries] (1918). The ‘Associació Protectora de l’Ensenyança Catalana’ [Protective Association of Catalan Teaching] (1914) would channel the introduction of the Montessori Method, the most modern at the time, in Catalan schools.

In the cultural world, we must point out the enormous jump, both quantitative and qualitative, of the publishing industry: many district publications started to proliferate and magazines such as ‘Empori’ (1907-1908), ‘La Revista’ (1916-1936) or ‘D’ací i d’allà’ (1918-1936) were published. Publishing houses like ‘Editorial Catalana’ (1917-1924) were created under the patronage of Francesc Cambó and the guidance of Josep Carner, which, from 1924 onwards, would be known as ‘Editorial Catalònia’. Cambó’s economical support would also be decisive in the constitution of the ‘Fundació Bernat Metge’ [Bernat Metge Foundation], specialised in the translation into Catalan of the Roman and Greek classics.

The aesthetic and theoretic precepts of the ‘Noucentisme’ movement are essentially classicism, and ‘mediterranisme’: the classic world would connect with certain cultural and ideological roots, while the Mediterranean component would evoke a luminosity and a common space, inherited by the Catalans, and associated to tradition and identity. Civility would be another ‘noucentista’ value, by which the city is viewed as an ideal place, the space of modernity, where all the changes postulated by the ‘noucentista’ movement programme should take form.

Eugeni d’Ors would turn the journalistic article into a modern literary genre, with an approach similar to the essay: his daily gloss was a brief and poignant reflection about political and cultural actuality, but also about trivial aspects. D’Ors was the author of ‘La Ben Plantada’ [The good-looking woman] (1911), in which he portrayed Teresa, a woman he would make use-of to explain the classic-like model of the Catalan fatherland and its construction, thanks to woman’s central role in society. The work is a demonstration of his philosophy, which aimed to elevate the simple anecdote to an event of a higher category. Other works by D’Ors are, ‘Gualba, la de mil veus’ [Gualba, the one of a thousand voices] (1915) and ‘Oceanografia del tedi’ [Oceanography of tedium] (1916).

With regards to the literary production of the time, the prose of fiction and the novel were banished in favour of poetry, which would become the dominant creative genre, next to that of the essay. The decasyllabic sonnet would turn into the specification for the lyrical essence. The many poets writing at this time would do so from a moral, Catholic point of view, which urban gaze would intentionally catch banal, illustrious circumstances thanks to literature’s sieve. Amongst many names worthy of mention, other than Josep Carner or ‘Guerau de Liost’, the pen name of Jaume Bofill Mates, we find Josep M. López Picó, Rafael Masó, Jaume Agelet Garriga or Maria-Antònia Salvà and Miquel Ferrà. In the field of criticism the contribution of literary critics such as Alexandre Plana or Joaquim Folguera would be significant.

In the period between the First and Second World Wars we find the Avant-garde movement, another representative phenomena, which would involve a reaction against the power and the preferred aesthetics of the bourgeoisie. The Avant-gardes would emphasise modern research, with the aim of creating a new language which would enable them to break with the immediate tradition, and to reflect the new ways of life by surpassing the barriers of artistic creation.

The Avant-gardes would explode onto the European scene in the field of pictorial art. However, they would almost immediately move into the rest of artistic and cultural manifestations, such as literature, cinema, publicity, design and plastic arts (Kandinsky or Dalí), architecture (Bauhaus and GATPAC) or music (Satie, Schönberg or Gerhard). The Avant-gardes would flee from rationality in order to find subjectivity and impression.

The Catalan literary situation existing between 1914 and 1930 is quite complex because different literary tendencies overlapped: on the one hand, the final manifestations of Naturalism and Modernism, and, on the other, the ‘Noucentisme’ movement, that by 1920 was reaching its end. In this landscape, the emerging new literature would become a cultural experience which would be both irrational and full of adventure. The principle Avant-garde movements would be the following:

Cubism (1907-1914): the cubist movement would arise in the pictorial and sculptural field; its principle contributions would consist of a new interpretation of space and the use of a language expressed in geometrical forms. In the field of literature, the most important representative would be Guillaume Apollinaire, who would introduce the calligram into poetry, and who would become known in Catalonia thanks to the gallery owner Josep Dalmau, during an exposition in one of his galleries in 1912.

Futurism: it would arise in Italy from the hand of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the author of the first ‘Manifest futurista’ [Futurist manifest] (1909), who would support the incorporation into art of the themes of the modern city, synthesized by the machine and velocity, in a clear defiance of the norms of classic beauty. In the field of literature, Marinetti would propose the destruction of syntax.

Dadaism: it would be begun in Zurich in 1915 by a group of intellectuals, of whom we must point out Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia. It would propose the refusal of everything, destruction for its own sake. It would aim to create confusion without any fall back alternative. Catalonia would maintain a direct contact with Dadaism, thanks to a group of Avant-garde artists who, through ‘Galeries Dalmau’ [Dalmau Galeries] would introduce the movement’s works, and also through the presence of Picabia, who would live in Barcelona (1916-1917) and would be the founder of the magazine ‘391’, which would act as the voice for the new tendency.

Surrealism is considered to be the most solid movement of the Avant-garde. André Breton would define it in 1924 with the publication of the first ‘Manifest del surrealisme’ [Manifest of surrealism]. Between this date and 1929, the movement would enjoy one of its most brilliant periods. It exalted unawareness, and absence of rational control, as optimum spaces for artistic creation. In this ambience Sigmund Freud’s works and his theories about unconsciousness and dreams, which would be introduced in 1917, would be prominent. In painting we must point out Chagall, Dalí or Miró, and in cinema, Buñuel.

The first Catalan Avant-garde period would be basically futurist, and endure between 1916 and 1925. After the cubist exposition in 1912, the ‘Galeries Dalmau’ [Dalmau Galeries] edited the magazine ‘Trossos’ (1916-1918), directed by Josep M. Junoy, who would publish the calligram ‘Oda a Guynemer’ [Ode to Guynemer]. In 1917 Joan Salvat-Papasseit became the focal point of futurism. Other futurist poets are Carles Sindreu or Sebastià Sánchez-Juan. In the field of criticism we must point out Sebastià Gasch and Lluís Montanyà.

The Avant-gardes cannot be disconnected from characteristics like the interior withdrawal, the idea of movement associated to velocity, humoristic detachment, creation of an urban iconography related to tarmac, urbanism, electricity, publicity, the machine (automobile, aeroplane, telegraph, trams, etc.), sport or cinema, which used a language that was in synchronisation with avant-gardism as regards to the linguistic fragmentation, or without forgetting the creation of the star, celebrity-system, personified by such names as Rodolfo Valentino, Greta Garbo, Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

The Catalan literary avant-gardes, unlike the Italian or fluid art avant-gardes, never constituted a violent rupture, tending to collaborate with institutionalised groups. The reason for this is that since the middle of the nineteenth century the country had been fighting to rebuild its culture and consolidate the rules of a language that was still greatly in disuse because of various historical factors. Poets such as Josep M. Junoy or J.V. Foix, aware of this cultural situation, would combine literary subversion with the respect for the language, giving preference to continuity and construction over ideas of rupture and research.

‘Noucentisme’. The ‘noucentista’ ideology

The ‘noucentista’ artists strove to give life to the official Catalan culture. It was a unique movement because, for the first time in history, politics, institutions, art, literature and music came together with the same objective.

‘Noucentisme’ was born in a very complex and fertile period in the history of Catalonia, both politically and culturally. In spite the fact that it is complicated to outline, it could be said that it was born in 1906 and that it lasted until 1923. This new movement eventually penetrated politics, the institutions, aesthetics, literature and art. It was culturally and politically very active and had two grand referents: on the one side, the Catalonia city, which was Barcelona, seen as a grand metropolis of Catalan culture and, on the other, the Mediterranean and its tradition. It ended up expanding all over Catalonia, North Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. All of these territories shared a group of aesthetical, political and artistic events.

Its first driving forces came from modernism; amongst them there were intellectuals like the writer, philosopher and journalist Eugeni d’Ors, the poet Josep Carner, the poet and politician Jaume Bofill Mates, the architect and poet Josep Pijoan and the painters Torres García, Francesc d’Assís Galí, Xavier Nogués and Feliu Elias. All of them desired to regenerate Catalan culture.

‘Noucentisme’, however, was not born from nothing: between 1891 and 1905, trends, denominations, situations and people appeared who came together in 1906, to give life to the new movement. At the same time modernism started its decline and the artists aspired to reach a change of aesthetical orientation, different to the end of century tendency.

With the change of the century, a generational importance occurred. Amongst the new artists the idea of literary and artistic aesthetical modernity and renewal was developed through a regression to classicism and the cult of the Mediterranean, which were some doctrines having their origin in the ‘école romane’ and, subsequently, continued through the contributions of Cézanne and the classic rhetoric of the ‘esprit nouveau’.

Similar to that which had taken place at the end of the nineteenth century, the magazines had a distinguished role: if during the epoch of splendour of modernism it was ‘Pèl & Ploma’, which was the referent of the movement, now it was ‘Forma’ that was taking centre stage of the new sensibility.

In 1906, for the first time, Eugeni d’Ors, who signed with the pen name Xènius, used the term ‘noucentisme’. The Catalan writer wrote more than four thousand glosses over a period of sixteen years, which were commentaries that he published in the press, in which he reflected upon what was happening within the society of the time. Through these columns he managed to deliberately articulate the programme of this movement, which had to serve to renew the culture in Catalonia. It was an ethic and aesthetic discourse. A year later, the president of the ‘Diputació de Barcelona’ and founder of the ‘Institut d’Estudis Catalans’ [Institute of Catalan Studies], Enric Prat de la Riba, institutionalized ‘noucentisme’ and applied its ideals to politics.

At the same time, the first unitary Catalan movement ‘Solidaritat Catalana’ [Catalan Solidarity] was born. This new formation won the elections of 1907 in an overwhelming way. For the first time in history, politics, institutions, art, literature and music joined together with the same objective, the creation of a modern country. In contrast with the modernists, the ‘noucentista’ spirit was much more collective, with all members of the group being greatly involved.

The ‘noucentistes’ aspired to establish an autochthonous model of their own: the ‘noucentista’ institutions, like the Institute of Catalan Studies and the ‘Biblioteca de Catalunya’ [Library of Catalonia], were born as a refusal of the structures belonging to the administration of the provincial State and the jurisdiction law. They wanted to gain the political hegemony of the Catalan bourgeoisie.

The ‘noucentista’ artists wanted to distance themselves from the aesthetic ideals which had been predicated by symbolists and impressionists. They were seduced by the Greek, Latin and autochthonous classics and desired to create the roots that would give a value of eternity to culture. In this vein, in poetry, we must point out ‘Els fruits saborosos’ [The flavoursome fruits] by Josep Carner and ‘Les Horacianes’ by Miquel Costa Llobera. Eugeni d’Ors, outlining the programme of ‘noucentisme’ in the prologue of ‘La muntanya d’Ametistes’ [The mountain of Amethysts] by Guerau de Liost (pen name of Jaume Bofill Mates). The intellectuals organised the ‘I Congrés Internacional de la Llengua Catalana’ [I International Congress of the Catalan Language].

In spite of everything, for many historians, ‘noucentisme’ started in 1911 with the publication of the ‘Almanac dels Noucentistes’ [Almanac of the ‘Noucentistes’], which was a type of introduction charter of the plenary of the ‘noucentistes’ of the first period. In fact it is at this moment when they demonstrated that they had a solid collective awareness. That year in Barcelona an exposition dedicated to Joaquim Sunyer was introduced, which turned him into an artistic paradigm. The expositions of the sculptors Josep Clarà and Enric Casanovas were also celebrated. The work of all three would underline the aesthetic guidelines for two decades. The new collective ideology wanted a representative European culture, with a future vision that was opposed to the anarchic and modernist tendencies of the time.

Also in that year a definitive reorganisation of the Institute of Catalan Studies occurred which, under the guidance of Pompeu Fabra, ended up having the control of the intellectual and scientific life of the country. ‘La ben plantada’ [The good looking woman] was published, which was a gloss by Eugeni d’Ors with a strong literary point, which wanted to be an aesthetic sublimation of the ‘noucentista’ aesthetics.

In plastic art, Aristides Maillol, thanks to the high classic component of his works, was a precursor from the beginning of the century. The association, ‘Les Arts i els Artistes’ [Arts and the Artists], was of a great importance because it synthesised the concept of ‘noucentisme’ as applied to the arts. In this way, classicism, Cezanne’s interest in the Mediterranean, the autochthonous interest in Baroque and the ironic popular taste were the essential components of this painting.

In sculpture, Enric Casanovas and, mainly Esteve Monegal, who was responsible for the section of sculpture of the ‘Escola Superior dels Bells Oficis’ [Superior School of Fine Trades], were the strongest representatives. Other sculptors who moved close to the ‘noucentista’ ideology were Manolo Hugué, Pau Gargallo and Joan Borrell-Nicolau. With regards to architecture, Rafael Masó in Gerona and Josep Goday in Barcelona represent the passage from modernism to ‘noucentisme’.

In 1914, ‘noucentisme’ consolidated: that same year the First World War broke out and two tendencies arose in the world of art: on the one side, those who felt attracted to the first avant-gardes, the Francophile line, and, on the other, those who let themselves be seduced by the Germanic civilization.

In spite of everything, in this period there was a strong orthodoxy and the eclecticism of the first section. A golden period commenced which would last until 1917, year in which Prat de la Riba died. With the disappearance of the president of the ‘Mancomunitat’ a new period began, which Josep Pla called the 8 years of crisis of authority, during which the arguments between the Catalan parties were continuous. In 1918, Puig Cadafalch became the President of the ‘Mancomunitat’. The conflicts were continuous and important exiles would take place, like those of Eugeni d’Ors and Josep Carner. In 1922 the secession of the integrants of ‘Acció Catalana’ [Catalan Action] occurred and, a year later, Primo de Rivera effected a coup d’êtat and a new period of dictatorship commenced.

With the dictatorship, the ‘noucentista’ movement started to disintegrate until it became a cultural substrate and the institutions that it had created, like the ‘Mancomunitat’, disappeared.

Thus, from 1924 onwards, the clichés of the cult of Mediterranean, especially in literature, started to become vulgarised, and some of the artists joined European realism. In contrast, the plan continued to make town planning, architecture and art official. It was a manifestation that was clearly against the avant-gardes. Finally, with the arrival of the Catalan Republic, the institutional programme of ‘noucentisme’ was restarted. However, this was more or less all that was done around this movement. Never again will we see a militancy that conjugates figures drawn from all social classes to construct an official aesthetics for the culture of the country.

During this period of decline a principle evolution of the pictorial work of Torres-Garcia was consummated, until it became the paradigm of the official style. The ‘noucentista’ magazine continued to be published until 1935.