Monday, April 25, 2011

Sant Jordi & Gustave Courbet

Saturday was a special holiday (and my favorite) here in Catalunya.  23 April is Sant Jordi, known to English-speakers as Saint George.  Sant Jordi is the patron saint of Catalunya (and many other places – I believe he is the most popular of all male saints).  He’s the one who slew the dragon and saved the princess.  Maybe he is the most popular because his story is more appealing than all those poor souls who were tortured and put to death.  In any case, this remarkable feat was said to have taken place in several locations around the Mediterranean – in other words, many people say “it happened here!” -- and Montblanc, a Catalan town inland from Tarragona, is one of them.  When Saint George slew the dragon and saved the princess, a red rose grew from where the dragon’s blood spilled.  Thus, since 1456, the day has been celebrated (only in Catalunya; not in the rest of Spain) much like Valentine’s Day with men giving red roses to the women they love. 

In 1923 a Barcelona bookseller began a campaign to also celebrate 23 April as the Day of the Book because the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes happen to coincide on 23 April 1616 and, I guess, he thought it would help his book business.  His efforts were successful and since then, books have been added to the holiday, and it has become the Day of the Book and the Rose.  It is one of the loveliest holidays here in Catalunya, where books and flower stalls draped in Catalan flags are set out on the main promenade of every city, town, and village. 

In 1995, 23 April was adopted by UNESCO as World Book Day upon petition from Catalunya.  Unfortunately, not many people around the world know about it.  But for any book lover out there, this might be a good time to start making suggestions to your local bookseller to celebrate the holiday next year.

Lately my own reading has tended to books (mostly, but not entirely non-fiction) about art and artists.  Perhaps because I don’t want to dwell on not having much love or friendship in my life right now, I’m focusing instead on beauty.  My recently read list includes:
Chagall: Love and Exile, by Jackie Wullshlager
Vincent and Theo Van Gogh: A Dual Biography, by Jan Hulsker
Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King
Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, by Mark Doty
The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, by Mark Roskill
The Judgment of Paris, by Ross King
and currently the fictional, Lust for Life, by Irving Stone

The Judgment of Paris was about the beginnings of Impressionism and the fight for recognition of the artists who were developing a new way of expressing beauty and the world, breaking out of the restrictive rules of the official Paris art world.  Gustave Courbet was a Realist painter who was a forerunner to the Impressionists in that he abandoned the classical and approved topics for paintings and instead sought his subjects from real life, engaged in pictorial social commentary, while also using a less distinct style of applying paint.  And it just so happens that the National Museum of Art of Catalunya is now holding an exhibition of some of Courbet’s most important paintings, in order to show how he influenced Catalan painters of that time, some of whose works are also on display.  I had to go. 

Going to Barcelona for Sant Jordi, meant I could see the exhibit and enjoy the ambience of that lovely holiday on the same trip.  Two hours each way by train is not a voyage I take lightly, so I wanted to make the most of the journey.

I’m very happy I went, but not all was jolly.  For one thing, there was the delay in getting to Barcelona.  At San Vicenç de Calders, the train took an alternative inland route, passing through the Penedes wine-growing region, and seeming to crawl along at 30 kph, adding more than half an hour to the trip.  As is typical, this change in route was not explained to the passengers.  At the museum, the women at the ticket counter were unpleasant and rude, but perhaps because I commented on it, they let me in for free as a senior, even though I’m not old enough (yet)!  The young man behind the counter at the museum café overcharged me by 2 euros for a slice of carrot cake.  I asked about the price, but didn’t want to argue, even though it was listed on the menu.  Sometimes it is more convenient to enjoy moral indignation than enter into an argument.  Later, the plate of tapas I ordered at a tapas bar for my lunch took 40 minutes to arrive, so that I was sitting there, alone, while all the other couples at the bar had been served, had left, new ones had come, had been served, etc.  When I finally began to worry that I would miss my train home and I asked what had happened to my mushrooms, the plate came at last.  The Rambla had the usual (wonderful) tables full of books and flowers, but the street was so crowded that one could hardly move.  It was festive and colorful but not for those suffering from claustrophobia or the fainthearted.  Luckily, I am neither.

In spite of these setbacks, the good outweighed the irksome.  Although rain had threatened, and indeed the train was rained on en route, the weather in Barcelona was beautiful, sunny with a blue sky punctuated with fluffy clouds.  They have made a shopping mall of one of the Barcelona bull rings.  It opened recently and is already quite an attraction.  I walked past and maybe I’ll go in next time.  The Generalitat had installed the four large columns, representing the four stripes of the Catalan flag that had been removed from the base of Montjuic during the Franco years.  They now enhance the Plaça Espanya and I thought they looked very good back in their old home.  As always on a clear day, the views from the museum at the top of Montjuic were spectacular.   

I was very happy to see some of Courbet’s paintings in person.  Included in the exhibit were, among others, his Self-portrait with Black Dog; Man with a Pipe; The Desperate Man; The Wounded Man; Jo, the Beautiful Irishwoman; and Sleep.  The real paintings are always more interesting to look at than reproductions, especially the small-scale ones on the internet or in books.  I could see why he was considered the master by his peers.  His paintings stood far out from all the others on show.

I was also very happy to once again be able to enjoy the festivity of La Rambla full of books, flowers, Catalan flags, and people enjoying each other and the day.

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