Jazz Age Barcelona.
Robert Davidson's Jazz Age Barcelona is an exemplary study of the relationships between print and popular culture in Barcelona from the middle of World War I through the early 1930s, when Spain began feeling the effects of the Great Depression and Barcelona woke up to its own Jazz Age "hangover." Davidson argues that despite Spain's neutral status in World War I, the dominant trends of the Jazz Age nonetheless found a willing home in Spain's "second city," due to a period of tremendous social upheaval and Catalunya's subsequent oppression by the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera after 1923. These trends--in particular jazz music and rhythm, spectacle, performance, and vice--featured heavily in the periodical press and literature of the city, which served as a crucial space for the introduction and articulation of a unique Jazz Age "aesthetic" that literally imprinted itself on Barcelona's public and private spaces (p. 7).
The concept of space is crucial to Davidson's overall argument. He outlines a number of spaces, including the Barrio Chino ("Chinese Neighbourhood") and Raval, which made up the infamous "Fifth District," with its abundance of cabarets, flamenco theatres, bars, and taverns; the bourgeois neighbourhood of the Eixample; the centre of the 1929 International Exposition, Montjuic; and the buildings that housed the periodical and literary presses. These spaces hot only served as locations for the expression of the new Jazz Age culture--events like jazz music shows and chorus lines--but also for the eventual, and perhaps inevitable, normalization and "gentrification" of Jazz Age culture, ultimately centred in the far tamer music halls. This gentrification, occurring towards the end of the 1920s, signaled for Davidson what can be termed the twilight of the Jazz Age, which came to an unremarkable end in the wake of the Great Depression and the declaration of Spain's Second Republic in 1931.
After a brief discussion of Barcelona's history during the hectic World War I and immediate post-war periods, Davidson turns his analysis to a series of literary case studies. These include the papers El Escandalo (Scandal), Mirador (Vantage Point), and Imatges (Images); the novels Sangre en Atarazanas ( Blood in Atarazanas) by Francesc Madrid and Vida Privada (Private Life) by J. M. Sagarra; and the essays of art and culture critic Sebastia Gasch. Davidson's strongest analyses engage the two novels, which serve as interesting bookends. Published in 1926, Madrid's Sangre en Atarazanas was a semi-fictionalized account of events and characters--murders, drug use, prostitution--in Barcelona's red-light district, bringing to light, even perversely glamorizing, the seedy underworld of the city's most infamous district. At the other end of the spectrum, Sagarra's 1932 novel Vida Privada culminates with the sad tale of a voyeuristic, debauched, and decadent group of upper-class Barcelonans who go slumming in the Fifth District, expecting to be titillated, only to find themselves disgusted and driven to pity--but still realizing that their own reality, their own world, was far more corrupt and vice-ridden than anything they could find in the slums. These two novels, Davidson argues, illuminate the various stages of the Jazz Age: the sensationalizing of the mid-1920s (Sangre) and the fallout, or "hangover" stage of the early 1930s. Utilizing the same spaces--particularly the fifth district--Davidson does a great job demonstrating the extent to which this Jazz Age aesthetic had permeated the social codes and behaviours of Barcelonans, regardless of social class.
He also offers insightful discussions of a number of Barcelona's other print media. I particularly enjoyed the gendered analysis of the stories and illustrations that appeared in another organ from Francesc Madrid, the journal El Escandalo. Though Madrid seemingly has little respect for anyone caught up in this new world, the journal often highlighted the danger to women, and thus the safety and security of Barcelona, posed by the threat of jazz, drugs, illicit sex, and even cocktails. Davidson also does not ignore the importance of the political in Barcelona--essential for any analysis of the region during the Primo regime. Much of his political analysis occurs in his discussion of the press coverage of 1929's International Exposition and the way that the centralizing Spanish state coopted the Expo through the construction of the Poble Espanyol (a model Spanish village) on Montjuic, at the expense of the expression of Catalan regional/national culture. Here he relates this discussion of politics less to the Jazz Age itself, and more to the print culture that mediated both jazz culture and Catalan politics during the 1920s. In this instance, Davidson's argument would have been bolstered by the inclusion of a deeper discussion of the role of the Spanish press in general in the expression of political ideology from the nineteenth century onward to provide a more detailed context for the press in the 1920s.
Davidson also would have benefitted from a more explicit discussion of the audiences of many of these works. Though Barcelona had a higher literacy rate than many Spanish cities, it still is not completely clear to whom these works were directed, and Davidson speculates very little on their reception, except in the use of the prize-winning Vida privada. Nonetheless, scholars of European, Spanish, or Catalan history, media, and print culture, and the fascinating interwar period will certainly enjoy Davidson's analysis, literary style, and presentation.
The Pennsylvania State University, Altoona College
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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