Ildefonso Falcones: “In modernist Barcelona, ostentation and misery existed side-by-side”
After selling 10 million copies of his different novels, Ildefonso Falcones publishes "Painter of souls", set in turbulent early 20th-Century Barcelona, characterised by the tension of the workers' struggle and the emergence of Modernism. Falcones portrays the Barcelona of the time through Emma and Dalmau, two characters who fight to break the chains that prevent them from carving out their own destiny, while offering an overall vision of the city's modernist works.
Why did you write a novel set in early 20th-Century Barcelona? What inspired you to focus on that period?
Beyond the actual content of a novel (love, revenge, etc.), I am always looking for situations and moments in time that could be of interest to readers. In this respect, the era of modernism, the construction of modernist buildings, and the highly conflictive times experienced socially in Barcelona all provide a really engaging setting for the development of any story. In modernist Barcelona, ostentation and misery existed side-by-side.
The novel’s main character is a painter called Dalmau. What characterises him?
He is characterised by his sensitivity. He is a person who has a gift for painting, a particular sensitivity to capture the essence of things and embody them in a painting… He begins working as a ceramist, so that gives us access to different modernist pieces that he works on. In this way we can start to connect his personal life and his vicissitudes to the construction of modernism. He is also characterised by his significant passion for social justice, as was common at the time in the majority of the workforce.
Another character is Emma, a young cook associated to the workers’ struggle. What role did women play in this struggle?
A surprising role. Each time you delve into the study of this era you realise that women were at the head of protests. They led the way with their children to protect the men, the workers. I would say that they led the social revolution and played an essential role in the fight for labour rights.
In your own words, it was a time of ostentation and misery.How did this ostentation materialise in the bourgeois class?
Precisely, one of the main sources of this ostentation was modernism. We are talking about an artistic style that lasted between 20 to 30 years, no longer, and during that time the bourgeoisie established a kind of competition to see who could make the most beautiful building from a modernist point of view. It was one of the ways for the bourgeoisie, and rich industrialists, to show off their power. This is not only apparent in bourgeois houses, but also in institutions such as the Palau de la Música, the Sagrada Familia and Sant Pau Hospital… It can also be seen in businesses: many establishments were decorated from a modernist point of view. Today, many of them have been lost.
How did the working class view modernism? Were they critical of it?
I don’t think the working class could really care less about modernism. At the time there was a lot of criticism towards modernism, really fierce criticism, but I get the feeling that it was the actual bourgeois class that did not accept it, depending on the type of aesthetic revolution. The working class was busy fighting to put a roof over their heads and to eat, simply to eat. We are talking about a Barcelona where people were dying of hunger, and that is tough. There were thousands of abandoned children on the streets, labour rights were still emerging and industrialists and manufacturers turned a blind eye to it all, it was almost slave labour.
The novel portrays an anticlerical workers’ movement. What was the Church’s stance towards poverty?
The Church did not have the same stance as it does today. The Church has evolved to provide help to all individuals, regardless of their social class, sex, religion… But these aspects were considered then: at the time helping the needy involved proselytism of a kind. This was one of the working class’s biggest points of contention against the Church. In fact, this situation came to a head during Tragic Week, when 80 Churches were burnt in Barcelona.
Can you see any connection between early 20th-Century Barcelona and Barcelona today?
Until recently yes, but with present-day Barcelona it is difficult to see… Today I think it is undergoing an involutional process. Before Barcelona was extremely creative, something that has set the city apart until recently. Now this creativity has gone elsewhere. Creativity implies opening up to the world and at the moment we are trying to promote our own culture, our own customs… Barcelona and Catalonia were the driving force behind Spain at the time and they have continued to be so until the beginning of the 21st Century due to their relationship with Europe. Here, the way of life of France and of Italy was adopted, there was cultural affinity… This did not happen in the rest of Spain, where there was a more agrarian society, of landowners, it was not as industrial, as open, as understanding of movements such as modernism, and that is what set us apart as a country. The opposite can be said today: there is an endogamic view of us.
The novel offers an overall vision of different modernist works in Barcelona. What really stands out within this movement?
The magic, the infinite creativity… It is a movement that seeks every tiny detail, absolutely everything is considered. Modernism requires effort to understand. Other movements are much more straightforward, such as noucentisme, in which everything was classic, straight… But not in this case. Here you have to observe the details and then form an overall composition, and try to see what you have seen as a whole. That is fantastic.
What other characteristics really stand out within this movement?
Modernism was a movement that was not consistent. For example, take the 3 houses on the Block of Discord (Casa Batlló, Casa Amatller and Lleó i Morera), they just cannot be compared. One is symmetrical, another is winding and another is straight… Are they modernist? Yes, because they use old styles and synthesize, unite and combine them… Then there is the use of the decorative arts: stained glass, ceramics, ironwork… All of that is what makes them modernist.
In your novel you define modernism as mater in motion.
Yes, for me that is precisely what distinguished Gaudí from other modernist architects: the movement.
While researching for your novel, what did you discover about Gaudí that you didn’t know?
I discovered a character that really made him different to other architects. Gaudí was ultimately an anchorite, living in the Sagrada Familia, only… I think he took his religion too far. However, other great architects from the movement are much more humanist, such as Domènech i Montaner, who was a teacher, he wrote books and devoted much of his life to politics. In fact, many modernist architects were involved in politics, such as Puig i Cadafalch. By contrast, Gaudí seems much more withdrawn. From an architectural point of view he was a magician, a fantastic creator, majestic, but from a human point of view he was missing this humanist activity that we see in other architects.
And what did you discover about Casa Batlló?
Above all, you learn about all those details that I mentioned earlier. Conceptually Casa Batlló is a wonder, and from a technical point of view, the light, the ventilation, the foundations, the use of natural resources that was so advanced at the time, it is all magnificent… It is surprising how loads are gathered and distributed, although I think the same can be said for all of Gaudí’s architecture. But beyond the architecture is the constant desire to try to control the natural elements: the wind, the weight, the light… If you think about the resources available at the time, it is truly astonishing.
The roof of Casa Batlló appears on the cover of the Spanish edition of the novel, known as the dragon’s back. What does that image mean to you?
For me it represents modernism. It is a powerful cover, with a fantastic blue colour and the first of my covers to show a human figure. Besides, I think the dragon’s back arouses curiosity in possible readers. In fact, there is a moment in the novel in which the main character is working on fitting the ceramic tiles of this roof.
“Painter of souls” lends value to modernism. How can a monument like Casa Batlló become a meeting point to lend value to literature?
From a literary or creative point of view, there are very few monuments or places that can give rise to a creative meeting point, as is the case of Casa Batlló. Promoting these meetings, not only in a literary sense but from any artistic perspective, would be marvellous. When you enter Casa Batlló you are overcome by a creative spirit, by a spirit of imagination. If a person enters the House without letting their imagination run wild, and without seeing things that they don’t see elsewhere or thinking about stories, then it must be a person whose sensitivity is somewhat impaired. Having a place in which you breathe that magic as soon as you enter can inspire any meeting, any type of transfer of energy, of creativity, magic or fantasy.
What would you like readers to learn from your novel? What do you want them to get out of it?
It is not my intention for them to learn anything. As I said earlier, I want an era that is interesting to readers and I offer a novel that is full of passion, love, revenge, sex, money… My only intention is for readers to enjoy reading this novel. If they also learn something about modernist Barcelona, then even better. Many novels have taken Gaudí as a backdrop, but that is not what I’ve done; I talk about modernism as a general artistic movement, particularly from an architectural perspective. I can give a prior vision to what I understand to be the movement and of the works that exist in Barcelona, but I don’t go beyond that. I like to offer what I intend, and the only intention of my novels is for readers to gain pleasure and enjoyment from reading.