21 Jun 2011

The Barcelona of the Brangulís - A Photographic Exhibition

Fons Brangulí/National Archives of Catalonia (ANC)

The start of Josep Brangulí i Soler's (1879-1945) career as a photo-journalist coincided with the social and political upheavals in Barcelona that resulted in Setmana Tragica (Tragic Week) during the summer of 1909. Brugulí seems to have missed out on the actual rioting but he was certainly on hand to record the aftermath of the disturbances that inflamed the Catalan capital--the burnt out churches, monasteries and convents, and the street barricades made up of cobble stones. However, over the next 35 years or so Brangulí, and later in collaboration with two of his sons, produced a priceless photographic record of a city convulsed by tremendous events; the city under the first dictatorship, the rise of the Catalan middle class, the coming of the Second Republic, the civil war and finally the defeated Barcelona. Brangulí also recorded the more mundane everyday happenings that make a city work; workers at their trades, policemen investigating crime scenes, bored salesmen selling their wares at trade fairs, pupils at their desks and politicians speaking at meetings. By the time Josep Brangulí's career and life ended in 1945, Barcelona was an occupied city waiting for its long ascent to begin but fortunately for those of us interested in the city's history, his two sons were there to carry on.

Three hundred photographs are on display in an exhibition entitled Brangulí - Barcelona 1909-1945 at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB). The curators, Valentin Vallhonrat and Rafael Levenfeld, have selected from a collection of almost a million images that the Generalitat de Catalunya (the Catalan government) purchased from the Brangulí family several years ago. The contribution to the collection by the two sons, Joaquim and Xavier, is not insignificant however, approximately half of the archive, and most of the exhibit, can be attributed to the senior Brangulí. The collection, now in the possession of the National Archives of Catalonia (ANC) is, for students of Barcelona's troubled history, an invaluable resource.

To have lived in Barcelona during the first half of the 20th century was like riding a roller coaster with no sense of how it would all end up. Many European cities suffered the same sort of breathless excess of destabilizing events. Think of Paris and Berlin, two cities whose highs and lows are well know to English audiences because of the many American and English journalists, writers and artists who told of their experiences. However, Barcelona in the first half of the 20th century was never exposed to the Anglo-Saxon world in a way that Madrid was, and it remains a mystery world to many foreigners. Although, that has changed in the last twenty years as the city has become a major tourist destination. To put the Brangulí exhibit in context it helps to learn beforehand some of Barcelona and Catalonia's history.

Fortunately, Brangulí and his sons provide us with images of those events. Later when the three Brangulís worked together it was not always possible to attribute a specific photograph to any one of them. As Josep started his career he worked for newspapers, magazines and commercial clients. Everyday street scenes in the Barri Gotic reveal that not much has changed except that in the 1920s some of the neighbourhood children were better dressed than those of today, there was less laundry hanging on the balconies and there were no gawking tourists. A number of photographs focus on the architectural aspects of city. At one time Josep Brangulí worked for Construcciones y Pavimentos, a firm that pioneered reinforced concrete structures. The company's buildings appealed to Josep Brangulí's sense of order with their precise clean lines. Few of the early Brangulí images capture any sort of spontaneity or movement, he preferred to have his subjects line up and solemnly face the camera. Arguably it was partly a function of the technical difficulties attributed to working in low-light situations. Even the crowds in his images of political meetings and assemblies seem to have stopped as he took his photographs. The later images have more of a sense of movement, the photographs more spontaneous but perhaps those were the work of the two younger Brangulís--it is impossible to tell who took a specific photograph.

The star of this exhibit is Barcelona during a period when it was convulsed by tremendous social and political upheavals. The clash of classes, the riots, huge public funerals and the political demonstrations provided much street theatre. The rise of the middle class and a more liberal society after the proclamation of the second republic in 1931 and contrasting that with the aftermath of the civil war and the stifling effects of the church and the Flange on Catalan society, make for at times an almost surrealist history. Throughout it all the Brangulis were able to remain apolitical. Among the papers in the exhibition is a less passe issued to the senior Branguli by the Partit Obrer d'Unifacacio Marxista (POUM) five days after the start of the civil war allowing him to ply his trade unhindered. On the other hand, in 1939 the Brangulis, unhindered in their work, were there to photograph the fifth columnists celebrating the "liberation" of Barcelona by the Nationalists.

Fons Brangulí/National Archives of Catalonia (ANC)

The period after the civil war provides the exhibit with several incongruous images. The image of F.C. Barcelona's players lined up at centre field with arms extended in the Fascist salute will surprise the club's traditionally anti-fascist supporters. A pair of images of a smiling Heinrich Himmler being welcomed with flowers at Barcelona's el Prat airport in 1940 raises eyebrows. (Himmler was on his way to the abbey of Montserrat on his alleged quest for the Holy Grail.) The swastika banners draping the front of a building in the Parc de la Cituadella are disconcerting when one realises that nowadays the same building houses the Catalan Parliament, but in 1941 it housed an exhibition of modern German architecture. More bizarre are the images of prisoner exchanges during WWII between the Nazis and Allies conducted in the port of Barcelona. In the foreground of one photograph, two Nazi officers, heavily bemedaled and elaborately uniformed, chat amiably while a few steps away in the background a group of Australian soldiers complete with slough hats talk amongst themselves oblivious of the officers, it looks like a lunch break on a Hollywood film set. Photographs from 1941 of Spanish workers with their families to see them off from Estacio Franca on the way to industrial jobs in Germany makes one wonder how many of them returned home.

The principal fault of the exhibition is that while the curators have let the photographs speak for themselves we learn little of the three photographers. Most of what we do learn is related is in the form of identity cards and passes but no commentary. I image that the Brangulis, to survive from dictatorship to republic and back again to dictatorship, had to keep their thoughts and opinions to themselves, but it would be interesting to know more about the men especially of Josep. Aficionados of Barcelona's history will leave the exhibit wanting to see more photographs. Fortunately, now that the collection resides permanently in Catalonia we can expect more exhibits like this.

(Brangulí - Barcelona 1909-1945, at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, from June 8 to October 23, 2011)