Snapshots of Barcelona's Barrio Chino

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:20

    Barcelona! The word has long had the power to make my breath go shallow. The pedestrianpulse of its tight, teeming streets; the unexpected sweep of nouveau facadeslifting off like birds' wings; the myriad youthful faces, embarrassingly prettyin their Old World sophistication; the dry African winds pulling into this tidy,voluptuous corner of the Mediterranean; the elegant Romanesque and gothic structures,silent witnesses to the city's changing fortunes. Joy and celebration. War andfamine. This is a city that has learned the ups and downs of history like aCatholic penitent the litany. Barcelonawas once the seat of a vast Catalan empire that reached across the sea and includedMallorca, Menorca, Sardinia and a large chunk of France. Fortunes in textilesand Cuban and Philippine tobacco built much of modern Barcelona in the late1800s. The Civil War and its aftermath, catching Barcelona largely on the wrongside of bitchy events, brought with it iron rule from then-fascist Madrid andyears of economic recession. In the post-Franco era, political autonomy arrivedand with it a measure of self-determination of which the city's citizens arejustly proud. Since that time, Barcelona has set itself on a headlong, sometimesreckless course toward renewal, building here, tearing down there, confectinga city that is, like no other, the darling of architects and city planners theworld over.

    Startingin 1986, the year the Olympic committee announced Barcelona as its choice tohost the 1992 games, Barcelona's potentates set down a regimen of constructionunparalleled by any other city on the continent. Up went the sprawling OlympicVillage and the Maremagnum, a vast shopping complex and IMAX theater, of thesort found in towns like Orlando and San Diego. Down went the chiringuitos,a rabbit-hutch of popular seafood restaurants that had grown up around the beachfor some 50 years (if they were not too unsanitary for German and British tourists,they were, I suppose, too unsanitary-looking), and the perennially down-at-the-heel,endlessly fascinating Barrio Chino, a dark gap opened in Barcelona's old quarterby poor immigrants from southern Spain into which waves of the poor, the dispossessedand the antisocial have rushed for more than a century.

    The BarrioChino, so called for the exoticism and mystery it inspires (and not for beinghome to immigrant Chinese, which it has never been), is Barcelona's Pigalle,its Saint Pauli, its 42nd St. It is a place filled less with history than withstories; sad, miserable tales, which cannot help but touch us in their fullhumanity and disappointment. A famous murder took place at a now-empty cornerof Calle Arc del Teatre, beneath the shadow of a noucentista palace.The arcade between Sant Pablo and Sant Sadurni marks the spot where a legendaryAfrican pimp met his match in the person of a much smaller but wily Gypsy. Astreet innocently named after Sant Ramon houses two ancient watering holes,the Marsella and the Kentucky Bar, old haunts from well before American sailorsregularly tore up the joint. Both are still given over to the consumption ofabsinthe, a wicked, toxic beverage long outlawed in most of the rest of Europe.

    Jean Genetonce lived in the Barrio Chino, and chronicled his days and nights there inthe aptly titled Diary of a Thief. From my time in the Chino, I recallstumbling junkies, impossibly overweight whores, North African men in djellabas,countless schemers out for an easy con, and the sort of elegant wastage thatleads one back to an old phrase popularized by Hemingway: Spain is the countrywhere every man is a nobleman. In my time it was, despite the heavy louche element,certainly possible to feel that way in one's very bones. The shafts of Giotto-like light tearing through the medieval streets told one so. So did the crowds ofold men gathered aimlessly on street corners, lolling about with the ease oflanded barons. At times it was possible to feel a solid bond with the place,a species of membership in a confederation of thieves and bottom-dwellers. Recentdemolition of the largely 18th-century neighborhood has made things associatedwith the Chino, like these memories, mostly a thing of the past.

    It was withthe greatest pleasure, therefore, that on a recent afternoon I discovered afamiliar image of a hip-cocked whore staring out at me from the window of abookseller's. The poster advertised an exhibition of the photographs of JoanColom. Minutes later, after a quick taxi ride, I found myself in Barcelona'sMuseu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, an imposingly ugly neo-baroque structureperched staggeringly atop Montjuic. Colom's photographs, which are being exhibitedthere this month, have finally received the attention they deserve. Set nextto Irata Isozaki's Palau Sant Jordi sports complex, Colom's images of weepydrunks and walleyed children now command the most dominant views of the city.

    Colom is,without parallel, the most faithful chronicler of the seedy Chino and, on thestrength of that work, one of the most affecting photographers to have emergedanywhere this century. His collection of "decisive moments" capturesrevelatory photographic instants with an even more aggressive fidelity thanHenri Cartier-Bresson, the man who coined this mantra of photojournalism. Colom'sphotographic career, though, was brief beyond compare. Having begun taking photographsin early 1957, he seemingly quit all photographic activity in 1964. There is, in the manner of all things concerning the Chino, a story in this, too.

    Colom cameto photography late, at the age of 36. An accountant by profession, a marriedman and a father of two girls, he was an unlikely candidate to spend every weekendevening between the years 1958 and 1960 reconnoitering Barcelona's bas-fonds,collecting images of prostitution, psychic malaise and general wretchedness.Colom, an intensely nondescript fellow (like most accountants), got down theplace's misery by blending seamlessly into his surroundings, tucking his camerasurreptitiously into his armpit and shooting without hardly ever putting hiseye to the viewfinder. In two years Colom, a self-professed "Sunday photographer,"amassed a group of photographs powerful enough to compare with anything producedby more celebrated chroniclers of the urban condition, like Eugene Smith, Atgetor Brassai. "I make the street," Colom declared breathlessly, knowingfull well such a sentence connected him intimately to the street work of hishooker subjects. "With these photographs," he added, "I becomea notary of my time."

    The MuseuNacional has lovingly recreated Colom's exhibition of 1961 (the only one ofhis career), by hanging the photographer's original works in exactly the sameall-over, salon-style sequence established for their display nearly three decadesago. There are first the children, mature beyond their years, defiant and cageyin their rags and straps-for-shoes. Then there are the misfits: the pinheadedwoman, the congenital idiot, the pre-penicillin crowd that, like Diane Arbus'stagy freaks, turns simultaneously amazing and repellent in an instant. Nextcome the plump, exploding protrusions of womanly flesh. Squeezed into tube skirtsand stretchy jumpers, shot close and cropped tight to emphasize mass and heft,Colom's putas wave the red flag of their corpulence and lead men intoshadowy doorways. Colom then presents a trio of photographs of a Chino queen,pirouetting and primping for an anonymous audience with an abandon that canonly be described as suicidal. He then unloads his pent-up rage in two finalphotographs: The first, a picture of a tomato smashed all over the street, isthe Chino's guts on open, vibrant display. The second, the snap of a mutt defecating,is a biting scatological commentary. Paying zero heed to established wisdom,the Chino eats and shits in the same place: where it bloody well lives.

    Called "ElCarrer," "the street" in Barcelona's insistent Catalan, the exhibitionalso includes a picture of the woman who later sued for defamation of characterColom and his collaborator on a book about the Chino, Spanish Nobel Prize winnerCamilo Jose Cela. A hardened pro, she absented herself from the proceedingswhen court time came around. By then, though, things had already gone too far.The scandal was all over the papers. It was enough for Joan Colom, husband,father, accountant and good neighbor, to wish he had never, ever picked up acamera in his life (which he never did again until last year). What remainsis his singular portrait of the Chino-a hardened, dead-honest, gut-wrenchingview of life on the margins, so close yet so despairingly far from the idealof peaceful order, modernity, civilization.

    "ElCarrer: Joan Colom at the Aixelà Gallery, 1961," through June 27,Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Montjuic Park, Barcelona.