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Reviewed by:
  • Jazz Age Barcelona
  • Marc Caplan
Davidson, Robert A. Jazz Age Barcelona. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2009. viii + 248 pp. 44 halftones.

The spirit of the moment that Robert Davidson comprehensively and insightfully portrays in his study Jazz Age Barcelona was aptly captured in 1924 by the theatre critic Frank Warschauer when he observed a cabaret revue that brought together performers “from Russia, Scandinavia, England, France, and America . . . The result is a cozy confusion of languages, which gives the gaping spectator the impression (or the illusion, I don’t know for sure) that we are living in a cosmopolis.” 1 Although Warschauer was in fact describing a performance in Weimar Berlin, both the cosmopolitanism he celebrates and the cacophony he bemoans illuminate a central characteristic of the Jazz Age internationally, and underscore a surprising affinity between Berlin and Barcelona as contemporaneous cultural centers.

Davidson similarly characterizes Barcelona’s Fifth District—akin, perhaps, to the French Quarter in New Orleans or the Reeperbahn in Hamburg—by citing the journalist Francesc Madrid: “Nobody is from that country and yet they all are: the Russians, Montenegrins, Chinese, French, Italians, English populate a poor area and form a republic . . . The fifth district is all of Europe” (66). The dislocated, disruptive multiculturalism common to both Berlin and Barcelona, then as now, accounts for the vitality of both cities that was so inspiring to an international avant-garde. Although Berlin was the national capital of Weimar Berlin, its centrality to the modernism of the 1920s was predicated on the reciprocal circulation of ideas, performers, and styles among Hollywood, New York, Paris, and Moscow. As Davidson establishes, Barcelona, like Berlin, comes of age in the shadow of each of these locales, and its significance to the geography of modernism is determined by its location in transit among all of them.

Davidson demonstrates through a variety of examples in several media and venues that Barcelona not only shares the fugitive character of Berlin’s modernism, but in fact anticipates the metropolitan avant-garde in its adaptation of American style and popular culture at the height of the First World War: “Barcelona’s geographic location and social conditions allowed it to . . . assume the role of frivolity-loving boom town for a brief yet intense period that was fuelled also in large part by an exodus of entertainment professionals who had fled the war in France for a safe haven across the border . . . Barcelona was the European capital for arte frivolo and it lived a prototype of the happy-go-lucky lifestyle that Paris, London, and other cities would resume in earnest once the fighting ended” (11). As Davidson explains, Barcelona’s position on the periphery of Europe’s determinant conflict [End Page 573] of the 20th century afforded it an anticipatory role in the advent of the Jazz Age; its status as an avant-garde city can be read literally, territorially, as a consequence of Spain’s marginality in World War I. By the same token, the anticipatory status of Barcelona accelerates the political relationship of the urban space as well as the culture of Catalan modernism—on the margins of Spain as well as the European metropolis—to the collapse of democratic possibilities and civil society. Just as the city witnessed an intensified spectacle of modernism’s aesthetic pleasures, it was also among the first in the line of fire for European modernity’s most brutal depredations.

Davidson’s study encompasses journalism, polemic, art and film criticism, photography, and belletristic literature. Over six chapters it focuses in essentially chronological sequence on Francesc Madrid’s journalism published in El Escándalo and in book form as Sangre en Atarazanas; on the polemics and criticism, dealing with jazz, cinema, and urban violence, of Sebastià Gasch; on the periodical Mirador and the spatial transformations of Barcelona and its environs brought about by the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition; on the photographic journal Imatges; and on the feuilletons and post-Jazz Age fiction of J. M. de Sagarra. A recurring figure for Davidson’s characterization of Barcelona in this period is the cocktail—offering an intensive mixture of flavors and sensations in an atmosphere of transient conviviality—and the metaphorical resonance...


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pp. 573-575
Launched on MUSE
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