Lively Portrait of Barcelona

ROBERT HUGHES is a writer of such virtuosity that he could make a mattress tag lively reading. In recent years, he penned an enduring history of Australia and emerged as an internationally recognized critic.

Yet American audiences remember him best as the husky maestro of the PBS series on modern art, "The Shock of the New." Unlike the legions of instructional documentaries that linger in dim, unvisited storage vaults, "The Shock of the New" is perennially exhibited. Only last semester, I showed the series to a class of entranced undergraduates who had barely made the transition from tricycles to bicycles when the programs were originally aired.

Then as now, the public responded to Hughes's robust teaching. Impatient with pious intellectualizing, Hughes is by turns a raconteur, an ideologue, and a crony. The last of these qualities has most endeared him. Hughes soothes those who suspect that art is a sissy avocation. He is the consummate pal, a fishing buddy who knows something about painting and architecture. Still, he maintains the fundamental dignity of art as a human enterprise.

What bliss it will be to have Hughes's latest effort by one's side during broadcasts of the 1992 Summer Olympics. In Barcelona (Alfred A. Knopf, 573 pp., $27.50), he has sketched a portrait of the host city and its 2,000-year-old history with such brio that one comes to think of it as a person, not a place. Television commentators will be challenged to concoct as compelling a depiction.

In an important way, the stalwart Catalan qualities that have persisted for centuries in this distinctive region of Spain are Hughes's own. On the whole, Barcelona has not suffered the frivolities of an entrenched nobility. The pitch of its trends has often been against the tide of European fashion. Barcelona's citizens have tended to be proud, self-made individuals. The work ethic has long reigned here. It is no accident that Barcelona boasts a charter of citizen's rights predating the Magna Carta by mo re than a century.

As often happens with independent people, the residents of Barcelona have bent their energies to inventing and reinventing their metropolis. In the waning years of the last century and the first decades of the present one, Catalan identity was vested in urban architecture. For about 100 years, urban architecture in Barcelona has had to come to terms with the undulating stone fabrications of Antonio Gaudi.

Hughes's final chapters ably chronicle this modernista or Art Nouveau period in Barcelona's history, of which Gaudi was the supreme protagonist. With Eusebi Guell, his tolerant and generous patron, Gaudi dreamed buildings replete with structural and aesthetic audaciousness. His unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, or church of the Holy Family, is the recognized international symbol of the city. Cobi, the mascot of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, carries a version of the building under his arm.

Never the romantic, Hughes points out that the Sagrada Familia has not been a popular landmark with Catalans. This summer, commentators will limn its melted marshmallow pinnacles, conveniently forgetting that during the Spanish Civil War, anarchists methodically torched and trashed the site, deliberately destroying Gaudi's plans for its completion. For workers, the Sagrada Familia has been an emblem of excess.

One does not have to be a fan of art or the upcoming Olympic Games to enjoy Hughes. His writing is a species of engaging highbrow hip-hop - great fun in itself. A metaphor maven, Hughes is a powerful imagist. Granted, there are moments when his generalizations soar too far above the plain truth, but it would be wrong to hold him to the stern standard of a history text.

One reads Hughes not simply to learn, but to experience the act of re-creation. His kinetic prose is a performance, as agilely executed as any we will witness this summer.

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