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Santiago Rusiñol

Santiago Rusiñol

Margarida Casacuberta (Universitat de Girona)

When he started to write at the age of twenty, Santiago Rusiñol i Prats (1861-1931) was working in the family business and painting in his spare time. He also enjoyed hiking and had begun to collect pieces of old Catalan ironwork, which he found in farmhouses and hermitages when he was walking in the country with other members of the Associació d'Excursions Catalana (Catalan Ramblers' Association). One of Santiago Rusiñol's first published texts describes one of these excursions.

It was during the year of 1881 that Rusiñol walked the Taga-Sant Joan de les Abadesses-Ripoll route, taking with him pencil, pen and paper. He had been asked to write a detailed account of the excursion for the bulletin published by the Association. The text, illustrated with his own drawings of nature, is in the purest romantic style. His description of the landscape, his reflections on the sense of history and his admiration for the portal, almost in ruins, of the Ripoll monastery are the basic ingredients of the sketches of elegiac, patriotic tone, which he was to repeat in 1883, this time in the different setting of the Centelles castle.

Nonetheless, not everything was romanticism and elegy in these early texts by Rusiñol. Just as his painting was evolving from Olot School-style landscape painting to a taste for sordid spaces, his literature was also moving through a period of naturalist longing. From his own version of naturalism, which was closer to parody than to acceptance of the assumptions of the movement, he expressed this in some truly surprising texts: the letters he sent to the women who was soon to be his wife, Lluïsa Denís. Written in Spanish and addressed to a highly particular and singular reader, Santiago Rusiñol's letters to his fiancée are, first and foremost, pure literature. The essential interest of this literature lies not so much in Rusiñol's ability to follow the conventional codes of the amorously inclined epistolary genre but, on the contrary, in his deliberate use, from an ironic distance, of its each and every cliché, after which he explicitly reveals the code. Systematic hyperbole determines the appellatives by which the "I" addresses his beloved, the bewailing of the forced separation of the lovers, and the impediments –real or invented, it is of no matter– with which the family and society in general try to thwart their happiness. In contrast with this dramatic register, the enamoured writer also uses the space of the letter to describe his adventures and those of his friends in a highly realistic tone that can turn into caricature and thence to verging on black humour and, when very necessary, scatology. These letters to his betrothed are, then, a sort of testing ground for Rusiñol's literature. Perhaps they inadvertently turned into literature but I believe one should not forget that, at the same time as he was writing these letters, Rusiñol and his friends at the Centre d'Aquarel·listes (Watercolourists' Centre) were upholding a modest kind of painting as an alternative artistic space vis-à-vis official, academic painting, and that they took a militant stance by exhibiting sketches, drafts and trial versions. In other words, while his letters were not written to be published, they likewise respond to the need to experiment, through different languages, with new ways of understanding the relations between reality and fiction.

And this need for experimentation is what marks the first steady steps of Santiago Rusiñol in the terrain of literature, steps that significantly coincide with his decision to make a profession out of his zest for art and to take on the mantle of the modern artist with all the consequences involved which, in the long run, meant forging a work of art out of his own existence. The first signs of this process can be situated between 1887 and 1888 and coincide with the death of his grandfather, patriarch of the family, with the separation from his wife and with the painter's move to Paris. All these facts pertaining to the private life of Santiago Rusiñol are automatically integrated into the story that explains and justifies the conduct of the personality. This narrative, in fragmentary form, appears published in the pages of La Vanguardia, Catalonia's most up-to-date newspaper at the time. It is not a conventionally autobiographical account. The "I" does not appear as the main character but as a point of view, a gaze that selects and interprets reality and that belongs, this yes, to an extremely sensitive, extremely lucid and extremely critical individual. This is the gaze of the Artist –with a capital A– the same gaze that unifies the letters to the editor that, once installed in Paris, Rusiñol sent from Montmartre to La Vanguardia under the general heading of Cartas desde el Molino (Letters from the Windmill – 1890-1892). With the Moulin de la Galette as his leitmotif, Rusiñol becomes the chronicler of bohemian life, of the sacrifices of its practitioners and of the awesome power of the artistic ideal. All of this transpires through the ironic distance, the bittersweet flavour, the touch of ambiguity and the unpretentious tone that characterise Rusiñol's literature at this time.
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Literary news about Santiago Rusiñol in lletrA, Catalan literature online at the Open University of Catalonia


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