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Barcelona© Calle Claus

Thomas Hummitzsch on "Barcelona"
Lost in Barcelona

In 2013, Calle Claus was a part of the ‘Comic Transfer’ programme, organised by the Goethe-Institut, and travelled from Hamburg to Barcelona. He felt most comfortable in the Catalonian capital when he was able to escape the hordes of tourists flooding the city.

"You really don’t need to understand everything. Small mysteries add spice to a journey," observes Calle Claus when visiting Camp Nou, the lion’s den of FC Barcelona. He was there in mid-May 2013, the third-last day of play in La Liga’s first season of the legendary post-Guardiola era was about to be completed. Barcelona was playing Real Valladolid CF, a team that had been in the Liga for just a year and was struggling to avoid relegation. The match ended 2:1 in favour of the hosts.

However, that was incidental because it had long been clear that Tito Vilanova’s team were the champions. Football as such does not, therefore, play much of a role in the brief narrative, given that the graphic artist probably did not see much – firstly, because it pelted with rain (mid-May!) and, secondly, he was seated in the upper levels, far removed from the playing field, if one is to believe his drawing.

focused on trivial things

Instead of focusing on football, the artist from Hamburg focused on seemingly trivial things that did eventually have a lot to do with him. For instance, he discovered a sticker, probably left behind by a Hannover 96 fan. Having grown up in the German city of Hanover, situated on the River Leine, he says tongue-in-cheek: One can never be free of the old homeland! Neither do you see Claus on his drawings wandering through the ultra-modern official Barça store, which is spread over three floors and offers a range of merchandise for fans. But you do see him at a flea market for fans located outside the entrance to the stadium, between anti-Madrid memorabilia and other oddities. He ends up choosing a bright red raincoat, a wise decision, as it turns out.

On his way to the lion’s den, where Messi once dribbled his opponents dizzy, Claus studied the club logo design and the changes made over the years. And this is where the comment quoted at the start came to his mind. As he wanted to lift a cloth hiding a logo, he was loudly admonished by a man, but then had to watch how this man was himself having photographed in front of the uncovered logo.

Mystical places charged with symbolism

We do not learn if Claus is a big football fan, but for him, the stadium was one of the places that are charged with symbolism and are somehow mystical. And it was such places that he visited during his three-week stay in the Spanish city. However, when leafing through his short travelogues, it is something else that catches your eye. Almost as though, with each passing day, the city is becoming louder, more alien, and unapproachable. The longer he stays, the more he goes in search of a place where he can retreat. A coincidence, very possible, but perhaps also not.

In the first drawing of his second graphic travelogue, you can already see how his head is buzzing because of the many tourists and the number of languages being spoken on the streets. "I need a break," he admits to himself and decides to climb the Tibidabo hill that overlooks Barcelona and to visit the church there. The funny thing here is that he makes a space trip out of it in which his alter ego is an astronaut. A pretty ordinary ramble becomes a moon landing project with a complicated arrival. ‘One large step for me, one small step in Barcelona,’ says the text, as one sees Neal Armstrong, alias Calle Claus, at the cathedral on the hill, planting the red flag in the ground.

Traveltips for tiptoers

Claus’s city episodes shift between travel tips and escapism, more suited for tiptoers than for party-goers. His travelogues reveal no positive connection with the booming city in Catalonia. The eternally crowded beach promenade, or the landmark – the eternal construction site of the Sagrada Família – only make an appearance when he is on Tibidabo hill looking down at the city.

Instead, Claus tended to take secluded paths, around just these ‘mystical spots': the stadium, a flea market for books, Tibidabo hill and its church, or – perhaps more by chance – the Institute of Clinical Anatomy/ 'Royal Academy of Medicine'. These places seem to have drawn him like a magnet. Otherwise, as he concedes in a talk on comic transitions, he rather would have remained in his secluded area, where he allowed himself to drift. Yet he does not touch on this in his graphic novels, the focus is on the symbolic places.

For instance, the flea market for books, that he visited after almost 10 days, is a tourist attraction associated more with Paris than with Barcelona. What impressed the illustrator most here was the book selection and décor, he photographed several book covers that now appear as sketches in his travelogue. The booksellers were, however, not impressed by his enthusiasm and apparently, a woman almost knocked the camera out of his hands. At least this is the narrative in the illustrated anecdote.

He draws slowly

Yet the camera is only a means to an end, to record what will later be sketched. Claus is not the kind of artist who starts to doodle on the spot in a travel diary. And this is something he openly admits. He draws slowly, a scene would have long passed if he were to sit down there and then and start to draw. Nevertheless, he has a simple, but realistic style (the technique tends to result in rough strokes), after all, the places should be recognisable. It is hardly a coincidence that he has opted for bright colours, a lot of red and yellow, as they appear on the Spanish and the Catalan flags. In other works too, the colours reflect the culture with which he is currently engaged. For instance, the travelogue of his stay in Casablanca, six months later, is just as colourful, and as vivid as the bazaars through which he wanders.

the ordered chaos of the city

The Hamburg-based artist does not use actual panels; images are separated by white gaps, which are implied between open drawings - a method that Claus had also used in his graphic novels. It is a clever choice of style here because not only is it difficult to keep the drawings apart, but they replicate the ordered chaos of the city.

The final story about his stay in Barcelona is about a visit to the dissection hall in the medical institute. In the empty lecture hall, his alter ego suddenly imagines that it is sitting through a lecture. In the middle of the hall is a marble table on which a woman's corpse is being dissected before his very eyes. A creepy and gory daydream is interrupted by the vibrations of the front door. That of all people there should be, a woman standing in front of the door who bears a striking resemblance to the dead woman being dissected in his imagination, can perhaps be read as proof of the fact that the chaos of the large city has, after a few weeks, left its mark on the Hamburg artist.