Eulàlia, cultivating the rebellion of the look | Assumpta Bassas

The selection of Eulàlia Grau Donada’s works presented in this exhibition was produced almost 50 years ago. Despite being independent pieces, with their own titles, they formed part of a broad body of work called Etnografía: pinturas (Ethnography: paintings) that the artist prepared between 1972 and 1974, the last years of the late Franco regime in Spain. Signed just with her first name —like the rest of her subsequent production—, the works were exhibited in the emerging alternative artistic circuit of the 1970s. Her first solo exhibition took place at Sala Vinçon in Barcelona (January, 1974), with text by the recognized art critic Alexandre Cirici; in Madrid, she was presented at the Galería Buadas (November, 1974) and in Seville, at the Casa de Damas (April, 1975). All these exhibitions were widely discussed and acclaimed, within the broad framework of conceptualist experimental practices, despite the fact that Cirici highlighted their “pop” air. This comment was not essentially important in her critical reception until, in 2015, Eulàlia’s Ethnographies could be read as symptoms of “feminist eruptions in pop”, critical and activist dialogues of female artists with the world of media images and the concept of American pop, and they were displayed in the framework of the exhibition “The World Goes Pop” at the Tate Modern in London, alongside, for example, works by her Valencian peers Isabel Oliver and Ángela García Codoñer, and the initial photomontages by the American Martha Rosler, among many other domestic and international creators.

In 1974, the exhibition “Eulàlia: Etnografies (pintures ’73)” (Eulàlia: Ethnographies (paintings ’73)) was advertised in Barcelona with an amusing and provocative poster, in which a meticulous self-portrait of the artist, posing as an enfant terrible, innocently incriminated herself as a “sinner”, surrounded by media images representing a world in which everything that a young girl wanted to do was a sin, and everything that she didn’t, as well. In plain terms, without ideological paraphernalia, this was the panorama in which Eulàlia had grown up, in a medium-sized city like Terrassa, and in a protected family environment from which she immediately placed herself at a prudent and intentional distance. What contributed to this? Maybe the camera that her father gave her as a present and which led her to observe her environment, to look and to frame, to select that which surprised her or aroused her curiosity. Or perhaps it was the sharp scissors and cutters in the film classes at the Escuela Aixelà and in the design courses at the Escuela Eina, places which became providential spaces in which to listen to some of the independent minds of the time and to ratify her confidence in her own eyes. Or maybe the first short trips to the Swiss Alps, to Paris and Milan, made her understand that women could take charge of their own personal and professional lives, and that it was necessary to talk about the world in which she lived in the light of her own indignation.

Before being “paintings”, these works were collages on paper created by the artist starting from images cut from magazines, newspapers, product brands and, sometimes, also from her own photographs such as, for example, that of the three men holding up a hand in La conquesta de l’espai (The conquest of space), actors from the American Circus when it visited Barcelona. Eulàlia had swapped the palette of colours that she used for the short time that she studied at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Barcelona for an archive of images cut from the media which gave her more appropriate tones for the work that she had in hand. When completed, she sent the photomontages to a company in Switzerland, which enlarged them and emulsified them on canvas. She then placed the canvases on frames, retouched the image with anilines, acrylics or using a more opaque type of paint, depending on whether she decided to obtain a certain transparency, to work on certain areas with spot colours, or to outline with gradients, emulating pictorial procedures from tradition.

We therefore have collages which have been converted into “paintings” and “paintings” which unashamedly show their original nature as collages. The limits cut from the images, the narrative and disruptive ellipses of the scenes, often force us to rethink what we are contemplating in order to tie up loose ends and understand it. In many compositions we detect visual ideas characteristic of the world of information graphics, but also of comics and film: close-ups embedded in panoramic images, repetitions with small variations, dual vertical compositions, as if one image were the caption of the other, formal strategies which could well convert what we see into the storyboard of a sequence, or into the frame of a film which invites us to guess the general plot.

Overall, Eulàlia’s Ethnographies have been read as representative works of the radical shift experienced by art in the mid-1960s toward a more direct, critical and open dialogue with the social reality of the contemporary world. They were understood as one of the best examples of what in Catalonia was called “sociological art”, because it proposed a “reading in images” of important social debates which, during the late Franco regime, were still to take place, a mirror in which to recognize what many people saw but were forced to keep silent. Indeed, the first aspect that Cirici applauds is Eulàlia’s freedom on breaking the silence and at the same time managing to evade the censure, using subjective comment as an alibi. Therefore, if we try to decode the messages of the photomontages, it is often difficult for us to understand them at first sight. It is easy to detect that they talk about the power relations of allied fascist and religious ideologies (La conquesta de l’espai) (The conquest of space), the hypocrisy of western business with countries which violate human rights (Cafès Brasil) (Brazil Coffees), the sexist and classist ideology in advertising and in the culture of sport, (Caps, calces i mitjons, Menú) (Heads, panties and socks, Menu), the domestication of the masses and the annulment of critical thought (Multitud) (Multitude), the virile culture of war which infiltrates our education from the youngest age, especially that of men (Soldadets) (Soldiers), the constant threat of violence against human and planetary life (Avions de bombardeig) (Bombers), among many other important subjects. The artist addresses these fundamental issues while eschewing grandiloquence, with a certain malicious smile which distracts us and allows her commentators to make speeches, but preserves the works from becoming diluted in them. Eulàlia never tires of repeating that in her work she never wanted to raise a specific ideological flag, despite the fact that over her career she collaborated with anarchist and feminist initiatives. In 1976, Josep Maria Carandell, a lucid journalist, positively highlighted the lack of definition of her message, pointing out that Eulàlia’s strategy is to use nuances, dislocation and grotesque humour to “finally describe present-day society as a tragicomedy”.

With the timid and penetrating humour that characterizes her obstinate independence, the artist frequently presents herself as a painter, evading expectations of the masters of fine arts, but also of the most political conceptual artistic tribe, which did not recognize her as one of its own because painting was “bourgeois”. In this respect, the title of her monographic exhibition at the MACBA in 2013 sounds like revenge: “Nunca he pintado ángeles dorados” (I have never painted golden angels). And if we look at her works we will see that she obviously does not portray the celestial forces and she does not swing according to aesthetic discourses, but rather she talks about other invisible and powerful —and not exactly divine— forces called repressive, dogmatic and normative ideologies which, like the angels, also watch over our nights, with the clear intention of directly intervening in our lives; in this case, even though we do not ask them to.

Hers is a painting which revives the sleeping eye of the spectator and incites it to go beyond the screens which entrap it. Maybe today’s cage is not silence, but rather the blah blah blah of so many words uprooted from empathy and compassion for the other. Cultivating the rebellion of the personal look, as Eulàlia does in Ethnographies, continues to be a recommendable practice to confront the voracity with which fashionable discourses threaten to swallow up the meaning of everything. Practising ethnography means asking ourselves unexpected questions and answers which gut the false system of communication that has become established and which, as the prophetic Guy Debord mentioned, despite pretending that it counts on us, has no intention of letting us speak. If I have learnt another lesson from Eulàlia’s Ethnographies it is the importance of never appeasing our daily indignation, the one which arises inside us when we look around us with our own eyes. Thus, injustice, which needs to be constantly reproduced in order to be sustained, will not find shelter in our look.


Text by Assumpta Bassas