Itineraries of the Spanish Avant-Garde at the Midpoint of Francoism
In the short decade that begins in the mid-1950s and encompasses the first three or four years of the 1960s, a generation of young Spanish artists raised artistic creation to levels of quality hitherto unknown in modern Spain. It is true that earlier generations had produced a Picasso, Gris, Miró, González and Dalí, but the activities of those artists had largely unfolded outside of Spain and their public visibility had been alien to the mechanisms governing the cultural life of their country of birth. The emergent young artists of the 1950s, on the other hand, remained in Spain and their public visibility, although it quickly extended beyond the frontiers of the country, was deeply rooted in Spanish cultural life, with which they never lost an intimate, intense contact. The present exhibition offers the public a carefully chosen selection of paintings of that generation and that historical moment.
The period coincides approximately with the midpoint of the long dictatorship of Franco. It begins some fifteen years after the dictator’s victory in the civil war and ends when twelve years still remained before his death. From an artistic point of view, the culminating point of the period I’m referring to occurs around 1959-60. This date was also decisive for the regime’s political, economic and social history. Indeed, the long history of Francoism is usually divided into two main periods separated by a profound change that comes about between 1957 and 1960. It is true that on the strictly political front the changes occurring around that date were few. Before and after 1960 Spain remained a dictatorship ruled by the iron hand of General Franco. Political parties and labour unions continued to be prohibited, with the exception of a single union and a single party, called the National Movement. Both were an integral part of the same regime. This condemned the forces of political and labour opposition to a life of clandestinity and made them the object of excessive police repression. The Spanish prisons were continually full of political prisoners.
On the economic and social front, though, the changes that occurred in 1957-60 were profound and decisive. The Spain of the postguerra, the post-Civil War period, had been a society that was officially corporatist, structured by institutions inspired by those of Fascist Italy. However, following a profound economic crisis that struck in 1957, there was a change of government in which Franco handed the economic areas over to the so-called “technocrats” of Opus Dei. With the economic Stabilization Plan, passed by the new government in 1959, the regime completely abandoned the corporatist model and fomented the development of a capitalist society.
One of the essential factors in that change was a new openness towards the outside world. The Spain of the postguerra was inspired by the principle of autarky or economic self-sufficiency. In the first instance, it is to the malfunctioning of autarky that the long years of misery of the Spanish postguerra have to be attributed. It is also true that for a long time the regime did not have much choice, given the political and economic isolation it was subject to following the defeat of Germany and Italy in the Second World War. From 1950 onwards, however, the situation began to change. The onset of the Cold War gave Franco the opportunity to proclaim himself a champion of anti-Communism in Western Europe and this encouraged a change of attitude, spearheaded by the United States and then followed by other European countries, which gradually drew closer to the Francoist regime during the 1950s. The convergence of Francoist strategy with that of the Cold War culminated in November 1959 in the visit to Madrid of General Eisenhower, an event the regime publicized to the full, above all in the interior of the country.
A corollary of the gradual rapprochement of the Western democracies to the Francoist regime was the dissemination in Spain of international modern painting, including Informalism and Abstract Expressionism. A 1955 exhibition called Recent Tendencies in French Painting (1948-1955), which was held in Madrid before travelling to Barcelona, Valencia, Zaragoza and Bilbao, had particular resonance. In it the Spanish public could see contemporary abstract painting for the first time, particularly artworks by Soulages, Hartung and other Informalist painters. Even more important, perhaps, was the exhibition organized that same year of pieces from the MoMA collection as part of the Third Spanish American Biennial held in Barcelona, in which North American Abstract Expressionist painting, as yet little known in Europe, could be seen.
This economic, social and cultural opening up to the outside world deepened in the 1960s in line with economic developments presided over by an incipient and crude, but markedly vigorous, capitalism, one of whose pillars was international tourism, with all the consequences that this had in the sphere of customs and of everyday life. And the ever-stronger desire for liberalization raised the question of modernity.
Within Spain, comparison with the European and North American context gave rise to a clear awareness of the historical gap, and posed the challenge of overcoming this through an attempt to modernize the country. An attempt, it must be stressed, that also granted an important place to artistic modernism. During the postguerra certain residues within the regime of the avant-gardes of the 1930s (including, notoriously, the figure of Dalí) had coexisted with cultural attitudes, mainly nationalist as well as moderately conservative, such as those defended by Eugenio d’Ors. Seen from the modernizing drive of the late 1950s and early 1960s, all that now proved not to be enough.
The question the young artists of the generation we are reviewing here raised with great force was that of the avant-garde. And the fact is that the tension between the drive to modernize that surfaced in society and the political immobility of the regime left no room for compromises or half measures. While the desire for liberalization was taking hold in Spanish society, the conviction was emerging in the more enthusiastic sectors that true modernization would continue to be impossible as long as the dictatorship remained politically intact. This was how some professional groups (architects, lawyers, doctors, etc.), alongside many university students and young artists, began to consider the regime as an enemy that had to be toppled. And this was how, in Spanish art of the period, the notion of the avant-garde went from strength to strength, with the concept being associated with revolutionary utopias. It is true that a certain avant-garde notion, heavy with reminiscences of the Surrealism of the 1930s, had never completely disappeared in postguerra Spain, but had been preserved in an extravagant marginality all but devoid of public significance. In the second half of the 1950s, on the other hand, the notion of an avant-garde began to occupy the centre of the cultural battleground and remained there for the better part of the following decade. It could be said that never, either before or after, have people talked so much in the Spanish world about the avant-garde and revolution (“artistic” and/or political”).
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The national-international dialectic that structured Spanish political life in the midpoint years of Francoism also structured the artistic life of the period. The milestones that marked it decisively did so on account of their international dimension.
One of the first was a collective exhibition organized at the Galería Gaspar, Barcelona, in February 1957 under the title Otro arte (Another Kind of Art), on the initiative of the French critic Michel Tapié. It included the most outstanding artists of European Informalism at that time, from members of the CoBrA group to Soulages, Hartung and Fautrier, as well as prominent representatives of American Abstract Expressionism. Included alongside them was an important selection of young Spanish artists, including Tàpies and members of the recently formed Grupo El Paso. Later, the exhibition travelled, with a few changes, to the recently renovated National Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid. Otro arte was simply the translation of Art autre, the label with which Tapié designated and promoted the Informalist art of the day; in Spain, however, the name acquired overtones of special relevance. The otherness of an “other” art was no more than a reflection of another otherness, more sweeping and deeper, that the young artists claimed for the whole of Spanish national life.
In the summer of that same year the São Paulo Art Biennial took place. The curator of the Spanish pavilion designed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Luis González Robles, saw the opportunity to break with the tradition of representing Spanish art with a predominantly bureaucratic selection of conservative or mildly modern artists by inviting the more nonconformist youngsters. And so the pavilion included paintings by Millares, Feito, Rivera, Tàpies and Cuixart, and sculpture by Oteiza. The gamble was rewarded by the Biennial jury giving the Grand Prize for Sculpture to Oteiza.
González Robles kept to the same policy in the Venice Biennale of the following year. The selection of artists presented was broader and more eclectic, but once more the young avant-gardists were among them, accompanied this time round by Chillida. The gamble came up trumps again with the awarding of the Biennale’s Grand Prize for Sculpture to Chillida. In autumn of that same year Tàpies received another important international prize, American this time, that of the international exhibition of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg. And in 1959 González Robles played the Brazilian card once more by devoting a room in the Spanish pavilion in the São Paulo Art Biennial to Modest Cuixart, who received the Grand Prize for Painting.
The culmination of this series of international successes for Spanish avant-garde painting took place in 1960 and occurred beyond the limits of the official policy of the regime. The two principal modern art museums of New York organized, each off their own bat, exhibitions devoted to young Spanish avant-garde art. The Guggenheim Museum’s, curated by the prestigious veteran critic James Johnson Sweeney, was called Before Picasso; After Miró and along with paintings by Nonell (“before Picasso”) featured those of a group of eighteen young artists (“after Miró”): Eduardo Alcoy, Rafael Canogar, Modest Cuixart, Francisco Farreras, Luis Feito, Juana Franés, Lucio Muñoz, Manuel Millares, Joan Hernández Pijoán, Carlos Planell, Manuel Rivera, Antonio Saura, Antonio Suárez, Antoni Tàpies, Vicente Vela, Joan Vila Casas, Manuel Viola and Fernando Zobel. MoMA’s show, entitled New Spanish Painting and Sculpture and curated by the poet Frank O’Hara, presented a more restricted group of painters: Canogar, Cuixart Farreras, Feito, Millares, Muñoz, Rivera, Saura, Suárez, Tàpies, Tharrats and Viola, together with four sculptors: Chillida, Oteiza, Serrano and Chirino. A selection that remains exemplary even today.
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The extraordinary international dimension of the painting and sculpture produced by the emergent Spanish avant-garde midway through the Francoist period has elicited a number of distorted interpretations of its true nature and historical significance. I’m referring to certain versions of what might be called the “diffusionist” thesis of the history of the avant-gardes.
According to this thesis the appearance of avant-garde groups in Spain is always a consequence of the “arrival” in the Spanish peninsula of an international avant-garde movement emerging elsewhere, typically Paris (for the first half of the twentieth century) or New York (for the second half). Of necessity the event always occurs with a certain time lag regarding the “zero point” or place of origin, and the merit of the Spanish artists involved in the diffusion of it mainly resides in the fact that this lag is not too long. From this point of view the avant-garde painting to which this exhibition bears witness is the result of the “arrival” in Spain of European Informalism, or, for the more radical versions of the diffusionist thesis, of American Abstract Expressionism.
Neither the evidence provided by detailed examination of the artworks nor that which is deduced from knowledge of the actual historical facts that surrounded their production endorse the diffusionist thesis. The artists who formed the emergent avant-garde around the middle of the last century had the opportunity to get to know, as we have seen above, the genuine Informalism of Paris and the Abstract Expressionism of New York, but their project cannot be reduced to the formulation of a kind of Hispanic version of those movements. The reality is more complex.
In the first place because they had a very clear conception of the specificity of Spanish art, of a cultural tradition they sought to remain part of. This is how it was understood by critics of the time, both Spanish and foreign. When reviewing the excellent reception of Spanish art at the Venice Biennale of 1958, the critic Vicente Aguilera Cerni (to whom there must be attributed a considerable representativeness and authority at that time, inasmuch as he had just received the Critics’ Prize from that same Biennale) wrote that what the international art world had particularly recognized in the young Spanish artists was “the power and the Spanishness of their young, non-conformist voices.” Neither did the American critic Sweeney, in his foreword to Before Picasso; After Miró, say anything about Informalism or Abstract Expressionism. What he emphasizes as a common characteristic of the chosen artists are, rather, certain traits that are generally considered to be typical of the historic Spanish school: chromatic constraint, a rejection of illustrative picturesqueness, and a “basic regard for the material expression.” But what he especially attributes to them is “their pride of independence from alien influence.” O’Hara states something similar in the preface to New Spanish Painting and Sculpture.
But the final distinguishing factor, and the most decisive one when it comes to describing what differentiates, as a group, the young avant-gardists represented in this exhibition, is their particular historical context. What most deeply marked their different individual poetics, endowing them with a common character that, as time goes by, is perceived with greater clarity, is the anger and the hope with which, at the midpoint of Francoism, they began to imagine its demise.