Juana Francés: 1957-1962 | Tomàs Llorens

Juana Francés: 1957-1962
by Tomàs Llorens

The period from 1957 to 1962 encapsulates one of the most brilliant episodes in the history of Spanish modern art. A group of painters and sculptors belonging to the first generation to emerge after the Civil War, artists whose work was hitherto unknown outside Spain, suddenly achieved an international visibility that was without precedent. The string of successes began in 1957, when the Basque sculptor Jorge Oteiza was awarded the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the São Paulo Biennale. The following year, 1958, the sculptor Eduardo Chillida, likewise Basque, received the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale. That same year the Catalan painter Antoni Tàpies won the international prize from the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg. In 1959, the painter Modest Cuixart took the Grand Prize for Painting the São Paulo Biennale. Afterwards, in 1960, the two main modern art museums in New York each devoted a group exhibition to the young artists who were emerging in Spain: the Salomon R. Guggenheim Museum under the title Before Picasso; After Miró, and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) under that of New Spanish Painting and Sculpture. And in 1962 Tate Modern organized Modern Spanish Painting, which toured then to Southampton, Hull and Liverpool.

The phenomenon has especial relevance because we are speaking of a critical phase in the history of modern art, that of the second postwar world. A phase of expansion that was to turn modernism into the hegemonic artistic expression of the twentieth century. The victory of the Allies in the war had been experienced in the world of culture as a victory for modernism. The economic and political powers of what was beginning to be called the “Western world” (Europe and the United States, to which Japan, Brazil and many other countries would soon be amalgamated) fostered the creation of an international network of institutions devoted to its promotion. Some of those institutions, such as MoMA in New York or the Venice Biennale, were prewar in origin but were redesigned and consolidated following the Allied victory. Others like the São Paulo Biennale or the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris were new, or practically new. Imitating these examples, countless museums and institutions specifically devoted to modern art were radically transformed, or were created ex novo during the final years of the 1940s and the decade of the 1950s. Concurrently, specialized magazines and publications multiplied, at the same time as some living artists like Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Chagall and Miró were converted into stars of the major mass media. A milestone illustrative of the process of popularization of modern art was the Brussels World Fair of 1958. Its principal theme was atomic energy, an energy whose public image was still engulfed in the shadow of its destructive use during the war. Now, in a radical change of direction, the Brussels exhibition presented such energy as the bearer of a peaceful future and the guarantor of unlimited economic growth. Symptomatically, the other great theme of the event was modern art. An exhibition entitled 50 ans d’art moderne (Fifty Years of Modern Art), prepared by a wide-ranging international committee of historians and critics of European and North American art, agreed upon and consecrated for the general public the narrative of the birth and development of artistic modernism during the first half of the twentieth century along with its blossoming during the postwar period.

The Brussels Expo and the international success of the young Spanish artists happened to coincide, moreover, at a special moment in that process of the rise of modernism. During the ten or twelve first years of the postwar period the activity of the museums and institutions that were studying and promoting modern art had concentrated on constructing a convincing narrative of its history throughout the first half of the century, and on instituting and fixing the hierarchical position of the artists who had led it (Matisse and Picasso at the forefront, with Braque, Chagall, Léger, Kandinsky and Klee coming thereafter, etc.). Starting in the late-1950s, however, and coinciding with a considerable expansion of the international art market, the activity of study and promotion began to move away from history and to veer towards the art of the new generations emerging after the war. Here, of course, the discourse forewent the consensus that had still been noticeable in Brussels, and entered a polemical phase in which theoretical or historical arguments were combined with the interests of political propaganda and of the market. The fact that the young Spaniards of the late-1950s might ascend so rapidly in such a competitive context is nothing short of surprising.

It is worth pointing out that the role of Spain in the history of modern art did little to help that success. On the one hand, many critics and historians stressed the fact that some of the most brilliant stars of modern art, Picasso, Miró, Gris or González, were Spanish. In 1956, for example, when MoMA posthumously consecrated Julio González in the USA with a major retrospective exhibition, the director of the museum, Andrew C. Ritchie, concluded his introduction to the catalogue by associating González’s name with those of Picasso, Gris and Miró, and pondering the “debt twentieth-century art owes to Spain.”[1] On the other hand, however, everyone was aware that the Spanish artists in question had developed their artistic careers beyond the frontiers of Spain, because Spanish society of the first half of the twentieth-century, the one Hemingway had described in The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, had always remained notoriously closed to modernity. With the second half of the century underway, the most widely held opinion in the international art press was that this lack of openness had become even more accentuated as a consequence of the Franco dictatorship. And indeed, if the ascent and international popularization of modern art had come about in association with the triumph of the Allies, the dictatorship of a general who had been a friend of Hitler and Mussolini situated Spain on the erroneous side of History.

The fact is that in the second half of the 1950s Spain’s international isolation was beginning to change. The Fascism/democracy polarity had been displaced by the Communism/capitalism polarity, and the global system of international relations was dominated by a new front of hostilities that was beginning to be known as “Cold War.” In that new context the Franco regime and the Western democracies were able to appear less incompatible than they had been ten years before. But that transformation was still in its early stages and in Europe (less so in the USA) it came up against an impassable political barrier: the Franco regime was still a dictatorship in which political parties and free trade unions were prohibited and severely repressed, and in which active members of the political opposition went on being systematically imprisoned or condemned to death. In that historical context the dazzling international ascent of a generation of avant-garde Spanish artists was only possible because of two restrictive conditions. On the one hand the Franco regime permitted, because it suited its purposes, their international success, yet at the same time it denied them any kind of support within the country. The emerging young avant-gardists, for their part, maintained a hostile attitude towards the regime which went beyond the cultural and the political and, in some instances, could extend into the clandestine political opposition. Some of them drew closer, even, to the Communist Party, which was the most active force within the internal opposition. In this way the artistic avant-garde took on the hue of a political vanguard. The artistic revolution and the political revolution could be seen and experienced as two sides of the same coin. This explains its singularity and the impact of its rise at a time when the international context tended to separate those two sides.


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Born in Alicante in 1928, Juana Francés belonged to the generation that embarked on its professional life during the first few years of the postwar period, and participated in the activities of the small group that, in the late-1950s, burst so memorably onto the international contemporary art scene. Unlike many members of that group, Francés had received a formal artistic training. In 1945 she had enrolled in the Real Academia de Artes de San Fernando (Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando) in Madrid, the oldest (its foundation went back to the eighteenth century) and most illustrious of the three (the other two were in Valencia and Seville) that conferred the official title of “professor of drawing” recognized by the State. Juana Francés obtained her diploma, with the highest marks, in 1950.

In the 1940s the teaching of painting and sculpture in San Fernando derived, with few changes, from the old academic model instituted in France  in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Drawing was by far the most important course. And although the nineteenth century had witnessed the introduction of the History of Art course, which chronologically covered the evolution of European painting and sculpture from Antiquity onwards, the account stopped at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was as if what had occurred after Goya did not exist. Officially, at least.

The actual state of things was more nuanced. It may be said that even in the worst years of Spanish cultural isolation the San Fernando students were hearing about and discussing Impressionism and Cubism, and that they knew (albeit through reproductions) the painting of Van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse. An important source of that information originated in the books with colour illustrations that the better-off students were buying abroad or in the bookshop and art gallery the Berliner Karl Buchholz had opened in Madrid in 1945. As well as books, and this was decisive, some teachers participated in and gave weight to the extracurricular debate about modern art. Many years later Juana Francés recalled the fascination their teacher Daniel Vázquez Díaz had exerted over the students of her generation.

Vázquez Díaz had lived in Paris after World War One and there he had assimilated the influence of Cézanne, as well as a moderate kind of Cubism. Following his return to Spain he had become, during the interwar years, one of the main figures of Noucentism. Led by the writer Eugeni d’Ors, this artistic and cultural tendency, originating in Catalonia at the beginning of the twentieth century, had extended during the 1920s and 30s to the rest of Spain, abetted by the example of a similar Italian cultural trend that went by the same name. After the Civil War Noucentism became the preferred tendency of the more liberal intellectuals of Francoism. Noucentist poetics defended a certain type of modernism, but one tempered by the classical ideal of beauty as personified by ancient Greek sculpture and the art of the Italian Renaissance. In the 1940s Vázquez Díaz, who was, along with Joaquim Sunyer, the most notable representative of Spanish Noucentism, managed to inculcate in many of the young students of the San Fernando Academy an interest in Cézanne and in Cubism (especially that of Juan Gris), but also in the classical sculpture of Antiquity and by the Italian art of the Quattrocento, especially Mantegna and Piero della Francesca.

Graduating from the Academy, Juana Francés had a very successful start to her career. In 1951 she participated in the first Bienal Hisponoamericana de Arte (Hispano-American Biennial of Art), a collective show with a huge public impact at which Vázquez Díaz received, incidentally, the Medal of Honour. In 1952, when she was 24, she had her first individual exhibition in a small Madrid gallery, the Sala Xagra. Her second solo show took place the following year at the Galería Biosca, a gallery which to begin with had strong links with Eugeni d’Ors, who was then, and continued to be for a number of years, Spanish art’s main gateway to modernism in Madrid.

The painting Juana Francés was doing on leaving the San Fernando Academy was a personal variant of Noucentism. But that first phase did not last long. Towards the middle of the 1950s, in a change of direction that was as rapid as it was radical, Francés made the move to abstraction. The shift coincides chronologically with that of other Spanish painters of her same generation, such as Tàpies, Cuixart, Saura or Millares, who had begun doing a kind of more or less Miró-style surrealist painting and who during those same years also began producing abstract painting.

An influence on the conversion of all these artists was undoubtedly their knowledge of the new artistic trends that were developing outside of Spain. As it was, the isolation the Spanish art world had suffered during the 1940s began to unravel in the 50s due to the confluence of a series of initiatives, partly external and partly internal to the dictatorship. The interest of Western governments, particularly the American and French, in disseminating modern art on an international basis coincided with that of certain segments of the Franco regime, more or less aligned with Italian Christian Democracy, such as Joaquín Ruiz Jiménez, Dionisio Ridruejo and Pedro Laín Entralgo, who during those years occupied government posts in the sectors of education and culture. After the defeat of the war on the part of the Axis, these politicians and intellectuals, initially integrated into Francoism, clearly perceived the need for Spain to draw closer to democratic Europe, in cultural terms at least. (In fact from 1960 onwards many of them broke with the regime and approached the anti-Franco opposition).

At any rate the initiatives of cultural openness of the 1950s were crucial to the artistic career of the young Juana Francés. Her first trip to Paris, on a scholarship from the French government, had taken place in 1951 and facilitated, with her studies at the San Fernando Academy recently behind her, her first contact with what was, at that time, the most important venue for international modern art. Shortly afterwards she attended the Congreso Internacional de Arte Abstracto (International Congress of Abstract Art) organized in 1953 as part of the Summer University in Santander, an event that made a strong impression on the development of many young artists of her generation. Her first abstract paintings date from 1955. In them the influence in visible of Kandinsky and Klee, two painters who had been much talked about in Santander. But alongside that influence there can be seen that of a number of contemporary painters, such as Bazaine, Mannessier and Singier, whose work had been on view in Madrid in an exhibition entitled Tendencias recientes de la pintura francesa 1945-55 (Recent Tendencies in French Painting 1945-55), organized in 1955 by the French government with the agreement of the Spanish Directorate General of Fine Arts.

In the development of Juana Francés this transitional phase was a brief one. The definitive change came in 1956 when Juana Francés met the sculptor Pablo Serrano, with whom she became emotionally involved, and with whom she joined the small group who were preparing the creation of the El Paso group. From that moment on her interest was focused exclusively on the international avant-gardes that were emerging with greater strength during those same years: European Informalism and American Abstract Expressionism. The artists who, as she herself pointed out at the time, were a major influence on her new painting after 1956 were the American Franz Kline, the French Jean Fautrier and Hans Hartung, and the Italian Alberto Burri.

Formally constituted in Madrid in February 1957 by art critic José Ayllón and artists Rafael Canogar, Luis Feito, Juana Francés, Manolo Millares, Manuel Rivera, Antonio Saura, Pablo Serrano and Antonio Suárez, the El Paso group was, together with Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona and Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida in the Basque Country, the most active force of the generation that situated the Spanish avant-garde in the forefront of the international avant-gardes. Juana Francés, who was the only woman in the group, soon left it along with Pablo Serrano, Antonio Suárez and Manuel Rivera to follow an individual path. This, however, did not prevent her from participating along with some of her old companions in many of the exhibitions that marked the international emergence of Spanish art in the late 1950s and early 60s. Thus, in 1959 she took part in the 3rd Alexandria Biennial and in 1960 in the 30th Venice Biennale as well as in the decisive collective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, Before Picasso; After Miró.

Spanish Informalist painting of those years oscillated between two opposed poles: matter and gesture. The best-known paradigm of the former was Antoni Tàpies; that of the latter, Antonio Saura. Juana Francés was  firmly situated in the camp of matter, albeit with a vision that was very different to Tàpies’s. And she did so with a purity and a radicalness that was consistently remarked upon by the critics of the day. As it was, the rejection of all iconic reference and the concentration on the most extreme tactility converted the pictures she painted between 1957 and 1962, the ones we are presenting in this exhibition, into radically ineffable presences. Presences that go on speaking to us today even though more than half a century has elapsed by since their creation.

However, unlike the emphasis on the purely pictorial that suffused the programme of American Abstract Expressionism, the Spanish Informalist avant-garde never renounced the humanist, political orientation that had prompted its emergence within the context of the Franco dictatorship. As the critic Aguilera Cerni, one of the protagonists of the international rise of the Spanish avant-garde in the 1957-60 period, wrote at the time: “the most characteristic component of this painting [that of Juana Francés] registers the imprint of an existential conflict in matter.”[2] And to speak of “existential conflict” in the years in which Spanish intellectuals were fascinated by Sartre was, indirectly, to speak of the struggle for freedom. “Existential” and individual freedom, of course, but also, necessarily, political freedom. Doubly political in the case of Juana Francés because, as well as opposition to the Franco dictatorship, forever noticeable in her was the resistance implicit in her condition as a woman and an avant-garde painter in an era and a social and political context in which such a conjunction was practically unthinkable.

The 30th Venice Biennale, at which the French artists Jean Fautrier and Hans Hartung won awards, marked the highpoint of European Informalism’s influence, but also the onset of its crisis. With regard to Spain, before the Biennale opened its doors same year to the public, the El Paso group disbanded and its ex-members went their own ways, with each of them cultivating their own poetics and their own pictorial language. Juana Francés, who, as we have seen, had abandoned the group three years previously, embarked around 1961-1962 on a new transitional phase that would end up conducting her, a little later, to a painting in which echoes resonated of what was beginning to be called new figuration. So it was that a new and extraordinarily interesting phase in her career would open up, albeit one which extends beyond the chronological framework of this essay.



Tomàs Llorens Serra (Almazora, Castellón, 1936) is an art historian and critic of Spanish art. A Law graduate and Bachelor of Arts, he has been director of the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and chief curator of the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza from 1991 to 2005. As well as being the author of numerous articles and essays about twentieth century art history and criticism, architecture and semiotics, he has curated some of the finest exhibitions seen in Spain in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He was awarded the Gold Medal of Merit in the Fine Arts in 2007.


[1]   GONZÁLEZ, Julio; RITCHIE, Andrew Carduff. Julio González [exh. cat.]. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1956.

[2]   AGUILERA CERNI, Vicente. Panorama del nuevo arte español. Madrid: Guadarrama, 1966, pp. 208-p.209. See English translation of the text about Juana Francés in p. XXX of this catalogue.

Image: Juana Francés pondering her work “Sapo Panderetero I” (“Picturesque Toad I”) in her studio in Madrid, c. 1961. Photo: Unknown