Bearing Witness to the 1958 Venice Biennale | Luis González Robles

Bearing Witness to the 1958 Venice Biennale

Luis González Robles

Curator of the Spanish Pavillion at the 29th Venice Biennale


Spanish Artists in the 29th Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition Spanish Pavilion, 1958

For this 29th Venice Biennale a series of works by artists representative of today’s art have been selected at the precise moment this great Exhibition takes place. Given the high quality of our contemporary visual art, a necessarily restrictive criterion has been suggested by different factors of a complex and varied nature, preeminent among which I take to be those relating to the inevitable incorporation of Spanish art into aesthetic tendencies of a more pronounced actuality and pertinence. The factor of urgent contemporaneity has not, I believe, been sufficiently valued in earlier Spanish participations in this Venice Biennale. Thus, it seems obvious to emphasize the particular new focus of this year’s contribution from Spain, which in its pavilion includes an ample contingent of abstract artists that I have thought convenient to classify in well-defined groups, not only due to their radical aesthetic independence but essentially because of the singular, clearly Iberian problematic shared by them all, meaning one based on a strictly ethical conception of the world.

The ongoing ethical aspect of Spanish art seems to me worthy of note, for there undoubtedly exists a constant rigour, austerity and ultimate involuntary simplicity in all the great art of Spain.

These values are clearly manifested in both figurative painting and the abstract kind subscribing to the most audacious tendencies in contemporary art.

The Spanish Pavilion at this 29th Venice Biennale presents, then, a complete and all but exhaustive panorama of the finest painting, which in today’s Spain has attained extraordinary aesthetic prominence.

We have thought it interesting to present three painters who are representative of so-called Spanish realism, that is of figurative expressionism, since for Spanish artists reality always appears denoted by a symbol.

These three painters are Cossío, inheritor of the subtlest line of Spanish tradition, painter of the unexpected illumination of things, which nonetheless always appear extremely concrete and corporeal; Ortega Muñoz, penetrating analyst of the landscape of Extremadura and Castile, of which he reveals nothing save its definitive configuration, its deepest vibration, always observed with a very human synthesis; and Guinovart, perhaps one of the most gifted Catalan painters of today, whose work, dramatic and profound, displays other difficult aspects of the world of rural man.

Despite the richness and variety of expression of the abstract painters included in this selection, it seems helpful to differentiate the affirmations in which I have thought it legitimate to include them. Dramatic abstraction is represented by Canogar, Millares, Saura, Suárez, Tàpies and Vela, whose work combines a number of individual features that is seemingly rhythmic and an austerity that unifies its expression in a constant which does not exclude the singularity of the language of each of them. Romantic abstraction is defined in the work of Guixart, Feito, Planasdurà, Tharrats and Vaquero Turcios, painters who, with the most disparate expressive means, manage to establish a lyrical balance between the contingency of form and the permanency of content. Lastly, geometric abstractionism, albeit with its own characteristics, is embodied in painters like Farreras, Mampaso, Povedano and Rivera, who utilize the geometric schemas of the school with a freedom that evinces their Spanishness.

In this 29th Venice Biennale sculpture has an exceptional representative in Chillida. With means both rudimentary and pure this great sculptor creates an expression of the most powerful visual concretion. Everything is necessary in this oeuvre in which rigour and freedom are reunited in a difficult conjunction. With Chillida, Spain reencounters its tradition of statuary, for each of the forms this sculpture foregrounds, being radically new—that is, commensurate with our time—is also corporeal plastic art in the finest, most profound tradition.

GONZÁLEZ ROBLES, Luis. Introductory text for Artistas españoles en la XXIX Exposición Bienal Internacional de Arte en Venecia. Pabellón de España 1958 [exh. cat.]. Madrid: Dirección General de Relaciones Culturales, 1958, pp. 6-7 [translated essay].


My Recollections of That Decade

They were years full of excitement and hard work. We set ourselves a task with clear, simple goals: ensuring that Spanish art, what at that time we called avant-garde art, transcended borders and that what was in a way hardly valued within the country became known outside of it.

[…] It was true that frontiers and distances were disappearing in art. One was now working the same, with a highly universal language, in Patagonia, Madrid or Canada. Knowing winks of a local kind might be used, but always in a universalist context. One was proceeding from a personal memory and a personal history, but in the direction of a single idiom, that of painting or, on the contrary, that of non-painting.

[…] In all countries, whatever their ideology, one was thinking in the same way. This was why we banked so strongly on the avant-garde. There were other ways of understanding art, of course. And most worthy of respect. But I was interested in risk and push, the search for new territories, the adventure of the intuited and non-proven.

[…] From my continual travels I used to come back with my eyes full of what was being done over there, and here I used to go to bed wonderstruck by the quality, the originality and the boldness of what was being contrived, of what our artists were proposing. And I banked on the youngsters. On those artists for whom going to a biennale meant the recognition of an already pondered career and the beginning of a period of maturity and consolidation.

[..] The artists achieved it. A small window was enough, letting the important people from over there see the same thing I was contemplating every afternoon in studios and in galleries, so that all the curtains were drawn back and the light came in.


My Memory of the Venice Biennale

[…] No-one at the ministry or at any other institution ever told me who I should take and who not. I always followed my own judgement and what I believed was best for Spanish art to win. […]

It was never my intention that the groups of artists I sifted out over the years should have any long-term significance for the History of Art, in capital letters, as it were. What I was clear on was that they should be important for the careers of the artists themselves, and that Spanish art as a whole should be at least as well thought of in foreign circles as it was by me. I always knew that if I achieved that, I would also succeed in ensuring that the new art gained the respect and consideration it deserved in Spain too: that art which was so insulted and which even well-known intellectuals laughed at; that art done by a few young lads who were dying to attract attention through scandal, and were trying to make everything foreign. I also knew that the effect would be twofold, since Spanish culture as a whole would be encouraged to look towards the avant-garde, to admit the new ways forward which universal culture was pursuing, sometimes moving forwards and sometimes back. […]

We must bear in mind, [however,] that in those years, the sixties, we were just starting to look outwards to the world. We had discovered that the war had not been the end of everything, that we could contact the avant-garde movements which had brought a breath of fresh air to our milieu earlier on, and for that reason any information at all was sought avidly; in the studios any art magazines we were able to get our hands on, which were not many, were read and commented on. They were years of trying and more trying to be normal, of trying out successive different forms of expression, exploring materials, formats, of relying on geometric reasoning or gesture, of tirelessly looking into all opportunities which arose. And we wanted to convey all this at Venice. We wanted all this to be known and appreciated there; we didn’t want it to be a question of a chance of discovery or, as so frequently happens in other fields, a mere flash in the pan. This time a whole constellation of stars was attempting to break loose and enter the world to gain their freedom. They were also years of passion and eagerness for art, the new art, and a desire to boldly seek a personal and rebellious pictorial world, consciously linked to the tradition of our classical painters whom we burst in upon furiously to discover the secret of their skill. We needed to open our eyes wide, rub the sleep out of them and be dazzled by everything which from outside Spain was breaking the bonds which were strangling our art.

This is what I aimed for and I can safely say, with no false modesty, that I achieved that: for the world to realise that Spain was a country with a profound tradition of visual art, whose flame had not been extinguished, in spite of the vicissitudes we had suffered. It was growing stronger, and behind the truly brilliant figures, such as Picasso, Miró, and Dalí, others were emerging on the world scene, some already outstanding, along with a sizeable school of very promising artists.