A Conversation between Boye Llorens and Isabel Tejeda

by Boye Llorens
Vall de Laguart, August 2019


Boye Llorens (BL): The Juana Francés exhibition at the Mayoral gallery focuses on the years between 1957 and 1962, an Informalist phase closely linked to her brief participation in the El Paso group. Prior to this there was a highly experimental transitional phase in which a move towards abstraction comes about.


Isabel Tejeda (IT): Quite so, this is the experimentation that begins after her attendance at the abstract art course in Santander, which took place in summer 1953.


BL: What importance did that congress have on the painting of Juana Francés?


IT: It was an eye-opener… She had seen quite a lot of abstract art during her stay in Paris, although no evidence exists of what she saw exactly. It seems obvious that she knew a few expressions of the art of the historic avant-gardes, and also of the French nineteenth century. For all that, she didn’t work abstractly straightaway. It is essential to recall the importance in these first few years of professionalization of her training at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando), above all the influence of Daniel Vázquez Díaz. Later on, she collated this learning process with the Italian painting of the Renaissance. It is obvious that the Santander congress was something very daring in a Francoist Spain coming out of the postwar period, which didn’t countenance that type of visual discourse because a return to order had been experienced after the Venice Biennale exhibition of 1937.


BL: In the case of a course in which a lot of emphasis was put on mural painting—in those days a lot of murals were painted—the influence of Vázquez Díaz is noticeable in the search for visual effects and textures, in the play of techniques, with stuccos and encaustics…


IT: Yes. In those years it was difficult for a Spanish woman to be a muralist, so the outcome Juana Francés gives to that apprenticeship has to be something else. To be a muralist involves intense public exposure, which women were not able to permit themselves, so they had to turn towards easel painting. This is why it’s important to adopt a gender-based perspective in the reading of any woman artist of that time; because the circumstances of a solution were not equal, and that absolutely influences the whole process, both vital and professional. There was the odd woman muralist. But very few. It was less aggressive to remain in the environment of the studio, which was a private space. There they were safe and weren’t regarded as rebels. It’s true the influence of muralism on her work is very significant. But she wasn’t working in that vein.


BL: Still, there’s already an initial interest in the figurative phase in exploring the possibilities of paint as actual matter. I think the influence of Vázquez Díaz strengthens an openly experimental attitude about the picture surface and this helps us to understand the move towards abstraction.


IT: Very well put.


BL: There are those who refer to the death of her mother in 1953 as a significant reason for the introspection that leads to abstraction, where she could express her interior world.


IT: There’s something true in that. She herself stated that the works of those years were self-portraits.


BL: There’s a radio interview in which she states that her abstract work is tantamount to an expression of her emotions, of her most intimate concerns.


IT: Yes, and this links her to action painting and European Informalism, although this has a more political reading. I don’t know what her readings would have been at the time, but it’s clear she’d already seen quite a lot of abstract painting, plus a context, which she participated in, of artists hungry for innovation, just like her. What I don’t know is if there were many women in that context, because most of that generation of women artists tended towards figuration and genres considered to be traditionally feminine, like landscape, still life or genre scenes, like scenes of motherhood. I think that despite working on themes considered appropriate for feminine production, she distances herself from the iconography of defined formulas. There are various fundamental images in that respect. I don’t know to what extent they talk about she herself or her milieu. But the theme of single-parent families, for example; women who are presented alone with two children, with references not only to women who had lost husbands during the war, but also to single mothers with children, absolutely marginalized, depreciated by society, can be read in these images. And there is Silencio (Silence), the picture that was on the cover of the catalogue of the exhibition A contratiempo, which I did in the IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern in Valencia in 2018. That picture may talk about self-censorship, which not only existed in Spanish women of that generation but in a large part of society. But in the case of the women it had more of a danger. That is, as women they were not permitted to express themselves in most of the aspects of their lives. Not only in political terms, also in the remaining aspects of their lives. And so, despite the fact that Juana works with themes accepted as being feminine, she nevertheless clearly breaks this mould. It’s a pity this figurative work by Juana isn’t better known.


BL: Museums must have more of an interest in the abstract period.


IT: Because it’s the period of greater recognition. Although she showed figurative work in the Hispano-American Biennial, it’s the abstract work that she exhibits at the Guggenheim, at the São Paulo Biennale, at the Venice Biennale. Also, it was a kind of work much more accepted in the more modern context of those years. Her close friend Francisco Farreras said, with the intention of praising her: “Before whatever of the works that characterize her different eras and periods, nothing could make one think that behind that expressive visual strength, those powerful compositions created with paint and sand, there existed an eminently female presence.”[1] These are works that are considered to be virile, and that are found under the aegis and in light of what was considered the tradition of the Spanish school of painting, a sombre, dark painting. If that is the period that’s been most emphasized it’s also because it’s an accepted painting within the actual Left of that time, as an art with forcefulness and rebelliousness.


BL: In the first works that probe abstraction that artistic language is still not well defined…


IT: Because she’s still experimenting.


BL: It’s from 1956 onwards that we see a properly abstract language. In the process of change that begins in 1953 who is she mixing with and what are the main areas of influence for joining El Paso in 1957? Might companions like Rafael Canogar have been an influence?


IT: Also Farreras, for instance, whom she knew in the San Fernando Academy, or César Manrique and Manuel Mampaso. Later on, she did the exhibition at the Ateneo in Madrid, where she met Pablo Serrano. It has always been said that it was he who introduced her into the circle of the people who would form El Paso, but it seems the opposite was true, according to what Natalia Molinos claims in her doctoral thesis. He was of another generation and came from outside, while she was at the heart of what was going on in Madrid at that time. She had the contacts due to her years in the faculty and due to the artistic context of the city. And those she didn’t know in the faculty she met in the Hispano-American biennials. I imagine many of her fellow artists attended the congress in Santander. And in those kinds of congress, as you known, you make friends: young people, alone, wanting to experience life. At bottom, it must have been completely natural. Then there were, as well, those who wanted to turn Spanish art into something else, outside the institutionalization or outside the dictates Francoism upheld at that time. Namely, they were clearly seeking to be renovators and to shun the figuration the regime was promoting during the postwar period.


BL: What did it mean for her to sign the El Paso manifesto?


IT: A stance that was not only of a pictorial nature but political too. This would occur afterwards with other groups. Working collectively had political implications, notwithstanding the fact that abstract painting, which to begin with could have been dangerous for the system, never was so basically because it wasn’t narrative and generated individual discourses. I think there’s a pictorial stance, a political stance, and also a stance as a woman within a milieu of men. In the interviews of the 1970s she demands that she be considered a person before a woman. Neither does she want them to consider her a man. Yes, I think there’s a feminist stance, what happens is that this is in contradiction with what she defended in all her declarations. But obviously, put yourself in her position, at a time in which the situation of women was so complicated… That is to say, her era of greater professional growth is prior to the 1961 law. Spanish women were experiencing a castratory situation, so that being in the vanguard of national artistic languages, with international connections, was important for all her generational colleagues, but for her, being a woman, much more so, with other connotations.


BL: I think it’s a matter of being so centred on the work that you don’t bother postulating it from a gender position. In her case it seems more of a pre-feminist attitude.


IT: Yes, or proto-feminist. When I talk about Juana’s case I always explain that one cannot link her to the feminist movement. Nevertheless, I ascribe a feminist reading to her work. There’s a series of readings—relating to the interviews I did for a grant from the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS) in 2012 about Spanish women artists of the 1960s and 70s—in which many of them explain that they signed their pictures with just their surname, or with the initial and surname (as in Juana’s case) because they wanted the fact that they were women to go unnoticed, because the moment it was known that they were women they were treated in another way. There’s an intention to cover up that circumstance, as one might, in order not to discriminated against. There are declarations by gentlemen of the time and even of women from the Sección Femenina of the Falange that are very enlightening as to consideration of the artistic abilities of women. For example, Sánchez Camargo, in an article about Esther Boix, said: “For the woman painter it is usually an article of praise to declare that her work appears to be done by the hand of a man. When this occurs it is almost certain that this work bears a kinship with the production of a male artist. In art the woman is imitative by predisposition. Even without realizing it she is incapable of creating her own work with conviction and femininity, and even less so of breaking new ground.”[2] This is signed in 1976. This was the real, unvarnished context.


BL: Scary.


IT: So, what did this mean for her? Well, I think that the same as it meant for fellow artists of her generation, but a little bit more so.


BL: And upon forming part of a group is the female profile watered down, or is she less exposed?


IT: I think she remained exposed.


BL: What was her relationship like with other members of the group, because it appears that Arcadio Blasco attributes her leaving the group to the machismo of Saura?


IT: It transcended machismo.


BL: Well, I’ve read different versions. It seems the version of Saura’s depreciation predominates. There are even people who claim, however preposterous it may seem, that Saura was afraid she’d put him in the shade.


IT: I don’t agree with that. Saura was a great painter; from my point of view the best of the lot. In fact, he was a bit of a leader, too, on account of the admiration he awoke in them all.


BL: With a professional career already consolidated in Paris.


IT: Exactly. His pictures from that period are brilliant. What Arcadio was commenting on is that Saura courted her. And Juana, who was possessed of a certain character—according to Arcadio she manifested a hatred of the macho, the stereotype, the polar opposite of Pablo—rejected him. So Saura used his weapons. I don’t doubt that some of them might consider her inferior due to keeping to the clichés of patriarchal thinking. But I don’t think that at that time her work was. During that first phase the painting of Juana Francés is very good and very radical, and she ran rings around some of them.


BL: During those years her work was maybe closer to Canogar’s or Feito’s than to Saura’s.


IT: Yes. But also because at that time Saura had a much more defined language than all the others. All the same, one cannot adduce a lack of artistic quality in that period to Juana.


BL: It was an expulsion and not a voluntary departure.


IT: Yes, indeed. It was an expulsion, according to what Arcadio Blasco told me years ago in an interview.[3] Farreras also said so. There are declarations by Martín Chirino in the newspaper El País in 2002, stating that “the internal disputes of the group and the first departure of one of the signees of the founding manifesto was a taboo subject.” This subject wasn’t talked about. But some, according to Chirino, were of the opinion that the presence of Juana wasn’t appropriate. There was an early disagreement. “And from then on a kind of tension was created and it’s decided that Juana Francés ought not to be present.”[4] Obviously they ditch her. And the moment they do— they ditch Suárez too—her partner, Pablo Serrano, decides to go as well.


BL: Pablo, with his generational distance and a space of his own in the market, didn’t need to form part of the group.


IT: I suppose that when he sensed the injustice he logically took the part of his partner. But clearly, given all the declarations I’ve seen, and the researches of Natalia Molinos corroborate this, she was thrown out.


BL: With which members of the group was there greater harmony? Because this too can influence the configuration of her abstract language. I imagine she maintained a relationship with some members of the group after her expulsion.


IT: I don’t know with any precision who she maintained a relationship with a posteriori. But obviously with those who weren’t particularly aggressive towards her when she went; I suppose she would know who they were, and that the person who was directing things had been Saura. After all, they all knew each other and were living in the same city.


BL: In the early El Paso exhibitions were works from the previous experimental period included?


IT: In the photos I’ve seen of the exhibition rooms no work of Juana’s appears and obviously, without reproductions in the catalogues and with her work being untitled, it’s difficult to say.


BL: When she quits El Paso she goes on painting with the language that characterizes her within the group. I imagine she would evolve in a parallel way to her fellow artists, especially if she kept in contact with them.


IT: Yes, She exhibited internationally with them. Not with El Paso. But yes, from time to time sharing collective shows with them. She undoubtedly kept up with what they were doing.


BL: And how does Juana’s work evolve from 1958 on? To begin with it’s a question of a very pictorial abstraction…


IT: And intimate self-portraiture.


BL: Then she begins with the sand works and gets involved in a highly experimental phase once again.


IT: A phase that also gradually takes her in the direction of what she calls El hombre y el campo (Man and the Countryside), which then leads into El hombre y la ciudad (Man and the City), which at base has a social discourse, which was the way used at the time to disguise the political.


BL: There’s a latent existentialism there, right? We can identify it in other artists of the day who deal specifically with the theme of individual alienation as a result of progress and technological development.


IT: Indeed. But I’ve always believed they have more potential readings, I take them to be images with a polysemic reading. Since from the outset one couldn’t speak of a situation of marginalization or of dictatorship—these words couldn’t be used—other elements could be used that offered parallel interpretations to really talk about that.


BL: That’s one of the advantages of art, is it not?


IT: Indeed. I also think that in that process she goes from the self to the collective, towards a context that includes people. A process that we observe in different ways in other artists too, in Estampa Popular for example. And this is found at the base of her need to begin introducing certain [extra-pictorial] elements in the picture. It’s as if she needed it.


BL: That’s why I think it’s interesting to analyse the evolution from a more pictorial and expressive abstraction towards the predominance of the materic. She seemingly generates a cooling of emotion, which would come down to being replaced with references to reality, or to experiences, through the fragments she inserts.


IT: I don’t know if the materic cools things down, as you say; it depends on how it’s used. What is clear is that she introduces contingency into the artwork, which demolishes the fourth wall between the representational and reality; and in that reality we encounter its context, the social. It’s simply another way of putting the trace of her personal stamp on things.


BL: I agree, the trace doesn’t disappear altogether.


IT: It’s not like in Pop painting. They’re elements that go on generating a trace and referring to the ego.


BL: Undoubtedly.


IT: And the works with sand are very compelling, it seems to me. I’ve seen some very fine works in both the MACA – Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Alicante and the MNCARS that are very little seen because not too many exhibitions of Juana from those years have been mounted. That’s why this exhibition at the Galería Mayoral is particularly remarkable.


BL: To be sure, for Vicente Aguilera Cerni, in his Panorama del nuevo arte español of 1966, this is an expressive art with a strong emotional charge, and extremely personal.


IT: I think the previous work is as well.


BL: I reckon the connection is found in the wish to get the most out of matter. In her figurative painting colour and the texture of grattage or the encaustics reflect emotion.


IT: I understand it more through the iconography; and it’s through the iconography that we identify her work.


BL: Coming back to technique: in her PhD thesis Natalia Molinos proposes sub-stages. From 1956 on she talks about gestural abstraction with sand and, subsequently, of gestural and materic abstraction with sand. I wonder if this turn towards the materic obeys a purely visual concern.


IT: Yes, although I believe that a bit of everything influences things. There were also other artists using these kinds of materials at the time. It comes within experimentation, and as we were saying, within the attempt to introduce the real into painting.


BL: From 1961 on there appear new figurative references that are related to landscape. Although we only know they are landscapes through the titles, since the intention to play with abstraction does not disappear. Why landscape?


IT: Because she begins to delve into that theme of man and the countryside. With a great many references, among them literature, the Generation of ’98, the search for that agrarian Spain.


BL: And from 1962 on there appear elements alluding to the anthropomorphic. When she introduces buttons, bits of plastic or wood, we interpret them as the trace of man in the materic. Is it a question of referring to personal experience?


IT: Yes. But also rereadings of the collage of the early part of the century. That is to say, paving the way towards other formulae for telling stories. I suppose we have to accept that she may not have had the intellectual motivation we’re trying to attribute to her.


BL: I guess so. And we have to assume that artists get carried away by the work.


IT: But she defines this phase as El hombre y el campo, which provides us with a clue. In a newspaper quote, after showing with El Paso, she says, “Next I have to focus on the earth, and certain suggestions of landscapes appear, and my pictures have the names of Spanish villages… […] From the earth it is inevitable to move on to man and from the countryside to the city.”[5] This is how she herself intellectualized it, in a very simple way.


BL: I think the evolution in her work comes about in a very natural way, by resolving visual preoccupations, and in which elements or features that come out of experimentation in one phase are taken up again, with another focus, in the subsequent phase.


IT: In short, I would define four stages. One of figuration, one of out-and-out abstraction, and then she begins to put in figures or faces that bring her to the theme of non-communication, and lastly the final abstract phase.


BL: And in the phase of the hominids, might there have been the influence of one of the artists who also worked on the theme of non-communication or isolation, like Anzo or Genovés?


IT: There were many of them who were working on that at the time. Arcadio Blasco as well. It was quite a common theme in that generation. They began questioning the use of the machine, which starts to have more of a presence in society, or the extent to which big cities were leading to the isolation of individuals, the everyday coexistence of a supposed Arcadia of perfection being lost, in a space in which we don’t even know our neighbour. On the other hand, there is a reading that is naïve, I would say, of the use of technologies like the telephone, which is presented as an instrument that isolates the individual. It’s a generational thing.


BL: But in the abstract phase the seed of this subsequent period also becomes visible.


IT: Yes, of El hombre y la ciudad. She is an artist whose evolution, as we can see, doesn’t have watertight compartments. One thing led to another, as in the case of most artists who do not copy. One sees how she plays with certain elements, and that those elements, which appear anecdotically at a given moment, are essential to the following series. They get much bigger and are developed expressively. It’s a natural way of working.


BL: There are other cases, like Estampa Popular, in which first rural Spain is portrayed and then there’s an evolution towards social or political matters.


IT: I actually believe they’re on the same wavelength, but with very different ways of saying things. The Estampa Popular people have a more political and, if you will permit me, more anti-system attitude, with a militant anti-Francoism. Even so, the abstract painters, who generally declared themselves to be anti-Franco citizens, were ready to let themselves be indulged by the regime. They have an ambivalent relation with the regime, much criticized in the 1970s and of course today.


BL: Let’s have a look at the exhibitions. In 1957 she did the two El Paso shows, and afterwards exhibited independently in collective as well as individual shows.


IT: Maybe the most important after leaving the group is the solo exhibition in the Ateneo’s Salón del Prado in 1959, one of the most emblematic exhibition spaces in Madrid. Then she had solo shows in Venice, Lausanne, in Madrid at Biosca and Juana Mordó’s, and in Valencia at the Val i 30 gallery.


BL: There’s an interval without solo shows between 1965 and 1969.


IT: In those days not so many solo exhibitions were held as now. If we compare her track record with that of other artists of her generation and her level, I think the number of solo shows Juana Francés had is not bad at all. And she participated in notable collective exhibitions. At the time she was in the artistic spotlight. And this carried on during the 1950s and 60s, even at the beginning of the 70s. What is striking is what happens when we get to the 80s and, above all, when she dies in 1990: because her existence is forgotten about by everybody.


BL: That’s the last question I’d like to deal with. Coming back to the exhibitions, she participates in 1959 in the Alexandria Biennial, which hasn’t become known as a major event, but at the time it was.


IT: Yes. She also showed in São Paulo, and in that 1960 Guggenheim exhibition Before Picasso; After Miró, and at the Tate in 1962 in the exhibition Modern Spanish Painting. That is to say she participated in the most important international themed exhibitions that were performing a rereading of contemporary Spanish art.


BL: In these exhibitions she was showing alongside her fellow artists, including those of El Paso.


IT: Sure. And I’m certain she would exhibit works later than 1957; her finest works.


BL: At the Venice Biennale, too.


IT: In 1960 and in 1964. Although the biennales in Venice were not what they are today. A wide-ranging choice of artists, not like now, which functions with one or two. It was a pavilion with a lot of work by different people, so that presence has to be evaluated with care. But in important international events Juana was present. And the question is: why isn’t she any longer?


BL: Why do you think she doesn’t have the place she deserves today? Could it be that she’s fallen by the wayside due to the whirl of the market?


IT: Neither has Juana been studied all that much, right? Look at who’s studied her: two researchers. I suppose there are also other factors involved in that invisibility above and beyond the reading of gender, and one of them is the fact that Joana’s work has its ups and its downs, but to be honest so does Saura’s, and Tàpies has them too. In Juana’s case it’s because after her death her legacy almost totally disappears. And this despite the fact she was a good strategist with the sharing out of her legacy.


BL: Over the years she’s been pushed into the background. I suppose there’s the influence, too, of having been the wife of Pablo Serrano, who’s a prominent artist in terms of history, with a strong presence in the market for years.


IT: You’d have to analyse the relationship of Spanish artists to the market, and this in spite of the existence of many women gallery owners. Women friends of that generation and the one after it have complained to me that in the back rooms of the fairs the work of a man is shown before that of a woman. Or having to hear that the market cannot rely upon a woman due to the chance that maternity might get in the way of her professionalism and cause her to abandon her work. On many occasions they’ve had to give up, even though it might be temporarily. Childcare meant an abandonment of two or three years. Women weren’t expected to be professionals. In short, I think there’s a little bit of everything: a social construct, and a market that didn’t have trust in the work of women… However, Juana didn’t get to have children and suffered from her existence being gradually obliterated. The same thing has happened with the women Pop artists I’ve worked on. Some of them, colleagues of Equipo Crónica, with a studio next door, showing in Valencia at the beginning of the 70s, and they disappeared completely from the scene; they don’t appear in the critical literature, even. Historiography is lagging a long way behind with these female figures. It’s true Juana is cited, but she’s not studied. How can you not cite her? You cannot fail to cite her.


BL: Might not the neglect be influenced by the fact that she figures as the outcast or reject of El Paso? Suárez is also an artist who’s barely known today.


IT: Yes. Undoubtedly. But in the good years of Juana’s production that element didn’t have weight; she went on exhibiting in the most important places. It has been the historiographical reading that has erased her, as it has erased so many others. But above all so many other women.



[1] FARRERAS RICART, Francisco. Juana Francés 1924-1990. Exposición Homenaje [exh. cat.]. Alicante: Ayuntamiento de Alicante, 1995, p. 10.


[2] SÁNCHEZ CAMARGO, Manuel. “Una pintora catalana en Madrid: Esther Boix.” In: Revista (1955). Quoted in: CARANDELL, José María. Esther Boix. Madrid: Servicio de Publicaciones de Educación y Ciencia, 1976, p. 75.


[3] Interviews by Isabel Tejeda with Arcadio Blaso, 01/03/2004 and 02/10/2012. Also see: MOLINOS NAVARRO, Natalia. La artista alicantina Juana Francés: estudio crítico de su obra [PhD thesis]. Alicante: Universidad de Alicante, 2010.


[4] Interviews by Javier Tusell with Martin Chirino. In: En el tiempo de El Paso [exh. cat.]. Madrid: Centro Cultural de la Villa, 2002.


[5] PEREDA, Rosa María. “Juana Francés: ‘Mi pintura cuenta la soledad del hombre.’” In: El País (21/12/1976). Interview undertaken on the occasion of the exhibition Juana Francés in the National Library, Madrid.


“A Conversation between Boye Llorens and Isabel Tejeda”, In: Juana Frances: Informalism Was Also Female, (exhib. cat.), Barcelona, 2020, pp. 44-57