On the 1958 Venice Biennale, Still | María Dolores Jiménez-Blanco

The Spanish Pavilion at the 29th Venice Biennale, the edition held in 1958, has become an inevitable landmark in narratives to do with Spanish art of the second half of the twentieth century, whatever the methodological perspective or ideology from which the narrative might be formulated. There are various reasons for this historiographical phenomenon.

I. Firstly, a political reason: the said pavilion marks an important moment in the context of the foreign policy of the Franco regime. The Spanish performance in that biennale confirms that, knowing itself to be at the centre— the chronological and geographical centre, but perhaps in other senses of the word as well—of the stage of the so-called Cold War, officialdom decided to gamble on the possibilities of what, today, we would call cultural diplomacy. To do this it entrusted the curatorship of that showcase of modernity—that it was representative of the reality of the culture of the country is another matter—to Luis González Robles, a skilled and already experienced professional who on previous occasions had demonstrated his expertise in the choosing of artists and works, adopting those who might dovetail with international fashions while maintaining a disputed and disputable national difference, and also in his ability as a negotiator. González Robles always managed to handle a situation, not only so as to get the necessary prizes for Spanish artists, but also to position them in the right international company for legitimating them, and all this through agreements with the authorities of other countries and those of the biennial itself. That is to say, González Robles’s abilities were concerned with the artistic level and also, and equally as important, the political level. The latter is especially remarkable if we bear in mind that, notwithstanding the changes of image that the political authorities of our country might want to publicize, Spain remained a dictatorship in a context of democracies, and many of the international critics expressed it in this way. At the same time, as we shall see, this situation would cause quite a lot of discomfort for artists like Manolo Millares, Antonio Saura and Antoni Tàpies, especially the latter, who decided thereafter not to participate any more in exhibitions organized by the regime due to their conviction that they were being used.

Secondly, and closely bound up with the above, the 1958 Venice Biennale is important for artistic reasons: the indisputable success that was achieved, and the implications the event had for the subsequent career of the artists selected, from Chillida to Tàpies, and including Saura, Millares and Rivera, have been analysed on countless occasions and form part of the discussions which, more than fifty years later, go on preoccupying both artists and art historians. What consequences arose from showing Spanish Informalism outside of Spain? We will see how, in a few instances, that biennale opened up new possibilities in the international perception of artists like Manuel Rivera, who at the time enjoyed a splendid gallery to himself that, as he himself repeatedly explained, was a veritable turning point in his career. In other instances, however, such as that of Antoni Tàpies or Antonio Saura, who had already exhibited internationally, the suspicion of playing into the hands of a propaganda exercise in whitewashing the image of Francoism ended up straining a relationship with the regime which had never been easy. Henceforth, their careers took a different course in being reliant upon major international galleries who were interested in their work. In any event, from the artistic point of view it is obvious that the Biennale helped to give exposure, as an entity of enormous strength, to the Informalist work being done in Spain in the late fifties. When, on the other hand, Informalism was losing its raison d’être, its brazenness was being irremediably replaced by other artistic formulas which rather than exploring the tormented inner world of the artist were beginning to turn their gaze, with or without irony, toward the more immediate external world.

Thirdly, for a critical reason: the role played by the critical profession, both the Spanish and Italian or even the American, in the repercussions of the pavilion has been analysed in detail. As for the Spanish critics, who despite its objective achievements were not always favourable, we ought not to forget that Vicente Aguilera Cerni won the Biennale’s International Critics Prize for his writings to do with what was presented there.

In magazines and newspapers, many of those who analysed the relationship between Spanish and international Informalism or between Spanish Informalism and American Abstract Expressionism, not only in the context of the 1958 Venice Biennale but following it, agreed on various issues: there was a time lag of some ten years and there were also completely different circumstances in political terms (a completely installed dictatorship, now backed, moreover, by the Western democracies), in economic terms (a country destroyed by war, to which the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe gave a wide berth, as parodied in Berlanga’s famous film), and in social terms (the Spain of National Catholicism as opposed to Europe and the United States in which the irruption of the counterculture could already be glimpsed). In some instances, and not only from Spain, that difference was explained according to profound (and imposed) historical genealogies, invoking the violence of Goya’s black paintings, for example. In that respect it suffices to mention the aforesaid Aguilera Cerni or Ricardo Gullón, two Spanish critics who were prominent at the time, responding to a strongly rooted historiographical platitude: the idea of la veta brava, the “brave strain” of Spanish Romanticism. Less obvious are the reasons why the international critical body accepted those arguments: one example is Frank O’Hara’s essay in the catalogue of the exhibition New Spanish Painting and Sculpture, held in the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, in which the commonplace of an uninterrupted Spanish cultural tradition as a way of explaining Informalist painting even extends to the bull’s blood spilt in the bullring. Anyway, it is interesting to recall that that New York show has been analysed as a sort of continuation of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1958 Venice Biennale, since, and not by coincidence, it was the outcome of diplomatic negotiations between Spain and the USA, as was the arrival of two major exhibitions of the most recent American art: in 1955, the exhibition El arte moderno de los Estados Unidos, held in the Barcelona of the III Bienal Hispanoamericana de Arte, and in 1958, La nueva pintura americana at the Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo, which up until very recently had been directed by José Luis Fernández del Amo.

In order to get a better understanding of that phenomenon and to try and fit its many facets together, it is nevertheless essential to situate it within a somewhat wider setting. In the next few pages we will attempt to reconstruct the historical context leading to that event.

II. In the traditional historiography it used to be said that postwar Spain didn’t have an explicit cultural policy, given the physical and moral penury in which the country found itself not only due to the Civil War but also to the unrelenting international isolation to which it was subjected in the years after 1939. Reality, however, gives the lie to this claim. Only a year after Picasso’s Guernica would have an impact on the public at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques appliqués à la vie moderne in Paris via the modest but combative pavilion of the Republic, as yet in the heat of the war in Spain, and a year before the Second World War would break out, the leaders of the uprising led by General Franco against the legitimate government of the Republic decided to accept the invitation sent by Mussolini’s government to participate in the Biennale of Fascist Italy. The image presented by the Spanish Pavilion in I Giardini under the curatorship of Eugeni d’Ors in 1938 was the opposite of that mural, which was also militant in its modernity. D’Ors’s message was clear: the Spain Franco was proposing was that of the return to tradition, with no allusion to the conflict. José Aguiar, Pere Pruna, Pérez Comendador, Quintín de Torre, Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor, Fortuny and Madrazo, but above all Ignacio Zuloaga, harked back to the great Spanish tradition, that of the Museo del Prado (or of a certain way of understanding it), which was presented as a cultural representative of the country’s unalterable essence. In 1952 a selection with a similar intent would also be presented in Berlin in the Ausstellung spanischer Kunst der Gegenwart. In 1945, once the Second World War ended with the defeat of the Axis, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were replaced as priority objectives in Francoist diplomacy by Peronist Argentina, which for a few years was the Franco regime’s only ally. For this reason it is not surprising that in 1947, the year of Eva Perón’s visit to Spain, the exhibition Arte español contemporáneo would be sent to the Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires, the importance of which is revealed by the fact that it occupied the whole of the museum’s exhibition space. The catalogue, which bore a painting by Zuloaga on its front cover, gives an account of a show of a rather more eclectic sort, with the presence of works by, once again, Álvarez de Sotomayor (now Director of the Museo del Prado, and also co-curator of the show with Eduardo Llosent, Director of the Museo de Arte Moderno), Pere Pruna, Vaquero Palacios and Solana, among others, but alongside them there would also appear the sculptors Ángel Ferrant and Planes.

That exhibition was, then, starting to make timid concessions to what Antoni Marí called “cautious modernity.”1 This was not by chance inasmuch as in 1947 the regime began sending messages of cultural and social normalization to the outside world that would enable it to make headway in the pacts that were beginning to be made between the USA and a number of European countries to procure a thaw in their relations with Spain. The new world order that sanctioned a binary image of the Western world, with the Iron Curtain as a new frontier, had unexpectedly converted Spain into an interesting ally. In 1950 the dictatorial nature of its political order seemed to be relegated, once and for all, to the background: the beginning of the Korean War led to a self-serving international “rehabilitation” of the Franco regime, within which there came about the signing of the Concordat with the Holy See and the negotiations about the economic and military agreements that would culminate in the so-called Pact of Madrid, signed in 1953. While the new order permitted the continuity of Francoism, at the same time it obliged it to keep up appearances in some ways, and this new situation affected the cultural terrain in particular: at the beginning of the fifties there occurred a phenomenon that might be defined as an “institutional appropriation of modernity”. Or, better yet, as a dramatization of that appropriation, since the official support enjoyed by the exhibiting of works by a number of artists and movements, mainly orchestrated with a view to the outside world, did not necessarily result in better conditions for the creating, collecting or selling of art in the country itself.

Taking all this into account, it is not such a coincidence that, at this point in 1951, the Francoist state’s policy about international exhibitions seemed to radically change: in July of that year the Spanish State presented, at the 9th Milan Triennale, the Esposizione internazionale delle arti decorative e industriali moderne e dell’architettura moderna, a pavilion which signified a clear change of direction in terms of the image of the country that the government, now desirous of pleasing the European democracies and, above all, the United States, wished to project. The slogan of that triennale was “L’Unità delle arti,” and to it there responded a pavilion designed by the architect José Antonio Coderch, with a content chosen by the critic Rafael Santos Torroella. Between the two of them they presented a convincing and sophisticated dialogue between popular tradition and artistic modernity, inspired to a certain extent by the discussions of successive Escuelas de Altamira, but also including a surprising homage published by the magazine Cobalto 49 to the poet Federico García Lorca, whose work had in turn signified that same intersection of tradition and modernity, of popular culture and artistic avant-gardism in the years prior to 1936. Very innovative in both its conception and installation when compared with the exhibitions cited above of Venice 1938, Berlin 1942 or Buenos Aires 1947,

the pavilion wove together, in an extremely delicate filigree, artworks by Miró, Ferrant, Oteiza, Ferreira, Serra and Guinovart (creator of the prints for the Homenaje a
García Lorca
[Homage to García Lorca]), ceramics by Josep Llorens Artigas and Antoni Cumella, plus photographs of popular Ibizan architecture and also buildings by Gaudí, all of these executed by Joaquim Gomis, along with pieces of rural handicraft and Romanesque panels, thus meriting the effusive criticisms of architects like Gio Ponti (its great instigator) and awakening the interest of architects such as Alberto Sartoris, who had been in contact with the culture of Barcelona and Spain since the end of the forties. But it also won important awards that were interpreted as international approval for the changes that were intuited in the Spanish policy of the day: the Triennale’s grand prize for sculpture went to Ángel Ferrant’s Muchachas (Girls), a perfect combination of primitivism and modernity with a nod towards kinetic art since it had a simple mechanism which enabled the parts to move. The pavilion as a whole also merited an award. This was, in fact, the first great success won by an official representation of the Francoist state in an international event, which was no small matter: while the national pavilions in these events were conceived as artefacts of political representation and of the promotion of a country, it was logical that achieving success in that Milan Triennale would turn into a primary objective for the General Directorate of Cultural Relations, as demonstrated by the major effort to include Miró in the show, for example, or the fact that the intervention of Santos Torroella would be accepted despite his political record.

The trail blazed by the success of the Milan Triennale would lead shortly thereafter to the holding of three Spanish American biennials (the first in Madrid, in 1951 itself, the second in Havana in 1953-54, and the third in Barcelona, in 1955), together with the opening of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Madrid, directed by the architect José Luis Fernández del Amo, to whom we have already referred, not for nothing one of the most brilliant architects of the transformation of the countryside through the newly founded villages promoted by the National Institute of Rural Development and Colonization.

Indicative of the efforts made by the American government to create a new diplomatic climate, the third of these biennials would be accompanied, as has already been mentioned, by an exhibition of American painting held in La Virreina in Barcelona, while in 1958 another show of American painting, now in Madrid, would showcase a selection of American Abstract Expressionist paintings. Between the two, and clearly registering their impact, as well as that of the Informalism met with during increasingly frequent trips to Paris, in 1957 there would emerge in Madrid the soi-disant El Paso group, an ensemble of Informalist artists long considered central in Spanish historiography of the postwar period, and to which many of the protagonists of that Venice pavilion belonged: Saura, Millares and Rivera, for example. El Paso was not, however, the only group to emerge in that same year, which also witnessed the arrival of Equipo 57, moving between Córdoba and Paris and with a very different ideological orientation marked by the collective, practical meaning of certain artistic ideas of the early Soviet avant-garde, and with a formal preference for the geometrical. For many, those two groups embodied something akin to the dichotomy between irrationality and rationality, romanticism and classicism. Lastly, the Grupo Parpalló in Valencia, experimental and open-ended in nature, and with the weight of the critic Aguilera Cerni behind it. It is abundantly clear that only the first group, El Paso, squared with the critical concepts we’ve just described as being suitable for the Venice pavilion: the famous veta brava of Spanish tradition, dark and sordid, seemed to be revived in its work, as it did in some artworks by Tàpies, who had long ago foregone his membership of another important group in the accounts of our postwar period, Dau al Set, in order to explore preoccupations that had more to do with the materic, in line with European Informalism but even prefiguring, in some respects, the povera.

III. Once the organization of the Spanish Pavilion for the 1958 Venice Biennale got underway, Luis González Robles was chosen for his previous experience as its curator. He had been part of José Luis Fernández del Amo’s team at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Madrid, and from there had intervened in the organization of the Hispanoamerican Biennales and the events surrounding them. More immediately, he had been the curator of the Bienal de São Paulo in 1957, at which Jorge Oteiza won the Grand Prize for Sculpture. The objective was clear: that success should be repeated now in Venice, perhaps the most prestigious biennale of the time, which would confirm Spain as a reference for contemporary art in an international forum of great relevance. The subtext was equally clear: that image of modernity ought also to be applied, by extension, to the country itself, which was now preparing to open up to tourism and to commence the boom in certain industries under new technocratic governments. This political objective was, in point of fact and as has already been said, what worried some of the artists represented.

So, what exactly was it that was presented in that pavilion? González Robles was clear about what ought to be prioritized from what might be found on the Spanish art scene of the moment: the expressive gesture of the Informalists. He knew abstraction would predominate in Venice that year.

For all that, he did not turn his back on presenting figurative works that could act as a counterpoint: Cossío with his still lifes and portraits, Ortega Muñoz with his literary rural images, and the young realist Guinovart (the creator, let us not forget, of the lithographs of the Homage to García Lorca shown in Milan in 1951) may be understood as the backdrop against which to contrast the forcefulness of the Spanish Informalists, who were presented in various different sections: “Dramatic Abstraction,” “Romantic Abstraction” and “Geometric Abstraction.” The three categories were debatable but they served to articulate the discourse of a curator who had decided to present young Spanish painting in all its variety and singularity, but also as a compact whole united by a sort of subterranean current of “Spanishness.” This is how González Robles described it in the catalogue when referring to the “clear Iberian kinship in all of them and thus fundamentally in a strictly ethical conception of the world.” Canogar, Millares, Saura, Suarez, Tàpies and Vela made up the first group; Cuixart, Feito, Planasdurà, Tharrats and Vaquero Turcios the second; Farreras, Mampaso, Povedano and Rivera the third. As well as all these, and with a gallery to himself, there were presented works from between 1951 and 1958 by the sculptor Eduardo Chillida, the big hit of the Biennale with his Grand Prize for Sculpture. It would not be the only award that was won: Antoni Tàpies would receive second prize for painting, the first being given to the American Mark Tobey, and Unesco would confer its award upon the Spanish Pavilion as a whole. The Valencian critic Vicente Aguilera Cerni would also win the International Critics Grand Prize for a series of articles about the Biennale published in the magazine Índice. But the greatest prize of all was in reality that of managing to call the attention of the critics and the international market to the new Spanish art. Now, was it enough to be modern? Was it enough to appear so?

The result the regime specifically hoped for was not the one that actually occurred. The debate generated at the time did not manage to imply that if such art was produced in Spain it was because the country was now more free. On the contrary, the pavilion served, rather, to posit the argument that free art did not always need to be produced in a free country (as, moreover, had been argued by Alfred H. Barr Jr. and even President Roosevelt himself, who in 1939 counterposed the freedom of the art created under the European and American democracies to the lack of freedom of the art produced under the Nazi, Fascist and Stalinist dictatorships). As of 1958, the Spanish Pavilion was precisely the proof that a country governed by a dictatorship was able to accept, and even to promote, such art. Virgilio Guzzi expressed it thus: “The fact that Spain, too, presents its abstraction this year ought to demonstrate […] that it is not true that abstract art is peculiar to the free, democratic countries, as has often been repeated.”2 And so it would go on being claimed in subsequent biennales with Spanish participation, and even with great official successes in between. The same thing would occur in 1960 when Spanish Informalism made its presence felt in New York with several exhibitions at the same time, thanks to the diplomatic support of the Spanish and American governments.

The debate about the freedom of the artist and about the dark side of their political utilization remains, in actual fact, an open one in our own day. This is why, more than half a century later, it is still pertinent and necessary to analyse everything relating to the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1958.


María Dolores Jiménez-Blanco (Granada, 1959)

After gaining a degree in art history from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM) in 1982, she won the Extraordinary Doctorate Award for her thesis Aportaciones a la Historia de los Fondos del Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo (1987). In 1990 she obtained a Masters in Art History and Museum Training from George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

She has worked for the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. and for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and has curated exhibitions for the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and the Fundación Mapfre, among other institutions.

She has been Professor of Art History at the UCM since 1998, and is the author of numerous studies of twentieth-century art and collecting.