The Poetics of Democracy: Images and Counter-Images from the Spanish Transition originates from research undertaken in 2008 by the Museo Reina Sofía’s Department of Collections, the objective being to vindicate the artistic experiences excluded from the institutional discourses of the history of Spanish art of the 1970s. This change of perspective has given rise to new narratives and to the incorporation of new material into the Spanish cultural heritage that, combined with a recovery of the political element so instrumental to the Spain of those years, permits the evocation of events in which different artists (and the supports and media they used) left their studios, shared in a community, and took their work beyond objectuality.
With this exhibition, which puts the accent on participation, revindication, and collective action, the museum is giving visibility to this research process—which was carried out over a decade—to recall a period when, alongside civil demands for democratic liberties, social justice, and self-government, there arose a new aesthetic linked to innovative cultural practices that sought to subvert the order of Franco’s regime and the institutional schemes attempting to inherit it.
In this context, the narrative of the exhibition begins with a case study that contrasts with this emergence of a popular youth culture bent on achieving autonomy. The artistic event in question was the 1976 Venice Biennale, whose political importance has yet to be sufficiently studied, since contained within it was a closed and representative discourse of the anti-Francoist art of the time. The vicissitudes, conflicts, dialogues, and theoretical debates that succeeded one another both inside and outside Spain during the organization of the Biennale functions as a metaphor for that tumultuous period in Spanish history, when the transition was taking place from a forty-year military dictatorship to a democracy. This period, which tends to be regarded by historians as a moment marked by consensus, was nevertheless traversed by a great many challenges, disagreements, and contradictions, and these accompanied the new institutional officialdom that was starting to take shape at the same time as that Biennale.
Contexts for a Red Biennale
After a severe identity crisis that had lasted for several years, the new team in charge of the Venice Biennale decided to give the event a renovated personality by making it an instrument in the anti-fascist struggle. The 1974 Biennale had included a tribute to the resistance against Pinochet in Chile, and so it was consistent to invite the Spain of late Francoism to appear at the following edition. To carry the project forward, its director, Carlo Ripa di Meana, asked a committee of experts to organize and curate an exhibition. The “Committee of Ten,” led by Tomás Llorens and Valeriano Bozal and also including Oriol Bohigas, Alberto Corazón, Manuel García, Agustín Ibarrola, Antonio Saura, Rafael Solbes, Antoni Tàpies, and Manuel Valdés, was formed thanks in part to the support of the painter Eduardo Arroyo, who lived in Italy and was a member of the Visual Arts Committee of the Venice Biennale. With Franco still alive, the Committee of Ten requested that the official Spanish Pavilion remain closed, an unprecedented declaration of intent by the curators and the Italian institutions that announced the “unofficial” and anti-Francoist nature of this Spanish Biennale.
The curatorial committee designed a militantly left-wing show under the title of Spain: Artistic Avant-Garde and Social Reality (1936–1976). Its goal was to transform the official historical narrative constructed by forty years of dictatorship. One point that was central to the thesis of the exhibition, which went back chronologically to the Second Republic, was the redemption of the memory of the “vanquished” or the “absent,” symbolized by the group of artists linked to the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris (Picasso, Calder, Renau, etc.). Another of its main aims was to resignify a left-wing avant-garde that had been deactivated under Franco and manipulated by his regime, as it did with the Informalist movement, to export an image of modernity abroad. In short, it was an attempt to update the notion of the avant-garde in Spain and give it a sociological and Marxist slant, linked to the class struggle and totally opposed to classical formalism.
The last executions under Franco’s regime and the death of the dictator changed the nature of the exhibition. The historical period that was opening called for the configuration of a different relationship between art and politics, as well as the appearance and implication of new agents. The project of Llorens and his team left a great many artists out of the show who were very well known at the time, but it included the organizing artists themselves. This unleashed a storm of criticism both nationally and internationally. The selection could be interpreted as a way of ranking some artists as more anti-Francoist than others, and the urgency of the moment aroused misgivings among the majority. Artists’ associations, especially those representing the interests of the various nationalist movements, voiced some of the angriest protests, and artists like Eduardo Chillida and Jorge Oteiza, who had previously accepted the invitation, consequently withdrew their works from the show.
In Italy, influential artists and critics linked to the Italian Communist Party, such as Emilio Vedova, Luigi Nono, and Giulio Carlo Argan, called on the institution directed by Ripa di Meana to give voice in the project to three comrades who were defenders of the democratic cause while enjoying great international critical recognition: Vicente Aguilera Cerni, José María Moreno Galván, and Rafael Alberti, who were finally invited to propose a parallel exhibition. This second option, more general and interdisciplinary in approach, never materialized, but it focused debate on several of the contradictions accompanying transitional culture, such as the notion of “national reconciliation” defended by a sector of the left since the 1950s, which became one of the slogans of the Transition, and the difficulty of reconciling the idea of Spain as a single nation with the sensibilities of the country’s various nationalisms.
What was taken from the Cerni-Galván-Alberti project, however, was the recognition of a need to integrate other artistic manifestations beyond objectual art. A large and complex program was organized that included music (like that of Cristóbal Halffter), film, poetry, and theatrical performances by various companies like Els Joglars and Tábano. Also needed was a stronger presence of Basque artists, who were given a small separate space. In this way, with the inclusion of the theater company of Nuria Espert and the singer-songwriter Rosa León, the program could compensate, though moderately, for the absence of women from the original list of participating artists, something of a paradox at a time when feminism in Spain was taking up a leading position within social movements.
It was also at that moment, in line with the American underground and the long European cycle stemming from 1968, that a popular youth counterculture started to emerge, emancipated from the Francoist institutions, mass society, and capitalism. Their practices and lifestyles reveal a critique of the triumphal narratives of the restoration of the monarchy. They also question the place and functions of the existing institutions and the ideological constructs that sustain them, from the family to the prison, from the school to the army, from the church to the factory, and from the political party to psychiatry or to consumer society.
The new forms of organization of civil society—neighbors’ associations, local groups, sovereignty movements, feminists, ecologists, pacifists, and so on—gave rise to new countercultural aesthetic practices that provided languages and communicative strategies for these assemblies. The counterculture thus functioned as a network of alternative information based on parallel media—magazines like Ajoblanco or Vindicación Feminista, fanzines, independent radio, graffiti, documentaries, stickers, murals, performances, détournements—and also on the militant cinema of groups like Colectivo de Cine de Clase and Colectivo de Cine de Madrid, or the work of photojournalists like Anna Turbau and Pilar Aymerich. It was a network that spread through bars, festivals, safe houses, and cultural associations, crossing neighborhoods, plazas, and green spaces to transform relations between the public and the private and reclaim the collective right to the city.
Poetry, music, independent theater, comics, and collages, as well as fiction, cinema, and the plastic arts, were the favored vehicles for exploring the hopes and anxieties of that period, with its shattering of Francoist masculinities, its overflowing feminism, its crisis-ridden National Catholicism, and its interrogation of the limits of democratic (ab)normality. In this way, the new aesthetics of the counterculture—autonomous, unregulated, ephemeral, and popular—sustained the possibility of a space for rupture and resistance on the post-Francoist horizon, far from both constitutional consensus and ultraconservative temptations, and committed to the idea of a moral and aesthetic transformation issuing from the union of politics and pleasure.
Manuel Borja Villel and Rosario Peiró
Rosario Peiró, Lola Hinojosa, Cristina Cámara and Germán Labrador, with the collaboration of Carla Giachello
The Power of Art. Works from the Collection of the Museo Reina Sofía
In the Congress of Deputies and the Senate
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28 February – 1 July 2024
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