The Changing Discourse in Spanish Art and Culture – An Interview with Paula Barreiro López

Paula Barreiro López, author of Avant-garde Art and Criticism in Francoist Spain, discusses the changing discourse in Spanish culture following the regime of Francisco Franco. 

LUP: Hi Paula, could you tell us a bit about the book?

This book surveys the aesthetic discourse in connection with the artistic practises that decisively influenced the shaping of the avant-garde during the Franco dictatorship in Spain (1939-1975). It discusses the creation and the various shifts of this discourse that linked culture and ethics/politics and also analyses its impact on the intellectual and artistic landscape (visual, print and exhibition culture) especially during the last decades of Franco’s regime.

LUP: Could you expand on this for readers who are not familiar with the history of Spain in this context?

In the 1950’s Franco’s Spain became a strange, but nevertheless accepted ally in the Western camp of the increasingly heated up Cold War. The paradox of an autocratic country being part of the ‘free world’ was felt by a lot of Spanish artists and intellectuals, who had to confront the dilemma of linking the particularities and necessities of a developing society run by the dictator Francisco Franco with the exigencies of the avant-garde that was arising in the country. In this situation various art critics (Vicente Aguilera Cerni, José María Moreno Galván, Alexandre Cirici, Tomàs Llorens, Valeriano Bozal, Simón Marchán), who began to maintain close contacts with other intellectuals in foreign countries, would gain importance. Participating in the contemporary aesthetic debates in the Americas and above all in Europe, their role as mediators became decisive as they introduced new methodologies and arguments in their theoretical discourses that found their way to the Iberian Peninsula. They got involved very closely with avant-garde groups becoming equal peers in artistic movements. Equipped with their theoretical knowledge these so-called ‘militant critics’ participated actively in the artistic creation by instilling questions of liberty, the commitment of the artist and the social commitment of the arts, elements that significantly mapped Spanish culture as the 1960 ́s advanced.

These intellectuals, and the shifts they incited in the conception of the arts during the second half of Francoism, are at the centre of this book about the distinct character of the Spanish avant-garde and the cultural field. Their manifold activity affected Spain’s cultural production in different ways. It shaped the artistic activities of the avant-garde and vanguard art, and helped decisively to raise social and political awareness within the cultural scene and universities.

 LUP: What is new about this book and what made you want to write it?

Let me start with the second question first. Already when writing my PhD thesis about written about Geometric Abstraction in Spain I had noticed two things. Firstly, the artistic creation was much more connected to the theoretical debates of that time and the players taking part in the latter were highly politicised.

Secondly, the art scene in Spain and the theoretical debates were very much connected via certain intellectuals abroad and therefore Spanish Art was, could and should be seen in the international context of that time. Thus, I wanted to broaden my focus. I left Spain for a couple of years to work abroad, first in France and then in Great Britain. I started to look at art and cultural phenomena during the Franco Regime. Occasionally some connections and figures that I had first noticed during my PhD re-surfaced and also other intellectual figures from different European countries important for the cultural field of that time gave more colour to the network that was forming in my mind. Nevertheless, looking for literature that could give me specific information about these important connections, I noticed that there was a serious lack of bibliography about this topic in English.

I do not pretend to reinvent the wheel, but actually, this I think this book helps to fill a gap in the history of Spanish Art and builds on scholarship on the second and final phases of the regime (1950s until the 1970s) by proposing a new interpretation of the art, culture and politics of that time and the first reading ever of their complex interactions and their repercussions for the Spanish culture. The study bases on extensive archival material, until now unavailable in English and a lot of it published for the first time, and uses an interdisciplinary approach (touching art history and theory, intellectual history, politics as well as ideology) that brings a new facet into the evaluation of art and culture in general.

LUP: What audience did you have in mind when writing your book?

I think this topic is interesting for scholars in art history, visual, cultural and museum studies of modern Spain, in particular, and Europe in general. It also addresses, and this I think is important, a much broader readership that includes, in my eyes, professionals, such as journalists, culturally interested in Spanish History and Culture as well as students and University teachers.

I think the book is perfect for teaching purposes at university level. The first two introductory chapters provide a concise overview of the art, culture and politics during Francoism and I think that this part of the study is very useful for undergraduate teaching. The three following chapters provide an in-depth study of the intertwined transfer processes, intellectual networks, aesthetic debates and artistic practices during Late Francoism, which – in my eyes – is addressing the theoretical and practical interest of graduate students who want to know more about cultural processes in Europe and in Spain in particular during the 1950s until the 1970s. Although the complexity of the argument is increasing, especially in the three chapters following the introduction, using an advanced political, cultural and artistic vocabulary, terminology is always introduced and explained accordingly as the argument develops and therefore I think the reader will acquire a lot of knowledge on different levels when reading the text.

In general, the interdisciplinary focus that the book touches on:art, aesthetics, culture and politics makes it suitable for students studying in the fields of Art History, Aesthetics, Cultural History, History and Hispanic Studies.

  LUP: Does the book contain reproductions of that which exemplify the interconnection of the aesthetic discourse and artistic practices?

 The material reproduced includes artworks, photography and print material mostly coming from archives and private collections. Most of it is difficult to find and has so far not been available for a general readership. The reproduced artworks illustrate well the connection of the Spanish Avant-Garde with the European art scene but also the specificity of their socio-political context of creation. The art & design objects exemplify the theoretical basis of their creation and the socio-political intentions of their creators and in context with their written analysis it becomes evident why many of these works have often been (and are still being) interpreted differently in an international context despite their often intended anti-regime character. This way a specific Spanish paradox becomes clear and it will be shown why the regime itself tried to co-op modern art in order to modernise its image.

LUP: Has any scientific angle influenced for your study and why?

 The book puts forward an original and innovative point of view analysing the reciprocal processes of cultural transfer, the adoption of foreign aesthetic theories and ideas as well as their adaption to the specific Spanish socio-political context and it shows the importance of culture in general, which was understood as a battle field against the repressive politics of the Franco regime.

Therefore the book is indebted to a cultural historic approach that takes high culture, popular culture, politics as well as the history of ideas in account studying the reciprocal transfer processes within these fields and across European and American geographies. It seemed to me that, especially today, as we focus rather on connections and networks instead of separations, which also reflect more and more working across scientific boundaries, such an interdisciplinary approach would be of interest.

 LUP: What are the greatest strengths of this book?

The book redraws the position of Spain within post-WWII history. I think it helps to understand culture and the vanguard artistic production of the late Franco dictatorship, discussing the intellectual and cultural field as an important battlefield for fighting the dictatorship from within. Furthermore, it is not just about Spain, it connects the intellectual landscape to the European socio-political and artistic context of that time. Therefore it gives an insight in important processes and border-transgressing networks that shaped the arts and culture from the 1950s to the 1970s in Europe. Especially today, when we try to distance ourselves more and more from centre-periphery models that imply very often a subjugation of the latter when evaluating the artistic production of the reciprocal processes between these two poles, it is essential for the understanding of Spanish art of the 1950’s and 1960’s putting it in the contemporary geopolitical context of the Cold War period.

You can find Avant-garde Art and Criticism in Francoist Spain and other titles in our Value: Art: Politics Series on our website

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