Imprescindibles (RTVE) 2014
Dirección y Guión: Ana Morente
Producción: TVE, Trabajos ETRA S.L. y La voz que yo amo
Imprescindibles (RTVE) 2014
Dirección y Guión: Ana Morente
Producción: TVE, Trabajos ETRA S.L. y La voz que yo amo
Francisco Calvo Serraller
With his customary simplicity, Juan Genovés explains the euphoric creativity that radiates from his latest work, as a simple matter of organising his time well. Of course that may be, but not even the simplest strategy of everyday organisation of work is chance. Rather it is a result of experience and in the case of Juan he has been working constantly on his art for over half a century. However, whatever the reasons, or the trigger of creative process, what is important is to analyse the results and in this sense what is obvious is that Genovés’ work today unfurls like a sail full of dynamic prosperity, gathering up strength to sail in one direction. You could say that he is on a roll and that he is following his path but with a renewed sense of adventure. However where is he off to? The artistic, navigational map is marked by the wake you leave as you pass by and it can’t be set in advance. As Rimbaud would say it is a question of sailing the seas in a drunken boat that advances at an inebriated rhythm, which doesn’t mean that the voyage is simply a thoughtless meandering but that it is determined by passionate freedom. There is no predestined end in sight. It is a journey born from need and the pleasure of travelling.Read more
At all costs, where does Juan Genovés’ work seem to be leading us? His surname already sounds like that of a sailor. Having started his artistic voyage over half a century ago, perhaps remembering, however briefly, some of the most important days in his long voyage would help us to answer this question. Perhaps this travelling with the wind in his sails is a question of his returning to where he started out. Without having to recall Ulysses this Odessy that has brought him home is without doubt the most complicated, eventful journey and the most difficult and it is still underway.
Born in Valencia in 1930 and trained at the Valencia San Carlos Art School Juan Genovés’ artistic activity began in the 1950s. This is very important because the international isolation that Franco’s Spain had been subject to since the Second World War was coming to an end. Even though the dictatorship would last for another quarter of a century there was more cultural communication going on and in art this meant above all the triumph of abstract art. During the second half of this decade Genovés showed clear signs of wanting to be a part of these vanguard movements and he was a member of the historic Grupo Parpalló, a group of young Valencian artists who between 1957 and 1961 were involved in the renovation of an artistic language according to a cosmopolitan model but with no other imperative. In this sense, although the main, initial tendency was towards informalism the members of Parapalló had very different leanings. Such was the case of Genovés whose first style was based on post-cubism and which very quickly developed into a progressively figurative and more material way of painting. During the second half of the sixties Genovés took an even more decisive step, forming the Grupo Hondo along with Jardiel, Orellana and Mignoni. They were all expressionist, figurative artists and they enriched their work using the technique of assembling material directly taken from reality very much like the Americans Johns and Rauschenberg and the Europeans who were painting in a style known as New Realism. As a direct consequence of these stages of the process and still during this revolutionary decade Genovés finally developed what would be become his personal style based on images clearly linked to film and photography with roots in pop art and with a strong critical streak. His social roots were such that due to the political events that were shaking Spanish society at the time he became a kind of icon for what would become the Spanish democratic transition.
The succinct summarising of these facts, although they are very well known is vital. Not however to brush up on the topical, historical memory so much as for everything that this signifies as part of the framework for the original, artistic, singularity of Juan Genovés who debated between a pictorial style of painting and the growing strength of the naked image. It was the images of the masses being pursued relentlessly and the anonymous and isolated figures in his work, almost looking as though they had been captured by the lens of a camera or seen through a telescope that made Genovés famous. His most deliberate, technically visual way of looking at things was never completely divested of a certain pictorial warmth. A way of looking at it would be not so much “photographs without painting” as “paintings without photography “. He tread an almost invisible, subtle line between photography and painting or you could say between the mechanical eye and the tactile eye. During the best part of a quarter of a century since the climatic, historical Spanish democratic transition and up to the present day, Juan Genovés has never been still. In both form and attitude, due to the peculiarities that I have just described, of being systematically on the stylistic edge of the abyss, and also having become an icon for political change, his maturity in his artistic undertaking has not been easy. Apart from that he is a selfless worker and has not let himself be influenced by the inconstancy of an ever more pressured art market. His career has been buoyed up by his iron will to carry on his personal experimentation at all costs. On maturing, his obstinacy has not only been necessary but has also yielded a splendour that is like an experience lived under the best lighting. In my opinion this is what has occurred to Juan Genovés’ work, and deservedly so. The reason his work is so original is because it is has been created from an original panoramic perspective of advancing and going into a subject deeply, going to the living root and then returning to the start.
Genoves’ recent work once again emphatically takes up the origins, in that he returns to his original territory of tensing the relations between the subject and the icon, not only giving his figures a three-dimensional feeling by using very thick paint but turning them into a sort of uneven chromatic excrescence almost as if the painting was a mottled painters palette, which by chance turns itself into a sort of unconventional painting. On the other hand, in this series of paintings to which I am now referring, the abrupt shiny points of paint, the atomisation of this colourful material takes on such a vigorous artistic presence, that it highlights the real physical shadows out on the bare canvas a bit like when pins with varicoloured heads are stuck onto an illuminated map. In this way, Genovés achieves that both the iconic and the pictorial elements are also resolved as a bas-relief of expressive plasticity. The movement of these small figures swarming around the flat surface streaked with dilutions of a soft yellow or orange or red is as if they were placed in a deserted infinity at different times of the day. They organise themselves in groups, sometimes marked by the conventional limit of a frontier line of arbitrary rectitude beyond any imaginary ideal, by the stifling dispersion of that which wanders aimlessly in all directions.
In another series of paintings Genoves raises the same tension, but by creating the illusion of three dimensions which is less eye-catching but more efficient when it comes to highlighting, through longer shadows, an almost ghostly doubling up of the small figures. All this leads to a subtle cinematic animation. This representative strategy transforms the whole into a kind of aerial ballet, like specks of dust floating in a weightless space with the corresponding effect of a flock of windswept birds glimpsed from an indefinite vertical peak. Even more; there are paintings in which it is the strips of colour which cross the surface horizontally or diagonally, which lay down the pattern for the alignments of the figures, which come and go simultaneously on both parallel lanes that we know lead to nowhere. Finally there are cases when the lens focuses close up which means that the figures are larger and seem to be imprisoned in a geometric space highlighting their sad precariousness.
Otherwise in each of the above situations Genoves alters his perspective, which can be vertical, diagonal or off centred, but which in all cases is always oppressively depersonalised as if distance or proximity never frees itself from the relentless pursuit of space. In some ways it as if we can just make out the ebb and flow of the crowds within a spatial jail of luminous barred windows in a world divided into a checkerboard of infinite regular cells whose possibilities for potential movement are finally constrained by the incomprehensible rules of a perverse game.
As you are perhaps beginning to understand by my necessarily limited and clumsy description of the paintings I have commented on up till now, all of Genoves is in the latest Genoves, except in the fact that now the, we shall call it “aestheticalisation” of the image paradoxically gives it a stronger moral sense because it dramatises better human helplessness. It represents more intensely the absurd and a sense of disorientation. Anyway, it makes fragility more urgent and more palpable. In all of this there is something of Passolini’s cruel vision, when in “Salo – the 120 days of Sodom”, the executioners observe through telescopes from their large rooms decorated with modern art, how their victims are tortured in the central courtyard below and how in this sinister vision we are reminded of the terrifying beauty of the cosmic visions of Altdorfer, where the elevated sky is the balcony of an infernal landscape of a dynamic battle which forms whirls like the pirouettes of a devastating tornado. And in this list of historic events we can also quote Hércules Seghers and Jacques Callot. But lets go back. Why not establish an original critical point at Parpallo’s cave itself and in other sanctuaries of the Levantine cave painting, where the figures are like a kind of fluttering calligraphy, as fleeting and substitutable as a shimmering shadow? As arbitrary as it could be, but ready to probe the root of these things, this is the common theme that runs from a high perspective time wise, through Juan Genovés’ work.
From the moral point of view, Genovés’ attitude is that there is no better way of getting close to what is real than by distancing yourself from it. To recede, so as to be able to embrace more and understand better, without having to take a cold stance. But the handling of distances by Genovés is not a theoretical formula or, in any case, at least only in the sense that theory signifies vision. What I mean to say is that the way in which he poses a moral dilemma and his technique of critical remoteness is a question of optics: his way of focusing the visible part of reality through different magnifications. But, put a human figure in his microscopic or telescopic sights, even on its own, and it never loses its associative quality, its condition of being the lowest part of a group or social network. In this sense the “depersonalization” of Genovés’ human figures is not the product of indifference, but a way of showing man as part of a community, which, examining it in depth, is not about man being at the centre of the universe but cosmic. Do we not see in his work, better than ever, simple, speckled particles forming whole or isolated silhouettes? His figures are part of the landscape, an infinitesimal proportion of nature.
So, without doubt all of Genovés is encapsulated in this latest Genovés, but of course not in the same way. Years do not pass by in vain, except with regard to an artist’s experience, whose ageing is always a sort of progress, but in the sense of going into things and oneself in a deeper way. It is true that physical decline causes a loss in visual perception and a steady hand, but these losses are more than compensated by the conquest of a growing, creative freedom and from a technical point of view more astuteness, which stemming as it does from desperation, is not capricious. Both dimensions come together in Genoves’ present maturity in which he has achieved more freedom in both the physical and moral sense. He says, as I pointed out at the beginning, that his present brilliant fluidity is based on having found a better way to benefit from organising his personal time, but call it what you will, it comes down to wisdom. He has succeeded in simultaneously multiplying his ways of exploring while at the same time demonstrating his capacity for synthesis in a way in which he has never managed before. Becoming apparently more formalist his “message” is more ambitious and far reaching. His critical perspective has grown so much that it is no longer just relevant locally. He is now flying so high that it is becoming more and more difficult for him to overlook anything. Not even beauty and its luminous bars. The beam of light and the wrong side of reality. What is visible and its long twinkling shadow.
Text published in the catalogue for the show “Genovés – recent works”. Marlborough Gallery, Madrid 8th February – 12th March, 2005.
It is not clear where Genovés’ characters are fleeing, in which direction these panic stricken masses that overflow from the edges of the painting are running to. All the luxury and the junk of the sixties, the culture of consumption, of packaging, of design, the optimism of technology, of advertising, of movie stars, of rubbish bins full of shiny objects, were incorporated by Pop art into an aesthetic outlook, and Juan Genovés added to the symbols of these times, the political violence that the rebels were suffering and the police repression that raged upon the disinherited. In America, Kennedy’s assassination, the beginning of the Vietnam war, the death of Martin Luther King and the racial conflicts represented the other side of the coin to welfare, and in Spain silence and prisons got jumbled up in the first spoils of economic expansion. Among all the possible signs that define these times Genovés chose his flattened creatures.
I am only interested in people and the aggressions to which they are submitted. That is my subject. I interpret it in different ways but when it comes down to it I can’t avoid it.Read more
Where are you characters fleeing to?
To any place where there is a bit of harmony, where there is a sense of justice.
The Soviet Union has disappeared.
This has caused me much internal upheaval. I believed that whatever downfalls humanity suffered there would always be a way forwards. I come from a progressive family in which we believed in historical optimism in spite of everything. I had been very aware of what was going on in the Soviet Union since I attended the International Congress for Peace in Moscow in 1969. There were several thousands of us participants from all over the world. One day we were received within the Kremlin walls and we were made to walk between two lines drawn on the floor in between soldiers holding machine guns. I thought to myself: This is like one of my paintings. I wanted to experiment by stepping over the lines but Azcárate who was with me said: don’t do it, you’re mad, they’ll shoot you. However I did it anyway and the soldiers started to shout horribly and aim their guns at me. I knew what was going on over there but I never lost hope that things would get better. It appears that I am naive. I always have been.
Has it gone against you the fact that you are so politically defined as a combative left wing artist?
Obviously. In fact I think that is the reason that I am not present in the Reina Sofia Museum.
And your work?
No, I don’t think so. My work has travelled even when I wasn’t allowed to show here. It went to Tokyo or wherever, to places where they didn’t even know anything about Spain and the paintings sold, they were successful in themselves and people talked about them without taking into account their political context. This political reading of my work in Spain doesn’t exist abroad and thatis my salvation. Here you get labelled and there is nothing you can do to change that. I am not in the Reina Sofia but I am in the MOMA in New York and in all the best museums of contemporary art in the world, so I am not worried.
When one contemplates Juan Genovés’ work with its crowds, its barbed wire fences and people shot down by bullets one can’t help thinking that this world has now been deciphered and that the paintings, having lost their combative power, have gained all their aesthetic power and from now on will only be admired as significant works of art. With no political adherence in the eye of the observer, Genovés’ work now appears naked and charged with beauty. The violence is transformed into a visual solution for the canvas. The masses stampeding become an optical element. However, beneath these artistic visions lies the testimony of an artist who stands on the side of those who suffer history directly, even if that history no longer seems to exist. Nobody can escape from the nightmare of human suffering due to injustice or exploitation when they contemplate one of Genovés’ paintings. Today this reference has gained depth by abandoning anecdotal ideology, and the creative power of this artist is now established in the substratum of the spirit where passions are universal, given that they move and concern all of us. The violence, which at first seems overpowering when we contemplate one of Genovés’ paintings, now, upon a second reading is subsumed by the style which is the real strength of these paintings: they were painted to depict the horror of the dictatorship and today now that time has passed by it has left them with a refined beauty. Let no-one think that this painter has abandoned the fight.
Nowadays my militancy is mainly cultural. An artist must never remain isolated in his studio away from what is happening around him. At least I am not like that. I work many, many hours in my studio but I believe that culture is a fundamental property of society and that is why it is important not to leave it in the hands of politicians and civil servants. We artists should take an active part in culture.
Posters or manifestos? Which have you signed most of?
I have signed all the manifestos that I have felt needed to be signed and I will carry on doing so. I have painted a multitude of posters as a way of fighting for my progressive ideas.
What is your principal virtue?
No, I refer to a human virtue.
My main characteristic is one of naivety. I am more naïve than anything else. It is something that is not looked upon well in this clever society but I am not ashamed about it. I have always been naïve and I always will be. Naivety should be cultivated as it is a useful creative tool and it also helps to fight.
In the midst of this clever society I wonder if it is naivety that keeps you young.
This naïve and spirited man was born in Valencia in 1930. His father was an artisan who engraved metals, decorated furniture and fathered three children. He also had a coal shop and valued left wing progressive ideals and culture. His mother was very religious and came from the countryside. She worshipped secretly so that her husband wouldn’t find out. The artist was brought up in these surroundings in the Campo de Mestalla (Valencia football ground)neighbourhood which bordered on the countryside. When the Republic was declared Juan Genovés was not yet two years old but his father carried him on his shoulders to join in the workers celebrations while his mother stayed at home praying, horrified by the events. The future artist was brought up in the midst of this contradictory family. His father gave free drawing and cultural classes in the local town hall. He was out of the house all day. They were poor and his mother complained and couldn’t understand his lack of interest. Family quarrels and coloured pencils; a father dedicated to the cause and a child enamoured of the transfers that came with Nestlé chocolate, while in the background they could hear the cheering from the local Mestalla football ground.
Genovés’ family open a coal shop and the child starts to express his future by drawing the comic book character “El coyote” on the wall of the shop in charcoal and that is his first taste of popular success. He attends art school. From this moment on Juan Genovés’ biography is the pursuit of his own style through that desolate Spain of the fifties where silence and a broken down culture are the norm. He moves to Madrid. He travels to Paris. He marries Adela. He makes friends with other painters and his only obsession is that of conquering his fear little by little and taking up the struggle through his art like a tree that needs watering to make it grow. His struggle was his way of expressing what people didn’t say; of showing the torture that went on in cellars; of painting what was right, through depicting the masses fleeing through a space charged with a fear that he expresses so eloquently on the canvas. For this ability to incorporate political violence into Pop Art he was awarded the mention of Honour at the Venice Biennial in 1966 and this recognition opened the doors to the Marlbrough Gallery to him. From this moment on the aura of being a radical, rebellious and spirited painter accompanied him, and the hard times of the repression gave his work more sense and righteousness. The paintings made sense and thus the political violence and Genovés’ artistic aesthetic mutually inspired, boosted and fed off each other.
Today the violence carries on, but the idea that it was restricted to one political group has disappeared and Genovés ‘ paintings have freed themselves from the burden that that limited them and they are now paradigms, models and emblems of the protests of a rebel against all injustice. The artist’s sensitivity has been formed by this style yet it goes beyond those terrible times. Slowly, the blindfold characters confuse the darkness with the urban landscape when democracy finally arrives, and the spaces that represented the crowd’s terror now represent the loneliness of a city in a free society.
I am delving into my subconscious at the moment. Sometimes I am overtaken by a hazy thought when I am drowsing and even when it happens at four in the morning I have to get up and try and paint it. It’s such exciting work. All the inscrutable readings that a painting contains are like the different layers over which dreams are laid.
The manifestation of the world as expressed by Juan Genovés today comes together in artistic visions of the city depicted from a height or a depth that could be the unconscious. It seems that the urban landscape is going to explode or be squashed flat and the characters are tiny, anonymous points who swarm between the tension caused by immeasurable forces which sweep over the canvas like a strong wind. It is his way of facing a society that he doesn’t like; of standing up as an artist who is always upset by the lack of justice, that he finds intolerable; by all the absurd things that are beyond his comprehension and by social passions that carry him away. The dilemma today, as in past years, is whether Juan Genovés favours the aesthetic or the struggle. In his case I believe that the two are inseparable.
The artist says that he has still not lost his naivety.
It is a way of remaining pure and in fighting spirit, of putting his talent to the service of beauty and this at the feet of the freedom and happiness of people. Juan Genovés already has a page of Art History reserved for him: that of social commitment expressed with a steady hand and the style to express his beliefs through beautiful art. This is Juan Genovés.
Text published in the catalogue for the show: “Genovés”, IVAM Centre Julio González. 26 November 1992 / January 1993. Cpoyright Juan Genovés – Ve Gap Madrid 2009
The incorporation of technical resources, full of the understanding of reality, takes place in two fundamental ways in twentieth century art. The first of these is “positive”, constructive and could be said to be not at all in favour of the tendency towards technical, scientific progress in the field of audiovisual media: reproduction, production and broadcasting. The artist works with these new technical instruments as a means of creating a new linguistic reality and as such, as an experience of the world. These new instruments such as the camera, the video or the computer are integrated into the composition and creation of the piece of art which is musical or architectural etc. This is the case in installation art, for example.Read more
There is also a second way of incorporating the experience and the vision of the production and technical reproduction of images: a “negative” way that is distant, complex, contradictory and thoughtful. This consists of incorporating technically produced images by treating them and “reflecting” them through a completely different technical means. There is a classic example of pioneers of this method: the assimilation of a kinetic image from the cinema in futurist painting which is the beginning of “simultaneity”.
This preliminary summary is necessary as it is an aesthetic introduction to an elemental and fundamental aspect that defines all of the work of the contemporary painter Juan Genovés. It is an introduction that allows us to define the starting-point of his painting or perhaps more precisely his point of view. I refer specifically to a series of oil paintings painted in the sixties, such as ‘The Wait’, ‘The Escape’, ‘Point of View’, ‘Grouping’ etc, in which the artist reproduces through the technical medium of the canvas, the vision of human masses produced by the technical medium of a zoom lens.
Aesthetically, or to be more precise, formally speaking, these paintings ‘The Escape’ and ‘The Wait’ (1965), ‘Point of View’ and ‘Approximation’ (1966), ‘The Wedge’ (1967) etc, are reproductions of the image of human crowds through the technical instrument that is the zoom lens. You could even paraphrase Alberti who said that Genovés’ paintings were a peep through a zoom lens aimed at an anonymous mass of humans who are subject to a coercive order of terror.
Genovés describes, through these fundamental moments of his first paintings, a power structure: a simple, direct and repressive power that violently organises the crowd through death or distant and cold terror. A death that traces, through threat, the clear division of a limit of what is forbidden: “the Wait”, “Approximation”. And a death whose first expression is the visual image of the eyepiece of the rangefinder: the lethal target.
These paintings reflect, respond to and express a particular time: General Franco’s military dictatorship during the sixties; years in which the historical and archaic, despotic intolerance of this regime became a colossal display of suppressed, repressive violence. But these paintings at the same time define a more wide reaching reality. It is no surprise that they quickly became, and still are, a universal image for totalitarian regimes and the police violence that defines them.
In Genovés’ later paintings, painted during the sixties and seventies we find multiple variations of the same subject. These differences are in part formal. In some of these paintings Genovés uses bright colours, geometric rhythms and a great many artistic elements that give the paintings an atmospheric value, an ornamental expression, a personal value that makes them identifiable and also an affirmative and conciliatory meaning. But some of the new oil paintings substantially modify the previous point of view. The lethal target seems to suddenly get closer to its victim. The painting abandons its distant viewpoint through the range finder. It also abandons its position on high above the crowds, that is to say its position of the figure of power. It even abandons, at least partially, its anonymity.
This change is, for the present, of a linguistic nature. The series that I have mentioned earlier, and in particular ‘Point of View’, serves us as a paradigmatic example using minimalist language: a strictly two-dimensional composition with a monotone treatment of colour reducing it to a range of greys, especially in the most significant works, and also a geometric organisation of the chromatic densities of the dark “mass”. This “minimalism” wasn’t just a simple foregone linguistic decision, nor was it a simple stylistic option. The objectivity of his vision, the coldness of the composition, the monotone and the rigid geometric organisation of the painting are necessary to the artistic nature and the objective of the vision. These formal characteristics were also the linguistic characteristics of the already emphasized technical medium – the range finder.
On the contrary, in ‘The demonstrators’, ‘Six youths’ or ‘The Embrace’, paintings from 1975, the canvas has lost the minute precision of the range finder and comes closer, in a more immediate way, to the same reality which they define; that of the human masses. Now, however these masses are quite clearly defined as individuals although grouped in dense groups. At the same time the new “viewing point” from where to observe the scene is to be found nearby and on the same horizontal plane as the human figures. The artistic treatment of these is realism. As if to illustrate these changes one of the paintings was given the apt title ‘The window'(1975).
Genovés’ painting undergoes a new transformation from the end of the seventies and through the eighties, both in a formal and iconographic way. Certainly painting such as Genovés’ that is so concerned with the social aspect of society could not be indifferent to the changes occurring in Spain at this time. From the disintegration of the dictatorship to the present day, everything is happening very fast. Both the “minimalist” works and the “hyper-realistic” series of paintings respond to this very defined period and are very different in regards to his concerns and his political and social values, to the years of the so called “transition”.
These years posed a new power structure regarding social forms; the configuration of the new “masses” and new figures of violence and terror. The change that is manifest in this new series of works is in the first place, and once again, a modification of the “viewing point” of the painting and of its ethical and political perspective.
An urban landscape: ‘The binoculars’ is a work that was created in 1982. It is extremely eloquent regarding the new social point of view of Genovés’ work. Certainly nothing here reminds us of the earlier human masses fighting and being pursued across nameless, empty spaces. The work in question, painted in acrylic on canvas, shows a specific landscape. The space is realistically defined. Its three-dimensionality has gained an expressive and gloomy depth. This painting reproduces a perfectly recognisable time and space, with identifiable architecture from the Gran Via in Madrid.
However, the streets are empty, there seems to be no life on them and the contrast of the cold light from the sky makes the streets seem darkly sinister. Some paintings emphasise this rhetorically heightened vision of gloom such as ‘Urban landscape: lights off’ (1984). Others deal with the same subject but from the existential point of view of a person, such as ‘Urban landscape: man and woman’ (1983). There is a feeling or premonition of death in these dark, urban visions.
In a formal sense Genovés’ urban landscapes have, to give it a name, a traditional or antiquated meaning to them. They are narrative and illustrative oil paintings. There is even an allegorical dimension to them. Perhaps it is because of this that they have received less critical interest. Otherwise, Madrid in the eighties, wanted to celebrate, under the auspices of the economic boom of democracy, bland utopias of asphalt, more inclined to rowdy, colourful, hysterical and histrionic gestures than to the troubles and intrigues of this heartbreaking vision of a hard metropolis.
In his first paintings Genovés brings in a mechanical look through the zoom lens. However, unlike the Dadaists and the Futurists he does not do this to show off his painting abilities, but to emphasise his possibilities for play and his precise use of colour. Indeed, the similarities between Heartfield’s photo-montages has more to do with their respective political desires for direct social intervention in a work of art, than with their formal approach to composition. Genovés also doesn’t display an affirmative, glorifying attitude towards the baroque or mannerist abilities of the “deception” inherent in the new visual techniques that differentiate the painting of Magritte or Dalí. In contrast to these painters the vital tone of Genovés’ paintings is ascetic, cold, thoughtful and critical.
As I have already mentioned Genovés manages to illustrate brilliantly, through his reflections of the range finder of power, the constituent characteristics of this self same power.
Juan Genovés recuperates and reformulates his preoccupation with the spheres of power in the paintings of his next period: which I call the fourth stage. This period also coincides with the later works the artist has created in these years.
I refer to the paintings: ‘Definition’, ‘Illumination’, Rectangle’, ‘Spatial constructions’, all painted in 1990 and ‘Vital points’, ‘Detectors’, ‘Sub-sector’, ‘Operations theatre’, ‘Intermittencies’, ‘Unjustified elements’…, from last year in 1991. The format of these oil paintings is no longer “circular”, as in the first series of works, but rectangular. They are landscapes which show, however, a flattened spatial construction; a kind of “three-dimensional shot” comparable to his first paintings. The protagonists of these compositions continue to be human figures. They are the “masses”. But something has changed radically in their configuration. They no longer reproduce the mechanical gaze of the range finder, but the electronic vision of the video recorder. The new flattening, as well as the deformation and the abstraction of the visual space now adopt the rigour of a new technical medium, a new way of reproducing the way of looking at things. The artificial colours, the luminosity, the poor definition of the figures and the pictorial constructions and the chiaroscuro are all modified according to artistic values derived from the new systems of visual reproduction.
To contrast these oil paintings with the first series mentioned, of range finder paintings, is very illustrative. The starting point of both series is identical: a lethal objective that brings together, simultaneously, the dimensions of reproduction, of control and of destruction. The final result of both series of paintings is also comparable: an experience of space defined both technically and politically by power, in which it is evident that the modern systems of domination lead to signs of anguish.
In contrast to these similarities however there is also a major difference. In the oil paintings from the sixties and seventies we find a defined chiaroscuro. The masses are firmly disciplined by the structure created by geometrically closed spaces and there is an emphatic presence within the painting, even though it was represented “minimalistically”.
In the new vision there are no limits, no prohibitions, no firm organisation of space. The geometrical framework that forms the composition of some of these paintings proceeds from the video recorder, as in the case of ‘Rectangle’, or, it is produced by the high-speed movement of the television lens. They are not however intrinsic elements in the “order “of the city. The human masses are now “free”. Their movement obeys the apparent arbitrary nature of atomistic concentrations and disintegrations. It is precisely under this atomistic aspect that the new principle of domination is defined. The titles are also eloquent in this respect: ‘Transit’ (Cat. Nª 59), ‘Continuity’ (Cat. Nº 58),’Tendency to encounter’ (Cat. Nª66)…Finally the masses are dominated and first of all visually dominated through their most abstract definition: identifiable volumetrics, statistically determinable concentrations of the masses, movement detectors etc., etc..
It is necessary to consider a second aspect of this last stage in Genovés’ painting. The colour, the chiaroscuro, the texture, the “trompe l’oeil” and all that these factors confer to these paintings that are imbued with an immense vitality of metallic tones, artificial illuminations, and urban and industrial gloom. The landscapes become lived in, they become ornamental and they point to this last conciliating link to reality to which due to an interior necessity all true works of art must tend towards. Genovés restores to us, through his virtuosity of materials, textures and colours, a little comfort to this overly eloquent vision of our civilisation.
Text published in the catalogue of the show “Genovés” IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez 26 November 1992/January 1993.
Philip Wright, 2014
“If I had to sum up the twentieth century, I would say that it raised the greatest hopes ever conceived by humanity, and destroyed all illusions and ideals.”
Yehudi Menuhin, citado por Eric Hobsbawm en su libro ‘The short twentieth century”
“Perhaps, some day, solitude will come to be properly recognised and appreciated as the teacher of personality. The Orientals have long known this. The individual who has experienced solitude will not easily become a victim of mass suggestion.”
Albert Einstein, quoted by Peter Conrad in his book ‘Modern times, modern places’Read more
Since his beginnings as a ‘political’ artist in the 1960’s – and he has always insisted that being ‘political’ is inseparable from the role of the individual in a society – the focus of his art has been on the individual and the crowd. This may seem contradictory, but he perceived in his frequently-depicted fleeing crowds the destruction of communal solidarity and the tragic condition of the solitary individual. He had more than once been among such crowds himself. He had once explained to the writer Manuel Vicent: “I am only concerned with people and the aggression they are subjected to. That is my theme. I interpret it in different ways, but basically I cannot get away from it”. Under the rule of Spain’s dictator Franco, the bravery needed to express opposition openly or to demonstrate publicly was ultimately the decision of an individual: he or she could end up in solitary confinement, as indeed he himself had once experienced. For Genovés, the ability to look deeply into oneself and to take full responsibility for one’s actions, represented a high point in an individual’s development. And art could serve, he wrote, as ‘a machine to make one think’.
As a six-year old boy in Valencia at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he had seen at first hand individuals shot, groups massacred, bodies in the street, the fabric of the city destroyed by bombing. Throughout the three years of the war he would see floods of refugees pour through the city which remained loyal to the elected government till the end. Under the ensuing forty years of dictatorship, crowds for Genovés would elicit conflicting associations of coercion and rebellion, and of solidarity and individual suffering.
With the rebel generals’ victory over the Republic in 1939, the mechanisms of rule by dictatorship were swiftly imposed. The techniques of regimentation, intimidation and obliteration of individuality, reinforced by propaganda, xenophobia, denunciation and ultimately punishment of deviation, had been learnt under instruction from those generals’ allies and supporters, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In deliberate imitation of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls, Franco’s ‘Falange Youth’ and the ‘Feminine Section’ dressed, marched and indoctrinated indiscriminately boys and girls about the Marxist-Masonic-Jewish conspiracy against traditional Catholic Spain, while the ‘Social Brigade’ (Franco’s Gestapo) hunted down, imprisoned and sometimes, under the ‘Law of (i.e. against) Fleeing’, simply executed Republicans who still resisted.
For the regular organised mass demonstrations addressed by the Leader, Franco the ‘Caudillo’, shops would be ordered closed, civil servants and office workers given ‘a day off’ to turn up, and youth organisations would drum out their families. In these harangues, Franco would present the populace with the stark choice between “Franco or Communism”. No democratic alternative was offered then or in the ensuing decades so that, ironically, just as some behind the Iron Curtain were beginning to question ‘the leading role of the Communist Party’, the only alternative open to those who opposed Franco was ‘Communism’. Many opposition figures including Genovés, like Picasso, expressed their opposition to Franco and Fascism by declaring themselves ‘Communist’ and joining the party.
The West may recall the 1960’s as the period when a post-war generation came of age with The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Andy Warhol and the Pop Art generation, a new style of anti-establishment political satire, and much else. But not so in Spain. After a crisis year of stopping painting after the acrimonious break-up of a close-knit group of artists, the ‘Grupo Hondo’ with whom he had been intensely engaged, Genovés consciously chose to ‘become political’. This may have been in part provoked by the dictatorship’s deeply hypocritical, nationwide celebration of “Twenty-five Years of Peace”in 1964 – a peace enforced by repression, forced labour and imprisonment – and in part by that close-knit group’s ambition with its Art Brut-like work ‘to record the agony of living’ . Nevertheless the 1960’s in Spain was also the time when a new generation of Spaniards, who had known austerity and repression but had not lived through the Civil War itself, reached university, and themselves began to agitate for more freedom of expression.
To express political opposition in his work, Genovés was to adopt elements of Pop Art’s techniques of seeming cool detachment, stencil-cut multiplication of imagery, the appearance of monochrome, fuzzy-edged photo-reportage which also signalled a rejection of Abstract Expressionism’s or Art Informel’s facture. However, his art was without any of that Western consumerist fun appeal, once defined by Richard Hamilton as “popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and Big Business”. By contrast, his matter was heartfelt, serious and politically provocative.
From the time of his early studies at art college in Valencia, he had preferred to efface the personal element of the artist’s brushstroke – much prized by his teachers – in favour of anonymity. This absence would, he hoped, help the spectator more easily to understand the import of his work. Civilians in flight and unseen or, at most, shadowy figures of the forces of repression, single figures faced against a wall or shielding their faces from violence, rendered in thinned out, mostly monochrome acrylic paint, imitated the poor definition of scenes fleetingly captured by the static or moving cameras of witnesses at the scene. Outside Spain the significance of this new work would very soon be admired and understood, and the Marlborough galleries were privileged to present his first solo exhibitions outside the Hispanic world, first in London and New York in 1966, and in Rome in the following year.
Exhibitions and prizes abroad multiplied, so that the Spanish authorities were initially faced with a dilemma, which they then judiciously exploited. Along with the more senior generation of Spanish abstract artists, the ‘El Paso’ group of Eusebio Sempere, Fernando Zóbel, Gustavo Torner and others, Genovés was permitted to exhibit abroad to demonstrate that the dictatorship was, after all, open to diversity and challenge – but not inside Spain itself. An acquaintance of Tapiès once spotted that artist’s work crated by the authorities for exhibition abroad, and actually labelled ‘Publicity material for Spain’. Although Genovés was also allowed to exhibit in the few, small private galleries in Spain, apart from one modest solo exhibition permitted by oversight in the held-to-be stuffy National Library in 1965 which ‘misfired’ and was mobbed, he was not to be offered a solo exhibition in a public institution in the capital until 1983.
As Franco aged, and opposition protests became more frequent in the late 1960’s, absurdly harsh prison sentences of 15 to 20 years for demonstrating or publishing criticism were once again being imposed. Sensing that his work might now attract retribution, Genovés chose to move with his family for a year and a half to London. He returned when rumours began to circulate about Franco’s deteriorating health, and contributed a poster calling for amnesty for political prisoners – but not yet with success. Although the dictator died in 1975, a miraculously bloodless transition to democracy still took a few years to get underway.
It is understandable that this transition might have caused a crisis for the artist, habituated to a public oppositional stance. Once freed from state oversight Spain experienced an explosion of new artistic activity and public patronage, an atmosphere of celebration and relief. It did not wish to be reminded of years of enforced silence and repression. Genovés ceased to work for a while until – ironically – a brief but fortunately unsuccessful attempt at a military coup in 1981 emptied the streets of the capital completely for a few days, as the newly enfranchised populace hid away, fearful of a return to a military dictatorship of the right. Walking the deserted streets gave the artist the inspiration for a series of ‘Urban Landscapes’, which depicted a nightmare vision of the capital, dark and deserted, a portent of persecutions and disappearances that might threaten once again.
He had begun to introduce muted colours of hope into his work of the late ‘60’s, but returned to a near-monochrome with the dictator’s re-imposition of vicious persecution in the early ‘70’s. With the coup defeated and democracy restored, his new engagement with real architecture as three-dimensional presence, with shadows cast and recessions excavated, gradually led him to freshly imagined, brightly lit urban landscapes seen from far above. No longer were his surfaces thinly covered with quasi tear-stained films of acrylic, Random smears of oil paint which suggest the scattered debris of human presence in the landscape, foreshadow the technique of the figures-in-relief which populate the latest paintings so vividly.
The gift from his school art teacher of Maurice Denis’ writings, which contained that much-quoted admonition to “remember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”had accompanied his thinking about art throughout his life. Genovés sensed no basic difference between the making of abstract or figurative art. Both needed the artist’s hand to make the marks on that flat surface, and for him all art was, by the nature of its conception, essentially abstract.
Breaking away from those uniform patterns of crowd movements in his earlier work, Genovés found a new music for the eye. Against often intensely coloured backgrounds, the at times random movements of loose groups, and at other times the concentration of figures into narrow apertures spilling back out into open spaces, create narratives of events unknown but intriguing to the eye. Borders and punctuations are now no longer marked by those straight lines of demarcation which earlier signalled prohibitions to trespass, or served as corralling enclosures. In their place painterly eruptions of brightly coloured lines and circles remind the spectator that this bird’s eye view is but an illusion skilfully manipulated by the artist, whose viewpoint, role and emotions remain a mystery, cloaked by the seductive rhythm and movement of the scene depicted.
In his book ‘Art and Illusion’ Gombrich teased out Velasquez’ technical skill in creating an illusion for the spectator of the spinning of thread in ‘Las Hilanderas’ – an illusion which dissipates at a certain moment of approaching the canvas to examine the paint itself. It is impossible, Gombrich posited, for the spectator to hold onto that illusion of spinning at the same time as examining the painter’s technique. In these new works, Genovés has achieved something similar with the technique for his minuscule figures. At a distance, the eye roams hither and thither, sensing the emotion of a vast crowd congregating in places, some maybe a community of friends, others making their own way, dreaming, observing or possibly searching for something unseen. Approaching the painted panel, the music of movement is lost, as the matière of the paint and the witty excrescences of each brightly coloured individual figure are revealed.
In this recent phase Genovés has explored the pleasure of crowds of individuals free to roam unhindered, but just occasionally the tension returns in places where panic or persecution might break through. The crowd remains a manifestation of humanity in action, a macrocosm made up of so many individual decisions. In these works, he has touched them all, his deft use of paint giving the illusion of gestures that denote friendship, excitement, haste, isolation and much else: in short, humanity at large.
Wisely, though, when after a lifetime of waiting he had witnessed Spain manage a peaceful change of government through democratic elections, in 1992 he could at last acknowledge that “the most important consideration for contemplating a painting is simply a seat”. Like many artists, he had ever been wary of the writer on art seeking to translate his work into words. Painting has its own language, forceful and provocative, soothing and seductive, but mute to speech – free from, in Leo Steinberg’s phrase ‘the meddling text’. The secret to understanding such work was recently admirably expressed by the Russian poet Olga Sedakova, ironically herself a translator of literature: “The only instrument we can use to grasp the whole is, unfortunately, intuition and not theoretical premises and statements…. the key to the whole – if it exists – is hidden in a strange place”. So sit, look, explore, enjoy.
See how they run. Charging across an unmodulated terrain dozens of tiny figures flee the ominous, circular form that threatens to consume everything in its path. It resembles a whirlwind, or perhaps a UFO. Either way, the abstract motif in Juan Genovés’ painting Rodamiento initially reads as a harbinger of doom. But look again. On closer inspection the form consists not of one circle but two, one floating across the other like a planet and its beautiful, benign moon. And not everyone appears to flee. Towards the bottom of the picture spectators stand, awestruck or simply unconcerned.Read more
Their stillness interrupts our reading of the image and causes us to question the nature of the event. The title of the painting, Rodamiento – meaning ball bearing – is suggestive but leads us only so far. We may think of humans as mere cogs in the machine – in control of our destiny to a degree and armed with strategies for engagement and avoidance, but subject in the end to the whims of fate, just part of the throng. Or, perhaps as the artist intends, we may think in a more abstract sense about dynamics and flows, earthly and celestial, enjoying from our lofty vantage point the painterly rhythms that activate the balletic scene below. And as we do so we may become explicitly aware of our own movement as we pace back and forth in front of the painting, trying to get a conceptual foothold on this mercurial image.
Rodamiento is typical of Genovés’ art in that it dramatises a contradiction. There is at once a sense of the group as a cohesive whole and a sense of separation, loneliness, even dread as experienced in the modern city – a feeling of man reduced to iron filings moved by an unseen magnet or dust motes floating on a capricious breeze. The unsettling condition of seeing mankind beautiful and distant from, one assumes, a position of power – not part of the throng but floating high above it – immediately challenges our understanding of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Part of the rabble or remote viewer: which side are we on?
Whether we come together in celebration or in protest, crowds and power are forever interlinked. Group psychologists would find acres of material in the ambiguities of movement and motivation that occur within Genovés’ paintings. Non-experts may prefer to begin with ostensibly simple works such as Barrera and Frontera, both monochrome canvases traversed, one horizontally, the other diagonally, by a pale line that sets up a striking division on the picture plane – a barrier to which hordes are drawn but dare not cross. Here, a repressive power structure and a sense of the forbidden are made explicit, and the obedience of the assembled crowd creates a sense of agitation in the viewer equal to the vibrations of colour that denote the figures on either side of the divide. These are beautiful, unsettling images. We wade into their simple, illusory spaces fully aware that somebody is pulling the strings.
Monolito is rather different and even more complex. Here we seem much closer to the action, watching figures assemble before a fringed oval form that reads as both positive and negative space, a solid – the monolith before the worshipping crowd – and a void, with all its attendant connotations of sex and death. Genovés plays with ideas of presence, absence and transcendence – the notion of losing oneself before an exulted object or image, or in the formlessness of the crowd. The painting brings to mind the Kantian idea of the sublime as being dangerous because to experience it one might fall into the abyss. Of course, Genovés keeps us on the brink, using his wry detachment to question the nature of the gathering. His strategy seems devised to point out the folly of worship.
Perhaps it is unhelpful to identify too strongly with the figures in Genovés’ paintings, since what the work lacks, pointedly so, is narrative. The figures painted by Genovés have wandered or run into these evocative arenas and become caught up in some kind of action only to find themselves if not frozen (the colourful swarms and strong directional shadows in Genovés paintings always denote a degree of animation) then paused. Certainly the paintings contain stories – the people have come from somewhere and are heading somewhere else – but they do not seek to illustrate specific events. And our own stories, the ones we inevitably conjure up around the paintings, always end as a kind of puzzle.
Yet we cannot fail to invent possibilities around the scenarios suggested by Genovés’ art. The paintings strike such a chord because the schematised places they describe are indelibly inscribed on our memory. There is no such thing as a blank, unambiguous space, Genovés’ paintings remind us and as the mind scrambles and scrolls back through time, we start to recall past mass gatherings on streets and in squares the world over. Looking at Barrera and Frontera, we inevitably conjure images of political and ideological boundaries, or think of crowd scenes immortalised by filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang or Cecil B De Mille. Everywhere in Genovés’ paintings are considerations of power, pursuit, resistance, displacement and dislocation. The echoes are inescapable.
Inescapable too are the biographical details that punctuate such an illustrious career. Born in Valencia in 1930, Genovés developed his artistic language during the repression of Franco’s regime. Influenced by modern cinema and photography, and adopting some of the tenets of Pop Art, Genovés arrived at an elegant, critical and deeply affecting means of expressing the anxiety and desperation experienced by many under the military dictatorship. Works such as Objectivo, 1968, a stampeding mass as seen through a long lens or a gun sight are now regarded as seminal images in the history of political art. Created near the end of Franco’s regime, El Abrazo (The Embrace), 1976, quickly became an icon of reconciliation. When posters of the image were printed and circulated, Genovés was detained and held in solitary confinement for seven days and some 25,000 posters were destroyed.
Power, pursuit, resistance, displacement… What makes these early works remarkable is the degree of objectivity that the young artist was able to bring to such charged subject matter, the cool intelligence at work. Early on in his career Genovés realised that a degree of detachment is necessary for a painting to achieve far-reaching relevance. Yet the manner in which Genovés produces his imagery is always more complex than first impressions imply. To be near to one of Genovés’ recent paintings is to experience time and movement occurring at a very different pace. Up close, the eye stumbles over a dissonant surface. At this proximity one notices that the bodies of Genovés’ figures are composed of excrescences of paint, and that the variously mottled and striated appearance of these forms bears a close relationship to the larger, free-flowing gestures, pours and drips that demarcate and activate each painting. Paint as flesh, paint as itself. The descriptive potential of the medium and its material presence spark to create yet another rhythm.
There is a playfulness about these recent paintings that suggests a celebratory basis for some of Genovés painted gatherings. Yet we do not need to be reminded that violence and oppression are no less prevalent in society than they were 50 years ago when Genovés began his artistic journey. In Britain, the nation most watched by CCTV, we can hardly fail to notice the Orwellian implications of Genovés’ art, or recognise the sort of herding that increasingly seems to denote contemporary work and leisure time. We might also ponder the ways in which art is caught up in this world of spectatorship and mass entertainment. Such considerations abound in Genovés quizzical paintings. He gives us no answers. Instead, painting becomes a site of transition. Ultimately, the world as painted by Genovés, the one we so keenly recognise, is revealed to be a kind of dance – unpredictable, disorientating, absurd, unstoppable. Humanity is spread before us, we identify with it and perhaps move a little differently as we dissolve into the crowd.
Text originally published in the catalogue for the show “Juan Genovés – Recent Paintings”, Marlborough Fine Art, London, 29th October – 28th November 2009.
Pierre Cabanne, Enero 1991
What is this town, this country that we can see from the sky, which looks petrified, like a dead city; half in ruins? There is a kind of dust or a fog made up of ashes that covers everything and which is cut through by the glare from blinding lights in the pale light of the day. Frightened men run around in all directions, terrified and followed by those powerful, sweeping light beams. When they join up they are also chased mercilessly. The scare is over and they seem at peace again. On the beach or on the sand, in a dark crucible, overflowing with people, the powerful parallel beams of light sweep over them again like the bars of a prison.Read more
Genovés’ paintings don’t describe precise scenes but are like abstract or even unnameable snapshots of violent life. They are flashes that are pleasing to the eye, not only because of the brutal contrasts between the shadow and the light that are accentuated by the unusual cinematographic setting, which recalls an atmosphere of that archaeology of panic. In 1969 Stuart cooper made the film “A test of violence” using scenes of aggression and repression taken from Genovés’ paintings.
These paintings are like theatres of memory. The painter experienced, first hand, as a child the sudden irruptions of the “forces of order” caused by sudden flights. He saw towns bombed and deserted, cultures destroyed. The violence of the fascist dictatorship has crushed what was familiar and day-to-day. Anonymous places exist where silence reigns and only shadows remain. Deathly silence.
In some paintings and gouaches the sand has been replaced by ash. The ruins evoke an ancient topography as if seen from an aeroplane. Will man come back? Is he hidden away where we can’t see him? In his hideaway, washed by light, the traces of the shadows get longer. There are other signs of flight…it could be said of the Spanish paintings that sometimes the light of the background and the paler colours are absorbed by the darkness of the painting in the night.
This is Genovés’ first solo show in Paris. From 1961 he has been one of Spain’s leaders of the “new figuration”. He is a member of “Grupo Hondo” who react to the crisis in the art world caused by “informal” art and who support the need for a social and political conscience in art. He was also a member of “Cronica de la Realidad” (Real life Chronicle) from 1964 – 1965, which arose from the invasion of pop art. Genovés along with contemporary Spanish art groups such as “Equipo Cronico”, “Equipo Realidad” and individuals such as Rafael Canogar and Arroyo and in spite of all of their differences regarding language and spirit were all involved in the search for a modern identity for Spain.
The painter has works in many important museums in New York, Barcelona, Madrid and Cuenca. He has exhibited many times both in groups and individually in the Paris Museum of Modern Art. He has been invited to biennials in Venice and in Sao Paolo. In France he took part in the Paris biennial in 1961; in the exhibition “The Figurative Narrative in Contemporary Art” in 1965; in “Living Art 1965 -1968” in the Maeght Foundation and in the Menton biennial in 1975.
Through Genovés’ later works we can see that his painting speaks directly to man. It denounces the aggressions he suffers. Man is never alone but always caught up in a collective storm of helplessness and anguish. His language has resonances of the tragic backdrop of “España negra” (dark Spain), of its liberation and its fatality. His work has a visionary presence to it that is not only modern it is perennial.