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 less
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.