Juan Genovés


The Latest Undertaking Of Juan Genovés

Manuel Vicent

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 less

El preso, 1968
El preso, 1968

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.

Objetivo, 1968
Objetivo, 1968

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?

Aesthetically speaking?

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.

Cinco minutos, 1969
Cinco minutos, 1969

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