Spanish Art Thrives After Years of Suppression

Following the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, Spanish art underwent an explosive transformation and growth that brought with it international recognition and acceptance.

Summary of Event

From the end of the Spanish Civil War Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), postwar period in 1939, it was evident that Spain’s new Nationalist state would find it difficult to attain intellectual respectability. The majority of the European and Spanish intelligentsia had sympathized with the defeated Spanish Republican cause. Moreover, the assassination of the poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca García Lorca, Federico in 1936 engendered a permanent indictment of the Francisco Franco regime by European liberals; the assassination became a symbol of the fate of culture at the hands of Franco and his supporters. Art;Spain
[kw]Spanish Art Thrives After Years of Suppression (1970’s)
[kw]Art Thrives After Years of Suppression, Spanish (1970’s)
[kw]Suppression, Spanish Art Thrives After Years of (1970’s)
[g]Europe;1970’s: Spanish Art Thrives After Years of Suppression[00040]
[g]Spain;1970’s: Spanish Art Thrives After Years of Suppression[00040]
[c]Arts;1970’s: Spanish Art Thrives After Years of Suppression[00040]
Franco, Francisco
Gordillo, Luis
Pérez Villalta, Guillermo
Pérez-Minguez, Rafael

Nearly all the poets and painters of García Lorca’s generation, considered by many to have been the potential architects of a new Spanish golden age, fled into exile. Intellectuals and artists with a European reputation joined the “other Spain,” the Spain of the exiles who saw themselves as the true bearers of Spanish civilization while their homeland lay in the grip of despotism.

The Franco regime became more concerned with control of possible alternative cultures through censorship than with the creation of an original culture. The “official” art that the new state wished to impose on Spain expressed the aesthetic, intellectual, and artistic principles of the groups that supported Franco. A common style emerged, marked by exalted nationalism, the glorification of the military spirit, a fervent Catholicism, and a preference for classical and traditional styles.

In the 1950’s, while the “official” culture still dominated the rhetoric of the regime, its failure to capture the public mind—much less the imagination of creative artists—was increasingly evident. Repression did not entirely succeed in eradicating the liberal tradition; Franco’s regime was forced to combat the emergence of an alternative culture as well as the spread of “foreign” ideas. A censorship policy set up under wartime directives continued functioning for nearly thirty years of peace. Its purpose—the control of all information—produced a culture of almost inconceivable mediocrity.

During the 1940’s, the artistic canons of official art were simply neglected, as no artist of integrity could work within them. It was artists who first established a direct connection with the lost world of the 1930’s. Joan Miró returned to Spain from exile in 1940; his 1937 civil war poster Aidez l’Espagne
Aidez l’Espagne (Miró)[Aidez lespagne] had been a frontal attack on Francoism. The work of Miró, the most famous living Spanish painter after Pablo Picasso, Picasso, Pablo was totally neglected by the regime. As for Picasso, he was dismissed as an enemy not only of the regime but also of all things divine and human.

While the Spanish writers of the postwar period turned to an introspective realism and discussed—as far as governmental censorship would allow—the effects of the war and its aftermath on the people of Spain, Spanish painters tended to concentrate on representing the physical landscape of the Spanish countryside. The olive trees of Andalusia, the plains of Castile, and the rocky vistas of the Costa Brava dominated the paintings of the day, as artists searched the landscape for uniquely Spanish qualities. Painting styles were still influenced by the weak imitations of cubism and post-Impressionism that had marked prewar Spain but were distinguished by an exaggeration of the paint surface, which was often used for the direct imitation of the textures of the soil. Many younger artists were to develop this technique as a major characteristic of the abstract painting of the 1950’s.

The International Exhibit of Abstract Art
International Exhibit of Abstract Art (1953) in 1953 heralded a national breakthrough in the new spirit of the avant-garde in Spain, and during the following four years, the movement began to accelerate. At this point, the new Spanish art was finally accorded recognition abroad. From 1959 through 1962, the Spanish boom continued, prompting a series of popular exhibitions in Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, and nearly every major city in Europe and Latin America.

Joining the international abstract expressionist movement as late as they did, Spanish artists found themselves in a strange position. Their work was classified as a late and exotic regional movement. Spain’s abstract art (known as Informalism) Art;Informalism was an extension of a tradition, a revolt against technique. In the early 1960’s, a lack of success caused by the falling off of international interest proved a deadly blow to the movement. The majority of artists involved decided to reject those aspects of the movement with which they had never really identified, and soon new styles were evolving from the old.

In the early 1970’s, Spain was still ruled by a political regime that prohibited all kinds of democracy and freedom. Although Franco died in 1975 and the policies he had set up during nearly forty years of rule were gradually dismantled and discredited, social, political, and cultural repression in Spain did not cease immediately. Spain still suffered from a lack of cultural information. Books did not reach major bookshops in Madrid and Barcelona; films were censored or banned, especially those focusing on sex, religion, or morals. The atmosphere was stifling and drab. Almost every week, a journalist, critic, or editor was taken to court, charged with a string of offenses. Despite these obstacles, many Spanish writers, filmmakers, theater directors, and artists traveled abroad in order to continue their work uncensored. If exile was impossible, they managed to find ways of getting the information they were denied at home.

The new developments of Spanish art in the 1970’s thus took the art world almost completely by surprise. No one writing a retrospective of Spanish art at the end of the 1960’s would have seriously expected that a new art that replaced objects with actions could attract more than a few isolated practitioners, yet both conceptual art (art that emphasizes the exploration of ideas, notions, and rational motives) and Arte Povera (“Poor Art,” a movement begun in Italy that used materials that were considered aesthetically impoverished or irredeemable) Arte Povera found a great many followers in a very short time. Much of the inspiration came from outside the country, a consequence of the new generation’s unusual mobility and open-mindedness, yet the new art was not without some basis in both traditional and contemporary Spanish attitudes.

Conceptual art attracted attention between 1971 and 1975 largely because it was associated with acts of political opposition to the Franco dictatorship such as the signing of petitions and participation in demonstrations. This was especially true of the Catalan Grup de Treball composed of Antoni Muntadas, Muntadas, Antoni Francesc Abad, Abad, Francesc and Francesc Torres, Torres, Francesc among others. Many artists, however, found themselves in a dilemma. Should they make conventional work to please the narrow-minded taste of Spanish art dealers, or should they follow such aesthetic tendencies as neoconstructivism (so-called cybernetic art) or the critical figurative trend known as Chronicle of Reality? Art;Chronicle of Reality This latter movement was represented by two Valencian groups, Equipo Cronica Equipo Cronica and Equipo Realidad, Equipo Realidad as well as by some well-known individual artists. These two main currents, despite their differences, had a common point of reference in Spain’s ever-growing industrial and consumer society.

During the ensuing period of transition to democracy in Spain, there was a considerable slackening of the political tension that had provided a certain justification for creativity in the arts—a tension, moreover, that was so intense that some of the more nostalgic combatants later maintained that they were “better off” (more creative) under Franco. The vast majority of young creative artists in the country were either neofigurativists, and thus poles apart from critical realism and political pop art, or abstract artists of some type or another. All of them, in any case, were returning to the idea of painting as an end in itself, a notion accepted even by those who still believed in painting as a revolutionary political practice.

It was at this juncture, in Madrid, that the liberating influence of Luis Gordillo, a little-known painter of the previous generation, stimulated several younger men—Rafael Pérez-Minguez, Carlos Alcolea, Alcolea, Carlos Carlos Franco, Franco, Carlos Herminio Molero, Molero, Herminio Manolo Quejido, Quejido, Manolo and Guillermo Pérez Villalta—to lay the foundations of a new figurative art and, in general, to open up a new horizon of concerns, tastes, and cultural references.

Gordillo, a painter born in 1934, helped to catalyze and liberate the attitudes of the younger artists. By 1971, when Gordillo held an exhibition of drawings in Madrid, his work had already developed considerably in breadth and complexity. Gordillo’s work in the 1960’s was the paradigmatic embodiment of the general crisis of art in the decade. He was one of the artists of his generation who had most intensely and originally confronted the avant-garde assumptions current in the 1960’s. As a result of his artistic theories and practice, painting was able to recover its independence as the surface on which body and consciousness are reflected.


More than any other individual painter, Luis Gordillo influenced a generation of young Spanish artists in the 1970’s. Spanish figurative painting during that time possessed a surprising strength and originality. Gordillo’s automatic drawings exhibited in 1971 showed that he had broken his ties with simple expressionism; they both affirmed and denied spontaneity, showing the dual nature—the folding and unfolding—of creative art. As a result, Gordillo propitiated the development of a versatility that was to be the watchword of the generation of the 1970’s. It was a generation of mannerists, in concept or in feeling, and even, in some cases, in both.

A major impact of the artistic boom of the 1970’s was the decentralization of Spanish art. Although other cities had been major art centers in other areas, the postwar period was both aesthetically and economically dominated by Madrid—even though the community of artists consisted almost entirely of people who had been born and reared in the provinces. This influence continued, with the number of galleries more than doubling, but the provincial movements and markets also gained strength.

Barcelona soon reaffirmed and expanded its rebellious role, emphasizing its own unique culture while at the same time opening up to new ideas from outside the country. After going nearly two decades without producing another generation of young artists, Barcelona was suddenly deluged by a wave of conceptualists and became, along with a number of neighboring towns, home to the newest Spanish art. Valencia and Seville likewise built up numbers of young artists and established both representational and geometric tendencies that were capable of bearing comparison with those in Madrid and Barcelona. Even the Basques, spurred by the teachings and example of Jorge de Oteiza, Oteiza, Jorge de came to unify themselves into something resembling a regional movement.

All things considered, Spain’s contemporary art of the 1970’s was both exciting and astonishing. It managed to achieve and maintain a high level of quality in spite of the circumstances in which it developed and the immense indifference that it encountered. Until the early 1970’s, the Spanish public showed no interest in contemporary art—except to ridicule or attack it. Moreover, support from the government was largely limited to exhibitions that made use of the art to give the country a more progressive image abroad. Censorship, which remained negligible as long as art remained abstract, was revived with figuration and resulted in the occasional closing of exhibitions and even in prosecution of artists. Right-wing groups succeeded in vandalizing galleries and bookstores without notable opposition from the police.

As a result of the explosion of new ideas in the post-Franco era, artists working in traditional media of painting and sculpture achieved a high and fashionable profile. At the same time, lesser-known, more subversive forces were at work that questioned and opened up the parameters of fine art for decades to come. Art;Spain

Further Reading

  • Alberro, Alexander, and Blake Stimson, eds. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. Collection of essays focuses on American conceptual artists, presenting their manifestos and critiques from the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s. Includes bibliographic references.
  • Aliaga, Juan Vincente. “Conceptual Art in Spain: Traditionalism Subtly Undermined.” Art International 6 (Spring, 1989): 28-31. Traces the roots of the conceptual movement in the early 1970’s and follows it through the 1980’s. Discusses the two major trends in contemporary Spanish art: artists working in the traditional media of painting and sculpture, and artists who question the parameters of fine art.
  • Corris, Michael, ed. Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Anthology of scholarly essays discusses research on early international exhibitions of conceptual art, new interpretations of particular works, and the relations between conceptual art and the social context of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Lippard, Lucy R., ed. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. 1973. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Interesting study by a reputable art historian provides useful information on the growth and development of the conceptual art movement in the twentieth century. Includes numerous illustrations and bibliography.
  • Meyers, Ursula. Conceptual Art. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972. Excellent survey of conceptual art focuses primarily on the movement in the United States. Provides insight into the works of individual artists as well as the general period. Includes numerous illustrations and bibliography.
  • Serraller, Calvo. “Spanish Painting Today: The New Figurativists.” Flash Art 107 (May, 1982): 43-46. Comments on the Spanish artistic crisis of the 1970’s, which was caused in part by the fact that artists no longer had to fight Franco. Argues that Luis Gordillo was the stimulus for the foundation of a new figurative art in Madrid.
  • Tager, Alisa. “Spain’s Lost Generation: The Artists of La Nueva Figuracion.” Journal of Art 4 (February, 1991): 27-30. Calls attention to a group that inspired many Spanish artists of the productive era after Franco’s death. Argues that Spain’s cultural isolation during Franco’s rule led to the underestimation of the public stature of this group of artists and calls for a reconsideration of their work.

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