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Franco, Bikini Tourism and Radical Politics: Barcelona’s Long Countercultural History

With the anniversary of last year’s Catalonian bid for independence, a lens on the region’s cultural radicalism

Culture and counterculture in Barcelona during the Franco years is a long and complex tale. The transitions, conditions and points of convergence between aesthetic radicalism and reactionary politics during the period remain little known beyond Spain’s borders. What is often missed is the material and intellectual decadence of the postwar years – for many outside Spain, the story ends with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) and only picks up again with Pedro Almodóvar. The literature of Spain’s historic memory barely trickles into English, and when it does, as in Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis (2001), it tends to emphasize the moral dilemmas of war – such as the tragic, brother-against-brother view of the conflict between the Fascists and Republicans – over the larger questions of how and why the country tolerated 40 years of dictatorship.

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Maria Espeus, Adolfo Fernández, arqueòleg (Adolfo Fernández, archaeologist), 1982, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and La Virreina Centre De La Imatge, Barcelona

Maria Espeus, Adolfo Fernández, arqueòleg (Adolfo Fernández, archaeologist), 1982, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and La Virreina Centre De La Imatge, Barcelona

Curiously, the answer lies in part in Franco’s adaptability. In 1959 after 20 years of autarky had left the country destitute, a new generation of technocrats proposed a series of economic reforms and the redevelopment of the country’s moribund tourist industry. Few can realize, as they stroll the Ramblas in Barcelona or sun themselves on the Costa Brava, that the 82 million foreign tourists who visit the country each year (nearly double its resident population) represent the culmination of plans hatched under the brilliant, and appallingly venal, Information and Tourism Minister, Manuel Fraga, who coined the slogan ‘Spain is different’ in 1960. Even admitting the ricketiness of such stereotypes, in his caginess, Fraga was typically Galician: an admirer of the United States, he was surely aware that the ideological authority of the dictatorship wouldn’t survive an influx of travellers from democratic countries. Rock music and drugs were already flooding in – from the US air and naval bases which Franco had agreed to host in 1953 – but Fraga was playing the long game. As Socialist politician Alfonso Guerra said, ‘the first tourists to arrive in bikinis did more for the transition than many political speeches’. By bringing bare flesh to Spanish beaches and relaxing censorship (Con Fraga hasta la Braga, ‘With Fraga, you can even see knickers’ was an adage of the time), Fraga offered a safety valve to the restless population that would allow him to portray himself after the Generalissimo’s death as a democrat and reformist from above.

Barcelona is one of the few Spanish cities with a long history of tourism, if of a distinctly downmarket sort. Readers of Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal (1949) will recall his acrimonious account of French sightseers disembarking in the port and marvelling at the picturesque poverty of El Raval, the city’s red light district: ‘something out of Goya,’ says one. ‘They’re happier than we are,’ another remarks. In 1925, the journalist Francisco Madrid complained of ‘inverts’ in the Barrio Chino flaunting their ‘shamelessness and sin’, but for decades one of the city’s major attractions were hustlers offering their bodies – on a sliding scale based on clients’ nationalities. In 1934, Douglas Fairbanks enthused over a visit to the notorious nightclub La Criolla, where he and his daughter watched a drag show capped off with an ode to cocaine.

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Jordi García, Volkswagen, Barcelona, 1977, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and 

Jordi García, Volkswagen, Barcelona, 1977, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and La Virreina Centre De La Imatge, Barcelona

The guestbook from La Criolla includes the signatures of the Nazi sympathizer César González Ruano as well as writer Josep Maria de Sagarra, whose hilarious Private Life (1932) is an acid study in hypocrisy and dissoluteness. Paradoxically, it was Sagarra’s accommodation of the fascist authorities that helped make possible the revival of theatre in Catalan, a language suppressed in the wake of the war. Compromises of this kind were far from uncommon, and they complicate any attempt to view the region’s cultural history in terms of heroes and villains. Eugeni d’Ors, a right-wing critic, philosopher and Catalanist, would play an important role in legitimizing the abstract art of figures like Antoni Tàpies and Jorge Oteiza. Salvador Dalí, at first glance the archetypal nonconformist, sent telegrams to Franco congratulating him for ‘cleansing Spain of destructive forces’ and schemed with John Lennon to take a thousand hippies on the Camino de Santiago to discover the glories of Catholicism.

German historian Hans Mommsen’s concept of the weak dictator (‘frequently indecisive, exclusively concerned with the preservation of his prestige and personal authority, influenced to an extreme degree by his current entourage’) is pertinent to Franco in a number of ways, particularly in his last decade, when Parkinson’s left him mentally impaired and increasingly reliant on his ministers. Those years saw a flourishing of underground organizations, from gay rights groups to the Catalan Liberation Front. There was a parallel development in the cultural sphere, with collectives working to advance the fine arts, but also comics and photography. The last of these is the subject of a remarkable exhibit, ‘La fotografía “creativa” a Catalunya (1973–1982)’ (‘Creative’ Photography in Catalonia, 1973–1982) at the Virreina Centre de l’Imatge in Barcelona.

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Pere Formiguera, S/T, 1975, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and 

Pere Formiguera, S/T, 1975, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and La Virreina Centre De La Imatge, Barcelona

Curated by two major figures in Catalan photography, Cristina Zelich and Pep Rigoll, under the direction of Valentín Roma, the exhibition includes a wide range of subjects and photographic media, from Marta Pova Audenis’s portraits of Barcelona’s artisan workshops to Bigas Luna’s Polaroids of the luminaries of the gauche divine. In the magazine Batik in 1979, conceptual artist Joan Fontcuberta attempted to distinguish ‘creative photography’ as it flourished in Catalonia in the 1970s from ‘artistic photography,’ which had become marketable among reactionary circles ‘with their pretentious Art Photography Salons,’ as he wrote.

Beginning with the opening of the gallery Spectrum, owned by Albert Guspi, a major champion of Catalan photography until his early death in 1985, the exhibition emphasizes the work of collectives to carve out a place for their work in the country. The ’70s being the ’70s, surrealist collages abound: a snail gliding over a sleeping woman, an ear growing from a wall, a nude woman curled among boulders with a white ribbon trailing off like an umbilical cord. But there are also stark portrayals of urban desolation, such as Manolo Laguillo’s decrepit high-rises (1980), and mementoes of some of Barcelona’s most legendary inhabitants, including Humberto Rivas’s beautiful portraits of drag artist – transformista in Spanish – Violeta la Burra, who can still be found selling roses in Dry Martini, one of the best cocktail bars in the city.

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Manel Esclusa, S/T, 1978, photograph.

Manel Esclusa, S/T, 1978, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and La Virreina Centre De La Imatge, Barcelona

The exhibition catalogue reflects the beg, borrow or steal ethos of photographers near the end of the dictatorship. Arts funding was scarce and carried a political price; philanthropy was in short supply and artists themselves poor. Survival demanded canniness and occasional concessions. As a vivid and affecting tribute to an increasingly international society seeking its footing on the eve of democracy, the Virreina exhibition offers much to consider about the relationship between art, private initiative and the public sphere.

These remain open questions in Spain, and Barcelona is one of its flashpoints. While the right blames pro-Catalan cultural politics for the spread of anti-government sentiment and bemoans the endangerment of the Spanish language in Catalonia (a bugbear comparable to the supposed War on Christmas in the US), the MACBA, the city’s pre-eminent contemporary art museum, dismissed Paul B. Preciado and Roma for curating an exhibit critical of the former Spanish king in 2015. More recently, the CCCB, Barcelona’s Centre of Contemporary Culture, known for exhibits on Iranian art or Pasolini’s Rome, hosted the former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s announcement of his mayoral campaign, supported by the centre-right party Ciudadanos, whose leader, Albert Rivera, has made a number of inflammatory statements about Spanish unity and the threat posed by immigration. Valls’ campaign is poised to flop, but politics will continue to encroach on art in Catalonia and throughout Spain, and only rarely will it do so to art’s benefit.

Main image: Lluís Bover, untitled, 1981, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and La Virreina Centre De La Imatge, Barcelona

Adrian Nathan West is author of the novel-essay The Aesthetics of Degradation (Repeater, 2016) and translator of more than a dozen books, including Rainald Goetz’s Insane (Fitzcarraldo, 2017) and Fortuny (Godine, 2016) by Pere Gimferrer.

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