“The squares, our palettes/the streets, our brushes”. A large part of Russian constructivism was inspired in this quote by Vladimir Mayakovsky, known as the poet of the revolution.
Seen as a whole, the poster and photomontages produced by Josep Renau over almost six decades –from the age of eighteen when he won a prize for the best poster, until his death at the age of seventy-five in Communist Berlin – displays an extreme loyalty to a life decision: the need to use art for social change.
In fact, the great reference that recurs in Renau’s work in the Russian avant-garde and Constructivism, the artistic movement that emerged with the revolution in 1917. Renau. El combat per una nova cultura (Renau. The fight for a new culture) curated by Juan Vicente Aliaga and on show at the Born Centre for Culture and Memory, contains 100 pieces, among them posters, murals, photomontages, books and other publications from the Renau collection of the IVAM in Valencia – a collection of 400 works and 26,000 documents acquired one year ago – and other collections.
Faithful to this initial decision, Renau’s large format posters and murals, as seen in the exhibition, allow us to trace some of the greatest errors of the twentieth century, from the fascism of the twenties and thirties to European exile, the failure of Communism and the expansion of capitalism as the only model for life. A visual journey that is linked, inevitably, to his own biography.
If when he was younger Renau’s dialogue was with the aesthetic of art deco, his membership of the communist party in 1931 marked a new start. Since then Renau used his great capacity for communicative synthesis for the cause of the Second Republic. Putting images to the campaigns of the UGT workers’ union, for the recruitment of soldiers to stamp out fascism or peasants for the revolution, who would not identify his raised fists or the victorious faces of the aviators in red and black? Renau’s involvement with republicanism and social revolution was absolute: he persuaded Picasso to take part in the pavilion of the Republic in 1937 in Paris by producing Guernica from photos sent to him by Dora Maar, publishing the essay New Culture and organising teams for saving the artistic heritage in the country.
But the exhibition also includes the poster from Mexican exile during the government of Lázaro Cárdenas and in the years after. Renau, who had crossed the border to be confined in the Argelès-sur-mer concentration camp at the beginning of 1939, arrived in Mexico in June with Manuela Ballester – a painter, illustrator, poet and Communist, and their first two children. They would remain there for twenty years.
Renau never came back to Spain during the life of Franco.
The political ideology of Renau was already clearly pro-Soviet at that time. So, when, in 1958, he was attacked on more than one occasion (it seems that the US intelligence services tried to run him down a couple of times) he decided to move to the German Democratic Republic, where he would stay for almost twenty-five years.
It was in Mexico where, because of the proximity and influence of the American culture he began his well-known series of photomontages The American Way of Life. They are a combination of the innovative and pioneering technique of photomontage and a ferocious criticism of American consumerism and capitalism at the height of the Cold War. Racism, imperialism, sex discrimination…all addressed using a highly elaborated visual language in a series of extraordinary posters showing America as a producer of violence. Intense colours, strong iconic connotations, visual contrasts, distortions and all the contradictions of American imperialism. Renaus’s long series of anti-capitalist poster has no problem squaring up to iconic pop artists such as Richard Hamilton. It is a series which, seen through today’s eyes, is alarmingly modern.
Renau never came back to Spain during the life of Franco. It wasn’t until 1976 that he returned to Valencia where he tried, unsuccessfully to settle. He would die in Berlin where he continued to work on photography and female nudes faithful to the avant-gardes of the twenties and thirties. With reference to his youth, in 1974 he wrote: “I understood, fascinated, that mine could be a powerful weapon for the struggle, that as an artist I could also contribute to revolutionary change of the social situation that surrounded me”. With a huge body of work, his loyalty to that realisation is coherent in the extreme.
The exhibition Renau. El combat per una nova cultura can be seen at the Born Centre for Culture and Memory, Barcelona, until 13 October.