Self-portrait of Spain

PhotoEspana put Spanish photographers in the spotlight this year, with politics often not too far behind. But old and new work offered mixed results

Despite the festival’s name, Spanish photography has often taken a backseat at PhotoEspaña, Madrid’s annual celebration of photography in all its forms. Not so this year, with the 17th event primarily devoted to showcasing work by Spanish photographers and artists, past and present. The results of this are mixed: there are some great discoveries to be found – always a holy grail of major festivals such as these, which can occasionally feel like a merry-go-round of the same international names – but some shows don’t quite live up to expectation.

Politics, unsurprisingly, is a core component to many of the most compelling historical shows. One of the brightest and most dynamic exhibitions comes from Josep Renau (1907-82), an artist and poster designer, who created his most significant works using photomontage. Renau’s work was overtly political from the start: he joined the Communist Party in 1931, and in the mid-1930s created posters supporting the Spanish Republic against Franco’s insurgent army (interestingly he also commissioned Picasso’s startling anti-war painting Guernica, when he helped design the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Paris in 1937). At the end of the war, Renau went into exile in Mexico, and it was there that he first became heavily influenced by the popular culture imagery coming out of the US, which inspired the series The American Way of Life on show at PhotoEspaña at Círculo De Bellas Artes.

Renau snipped imagery from US advertising and magazines such as Life, combining the photographs to create montages that tackle questions of racism, sexism, the power of the media and consumerism. There is a savage wit displayed but Renau pulls no punches, with the series a direct attack on American culture. Still remarkably fresh today, the work is surprisingly uncelebrated – due in part to Renau’s residence in Mexico and later Berlin, destinations that at the time were not part of the global art world, but perhaps also because of his affliation with the Communist Party and his condemnation of the US, where the series was only shown for the first time in the late 1980s. Spanish history as told through photobooks is the subject of another standout show at the festival, held at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

Curated by Horacio Fernández, the exhibition brings together 30 books tackling subjects including the Spanish Civil War – told from both sides of the political fence – as well as the hardship of life in post-war Spain (revealed in a few photobooks that slipped past the censors), feminism, and even punk. Design is central to this exhibition, both in the interesting chronicle of Spanish graphic design revealed by the books, but also in the display of the exhibition itself. Not lending themselves easily to presentation, books can be a difficult subject for an exhibition, but the curators have got around this by showing photographs from the books, and even spreads from certain titles in a series of unusual and eyecatching displays (the seminal photobook Madrid, which includes images by Robert Capa, Hans Namuth and Chim, and offers a visual account of the outcome of a siege during the Spanish Civil War is shown in full across one wall). While for scholars many of the books remain frustratingly out-of-reach inside display cases, the exhibition is engaging and appealing for the lay visitor and an excellent introduction to the importance of the photobook.

Other interesting historical shows abound, including a celebration of the work of the photography collective La Palangana, also at Círculo De Bellas Artes. La Palangana formed in 1959 and were recognised for their documentation of life away from the cities in smaller Spanish towns and villages, a subject that was out of step with the photography fashion of the period, which was for staged shots and studio portraits. Documentary photography of the 1970s also gets a decent display at the Real Jardín Botánico-CSIC with Cristóbal Hara, Cristina Garcia Rodero and Fernando Herráez among the photographers included. Again the focus here is on rural life, with the photographers capturing local festivals and events, including bullfights and religious scenes. Less satisfying is the large retrospective of the work of Antoni Arissa (1900-80) at Fundación Telefónica. Over 160 prints are included from 1922-36, and reveal the changing styles that Arissa experimented within this period, moving from heroic pictorialist scenes of workers through to avant-garde images clearly influenced by other artists, particularly László Moholy-Nagy. Arissa was certainly adept at adopting the prevailing styles of the era in which he worked, though it is hard to locate a distinctive voice within this show.

Some shows have disregarded the Spanish photography theme. The luxury fashion store Loewe, which has an exhibition space in its basement, is hosting a show of the significant US fashion photographer Lillian Bassman (1917-2012), mixing classic works from the late 1940s and 50s with a series of photographs that Bassman reworked in the 1990s. These latter images are intriguing – in 1971 Bassman destroyed much of her archive of negatives, though a few bagfuls were kept hidden by an assistant, and on rediscovering them 20 years later, Bassman set about reprinting and experimenting with different effects, including using acids to paint out areas of the images. Exhibited in large format here, the interventions appear a little blunt, especially when viewed alongside the elegance of her earlier work, though an exhibition of the series in New York in 1993 led to new commissions and a revival of Bassman’s career in her 80s.

Contemporary photography is addressed in two significant group shows at PhotoEspaña. Fotografía 2.0, another show at Círculo De Bellas Artes, looks at the changes wrought by digital technology on photography, and our lives in general. Curated by Joan Fontcuberta, work by 20 young photographers is shown, addressing issues including privacy, identity and the ability to weave complex narratives, mixing fact and fiction, in the online space. The exhibition throws up a great number of interesting and unexpected ideas, from the exploitation of prisoners on the internet, to the way that social media can accentuate destructive behaviours such as eating disorders, to questions of what remains when digital technology fails. Rich as they are, the ideas here at times overshadow the presentation of the work, yet as a round-up of current thinking about how photography is being used in the digital age, the show is certainly compelling.

The second major show on the ‘now’ proves a more difficult ride for the audience. Titled P2P: Contemporary Practice In Spanish Photography and held at Fernán Gómez Centro Cultral de la Villa, it comes in the form of an experimental project between 24 artists and a team of curators and while there are finished pieces of work on display, the emphasis is more on process than on the completed image or object. It opens with a mood board of images and ephemera that the artists shared while working on the exhibition, and elsewhere is a further series of visuals that were shared via WhatsApp. These ‘conversations’ continue in the rest of the show with the artists presenting their work in batches of three alongside brief written explanations of their intentions.

The audience is then invited to join in via social media and a catalogue will be made during the show’s run. There is a fashion for these open-ended shows at the moment, but they demand a lot of work from the viewer, and here the reward is slight, with the thoughts and ideas revealed at a remove from the most pertinent issues of the day. Politics, for example, is almost entirely absent, which is curious considering both Spain’s artistic heritage in this area and the political circumstances of the country today. In a search for unusual or developed ideas, or even a point of view distinctly Spanish, this show sadly comes up short.

PhotoEspaña is taking place in venues across Madrid until July 27. More details at phe.es

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