The American Way of Life by Josep Renau

PhotoEspaña, Madrid’s annual festival of photography, began last week, with exhibitions held across the city. A highlight of this year’s event is an exhibition of photomontages by Spanish artist Josep Renau, created in the 1950s and 60s but still startling today…

Chicago’s Miss Beefsteak, c.1960-66

PhotoEspaña, Madrid’s annual festival of photography, began last week, with exhibitions held across the city. A highlight of this year’s event is an exhibition of photomontages by Spanish artist Josep Renau, created in the 1950s and 60s but still startling today…

The exhibition, on show at Círculo de Bellas Artes, was created by Renau when he went into exile in Mexico after the end of the Spanish Civil War. An artist and poster designer, Renau’s work was always political – 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). But it was in Mexico where he first became heavily influenced by the popular culture imagery of the US, which inspired this series.

Just Married, 1957

The Big Parade, 1957

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 affiliation with the Communist Party and his condemnation of the US, where the series was only shown for the first time in the late 1980s.

Neon Alienation, 1963

 

A Gift For Hungry People, 1956

Pax Americana, 1962. All images courtesy of IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Generalitat. Collection Fundación Renau, Valencia

The American Way of Life by Josep Renau is on show at Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid until July 27. A full review of this year’s PhotoEspaña will appear in the July issue of Creative Review magazine. More info on the festival is at phe.es.

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