Walking down Madrid’s busy Paseo del Prado, past the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art and the Reina Sofía Museum, centuries of art and culture are cut through by the realities of modern life in the Spanish capital. The energies of both inflected this year’s PHotoEspaña, the International Festival of Photography and Visual Arts that began in Madrid in 1998, and which trained its attention, for the first time, exclusively on Spanish photography. Over three packed days, I was alert to the significance – and the difficulties – of generating national histories, especially in relation to photography, a medium that jumps easily between art, documentary and applied contexts. The shows were as much about local histories as they were about photography’s, circling back to the conflicts and coincidences of art and life that evolve an understanding of place and identity. These kinds of roomy themes – place, identity, the everyday – have been explored in past editions, when Claude Bussac (the festival’s director since 2006) invited external curators to frame the programme around ideas. This 17th edition marked a change of tack, abandoning theme for the more concrete parameter of geography. While some losses result from this shift in thinking (the cohesion of a thematic; the energy of an external eye; the meditation on subjects through writing in past catalogues), Spain as object, subject and host made for a compelling experience. Any account of such an extensive programme – over 400 artists in 25 ‘official selection’ exhibitions, plus dozens of collaborations and fringe shows – is necessarily partial, and what follows are some highlights and an attempt to convey a sense of the variety of approaches.
About half of the main programme comprised solo shows, encompassing a mix of old and new work, from better-known photographers such as Alberto García-Alix to ‘rescued’ historical figures. ‘Arissa. The Shadow and the Photographer. 1922–1936’ at the Fundación Telephónica focused on the prolific output of the little-known Catalonian printer and graphic designer. Though a tighter edit might have made a stronger case for his achievement, the quantity of work on view (161 prints) gave a sense of his keen attention to the vanguard magazines and journals that were conduits for photography’s move from soft-focus pictorialism to the precision of modernism, and of his own experiments through this shift. Xavier Mulet’s ‘M. Ardan, the Great Nineteenth-Century Traveller’, a small display along the corridor of the National Museum of Natural History, offered a contemporary counterpoint, introducing an entirely fictional hero-artist from the past through recently ‘found’ images. Mulet’s project, although kitschy, brought out the uneasiness of projected mythologies that tend to attach to retrospective resurrections.
More dispersed histories were explored in ‘Photography and Modern Architecture in Spain, 1925-1965’ at Museo ICO and ‘Photobooks. Spain 1905–1977’ at the Reina Sofía. The drama of Spanish light comes into the service of photography in the former, especially in the compositions of Kindel and Margaret Michaelis, which exploit highlights and shadows to frame and articulate form and line. The latter show takes up a longer historical period and a more recent photo-world fetish. Two lovely volumes from among the 30 books selected were Ramón Masats’s Neutral Corner (1962), from the Barcelona imprint Lumen’s series ‘Palabra e imagen’ (Word and Image), with its trademark circular cover image and punches of text that mimic a boxing match, and Les Fenêtres (Las Ventanas) (The Windows, 1957), the first publication by Editorial RM, for which Leopoldo Pomés made pictures of windows to illustrate ten poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. The metaphor may seem heavy-handed, but the book gets it right, with windows printed full-bleed on separate plates, giving readers a graphic rhythm and a quiet place for eyes to settle between poems.
The politics of modern Spain, and of image culture, were taken up in two shows at Círculo de Bellas Artes: black and white humanist images from the collective ‘La Palangana’ (which translates as ‘wash basin’, as in the tray used to hold developer) and, across the foyer, Josep Renau’s radical photomontages. Formed in 1959 and active through the early 1970s, La Palangana was made up of eight members – including Masats, Geradro Vielba and Francisco Ontañón – who were motivated by the anachronistic views of Spain of the time, most notoriously illustrated in W. Eugene Smith’s photoessay, ‘Spanish Village’, that was published in Life in 1951. They tried to present a more realistic record, where poverty and class divide, grief and destruction are evident, though softened by the levity of rituals and traditions played out on lively streets. By contrast, Renau cut up pop imagery from American magazines like Life to make ‘Fata-Morgana. USA – The American Way of Life’ (1949–66), 63 photomontages devised in proximity to the empire they indict, when Renau was exiled to Mexico after the Spanish Civil War. (While still in Spain, he commissioned Pablo Picasso’s Guernica for the Spanish pavilion at EXPO Paris in 1937.) With strong ties to the Communist Party, Renau believed in the revolutionary power of art. His alertness to ways of turning mass media imagery on itself and his early use of colour advertisements and illustrations play darkly on the dreams of Hollywood Technicolor, the burgeoning culture of insatiable consumption and the hypocrisy and inhumanity of racism in America.
The contemporary end of the spectrum was anchored by two big group shows that both took wide berths to accommodate 20 or more artists: ‘Photography 2.0’, at Bellas Artes, and ‘P2P. Contemporary Practice in Spanish Photography’ in the vast space at Fernán Gómez Centro Cultural de la Villa. Collage and montage also featured in some memorable works, such as Óscar Monzón’s KARMA (2009–2013), a mural-montage of voyeuristic food-shoving, skirt-peeping views through car windows and Miguel Ángel Tornero’s ‘The Random Series’ (2014), close-cropped Eggleston-y urban still lives, stitched incongruously and uncannily together with software designed to seam panoramas. But the knock-out contemporary show was a little off the beaten path, a swift half-hour walk past the swanky barrio Salamanca into the less-touristy north end of Madrid, where ‘Mapping the Blind Spots’ at Fundación Lázaro Galdiano brought together two artist collectives, Central-Eastern European Sputnik and Spain’s NOPHOTO. For the exhibition and accompanying newspaper, the two groups reworked each other’s archives, creating a certain logic and coherence between their conflicting styles. With the spirit of photography’s potential for telling and dismantling stories, despite its location, this small show was at the heart of the festival.