Marshland: Spain’s True Detectives

<em>Marshland</em>: Spain’s True Detectives

It’s easy to see why the reviews have likened Marshland, the Spanish noir directed by Alberto Rodríguez to the first season of True Detective. The film opens with a title sequence comprising stunning aerial shots of the marshes that provide the story’s setting before plunging down into the terrain and introducing the two detectives sent to this remote area of southern Spain to investigate the disappearance (soon revealed to be the brutal murder) of two teenage sisters. Continue reading Marshland: Spain’s True Detectives”

A tale of two villages: it could be a wonderful life

A tale of two villages: it could be a wonderful life

In Marinaleda unemployment does not exist. It is a collective project life, life for all

The path to utopia

Politicians and media whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria. Savage welfare cuts while the super-rich live high on the hog.  Deepening inequality and zero-hours contracts.  Rapacious banks and untamed corporations. Corporate greed gouging the common weal.  In these austere times, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, one can easily become discouraged.  The joyous cacophony of community life in Bedford Falls can seem like a distant dream of the silver screen.

But wait: here’s a tale of two villages.  Real places, inhabited by real people who have taken a stand against profit and materialism, racism and fear.  Two villages.


Spain has been one of the countries hit hardest by the banking crash.  At around 26%, Spain’s unemployment rate is the highest in the EU (and youth unemployment is nearly double that figure). In the wake of Spain’s property crash, hundreds of thousands of homes have been repossessed and half a million families have been evicted since 2008.

But, in Marinaleda, in impoverished Andalusia, the story is different.  Unemployment is zero, with most of the villagers working for collectively-owned enterprises (growing food, building houses, working in shops, and running sporting, leisure and other basic services).  Everyone works a 35-hour work week and earns a monthly salary of €1,128, at a time when the minimum wage in Spain is €641 per month.  Many villagers rent a house of 90 square metres with a terrace for only €15 per month – a house that they have helped construct.  Much of the land on which food crops are grown and houses are built is collectivised – once an estate owned by the aristocratic Alba family and awarded to the village by the regional government after a decade of occupations, strikes and appeals.

Sanchez Gordillo

Sanchez Gordillo, Mayor of Marinaleda

For three decades Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has been Marinaleda’s mayor, after winning the mayoral election in April 1979 as a representative of the United Workers’ Collective, a communist farm workers’ organization that promotes government through popular assemblies and believes that Andalusia should be independent from Spain.  ‘I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian’, Sánchez Gordillo has said, adding that his political beliefs were drawn from those of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che.  In 2013, he drew international media attention when he and a group of the villagers entered a supermarket and seized food, which they distributed to the area’s food banks – an action justified by Sánchez Gordillo with these words:

We’re doing something new here: we’re insisting that natural resources should be at the service of people, that they have a natural right to the land, and that land is not something to be marketed. Food should not be speculated with either. It is a basic human right.

Workers at the farming cooperative in Marinaleda

Workers at the farming cooperative in Marinaleda

Marinaleda is a village which has known terrible hardship in the past.  But today the villagers grow beans, artichokes, peppers and produce high-quality olive oil. The workers themselves control each phase of the production while the land belongs to the community as a whole. There is a collectively-owned cannery, olive mill, facilities for livestock and a farm store. Gordillo says:

We have learned that it is not enough to define utopia, nor is it enough to fight against the reactionary forces. One must build it here and now, brick by brick, patiently but steadily, until we can make the old dreams a reality: that there will be bread for all, freedom among citizens, and culture; and to be able to read with respect the word ‘peace ‘. We sincerely believe that there is no future that is not built in the present.

escudo marinaleda

The village coat of arms: ‘utopia to peace’

Marinaleda, with some financial support from the Andalusian regional government, has been able to offer three things that much of Spain is desperately wanting: employment, affordable housing, and a more participatory democracy. ‘The most important thing we’ve done here is to struggle and obtain land through peaceful means, and to ensure that housing is a right, not a business, says Sánchez Gordillo. ‘And as a village we work together, discuss and collaborate together: that’s fundamental for any society, too.’

Utopia lies at the horizon.
When I draw nearer by two steps,
it retreats two steps.
If I proceed ten steps forward, it
swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.
What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
It is to cause us to advance.
― Eduardo Galeano

Rocella near Riace abandoned sailing ship Kurds ashore 1999

The abandoned ship from which two hundred Kurds scrambled ashore in 1999 near Riace


In another desperately poor part of Europe there is a village that has welcomed migrants with open arms.  Riace lies on a hill five miles inland from the coast of Calabria in the far south of Italy. Little more than two months ago, more than 300 African migrants drowned when their boat caught fire and sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa.  The tragedy resulted in many expressions of horror – from Italian politicians, the European Commission and the UN secretary general.  Pope Francis was appalled: ‘The word disgrace comes to mind. It is a disgrace. Let’s unite our efforts so that tragedies like this don’t happen again. Only a decisive collaboration of everyone can help and prevent them’.



In Riace, for more than a decade, the villagers have collaborated in opening their doors to migrants in a dramatic reversal of usual attitudes towards immigrants. Calabria is a poor part of Italy, where villages are dying as young people leave in search of work in the cities of the north.  So, after two hundred Kurds scrambled ashore in 1999 from their sinking boat on the coast near Riace, Domenico Lucano – another left-wing mayor – encouraged the Kurds to settle in his village replacing the people who had left and reversing his village’s decline.  Since then, more ‘people who come from the sea’, as locals put it, have been encouraged to settle in the village.

Riace donkey

Riace’s eco-traditional refuse collection

Instead of watching the sea-borne migrants get packed off to one of Italy’s grim immigrant holding centres, Lucano  offered them houses in the village that had been abandoned as the local population dwindled. After all, he said, ‘My parents always taught me to welcome strangers’.

In the last few years, following the Riace model, five small villages, have joined to offer immigrants arriving from across the sea a warm welcome along with homes in empty buildings.  In Riace this October, the Guardian reporter found two men leading two donkeys pulling carts through the narrow streets: Riace’s eco-traditional refuse collection. One of the men was Italian, a man whose ancestors built the village a thousand years ago; the other an immigrant from Ghana who, with his wife and two sons made the dangerous crossing to Lampedusa.

Before immigrants like this arrived in Riace, buildings were empty and falling into disrepair; Riace was turning into a ghost town. But the migrants from Africa rebuilt them fro their families. Their presence meant that the village school, threatened with closure, stayed open as well.

Riace school

Riace’s school was able to stay open because of the immigrants’ children

The immigrants – from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan – do jobs that Italians no longer want to do: they look after old people, or work in the olive groves for the olive oil cooperative. A Somali has opened a restaurant, while others work as translators or in shops and workshops. One settler makes traditional Riace pottery decorated with fine coloured stripes – suggesting that immigration, rather than diluting local culture, can help the rural way of life and craft traditions to survive.

Riace neighbours

Riace neighbours

The financial aid that asylum-seekers receive also feeds the local economy because this money is mostly spent in local shops. Since these benefits often arrive late, Riace prints its own banknotes with pictures of Martin Luther King, Che Guevara and Gandhi on them. You can buy groceries and clothes with this currency. Every so often the retailers cash in their Gandhis for real euros.  When Mayor Lucano ran for election he had a slogan: ‘The poorest people in the world will save Riace and we will save them.’

Perhaps one day the world, our world, won’t be upside down, and then any newborn human being will be welcome. Saying, ‘Welcome. Come. Come in. Enter. The entire earth will be your kingdom. Your legs will be your passport, valid forever.
– Eduardo Galeano

Riace sign village of welcome

The sign at the entrance to Riace reads ‘village of welcome’

Riace Mayor Lucano with Refugee Family.

The Mayor of Riace eats with a refugee family

These days – to return to the seasonal analogy of It’s a Wonderful Life – we all live in Pottersville.  But the example of  these two villages suggests we can live a different way, adhering to less selfish, less materialistic values, less beholden to private profit.  Some may regard extolling the example set by the villagers of Marinaleda and Riace as misguided utopianism.  But I know where I would rather live.

Il Volo (Flight)

This YouTube video is a clip from a Il Volo, documentary dedicated to Riace in 2009 by the German film director Wim Wenders (no subtitles, unfortunately). This explanation is from the Mubi website:

Wim Wenders’ film Il Volo (Flight) documents an admirable example of a welcome that began over 10 years ago in Calabria, when a group of Kurds settled down in Riace, on the Calabrian coast. The German director’s initial project, a seven-minute short from an original story by Eugenio Melloni, turned into a 32-minute hybrid of documentary and fiction after Wenders met a young Afghani refugee. Il Volo became a firsthand account, with Wenders’ off-camera narration, of immigration as a resource. ‘What was happening to these people was much more important than the fiction I was making,’ said Wenders, in Rome to present the film. Commissioned by the Calabria Region and co-produced with the local Film Commission and with support from the High Commissioner of the United Nations, the film was shot in 3D.

AFP news agency report on Riace

Follow link to open in YouTube

See also



It’s a Wonderful Life: previous posts

Fantasies, Follies and Disasters: The Prints of Francisco de Goya

Goya, ‘No se puede mirar’  (‘One cannot look at this’)

While we were in Manchester on Thursday, we  visited the Goya exhibition at the Art Gallery. The exhibits are taken from the Goya’s three main groups of etchings: The Fantasies, The Disasters of War and The Follies, all of which were withdrawn or withheld from publication during his lifetime because of their controversial, disturbing or strange qualities.

The works are all drawn from Manchester Art Gallery’s extensive collection of Goya etchings, recognised as one of the most important in the world, and have not been shown together as a group for over 20 years.  The Gallery owns more than 90 rare first-edition examples of etchings which were purchased in the early 1980s from the estate of a leading Goya scholar.

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) was one of the most important European artists of his time, enjoying a lucrative career painting portraits of prominent figures of the establishment. Yet behind this public facade Goya was profoundly disaffected. In 1792 an illness left him deaf and increasingly introspective. Like other Spanish intellectuals, he was also deeply concerned by poverty and corruption in late 18th century Spain, compounded by the French occupation in 1808.

Goya’s etchings, produced largely in private, feature a mixture of satirical caricatures attacking the ignorance and hypocrisy of late 18th century Spanish society and the Church, and dark, nightmarish landscapes exposing the atrocities and misery suffered in war. Only fully known after his death, many of the works were withheld from publication during his lifetime because of their controversial and disturbing qualities.

Goya, The Folly of Fear
Goya, The Folly of Fear

The exhibition includes some of Goya’s most memorable, satirical images: animals are shown as humans to  comment on the corruption, stupidity and vanity of nobility, the clergy and wider society. The Disasters of War are savage in their depiction of violence, torture and famine. Goya’s final etchings, The Follies, produced at the age of 70, are a haunting and atmospheric series depicting the folly of mankind and populated by witches and grotesque and deformed creatures. They are really mysterious and hard for the modern viewer to fathom, transforming some of his earlier themes into dreamlike visions that, in their Freudian delving into the subconscious, perhaps anticipate some twentieth-century art.

For me, The Disasters of War is the series that  has the most immediate impact – and particularly No se puede mirar  (One cannot look at this) shown at the top of this blog. It seems to prefigure his famous painting, The Third of May 1808 (below), particularly in the beseeching stance of those about to be executed, and the brutal clarity of the bayonets arrayed against them. What is especially effective in the etching is the cropping of the image so that we see only the dagger-like tips of the bayonets thrust into the frame from the right.

After Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1807 and 1808 brought about the abdication of the Bourbon ruler, there were violent protests against the French in Madrid. The uprising of May 2, 1808, marked the start of the armed Spanish resistance, which dragged on in guerrilla warfare until 1814. It was the brutal retaliation by the French that Goya  memorialized at the end of the war in this etching and the famous painting. The Third of May 1808 is seen by art historians as marking a clear break from conventional depictions of war. It has no obvious precedent, and is considered to be one of the first paintings of the modern era. For Kenneth Clark, The Third of May 1808 is  ‘the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention’. It inspired a number of other major paintings, including Pablo Picasso’s Massacre in Korea.

Goya, The Third of May 1808

In the eighty images of The Disasters of War, Goya told the terrible truth about war: guerrillas shot at close range; the ragged remains of mutilated corpses; and the emaciated victims of war’s partner, famine. Never before had a story of man’s inhumanity to man been so compellingly told, every episode reported with the utmost compassion, the human form described with such keen honesty and pitying respect.

Whether fearful of the ruthless repression of the time, or judging that, once the war was over, there would be no appetite for these images, Goya had no prints made of the series. It wasn’t until 1863, thirty-five years after his death, that the first edition of the Disasters was published.

Broken Embraces

I’ve been to FACT to see Pedro Almodovar’s latest, Broken Embraces. I always enjoy his films which despite the fact that they generally deal in the tropes of melodrama and romantic comedy, always seem to avoid stereotypes but instead are inhabited by genuine characters who – in the midst of lies and skulduggery – care for each other.

While Broken Embraces is not up there with Volver or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (which it references), it’s still a hugely rewarding film, beautifully photographed and with polished acting. It concerns a blind screenwriter, Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), who has rejected his former identity as film-maker Mateo Blanco. Flashbacks to the early 1990s  reveal that Blanco was involved in a passionate affair with Lena (Penélope Cruz), who stars in Blanco’s new movie ‘Girls and Suitcases’ (the scenes we see are  reworkings of Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). It features a film within a film within a film: Lena is also the mistress of the unscrupulous industrialist financing the picture, who gets his son to film the making of ‘Girls and Suitcases’ in order to keep an eye on her, creating a parallel narrative of the ‘making of’ film.

The film is set first in Madrid and then moves to Lanzarote. In one scene the main couple are looking at a beach and he is taking photos while she holds him. They don’t notice at the time, but on the beach below an embracing couple mirror them and can be seen at the bottom of the picture he takes. The photo which is used in the film had been taken by Almodóvar on an earlier visit there. He also hadn’t seen the couple and discovered them when he got the print from the developers. The couple watch Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954), where Ingrid Bergman is shaken by the sight of an embracing couple frozen by the lava at Pompeii.

There’s a moving image towards the end of the film, when Harry Caine begins recutting ‘Girls and Suitcases’; sightless, he reaches out to the screen where the film playing. His fingers are spread, in silhouette, attempting to grasp the image of Lena, to reclaim the past.

‘Don’t smile…the wig is fake enough’.

Broken Embraces trailer


60 in Ronda

60 in Ronda

We celebrated my 60th in Ronda, staying in the beautiful Alavera de los Baños hotel situated in the former Jewish quarter. Down many winding steps from the town centre and next to the Arabic baths, the hotel offers beautiful views of the medieval town walls in one direction and of open countryside in the other. Wrought iron gratings, traditional ceramics, original tile flooring and a lovely Moorish garden make it a wonderful place to relax. The breakfasts are out of this world.

Ronda is famous worldwide for the deep El Tajo gorge that carries the rio Guadalevín through its centre. The 18th century Puente Nuevo – ‘new’ bridge – straddles the chasm below, and there are unparalleled views out over the Serranía de Ronda mountains.

Ronda is also famous as the birthplace of modern bullfighting, and we took a look around the empty bullring. We also visited the Casa del Rey Moro and the Banos Arabes, just next door to the hotel.

A serene evening
We spend it drinking wine.

The sun going down,
lays its cheek against the earth to rest.

the breeze lifts the coattails of the hills
the skin of the sky is as smooth as the pelt of the river.

How lucky we are to find this spot for our sojourn
with doves cooing for our greater delight.

Birds sing, branches sigh
and darkness drinks up the red wine of sunset.

Ashiyin Raiqin by Abu Abdallah Ibn Ghalib Al-Rusafi (d. Malaga, 1177)

Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles spent many summers in Ronda. Both wrote about Ronda’s beauty and famous bull-fighting traditions. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls describes the murder of Nationalist sympathizers early in the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway allegedly based the account on killings that took place in Ronda at the cliffs of El Tajo. But for me, the most evocative cultural association is with the paintings of David Bomberg. One of the best walks we had while we were there was out past the ruined Hermitage de la Virgen de la Cabeza and the nearby Casa de la Virgen de la Cabeza where Bomberg lived in the 1950s, painting the stunning views of Ronda, El Tajo and the surrounding sierra.

David Bomberg’s Ronda: In the Gorge of the Tajo, with its energetic paintwork. Often penniless during his lifetime and relying on the support of patrons,Bomberg was mesmerised by Spanish towns and the surrounding countryside, which provided the inspiration for some of his most spectacular work. In summer 1934 Bomberg set off with his wife, Lilian, to Cuenca in Spain, then travelled south to Ronda. Bomberg, who later described Ronda as ‘the most interesting of the towns of Southern Spain’, explored the countryside on a donkey, finding suitable vantage points from which to study and paint the town.

And so farwell to Ronda and onwards into the sixties:

Earthbound….hear the wind through the tops of the trees
Earthbound….summer sun nearly ninety degrees
Earthbound….big ol’ moon sinking down……
think I might stick around

With each new day that passes I’m in need of thicker glasses but it’s all O K
Someday I’ll be leaving but I just can’t help believing that it’s not today
Every golden moment I have found
I’ve done my best to run right in the ground…..earthbound

Earthbound….see the sky big and beautiful blue
Earthbound….fallen angels are talkin’ to you
Earthbound….keepin’ close to the ground think I might stick around

The hour is early
The whole world is quiet
A beautiful morning’s about to ignite
I’m ready for danger
I’m ready for fire
I’m ready for something to lift me up higher
Life’s been good, I guess
My ragged old heart’s been blessed
With so much more than meets the eye
I’ve got a past I won’t soon forget
You ain’t seen nothing yet
I’m still learning how to fly…

– lyrics by Rodney Crowell


Granada: the Alhambra at night

Granada: the Alhambra at night

Nothing is more beautiful, oh Andalusians,
Than your luxuriant orchards
Your gardens, woods and rivers
And springs of crystal.

Your joyful land
Is the Eden of the chosen.
And if I could choose
I would live here

Do not fear hell
Or its dreadful sorrows
For none shall enter Hell
Who has found Paradise.

O Andalusin by Ibrahim Ibn Khafaja (1058-1139)

We’ve just spent a happy few days rediscovering the sights and sounds of Granada. The highlights this time were the night-time tour of the Alhambra (which is just stunningly beautiful), a visit to the Banos Arabes and, on our last morning, a lovely walk through the lanes of Sacromonte.

We stayed at the beautiful Casa Morisca hotel, just off the Darro.  The house dates back to the end of the 15th century; its outstanding feature is the patio, which preserves its original morisco pool and on all four sides there are galleries supported by pilasters and columns. There are stucco-work arches, panels of original Morisco coloured tiles and multicoloured wooden ceilings.

The Banos Arabes is a Moorish public bath complex, built in the 11th century. It consists of a series of brick-vaulted rooms with star-shaped skylights. After the Christian conquest, it fell into disuse following the prohibition of public bathing.

In Tales of the Alhambra, Washington Irving wrote about seeing the Alhambra by moonlight: ‘On such heavenly nights I would sit for hours at my window inhaling the sweetness of the garden, and musing on the checkered fortunes of those whose history was dimly shadowed out in the elegant memorials around’. For us, walking around the Nazrid palaces and the neighbouring patios in the dark, with the buildings and fountains beautifully illuminated, was amagical experience. The only slight disappointment was, when arriving in the Patio de los Leones, to discover that the lions had been removed for vital renovation work.

The Corral del Carbon is a 14th century caravanserai which is unique in Spain. A horseshoe arch leads into the beautifully-preserved courtyard with marble water trough. It has survived, despite being put to use in the 16th century as a theatre, and then later a charcoal-burners’ factory (hence the present name).

One stroll took us past Manuel de Falla‘s house; from 1921 to 1939, the musician lived in Granada, in this simple carmen, a typical Granada house with a vegetable or floral garden. The house is now a museum.

On our last morning we took a stroll up the winding cobbled lanes of Sacromonte home to Granada’s thriving Roma community. After migrating from India in the 14th century, the Roma people settled mostly in the Muslim-occupied lands in the south (such as the Balkan Peninsula, then controlled by the Ottoman Turks).

Under the Muslims, the Roma enjoyed relative tolerance. The first Roma arrived in Granada in the 15th century — and they’ve remained tight-knit ever since. Today around 50,000 Roma live in the district called Sacromonte. In most of Spain, Roma are more assimilated into the general population, but Sacromonte is a large, distinct Roma community.

Picasso Museum: War and Peace


This was a superb exhibition at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. It was especially moving to see the Vallauris Chapel War and Peace panels recreated (Sarah & I saw these in situ several years ago), as well as the large Massacre In Korea painting.

From the exhibition summary:

‘…painting is not done to decorate apartments. It’s an instrument of War for attack and defense against the enemy.’ Pablo Picasso, Les Lettres françaises, 24/3/1943

The aim of the exhibition is to show those moments when the artist uses his work to echo his horror at the ravages of war. This horror was especially strong during the Spanish Civil War, when he was commissioned by the government of the Republic to paint Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937. With all the works that revolve around it, it has become a symbol of human suffering.

However, from Guernica on, a new symbolism in human representation appears in his work, particularly in his characterization of Maria-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, protagonists in Picasso’s life and work during these years, and who assume opposing identities, very close to the artist’s attitudes towards war and peace.During the Second World War, between 1943 and 1944, Picasso painted a series of still lifes in which he uses skulls to exorcise the sadness and pessimism of the war years, marked by the deaths of friends and relatives and the emergence of a cruel, violent world in which the premises he knew and understood were crumbling.

In the fifty or so drawings he did for the sculpture L’homme au mouton, an embodiment of the Christian Good Shepherd, evocative of the Mediterranean tradition, the humanism of his thoughts on the power of art over terror refers us to the context of war, in which the lamb is the incarnation of the victim and the shepherd the champion of peace and tolerance.

Two years later, in the summer of 1946, after the war had ended, he moved in with Françoise Gilot in Antibes and started on a new series of still lifes in which emblematic Mediterranean animals and birds radiate a new happiness and peace, endowing these works with an element of magic. The photographer Michel Sima gave him an owl, symbol of Antibes and of the goddess Pallas Athene. He included it in a number of the still lifes, in which it appears perched on a chair. This was, then, one of the elements which, like Pallas Athene herself, united wisdom and the victory of peace over war.

He joined the French Communist Party in October 1944 as part of his fierce defence of freedom and peace, which is expressed in his work at the time and reached its height with his participation in the Peace Conferences in Wroclaw in 1948, in Paris in 1949 and in London in 1950. The doves in his drawings and lithographs became an emblem of world peace.

Apart from the works for the Peace Conferences, in 1945 he started on the large panels War and Peace, which were installed in 1954 in a chapel in Vallauris after extensive preparatory work’.

See also

At War

At War

At War

On our second day in Barcelona, we went to CCCB for the At War exhibition. Tremendous – it would have repaid several return visits. Superb organisation, bringing out different themes. Very wide-ranging: included paintings, sculpture, photography, film and installation art.

At War ‘takes a long, hard look at what war is and how it affects the individual and society. This exhibition dissects the idea into discrete themes, beginning with the ‘socialisation of violence’ and how childhood games, fashion, entertainment and advertising affect our attitude to war, right the way through to ‘memory’ and the legacy of conflict’.

Bought the catalogue.

MACBA: Art and Utopia: Limited Action

MACBA: Art and Utopia: Limited Action

Robert Delaunay, Relief-disques, 1936

Robert Delaunay, Relief-disques, 1936

On our first day in Barcelona (and just prior to falling victim to the birdshit ploy and thus getting robbed – read the Rough Guide, it’s all in there!), went to see this very interesting exhibition in the beautiful MACBA building.

It was difficult to work out the common thread linking exhibits that included Buster Keaton and Eisenstein films, music by Erik Satie and Debussy, poetry, literature, as well as paintings and photography. But it was very absorbing.

Press Release:

Dates: From June 3 to September 12, 2004

“Limited Action” (L’action restreinte) is the title of an essay by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) compiled in Divagations in 1897. This formulation designates not only the limits but also the focus of poetic action. “Art and Utopia. Action Restricted” reexamines some of the key moments in the exchange between art and poetry in the twentieth century up until the end of the 1970s. The Mallarmean poetic serves here as a medium for a history of modern art in its relation with language and its dispersion.

Art and Utopia. Limited Action sets out to rethink the art of the 20th century from a review of the role of the poet Mallarmé in the construction of the pillars of contemporary creation. Throughout the 20th century two apparently antagonistic phenomena occurred, confronting the will for formal experiment with the tradition of trying to educate society in order to transform it. That is the dichotomy between Marx and Mallarmé, between politics and poetry, which, in the context of this exhibition, is considered a solved problem, since there can be an art which is both poetical and political at the same time. The only utopia is in language, in the limited action of the poetic act.

The exhibition will include 108 paintings, 36 sculptures, 340 works on paper, 140 photos, 24 films, as well as sound works and rare books, from, amongst others: Guillaume Apollinaire, Hans Arp, Georges Braque, André Breton, John Cage, Joseph Cornell, Edward Gordon Craig, Giorgio de Chirico, Claude Debussy, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, Sergueï Eisenstein, Max Ernst, Walker Evans, Robert Flaherty, Jean-Luc Godard, Juan Gris, Vassily Kandinsky, René Magritte, Vladimir Maïakovski, Stéphane Mallarmé, Edouard Manet, Joan Miró, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, F. W. Murnau, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Man Ray, Odilon Redon, Roberto Rossellini, Erik Satie, Kurt Schwitters, Victor Sjöström, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Yves Tanguy Antoni Tàpies.

At the end of the nineteenth century, after the death of Victor Hugo, the poet can no longer claim to operate directly in the political arena or even designate himself as moral conscience. He can mention the world, but he cannot change it. His activity, however, is not purely contemplative. He realizes an action in a restricted but essential field, which does not belong to him but which he can reevaluate and even redefine. This is the field of language and languages; it is the space of the book as a “spiritual instrument.”

In March 1970, the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, also coming from the poetic field, declared: “Mallarmé is the source of contemporary art. He unconsciously invents modern space.” Broodthaers was thinking above all about the word constellation constructed in Un coup de dés (1897). After its belated publishing in book form (1914), the poem effectively became the prototype for all investigations in the confluence of poetry, typography and visual art. Appollinaire’s calligrams, contemporary with cubist papiers collés, the Futurists’ words in liberty, and the word as such of Russian poets are derived almost directly from this poem or differentiate themselves from it through a dynamic of avant-garde radicalization.

This genealogy continues with the emergence of concrete poetry in the 1950s. Plein air impressionism since Manet and the prismatic structure of post-Cézannean cubist painting represent two poles of the Mallarmean poetic. At the same time, the fantastic of Odilon Redon turned to the idea of suggestion, which defines symbolism as well as description and literary narration. The dialogue between art and poetry also opens onto other forms of visual creation such as in photography and film. Beyond that abstraction called “geometric,” the emphasis on the essential constituents of painting – point, line, plane, and color – participates in a speculation on the genesis of form that has much in common with poetic language.

Nevertheless, as Duchamp’s extra-pictorial activities indicate, the resonance of the Mallarmean poetic exceeds the genealogies of poetry and the visual arts. Mallarmé was also interested in music and the arts of the stage (theatre and dance) while refuting the Wagnerian model of the total work of art. Mallarmé had already imagined an anthropological reconciliation of modern art, liberated from religious representation. But that union was revealed to be just as precarious as the practice of poetry. In the 1930s, the distressing pressure of the times made the model of myth return to the debates as well as attempts at the synthesis between rationalist utopias and a somewhat reasoned neo-primitivism, between constructivism and surrealism.

Immediately after the Second World War, Antonin Artaud’s return to poetry corresponds to a necessary strengthening of the myth about the “restricted action” of line and expression. In 1933, Artaud had defined Mallarmé’s exemplariness: “Nothingness that is infinitely worked out after having passed through the finite, the concrete and the immediate; music based on nothingness since the sonority of syllables affects one before understanding its meaning.” With the war and the concentration camps, nothingness acquired a resonance of terror and the inhuman.

In the 50s and 60s, the publication of Correspondence and fragments on the Book occurs concurrent with the introduction of the linguistic model in the humanities and the emergence of the artistic culture of the neo-avant-garde. Roland Barthes describes a common “structuralist activity” in literature, music and the visual arts. The impersonality extolled by Mallarmé ends in “the death of the author”. The book, “total expansion of the letter” (Mallarmé), continues to be the countermodel to the media of mass communication, but it has lost its sacred dimension due to contamination: it has been vulgarized. At the end of the 70s René Daniels’s painting La Muse vénale, modeled on a poem by Baudelaire, indicates the exhaustion of the cultural alternatives proposed by the neo-avant-gardes. It likewise shows the actuality of a poetic gaze that knows how to detect the anachronisms of the present. “Poorly informed,” Mallarmé writes, “is the one who proclaims himself his own contemporary.”


See also

Barrio Viejo

Barrio Viejo

With Joel and Gemma to see Barrio Viejo put on a great show at The Art Gallery The View 2, 23 Mathew Street.

The line-up: singer -songwriter Sonia Linares Berroy from Sabadell, Barcelona, Brian Kelly on guitar, Tom Sykes on violin, Chris Lhereoux on cajón, Simon England on bass and Alex Mackenzie on flamenco guitar.