“The painter constructs, the photographer reveals”, said Susan Sontag in her 1973 book On the photo. The late Spanish artist Juan Genovés did both in his powerful political paintings that draw on photography and cinematic techniques to highlight the atrocities of the Franco-era state. In “Juan Genovés: reconsidered”, Marlborough Gallery brings together around thirty works produced between 1965 and 1975 which evoke with disturbing freshness the terror of totalitarian regimes. Executed mostly in grainy black and white or sepia to resemble newspaper images, Genovés’ paintings depict anonymous multitudes running under fire or focus on panicked individuals. Circular “spotlights” structure the compositions as if to suggest that these scenes are seen through a zoom lens or telescope. The images are presented with the apparent objectivity of news, but the raw fear is conveyed by the postures of the characters and by titles such as Los gritos (The screams) and The caza (The Hunt), both from 1967. At times the artist focuses the eye by adding color to its borders or washing the image pink, heightening the impression of bloodshed.
Born in Valencia, Spain, in 1930, Genovés had a childhood marked by the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s fascist dictatorship. As an adult, he makes a resolutely political art, committed to democracy and the workers’ struggle. Rejecting what he saw as the elitism of abstraction, Genovés found his voice in a distinctive style of figurative painting that borrowed tools from Pop Art, such as stencils and stamps, to create eye-catching accessible images. . After seeing a 1962 exhibition on American pop art in Madrid, Genovés said, according to Marlborough’s catalog, “I began to understand that painting could be used to really say things”, that one should not not necessarily “only spots of abstraction”.
Crowds were Genovés’ signature subject and they populate the majority of the works in this exhibition. In the catalog, the artist is quoted acknowledging the Odessa Marches Massacre sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin as a source of inspiration: there are nightmarish paintings of fleeing hordes surrounded by walls (The wall1967) and crowds crawling on the ground like animals (The zoo, 1965). In several works, the canvas is cut into sections, allowing Genovés to present different points of view on an event, with no other reference than a white line which seems to delimit a threshold of danger; crossing it leaves bodies lying along the line, cut down by sniper fire.
Projectors are another effective narrative device. In The caza, a running man and woman are caught in a semicircle of light in the upper left part of the painting; at the bottom right, another projector highlights this couple being arrested, their hands raised against a wall. At other times, the point of view is aerial, the characters microscopic, moving like ants, as if observed by an omniscient eye. They are generalized, often stencilled depictions of silhouetted or faceless figures, but Genovés sought to dignify each person with individualized brushstrokes and airbrush marks. One could ask, instead of evoking photographs in painting, why not simply use photographs? Perhaps by brutally stylizing his compositions, which are largely devoid of locational details, Genovés strove to capture the essence of what ordinary Spaniards were experiencing during this brutal period; the lack of specificity made his images more widely applicable and arguably more powerful.
Departing from the crowd and spotlight format, a series of acrylic on canvas works from 1973 painted in a darker palette. They show individuals being escorted, dragged and beaten by state agents, possibly under cover of night. Also included was a life-size mixed relief from 1965, Contra la pared (Against the wall), depicting a man and a woman with arms raised, and a pencil drawing from 1974 of a man in freefall, which could be read as a metaphor for life under Franco’s dictatorship.
After Franco’s death in 1975, Genovés continued to paint crowds but opted for exuberant colors, individualizing the figures by affixing pieces of detritus, such as a USB key or an earphone. These paintings were displayed in a separate room upstairs. Although devoid of the impact of the artist’s earlier works, they offer an uplifting complement, replacing the theme of shared terror with the joy of community. “Juan Genovés: reconsidered” revisits rather than sheds new light on the important work of the artist, but the topicality of the exhibition is striking; viewers will inevitably find discouraging echoes between these charged paintings and current threats to human rights and individual freedoms around the world.