Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Three books on Josep Renau

Looking back over the year one of my most interesting rediscoveries in art has been with collage and photomontage artists. These types of artists have always held a backseat to my fascination with photographers who can miraculously tame the world into one photo at the click of a button but since I have opened the floodgates towards other disciplines such as graphic design - people like Gustave Klutsis, John Heartfield, Marianne Brandt and dozens of others are nudging their way to the forefront of my attention. Josep Renau is a name among that list that I discovered while reading the texts in the Revistas y Guerra 1936 - 1939, the fantastic book about the political magazines and newspapers that were published during the Spanish Civil War.

Renau was a founding member of the communist party in Valencia, Spain and editor of the anti-fascist magazine Nueva Cultura. His keen sense of design and photomontage led him to champion new directions in political propaganda by utilizing commercial means for anti-fascist causes. Named Director General de Bellas Artes in Madrid, beside his efforts to save the nation’s artistic legacy that was being threatened by the war, he was creating posters for the communist party and popular army in the fight for hearts and minds of the public. As Director General, he also commissioned Picasso to create one of his most famous paintings, Guernica, for the pavilion of the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Paris.

After Franco’s Nationalists took power in 1939, Renau was exiled and took up residence in Mexico. In 1940, he became a Mexican citizen and started compiling images from American magazines such as Life, The New York Times and Fortune with the intent to accomplish a series of photomontages called Fata Morgana USA - The American Way of Life.

His close proximity to the United States coupled with his long standing communism compelled him to aim a bitter attack that would expose America’s ‘way’ of militarism, racism, blind consumerism, sexism, and imperialism all wrapped up and treated to the not so subtle language of advertising. His was an art that asks us (or teaches us) to look under the thin veil of advertising and examine the rotting underbelly of reality.

Unlike John Heartfield whose cut and paste and retouching techniques tended to create a flatter sense of space, Renau layered his color and black and white elements so that our attention is being pulled back and forth from the foreground to background giving the effect of added dimension.

By using the saturated colors to seduce the viewer much like an advertising billboard does, Renau draws us into his world and then clubs you with his clashing of the self-centered American dream pitted against the dark realities of the world.

The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be the starter pistol for Renau to complete his first photomontage of the series in 1945. Called simply 6th of August, it depicts Truman giving a self-satisfied smile before an array of radio microphones and against a backdrop of a deep red mushroom cloud. Bits of a shattered skull rain down around him.

Of the reported 200 photomontages Renau made during his career, 69 appear under the series title of American Way of Life. The original edition of Fata Morgana USA was published in 1967 and gathered a selection of 40 of the photomontages along with a text by Renau. I have never seen a copy of the original edition so I do not know about the quality of reproductions or layout design. Interestingly, from 1958 until his death in 1982, Renau lived in Germany so the book was published by the Eulenspiegel publishing company in Berlin. Eulenspiegel was a government approved publisher of satire in the GDR. This, of course would be the perfect publisher for a book that trains its spotlights on the failures of the bourgeois ideals of capitalism at a time when Germany itself was divided, but oddly and much to Renau’s indignation, the entire edition of the book was exported.

48 full color reproductions appear in Josep Renau Fotomontador which was published in 1985 as a part of the Rio de Luz series from the Fondo de Cultura Economica in Mexico City. This is the book that gets mention in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s Photobook Vol. 2. It was published in 3000 copies and is a functional, if not somewhat disposable presentation of the work (It isn’t the book that you like but the work itself). Think approximate size, length and reproduction quality of the soft cover Les Grands Maitres de la Photo series published by Gruppo Editoriale in Milan around the same time.

In 1989, the IVAM Center Julio Gonzalez (Institut Valencia D’Art Modern) held an exhibition of Renau and published the first complete catalog Fata Morgana USA The American Way of Life series. This book reproduces all 69 of the series in full color, except for three which had been lost by Renau and were reproduced in black and white from file copies. Being that this is the complete set, I think it is an important book from the bibliography of Renau but it does have its detractions. I am not crazy about the paper (too glossy; one could argue that the ‘gloss’ accents the language of capitalism but I don‘t see that as intentional here) and the reproductions are a bit on the weak side (possibly due to the paper choice). If you peek under the dust jacket you get treated to a giant inked dollar sign on the front cover board.

The best book on Renau also came from the IVAM Center in 2003 and is called simply Josep Renau. It is an almost complete inventory of his photomontages as well poster designs (including Mexican movie posters), magazine cover designs, paintings, and murals but unlike many other ‘catalog raisonnes’ this does not reproduce the works as postage stamp sized illustrations but instead at a size adequate enough to enjoy the nuances of each piece. The reproductions are very nicely printed. This 440 page book comes housed in a slipcase.

Here the entire Fata Morgana USA series is reproduced but what captures my interest more is seeing all of the poster designs he created during the Spanish Civil War and the Futuro magazine covers from WWII. These take the lessons of Russian constructivism and infuse them with a Latin American sensibility. This mostly felt when Renau includes characters whose eyes speak volumes. In classic Russian constructivism, Lenin or Stalin’s eyes look towards the greater, external future while Renau’s protagonists look inward, unafraid of personal feeling while at the same time looking to the collective benefit.

The IVAM Center, I guess since they were the repository of Renau’s archive after his death, has a third book on Renau called Josep Renau Fotomontador that was published in 2006 but I have not tracked down a copy and since the other two cover this territory it may be superfluous except for the Renau completist.

The last book I will mention is also from the IVAM Center and it is a book that I picked up by chance when a couple years ago the New Museum in NYC was moving from their old Broadway location to their Chelsea space. Before they moved they had a book sale that went on for a couple months and the sale items were 3 dollars for soft cover (no matter the size) and 6 dollars for hardcover. They replenished the sale with new books more frequently to the move date. La Ciudad Collage: La Coleccion del IVAM is one that I picked up for 3 dollars that is now one of my favorites as a collection of collage artists inspired by The City as a metaphor of modernity.

Including artists as diverse in discipline and idea from Paul Citeron to Fischli and Weiss it is broken into different chapters that cover the inhabitants, the streets, the architecture and even a chapter on the grotesque. Not just staying within the boundaries of collage as the book’s title may suggest, it presents artists like Lee Friedlander whose images often create a sense of collage even within one single photograph or George Grosz whose paintings have the same ‘cut and paste’ confusion of space and relationships.

I doubt that this could be found for 3 dollars but many of the IVAM catalogs including the Josep Renau titles I mention above as well as one on John Heartfield are available at very reasonable prices should you accept to pay the shipping fees from Spain.