The two exiles of the anti-capitalist Josep Renau, the muralist who preceded the graffiti artists | Culture

His photomontages and murals continue to make an impact, despite the saturation of images in today’s society. This was what Josep Renau (Valencia, 1907-East Berlin, 1982) wanted when he composed his fierce criticisms of capitalism or his huge urban paintings, which were to indoctrinate the working class: to impact the viewer’s conscience with their messages. Most of his works were made during the exile of his “motherland”, as he called Spain, a long 43-year stage of his life that focuses the exhibition that has been presented this Wednesday at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern ( IVAM), made up of two hundred pieces, some monumental, including photomontages, murals, paintings, posters and films.

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Republican communist and introducer of the art of the avant-garde, Renau was director general of Fine Arts during the Civil War and played a key role both in the transfer of works from the Prado Museum to safeguard them from the bombings in Madrid, and in commissioning Picasso of what would end up being the Guernica. At the end of the war he left Spain and went through a French concentration camp before living first in Mexico (1939-1958) and then in the German Democratic Republic (1958-1982).

Room of the Berlin stage by Josep Renau, with his sketches for murals.
Room of the Berlin stage by Josep Renau, with his sketches for murals.
Miguel Lorenzo / © Miguel Lorenzo

For this reason, the exhibition tour begins by alluding to the relationship between Renau and the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who incorporated the Valencian artist, with whom he shared ideology, to the international team that made the mural. Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, one of the milestones of Mexican revolutionary muralism. A reproduction of this work, two paintings by Siqueiros declared a national monument in their country and a large representation of the movie posters from Renau’s Mexican period make up the Mexican part of the show, which can be seen until January 9.

Works by the Soviet Zhitomirsky have also been incorporated so that they can dialogue with those of Renau and there is a section dedicated to his partner, Manuela Ballester, without whom “the work of the Valencian poster artist could not be understood”, according to José Ramón Escrivà, curator of the exhibition, together with Josep Salvador. Renau draws the confrontation between Mexico and the United States on the one hand, and between the Democratic Republic and the German Federal Republic on the other, from paintings and murals that have the “hope” of making art operative. In the last years of his life, he traveled to Spain on several occasions, without ever settling again. His life was already in Berlin.

Sketch of the murals for the student residence in the German city of Halle Neustadt (1968-1974)
Sketch of the murals for the student residence in the German city of Halle Neustadt (1968-1974)

The show also exhibits the complete series of photomontages, perhaps Renau’s best known, The American Way of Life, an acid vision of American capitalism with which he contrasts the traditional vision of “American domestic happiness” in the Cold War context between Soviets and Americans. Racism, the “traps” of popular culture or the manipulation of the commercial image of women, understood as sexual objects, “are objects of their attacks”, Escrivà adds.

'The Big Parade',de la serie 'American Way of Life', de 1957, de Josep Renau.
‘The Big Parade’,de la serie ‘American Way of Life’, de 1957, de Josep Renau.

The third section of the exhibition reflects “the new forms of expression” that Renau found upon his arrival in East Germany, where art no longer appears only in drawings and paintings, but also in the urban image of cities. Renau incorporates murals in lobbies in his early years in Berlin, while, later, he “gathers a new perspective rebuilding the bombed cities” in the Second World War, and, in this new challenge, “is incorporated into a public program integration of art and building ”, says Salvador. Some of his impressive sketches now reproduced in the show were not made into murals or were destroyed.

Josep Salvador, Nuria Enguita and Josep Ramon Escrivà, before the reproduction of the mural by Siqueiros and Renau, among others.
Josep Salvador, Nuria Enguita and Josep Ramon Escrivà, before the reproduction of the mural by Siqueiros and Renau, among others.Miguel Lorenzo / © Miguel Lorenzo

“This public projection of Renau’s muralism and his often subversive message have influenced graffiti artists and give it added validity,” says Escrivà. “It is true that he does not work underground, but works on commission, as many urban artists do now. Many graffiti artists see Renau as an antecedent and a myth ”, adds the curator.

“There is a universalism, an internationalism, which comes from what is thought as much as from what is lived,” says the director of the IVAM, Nuria Enguita. And there is an understanding of the relationship between fascism and capitalism and a knowledge of its contradictions, which is both thought and direct experience. Because the Mexican and Berlin exiles are two exiles on the border. Drawn on the same line of confrontation: from Mexico that suffers the border pressure of the US empire and Berlin divided from the Cold War ”, concludes the director of the museum, which has in deposit the funds of the Renau Foundation, an artist also claimed in recent years by the Reina Sofía Museum. Previously, however, he fell into oblivion for a long time, perhaps due to his identification with the repressive regime of the GDR, according to the art historian Oliver Sukrow, and outside of artistic considerations.

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