The Museo Reina Sofía presents the first retrospective on the film work of Josep Renau during his time in exile. This output, chiefly shown for the first time on this occasion, has been recovered after a long research into German and Mexican audiovisual archives. Renau's film work concentrates the poetics of Spanish exile, the synthesis between visual arts and information into the newsreel genre and the attempt to think drawing as a mass media.
Few figures are as relevant to the historical avant-garde movements and origins of twentieth-century Spanish culture as Josep Renau (1907–1982), a pivotal creator in every sphere he carried out his practice as an artist, theorist and agent. Nonetheless, his film output is virtually unknown and would become paradigmatic during his exile, and, despite his ties to cinema as a poster artist and importer of photomontage in Spain, his relationship with the medium stretches even further. In Russian cinema, which he introduced to Spain during the Civil War, Renau saw a genuine ethical and aesthetic model for art, drawing inspiration from the essays of theorists such as Vsevolod Pudovkin for his montages, and writing articles, particularly pieces in which he could put forward his opinions. Moreover, he never saw his film-making being at odds with the rest of his visual work, and directing films was vital at certain points of his life, to the extent that it practically dominated his oeuvre in the first four years of his time in Berlin.
During his exile in Mexico, Renau made at least five short films for the producer Manuel Barbachano Ponce, who had given work in his production company to different friends and artists who had fled the Civil War, for instance Jomi García Ascot (1927–1986), Carlos Velo (1909–1988) and Walter Reuter (1906–2005). In Mexico, he experimented with the moving image in his films, coining the concept “graphic film” to describe his personal approach to animated film, which, in turn, gave rise to his political vignettes.
In 1958 he moved to Berlin and started to work in the East German audiovisual industry, his first works caricatured observations on current affairs, in which he employed drawings on glass to create an interesting hybrid of animation and a filmic record, tracing the footprints of The Mystery of Picasso, by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1956). These would be followed by more personal films which, unfortunately, he never finished, and which reach us now in different states of conservation. Of these “graphic film” projects the most important, and the most complete due to Renau’s motivation and commitment towards it, is Lenin Poem (1959).
Josep Renau’s film output has always appeared as a curious side note in the studies devoted to his work: because some of the films were never finished and others disappeared, today establishing a reasoned filmography of his work remains a difficult task. Nevertheless, the few films of his that have reached us constitute, just as his graphic work does, a melting pot of political, ethical and aesthetic concerns worthy of further consideration. From a present-day perspective, these films are congruent with his artistic and political thinking: on the one hand, they are directly linked to mid-twentieth-century revolutionary imagery and work as a social critique and aesthetic counterweight; and, on the other, the use of a mass-media medium such as animated film enables political ideas to be disseminated whilst moving away from the idea of the unique artwork, acquired and collected, that Renau unflinchingly rejected. The interpretation of the political climate also meant these “graphic films” portrayed the cosmopolitan and committed sensibility of Spanish artists in exile.
First session: Wednesday, 19 June / Second session: Wednesday, 26 June
La construcción del Canal de Suez (Constructing the Suez Canal)
Mexico, 1952–1955, b/w, 35mm transferred to digital, 1’
La tercera dimensión (The Third Dimension, report in Cine-Revista)
Mexico, 1952–1955, b/w, 35mm transferred to digital, 3’
Credits from Cine Verdad
Mexico, 1956, b/w, 35mm transferred to digital, 1’
Nuevos timbres (New Timbres, report in Cine-Revista)
Mexico, 1953, b/w, 35mm transferred to digital, 2’
Zeitgezeichnet 3. Ein hartnäckiges Volk (Topical Drawings 3. Stubborn People)
Germany, 1958, b/w, 35mm transferred to digital, 8’
Zeitgezeichnet 2. Stürmische Zeit (Topical Drawings 2. Tempestuous Times)
Germany, 1958, b/w, 35mm transferred to digital, 12’
Zeitgezeichnet 4 (Topical Drawings 4)
Germany, 1958, b/w, 35mm transferred to digital, 9’
Zeitgezeichnet 1. Eine fruchtbare Wüste (Topical Drawings 1. A Fertile Desert)
Germany, 1958, b/w, silent, 35mm transferred to digital, 7’
Zeitgezeichnet. Politisches Poem (Topical Drawings. Political Poem)
Germany, 1958, b/w, silent, 35mm transferred to digital, 7’
In the first session, the series is presented by its curators, Chema González and Luis E. Parés.
This session features screenings of films Renau made in Mexico and the short films he directed in East Germany. His new life of exile in Mexico is recounted by his friend Manuel Barbachano in Nuevos timbres (New Timbres) through his participation in a competition to renew the picture-postcard image of the nation. Renau contributed to the country’s powerful audiovisual industry with anonymous and fragmented, yet remarkably unique, contributions. La tercera dimension (The Third Dimension), the only Mexican graphic reportage piece to be recovered in full, is a story of perspective in visual arts; the credits designed for the news broadcast Cine Verdad (Cinema Truth), with a large, all-knowing mechanical eye, are an homage to Dziga Vertov and Soviet documentary film-making, while the animation of La construcción del Canal de Suez (Constructing the Suez Canal) points to a particular genre, dubbed “graphic film” by the artist, which would be fully realised in East Germany. It was there that he would make his own television programme Zeitgezeichchne (Topical Drawings), in which he used this new visual and filmic medium to transcend the static language of drawing, harnessing graphic illustration through information. Renau’s “graphic films”, characterised as a hybrid of animation, documentary records and the aesthetics of agitprop, are screened for the first time in this session and constitute a fascinating and original discovery in the avant-garde, visual arts, technology and mass media.
First session: Thursday, 20 June / Second session: Thursday, 27 June
Petrograd 1917 ( Lenin Poem)
Germany, 1960, b/w, silent, 35mm transferred to digital, 14’
The American Way of Life. Ein Berich über die amerikanische Lebenswelt mit Fotomontagen von José Renau (A Report on the American Way of Life with Photomontages by José Renau)
Germany, 1962, b/w, 35mm transferred to digital, 25’
Petrograd 1917 (named Lenin Poem by Renau in his creative process and appearing in this form in many publications) is an animation piece which, although incomplete, was the most ambitious of all the “graphic film” projects the film-maker undertook in East Germany, in which he mixed animation techniques with revolutionary graphic art from the 1920s. What is conserved here is without sound, although we do know that music was intended for the film and Renau had negotiated with Hans Eisler to compose a music score. In 1961, after being unable to finish the film the way he wanted due to disagreements with the director of German state television, Deutsche Fernsehfunk, Renau gave up on his work with the broadcaster. This session also features the screening of The American Way of Life (1962), an unreleased report by Deutsche Fernsehfunk on Renau and his most famous series of photomontages, in which the film-maker describes both his artistic process and the ideology that led him to produce the work.
First session: Friday, 21 June / Second session: Friday, 28 June
Eva Vizcarra, Rafael Casañ
Josep Renau. El arte en peligro (Josep Renau. Art in Danger)
Spain, 2018, colour, DVD, 78’
In the first session, the film will be presented by its directors, Eva Vizcarra and Rafael Casañ.
Josep Renau. El arte en peligro (Josep Renau. Art in Danger) is, thus far, the most complete audiovisual approach to this multifaceted and indefatigable figure. Shot in Valencia and Germany, the film takes the viewer around the streets of Cabañal, the scene of the artist’s childhood, before travelling to the erstwhile German Democratic Republic and contemplating the monumental murals he made in the early 1970s – still conserved in the city of Halle, formerly Halle-Neustandt. The film profoundly explores his period of exile, delving into the living contradiction of an artist always searching for revolution, even at the expense of not accepting its disappointments. It also assembles the voices and testimonies of artist Marta Hoffman, a friend of Renau’s; José Miguel G. Cortés, director of the Valencian Institute of Modern Art; his biographer, Fernando Bellón; art critic Manuel García; and Doro Balaguer, a friend and the creator of the Josep Renau Foundation, as well as numerous others.