Several years ago, I paid a visit to Tàpies at his home in the ritzy Barcelona neighborhood of Gracia. As we drank tea and spoke in a fumbling mixture of Castilian and Catalan, I stole glances at the Mirós and Picassos that flickered throughout the dimly lit apartment and awkwardly tried to edge the conversation toward the subject I’d come to discuss. I had read his memoir and his many essays on art, but I was still perplexed by the sphinxlike quality of his paintings. Above all, I could not get over the fact that his best work—including most of the canvases hung in the Dia show—comes from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, decades that coincided with the reign of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. I wanted to know how Tàpies had managed to execute work so modern and, at times, subversive under such a notoriously repressive regime. But when I asked the octogenarian painter what it was like to live in Spain during the Franco years, he just smiled and said, “That was a long time ago.”
His brush-off seemed like a perfect example of el pacto del olvido, or the pact of forgetting, a widespread phenomenon that was the inspiration for Giles Tremletts best-selling The Ghosts of Spain. Like many of his compatriots who were pleased with how quickly the country had moved toward a stable democracy following Franco’s death in 1975, Tàpies did not wish to discuss the past. But as an artist whose success defied the odds in a period marked by brutality and intolerance, he was not going to get off the hook that easily. In the end, he budged, giving me a glimpse into an era that, for many of us, is still somewhat of a mystery.
The most well-known story of an artist in the Franco era ends with the assassination and anonymous burial of the Andalusian poet Federico García Lorca. That dark tale has been the focus of no less than two New Yorker articles in recent years, and it is only a matter of time before the incident makes it to the big screen. Yet Tàpies’s story paints a very different picture of what happened to artists living under Franco. Despite being an artist whose ideological résumé (atheist, communist, supporter of Catalan autonomy) defied three of the regime’s defining characteristics (Catholic, anti-socialist, nationalist), somehow, in the second half of the 20th century, Tàpies became the reigning cultural king of post-Picasso Spain.
In 1936, when the Civil War erupted, Tàpies was about to turn 13. During that period, the Spanish art world had more than its fair share of Alfred Rosenbergsconservative critics who cannibalized the very vanguard movements that their fellow Spaniards had conceived in the first quarter of the 20th century. But even the most ardent enemies of Cubism ceased their polemics when they realized that artists mimicking Velásquez and Goya wouldn’t exactly usher in a new Golden Age; the irreversible advents of photography and Impressionism had forever altered the landscape of 20th-century painting, and it was too late to go back to the good old days. By the time Tàpies participated in his first public exhibition in 1948, the pendulum had swung away from nostalgic revivalism and once more toward the avant-garde.
But the truce with modern art was tentative and certainly did not guarantee the right to free expression. In our interview, Tàpies remembered that during his first solo show in 1950, the dealer Josep Gudiol became frantic when a gallery patron complained of the sacrilegious nature of one his etchings, which depicted a grotesque priest. Without a second thought, Gudiol tore it from the gallery wall.
Around that time, Tàpies was still working in a Surrealist-style, producing canvases marked by de Chirico-like voids and subjects with the unblinking, almond-shaped eyes of Paul Klees cats. But as figuration began to disappear from his work, he found his own voice. Abstraction became his style of choice, as it was a language in which rebellious imagery, such as Catalan flags or tributes to martyred Republican leaders, could be conveyed without necessarily attracting the ire of the Franco-ist censor. And even if the regime picked up on the discordant tones in Tàpies’s work, it simply did not consider abstract art to be a threat.
“Painting during the Franco regime was less difficult than painting in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy,” Tàpies said, “because they thought that modern art wasn’t important and didn’t actually influence daily life.”
In fact, there is a famous 1951 photograph of Franco taking in a room full of abstract art, including work by Tàpies, that sums up the dictator’s indifference. As the story goes, when one of Franco’s aides explained that they were standing in the “room of the revolutionaries,” he responded, “As long as this is what the revolutionaries are making, everything will be fine,” leaving his entire entourage in stitches.
But Tàpies was less bothered by Franco’s flippant kiss-off than by the criticism from his own comrades in the Communist Party, who were pushing the doctrine of Socialist Realism. He said that when he lived abroad in Paris in 1951—his only lengthy sojourn outside of Catalonia—he grappled with the direction of his art. “Since Franco attacked Socialist Realism,” he said, “I thought initially that it was good, because I figured that everything that Franco criticized was good.” But when he saw the movement’s actual products, he found them disillusioning. “In Paris, the best artists were not the Socialist Realists. You had to respect them, because the French communists played such an important role in the resistance against Germany, but it wasn’t my school. Deep down, and forgive me for this pretension but I have to say it, I desire a more profound art.”
What Tàpies didn’t account for was how an art free of overtly partisan messages could itself be vulnerable to political exploitation. While Franco may have made light of modern art’s impotence in daily life, he took its potential for cultural diplomacy very seriously. With the Cold War brewing, Spain had less to fear from world powers like Britain and the U.S., which had deserted plans to install a provisional government in Madrid in order to concentrate on the Soviet Union. Thanks to the Red Threat, Franco was no longer public enemy No. 1. Apart from 1950, the dictator revised his staunchly isolationist policy: Spain was free to flaunt its nationalist sentiments abroad, and it returned to the Venice Biennale after an eight-year hiatus in 1951.
“To go to the Venice Biennale, you had to have the good opinion of not only the minister of culture but also the minister of external affairs, because they were very wrapped up in the idea that Spain must project an image of liberalism with its art,” Tàpies said. The notion that modern art equaled liberty had been formulated by the U.S. State Department years earlier, when it began coordinating exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist art behind the Iron Curtain.
In 1958, Spain devoted its entire pavilion to Tàpies. He was awarded the UNESCO and David Bright prizes, making it the most resplendent moment in his career up until that point. But the sweetness of his victories soon turned bitter when he discovered that the crates carrying his canvases to and from Venice were labeled “Propaganda of Spain.”
From then on, Tàpies did everything he could to keep his art from any kind of state-sponsored exhibition. It wasn’t easy, as by then he was widely collected and had a hard time preventing privately owned works from materializing in shows without his consent. But when one such work showed up in an exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery, whose catalogue note described the participating artists as Franco loyalists, Tàpies took judicial action against the Spanish government officials who had organized the show. He won the suit based on a 19th-century precedent that granted artists rights regarding public display of their works, even after they are sold. The case attracted the attention of a reporter at London’s Observer, but that’s about the last we heard of Tàpies’s struggle with the Franco regime in the English-speaking press.
Although Tàpies hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about the many decades he endured under Franco, his paintings—which could not find better kinship than among the postwar masterpieces in the Dia’s permanent collection—speak volumes. Despite their somber veneer, the captivating canvases radiate an extraordinary message: Even in the most desolate periods of Franco-era Spain, there was life after Guernica.