Pintadas. 1976-1979 – Manel Armengol

Pintadas. 1976-1979 – Manel Armengol

10.06.2023 — 09.09.2023

Pintadas. 1976-1979 is the first monographic exhibition by Manel Armengol (Badalona, 1949) at the RocioSantaCruz gallery. Carried out in collaboration with OJOS DE BUEY, a publishing house dedicated to Spanish documentary photography of the last 50 years, the exhibition brings together a photographic selection of 27 visual witnesses that allow us to observe, from the prism of the modern eye, the graffiti that appeared on the streets of Spain during the transition (1975-1982). It is a past moment from which to reflect on the hottest political news, today fragmented between left and right that threaten to shake the rights achieved by those who, during the 1970s, raised their voices and scribbled on the walls of Spanish cities.

In 1975, the most tyrannical military man in our contemporary history died after 36 years at the head of a long and cruel dictatorship. Thus began the period of transition to a utopian democratic freedom that sought to leave behind everything that characterised Francoism: authoritarianism, anti-communism, one-party rule, militarism, repression, ultra-Catholicism and ultra-nationalism. Franco’s death allowed the hitherto repressed counter-culture of the revolutionary left to take to the streets and reclaim the urban stage as an ideological battleground. All this without escaping the persecution of the police, who, as the direct heirs of Franco’s superstructures, continued the legacy of violence of the “democratic” state.

Walter Benjamin, in his famous article A Brief History of Photography (1931), already warned us of a key question for understanding photography, as Manel Armengol does: “It is significant that the debate has often been stuck on the aesthetics of photography as art, while the much more consistent social fact of photography as art, for example, has been overlooked,” Benjamin affirmed. A social photography whose pragmatic use at the beginning of the 1970s focused its lens on the anthropological and socially constituted space that became the streets of Spain. In this period of photographic scrutiny, from 1976 to 1979, civic movements, neighbourhood associations, extreme left-wing parties or even those sympathetic to the Franco regime were the main protagonists of a photojournalism aimed at creating heritage and history. In this sense, Manel Armengol stood out as part of a new generation of photojournalists who captured on their film negatives the path towards the social change they had longed for. Alongside him, names such as Colita and Pilar Aymerich laid the foundations of national photojournalism, a photography that, as we have learned from Benjamin, was sociologically awake.

Many of these graffiti, of which only Armengol’s have survived, demanded rights that had previously been taken away. Some came from anarchist, far-left, anti-NATO platforms, others from neighbourhood associations. With the new political system, those who had been oppressed made their protests visible, using walls all over the country as propaganda spaces. However, the reaction of the far right was immediate, leading to a textual dialogue between those who longed for freedom and those who were still anchored in Francoism. This textual violence is evident in the phrases or symbols that Armengol depicts with great precision, presenting himself as an apolitically neutral witness capable of visually understanding the scenario around him.

Each of the photographs in the exhibition was conceived in a specific space and time. In Barcelona, one of the most productive places for Armengol and his series Pintadas, the Marxist demands allow us to situate ourselves in the poorest neighbourhoods (Readmisión despedidos. PAN Y TRABAJO, at the Poblado Roca de Gavà, 1976); the monarchist ones, on the other hand, in Pedralbes (VIVA EL REY. UNIÓN MONÁRQUICA, 1979). These examples testify to the course and development of an active neighbourhood movement: when left-wing parties were finally legalised, the neighbourhood became one of the main political weapons of trade unionism, where the left was concentrated without voice or vote during the lifetime of the Generalissimo. In the same way, in the working class city, property speculation created a space of urban violence for the working class. In the photograph La Verneda Alta (Barcelona, 1976), Armengol positions his lens on a billboard that, a priori, was supposed to make tourism and the rise of post-Fordist capitalism visible. Located in a shanty town, the neighbours transformed the advertising message into a political one: “La especulación anda suelta”.

The anti-democratic graffiti, on the other hand, appeared in those areas of the national geography most historically linked to fascism and therefore to the extreme right (Valencia, Madrid…). These photographs can be understood through Hannah Arendt’s argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Banality of Evil (1963), the German-born philosopher analyses those who, in our case in particular, acted under the obsolete regime of fascism. She focuses on the continuation of the political battle that was fought on the streets and walls of Spain. Photographs of swastikas associated with German fascism (Valencia, 1979) or writings fanning the flames of the Falange (FALANGE EN PIE, Palma de Mallorca, 1976) illustrate Arendt’s idea: fascism survived thanks to those supporters who followed the rules of the system in which they were placed, the Franco regime, without reflecting on the seriousness or the results of their actions. These anonymous actors were nothing more than faithful pawns who obeyed the orders that had been implanted in their psyche, with little regard for the inevitable loss of freedoms that their actions could cause.

But not all the graffiti focused on the never-ending battle between left and right. In some of them we see a problematisation of religion, strongly imposed by the primary states of Francoism. This idea can be seen in some of the works selected from Armengol’s entire production: “Curas a trabajar” is written on the wall of a church in La Seu d’Urgell (Lleida, 1976), while in the background a priest shows us his disturbed face. In others, a nascent Spanish feminism shouted some of the demands that are still echoed in the 8M demonstrations today. As if we had made no progress from 1977 to the present day, the photograph “A MUJER VIOLADA PICHA CORTADA” allows us to see the problem of machismo that has been ingrained in our culture for as long as time has been time. Francoism, therefore, did not only affect a specific sector of the population (see the revolutionary left), but also permeated all the pores of a society that had no place for women and, in short, for anyone who came under the heading of “vagos y maleantes”.

Many of the photographs are displayed on the gallery wall as if they were the graffiti of the street itself. A street that we pass through every day without being aware of the political conflicts that were taking place at the time. The exterior space enters into the exhibition space, allowing a dialogue between inside/outside, between spectator/flâneur contemplating the city and the history of his country.

The documentary gaze of the series does not end in 1979: today we only have to adopt Armengol’s anthropological methodology to open our eyes, analyse the landscape around us carefully and perceive urban space as a stage and a political territory. This is one of the tools and claims of photojournalism in contemporary art: to look carefully at where we have come from in order to redirect where we are going. In this case, with photography, we think of our streets as a space of political struggle, because at no time have they ceased to be – nor will they cease to be – a blank canvas for the popular intellect that, in its time, won the most basic rights that we enjoy today.

Sergio Rodríguez Beltrán, Contemporary art historian




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