Josep Renau (València, 1907 – East Berlin, 1982) was an exceptional poster artist, a muralist of international stature and an orthodox communist until the end of his life. His commitment to the Second Republic led him to a long exile, first in Mexico and then in the Democratic Republic of Germany, which did nothing but multiply his magnetic work, perfect his technique and leave a lasting mark among the best of the communist intelligentsia of the world. twentieth century. The Valencian Institute of Modern Art (IVAM) inaugurates the exhibition Renau’s exiles, open to the public until January 9, 2022, which focuses on the work carried out in Mexico City (1939-1958) and, later, in eastern Germany (1958-1982).
Some exceptional frescoes by Josep Renau in a Valencia mansion are in danger due to their state of conservation
The IVAM curator Joan Ramón Escrivá, curator of the exhibition together with Josep Salvador, recognizes the “historical debt to the figure of Renau”, with an “intermittent but constant” presence in the Valencian museum, which preserves the artist’s funds. “We needed a larger project to review aspects that have not been sufficiently addressed,” Escrivá explains to elDiario.es.
The exhibition, which includes Renau’s muralism in Mexico, his series The American Way of Life and street art in the German period, “puts the focus on the context of its time, with documentary materials that help us understand it better.” The exhibition also incorporates works by contemporary artists such as the Mexican David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Soviet Alexander Zhitomirsky or the German photo editor Dieter Urbach. In addition, the exhibition “firmly” vindicates the figure of the artist Manuela Ballester, Renau’s first wife and sister of the sculptor Antonio Ballester. The painter, poster artist and writer was another exceptional figure on the communist left.
“We wanted to broaden the focus of analysis a little more”, says the curator of the exhibition. The Valencian artist arrived in June 1939, a few months after the end of the Civil War, in Mexico, a country that hosted a large part of the Spanish exile and in which Renau began a collaboration with the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, whom he had met in his hometown during the war while the Mexican fought against the rebel side.
The most emblematic work of this exceptional collaboration was the mural Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, reproduced in the IVAM exhibition, a commission from the Mexican Union of Electricians carried out by Siqueiros, Renau and the Mexican artists Antonio Pujol and Luís Arenal. “Contact with Siqueiros strongly marked Renau’s work, he recognizes it in his writings, and it was like a glove because he already had a long career as a photomontage”, declares the exhibition’s curator, who highlights the collective work with modern techniques of photomontage. Escrivá underlines the “sophisticated techniques for analyzing space and the behavior of the dynamic spectator.”
Josep Renau, beyond his collaboration with Siqueiros (a communist as much or more orthodox than him, with a very relevant role in Trotsky’s assassination attempts carried out by Moscow), also had to earn his chickpeas with the Estudio Imagen / Publicidad workshop Plástica, between 1950 and 1958, to carry out commercial work with his closest family and some external collaborators. The workshop led to a remarkable production of motion picture posters.
The experience with Siqueiros also led to “new ways of understanding the practice of mural painting at the service of building socialism,” says Escrivá, who emphasizes the collective work model that Renau later exported to socialist Germany. “Renau is going to Germany for the construction of a socialist society, he did not know any German, it was quite a risky decision,” recalls the conservative of the IVAM. In East Berlin, he became an “artist official” before the interest of the cultural managers of the GDR in his photomontages. “There is an interesting dialectic between Renau’s artistic interests and the interests of many bureaucrats of socialism who did not understand his proposals,” says Escrivá.
“His muralist technique in Germany acquired a lot of sophistication due to the equipment that he was capable of creating, he left a work that is still very valid due to the formal resolution of the techniques, he used to use ceramic murals typical of the Valencian tradition,” explains the curator of the shows, who also alludes to Renau’s “analysis of space, atmosphere and light changes”.
The IVAM exhibition includes an international seminar on Josep Renau, directed by Jordana Mendelson and to be held in October, and a participatory mural occupation project called Torna, Renau !. Do not miss it.