Equipo Crónica was set up in 1964 by three artists from Valencia, Rafael Solbes (1940-1981), Manuel Valdés (1942) and Juan Antonio Toledo (1940-1995), although the latter left the group a few months later. The duo remained active until 1981, the year Solbes died. Until the end, Equipo Crónica was a high-profile concern in contemporary Spanish art and a respected presence in artistic circles in France, Italy and Germany.
Now, fifty years after the group was founded, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, with the generous sponsorship of BBK Fundazioa, presents the most extensive retrospective to date, covering Equipo Crónica's entire creative career from 1964 to 1981. The last substantial exhibition of their work, organized by IVAM in Valencia in 1989, subsequently travelled to Madrid's Queen Sofia National Art Centre Museum.
Featuring major works from many collections both public and private, the exhibition gives pride of place to a large group on loan for the occasion from the IVAM. Nearly one hundred and fifty works are housed in two areas of the Museum: 74 paintings and sculptures in series are displayed in the BBK gallery and room 33 (on the second floor of the modern building) has 72 drawings, engravings, posters and original documents by Estampa Popular in Valencia, the group Solbes, Toledo and Valdés were members of before founding Equipo Crónica. Here the Equipo's habitual style can be seen in its formative stage.
Art historians Tomàs Llorens Serra (who wrote the original short essays that provided theoretical backing for the group) and Boye Llorens Peters curate the exhibition. The catalogue published by the Museum to accompany the exhibition contains essays by the curators and historian Valeriano Bozal, and an exhaustive timeline put together by Michèle Dalmace, authoress of the catalogue raisonné of Equipo Crónica. Ms. Dalmace worked with the Museum back in 1988 on the catalogue of the group's graphic art and "multiples".
Against a background of Pop and what came to be known as new figuration, Equipo Crónica made a name for itself thanks to a number of exhibitions in Paris in the 1960s. Their creative activity, deliberately linked to the social and political situation in Spain at the time, involved working as anonymous members of a team, using flat inks and producing series of images, many of which evoked other images drawn from the media, or critically appropriated references from history and art. What set the group slightly apart was its ability to conjure up in visual terms a particular era in Spanish history, one that roughly coincides with the final ten years of the Franco régime and the beginning of the transition to democracy.
1.- Estampa Popular de Valencia and the beginnings of Equipo Crónica
Room 33 has works by the Estampa Popular movement, which appeared in Madrid in 1959 led by José García Ortega. It subsequently spread to other places, including the Basque Country, with Agustín Ibarrola, to give one example close to home. The movement arrived in Valencia in 1963 and had its origins in a group exhibition in Italy of Spanish anti-Franco art promoted by leading critics like Giulio Carlo Argan and Mario de Micheli. Solbes, Valdés and the curator of the present exhibition all took part in the preliminary meetings for the Italian show, and came to the conclusion that Estampa Popular's objectives and resources (opposition to the Franco régime, poetic realism as opposed to the prevailing abstraction and the vindication of the print as a medium of expression) were not enough and that a new art group was needed. In November and December 1964, Equipo Crónica arrived on the scene in Valencia. For two or three years, the new group's work was very much bound up with Estampa Popular's, whether in prints, posters, calendars, postcards or comics. But the members of Equipo Crónica soon felt the need to work with realist themes more closely linked to the social and political situation in Spain at the time. So they started using images from the media and advertising, taking a systematically reflexive approach to them and being careful to ensure the kind of distancing underscored by the anonymity of the works. Until at least 1966 they liberally reproduced, reiterated and deformed the images they used.
2.- Early series (1967-1971)
1967 was a decisive year for the group, with highly acclaimed exhibitions in Paris, Valencia San Sebastián and Barcelona. An interest in producing series soon led to a group of works from 1967, 1968 and 1969 called The Recovery. The series juxtaposes images from the mass media with others from 17th- and 18th-century Spanish painting, including works by El Greco, Velázquez and Goya. They used the iconic status of such works to satirize events and aspects of the current social and political situation in Spain. This reaction to their surroundings was very much a part of the Equipo's creative procedure. At the time, Spain's Ministry of Information & Tourism, with Manuel Fraga at its head, created a series of campaigns designed to soft-focus the Franco régime and attract international tourism; these were the years when, according to Fraga, "Spain is different". The "appropriation" of the Spanish school continued with Guernica 69, a series presented in 1969 at the Grises gallery in Bilbao. The central theme was the attempt, in late 1968, to bring Picasso's painting back to Spain from the MOMA in New York, where it was then deposited. Equipo Crónica used this move as a starting point for one of their finest series, involving an imaginary tale of the anxiously awaited return of the 20th century's most famous work of art. The third series from this particular period is Autopsy of a Profession, a meditation on the art of painting that focuses on another quintessential Spanish painting, Velázquez's Las Meninas.
3.- Police and Culture series (1971)
Despite also being a response to external events, this series represents something of a break with the earlier ones. It was inspired by the May 1968 Paris trade union and student street protests and the inevitable police repression. With Franco weakened, the fear of a stormy end to the dictatorship led to a state of emergency being declared; the Trial of Burgos was perhaps the most extreme episode of those turbulent times. Solbes and Valdés also received an intimidatory visit from the sinister and none-too-gentle Politico-Social Brigade. In this highly repressive atmosphere, they produced large-scale paintings that were exhibited at the College of Architects of Catalonia. The year before, Miró had done the same with a large, ephemeral frieze he destroyed two months later. The Equipo's works, which were later shown in Madrid and other Spanish cities, are large 200 x 200 cm paintings that include policemen in threatening or aggressive poses. The influential magazine Triunfo devoted (not for the first time) one of their covers to the Equipo and novelist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán published a long article about them. Artists in Barcelona, however, criticised what art critic Mª Lluïsa Borrás called the "plastic pamphlet", which provided the title of an article in another magazine, Destino, arguing in favour of more conceptual positions and dismissing the work of Equipo Crónica as opportunistic.
4.- Noir series (1972)
One of the group's finest, most homogeneous series. Although the scenes of violence and action from US crime fiction and film noir provide the common thread to the paintings, the themes are once again threaded through with a critical questioning of creativity itself. Here fiction acts as a metaphor for a generic atmosphere of violence that also affects the world of painting.
5.- Portraits, Still-life and Landscape series (1972-1973)
The series was painted for the group's first individual exhibition in France, held, at painter Antonio Saura's instigation, at the Staedler gallery in Paris. Here Solbes and Valdés returned to Spanish painting, this time to explore the more traditional genres using their standard themes and re-interpreting the actual features of the painting. Once again, these are paintings of paintings; now however, the goal involves new technical effects and an emphasis on the elements of painting itself, including, ironically, the frames of the works.
6.- About Painting (1973-1975)
During this period, Equipo continued their meditations on the role of art and artists in the Craft and Craftsmen series and, quintessentially, in The Painter Painted multiple. In contrast to the neo-avant-garde game-plans of the 1960s, which, with Joseph Beuys at the head, forged the image of the artist as chaman, Equipo Crónica offered an image of normalcy that, in Seeing and Making Paintings, seemed to indicate some kind of creative crisis, one that launched a period of false starts that often ended in unfinished series. In The Subversion of Signs they returned to the idea of the importance of realism to 20th-century art, juxtaposing images by Gutiérrez Solana and Schad or by Heartfield and Lissitzky. Two essential non-series works from this period are Guernica Cut Up and Eye Witness, giving a singular vision of history painting with echoes of Manet and Ernst, and once again providing the kind of meditation on painting characteristic of this whole period.
7.- A Political Art? Pamplona Encounters. The Poster. The Wall. The Plot (1972-1977)
Between 1972 and 1977, Equipo Crónica returned to a more explicitly political approach in three series, The Poster, The Wall and The Plot, started by an action performed at the Pamplona Encounters, a legendary event in the annals of contemporary Spanish art promoted by composer Luis de Pablo and sponsored by the Huarte family. In 1972, the Equipo was invited to take part in this cultural festival and decided to use the occasion to denounce the current state of over-controlled, closely-policed freedom. To that end, they created 100 papier mâché multiples (The Spectator of Spectators)got up as agents of the Politico-Social Brigade. The action failed because people attending the event transformed it into a 'happening'the authorities pretended to turn a blind eye to. A year later, on the initiative of painter Antonio Saura, the Equipo took part in the Biennial in Paris with The Poster series in response to criticism by Mª Lluïsa Borrás a couple of years previously. The five large canvases that were supposed to demonstrate that art could take politics as its subject without becoming a mere pamphlet met with indifference from the critics. In 1975 Variations on a Wall, a less ambitious series dealing with the last executions by firing-squad under the dictatorship, was presented at the Venice Biennial. Variations returns to an objective approach to a specific event in contemporary Spanish political and social life. Shortly afterwards, Equipo started work on The Plot, for an exhibition in Paris, this time with the support of painter Eduardo Arroyo. A dozen triptychs focused on a range of aspects of Franco's life and included an observer seen from the back. But the death of Franco in November 1975 marked the beginning of the slow road to democracy, now known as the Transition. For artists like Arroyo, Solbes and Valdés, who had been in the forefront of cultural opposition to the Franco régime, the dictator's death ushered in a major change in their work and professional dealings.
8.- The Game of Billiards (1977)
This series, exhibited in Barcelona in 1978, marked the end of the crisis the Equipo suffered from 1973 on, by bolstering the group's original artistic personality and simply ignoring their isolation from the European art scenes then in vogue. Featuring the rather decadent iconography of an old billiards hall in Valencia, the series stressed the narrative and visual aspects developed from images they and their photographer friend Francisco Alberola had taken. As the curator of the present exhibition has remarked, this and the Noir series contain "some of the finest things the team ever did".
9.- Last Series (1977-1981)
In the last four years of the Equipo's working life, Solbes and Valdés worked on several series, including Travels and Cityscapes, without much critical success. Chronicle of the Transition focuses on the arrival of the much-acclaimed Guernica in Spain as a sort of allegory of Picasso's political commitment. In the meantime, in the unfinished The Public and the Private, they once again explored the theme of the special nature of painting. Solbes's death in 1981 brought Equipo Crónica's career to an abrupt end and also marked the passing of one of the most significant episodes in Spanish art in the 20th century.
In the image:
Equipo Crónica (Valencia, 1964-1981)
The Defeat of Samothrace, 1972
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid