Artist interview: Manolo Valdés (Equipo Crónica)

Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

We used ‘pop’ but questioned it. We took the images (language) but knew it had to be different from the United States. We felt that American pop lacked the political content. Lichtenstein, Warhol could be useful, but we had ahead of us quite a distinct challenge, as we faced a political situation very different from that encountered by US artists. Thus to us pop was a means to engage in a political battle, but also a way out and against the domineering artistic tendencies associated with Informel.

We relied heavily on historical painting, which we converted into pop. For us the Museo del Prado represented the utmost expression of popular culture. Its contents became our main source of inspiration and through our pop language we transformed legendary paintings belonging to the Spanish tradition – Goya, Velázquez – into prints for wide distribution. Turning high culture into mass culture proved to be a strong aesthetic exercise. Multiplication and wide diffusion were important elements for us, and thus we turned to printmaking.

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

We never considered ourselves pop artists. The world places you in this category and you accept it, but we didn’t work under the premises of this label. First there was ‘new figuration’, then came ‘realism’, and finally ‘pop’, we didn’t fit in any of these categories, we simply developed a new way of understanding figurative subject matter.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

Spain at the time was going through an anomalous situation. While most of the world in the wake of the Second World War was gradually finding a balance and returning to normality, Spain was moving in a completely different direction under Franco’s dictatorship. In this political climate, the Communist Party emerged as the most organised faction, while the socialist party had no weight, communism became the driving force for culture.

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

Protest was a hot topic at the time, and with Concentration or Quantity Becomes Quality (Concentración o La cantidad se transforma en calidad) we addressed it. Up until then Juan Genovés was the artist who had dealt most extensively with this theme. To us it seemed interesting how with his works he maintained a distanced position; he wasn’t empathetic with the subject matter. It was a difficult topic, one which impacted deeply many individuals, yet because of the mass participation it was devoid of singular feelings. It wasn’t easy to convey this cold and contained feeling associated with a protest. To a certain extent what we were trying to do was very similar to what Bertolt Brecht associated with press photography, a distanced view onto an event.

Socialist Realism and Pop Art in the Battle-Field (El realismo socialista y el Pop Art en el campo de batalla) is set in a battlefield where two opposing factions confront. The Americans, represented by pop art, are set in direct confrontation with the Russians, who uphold the socialist realist flag. The site of the battle, a jungle, is neutral, as it borrows its foliage from Rousseau’s jungle. So this is effectively a French – and by extension European – jungle. Finally the Spanish tradition is represented by Velázquez who sits in the bottom left corner. Velázquez plays the role of the narrator who is telling his viewers the story of this confrontation, relying on this impactful encounter.

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

Our imagery was borrowed from high culture, it belonged to the art historical cannon promoted by certain museums. They were all images that we had grown up with and respected. We were fascinated by these iconic paintings that appeared everywhere in picture books, photographs and drawings. Ultimately we decided to revisit them ironically.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

Yes we were aware of American pop, which was exhibited in Paris, but we were also aware of new figuration, so it was a combination of the two.  

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

Velázquez and Picasso were the two most iconic and commercially expensive type of artists. They were the most sought after in the same way that landscapes, still lives with flowers were commercially viable, as their subject matter was immediately recognizable. People were fascinated by these works they had great visibility and we were interested exactly in this widespread commercialization of cultural products.

Was there a feeling at the time that you doing something important and new, making a change…?

Although the imagery we were drawing on was well known among the general audience, we still felt we were doing something new with it. Ours was a type of political painting, that wanted to tackle directly and effectively the issues of the time. We wanted it to be clear and to the point. We exhibited in group exhibitions against the dictatorship.

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

The audience was polarised, depending on whether you were either for or against the regime.

Looking back at these works, what you do think about them now?

Today looking back at these works I feel very good about them. I don’t look back with nostalgia, but these paintings in fact seem very beautiful to me. I made the most of the moment in which they were made, although it is very difficult to accept that it is impossible to go back and modify or improve them.

September 2015