Artist interview: Mari Chordà

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?

Yes, the label we were using was ‘pop art’, or colloquially, ‘pop’.

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

No, I never considered myself a pop artist, although I’m conscious that, from the time I arrived in Paris in 1965, I began to use new colours: I used bright, contrasting colours with no shyness; I was making paintings on different supports: canvas, cardboard, wood etc … In addition, in those paintings and in the early sculptures, I employed primarily ‘flat shades’. Often I used industrial enamel directly from the tin, like watercolours, which I then varnished. The concept of colour, the process and my interest in figuration – in no way realistic – made pop art one of my references for the works that I was making at the time. I still think the same today.

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

Before moving to Paris in 1965, and perhaps arising from of my involvement in student revolts against Franco in Barcelona and my association with artists from the movement Estampa Popular, I began to make collages on wood that dealt with events and significant figures relating to the dictatorship, monstrous animals crushing the multitude. The colours were dark and primarily in grey and light blue shades. In 1966 I became unexpectedly pregnant; I hadn’t been trying to get pregnant. Aside from the chromatic shift, I also concentrated on the events happening in my own private life.

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

I wanted to ‘paint-talk’ about sexual life and sexual identity. The painting Coitus Pop (1968) was made at a time when I realised the importance of the coitus in sexual relationships. The Great Vagina (La Gran Vagina 1966) is part of the series of paintings that I titled Vaginals (Vaginales) and which I began in 1964. They are a personal investigation of the female body.

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

The images and themes that interested me were closely linked to my intimate and emotional life, and to the life of the people I was most close to. Above all, my body was my model. In the case of The Great Vagina 1966, as in the series of works called Vaginas from 1964, I capture my vision of my body, that goes from inside to outside and that re-creates itself in the pleasure of exploring the intimate. In the case of the paintings called Pregnant Self-Portraits 1966–67 I was my own model. Through the images that I created I was able to understand the gestation of a creature. In painting seven moments of my pregnancy I reflected on the impact this had on my body. Coitus Pop 1968 represents a great bi-colour phallus, in a vertical position, spreading its semen all around, with arrogance.

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

Yes, when I lived in Paris. I was informed, mainly about the USA, through the exhibitions and some magazines. I knew the work of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein. The work that most interested me was [Lichtenstein’s], although I didn’t like the macho inflection of  some of his vignette. I was excited by Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas. I read it as a glorification of the female body. I also knew the work of Equipo Crónica, a Valencian collective very active and well known in Spain at the end of the 1960s for its collaboration in semi-clandestine activities connected with Estampa Popular.

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

Yes, advertising influenced me, but not so much for its themes but more for its brightness and colours. In Paris, I lived beside an advertising photography shop, and many nights, when it was closed, I picked up posters and pieces of cardboard left over and dropped on the street. I remember that the images were very brilliant and I had to stop to look at them. Probably the idea of wanting to varnish my painting came from those brilliant advertisement surfaces, which fascinated me. I was influenced by the process and the final result, not the images.

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

Yes, on a personal level, as a Catalan woman I had to make difficult decisions. I was born in a village, in Amposta, a few years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and my life was different from what was expected of a woman at that time. I chose to study Fine Arts at the University of Barcelona. I wanted to be an artist and I moved to live and paint in Paris. They wanted me to marry but I believed in ‘free love’ and I started making a type of art that people did not understand … All of this was very different from the life that was expected of me and that they forced upon the majority of Catalan and Spanish women. This explains how the changes we made to our personal lives, as women, had repercussions and reflected the changes in all social spheres. We believed in the personal as political, as we used to say at that time.

Once I arrived in Paris, I met men and women who lived and related to each other in very different ways. For a short time I collaborated with a cell of the Spanish Communist party based in the Latin Quarter in Paris. I helped them with the organisation of cultural and solidarity activities in support of the working class, especially those with a Spanish connection. By participating in very present, lively events, I was experiencing a moment of great cultural and political effervescence.

Because of my pregnancy, the political party gradually distanced itself from me. I began to be discriminated against, because of my condition! This situation made me question the hierarchies and the domineering machismo of that group tied to Stalinist Communism.

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

I had some exhibitions in the [Grande] Masse des Beaux-Arts, a gallery of the School of Beaux-Arts in Paris, together with other Catalan artists. In addition to the students, some journalists also came, and wrote reviews. I also exhibited in Malakoff. There, they had constructed a huge marquee where they organised cultural events – very new for the time. I also exhibited in Aubervilliers, another spot in the banlieue. There, art exhibitions took place in a huge space, and were very active, very open to multicultural exchange. We had an art world audience who came from Paris, and people who lived in the community enthusiastically took part in different events. I remember many solidarity activities with oppressed communities. Some Catalan artists, like for instance [Antoni] Tàpies, [Modest] Cuixart and [Joan-Josep] Tharrats, among others, also sent works to those exhibitions. A rich space for exchange was created, but there was no written response from the critics. Despite this, several publications describing the different activities were published.

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

I realise that they are works made with great enthusiasm, feeling and love. In addition they have the beauty of experience. You notice that they arise from personal experience, and reflect also that of other women. The forms are sensual and have a conspiratorial relationship with each other. They always try to escape and fly. They succeed. The different colours are of great intensity and are applied in flat planes. They reinforce the happiness and vitality of the pieces.

For me, they have a value for what they represented in that precise moment and for the circle of people who saw and commented on them at the time. They are testimony to a time of discovery and its radical stakes for women.

September 2015