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Documentaries were 'hot' in Spain in 1930s, author says

Melissa Mitchell, News Editor


Jordana Mendelson
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University of Illinois Photo
Art historian Jordana Mendelson is the author of a new book, “Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition, Culture, and the Modern Nation, 1929-1939” (Pennsylvania State University Press).

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Today, the term “documentary” usually brings to mind video exposés of corporate or political wrong-doing. Or perhaps the exploits of a near-extinct indigenous species struggling to survive in some remote locale. And while such films may have mass appeal, they more typically are relegated to the margins of popular culture.

But it hasn’t always been this way, according to Jordana Mendelson, a professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Despite our contemporary perception of documentary, during the early 20th century, recording the world in all of its problematic detail was one of the most vividly complex and urgent of artistic and political issues,” said Mendelson, the author of a new book, “Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition, Culture, and the Modern Nation, 1929-1939” (Pennsylvania State University Press).

In fact, the U. of I. author said, documentary – in all its many-splendored striations, from photography, film, phonographic recordings and exhibitions to posters, pamphlets and periodicals – was a hot-ticket art form in Spain in the 1920s and ’30s. During that time, one of most turbulent and violent periods in that nation’s history, avant-garde artists, government officials and amateur artists and writers alike used documentary devices and formats to engage their audiences.

“Documenting Spain” is the result of years of archival research conducted throughout Spain by Mendelson, whose source material included historic documentary material from private and state collections. The richly illustrated text, which includes previously unpublished images, emerged from the art historian’s commitment to frame what was happening artistically in Spain “through the lens of artists working in the country and in touch with historically specific debates about representation, nationality, technology and tradition.”

Mendelson also wanted readers familiar with European modern art to understand the role that Spain’s artists played in both international and local contexts.

“The book comes out of my desire to understand what modernity looked like in Spain,” she said. “So, for me as an art historian, it is not only the images that constitute modernity, but where those images are located. If you look at Spain and who its major artists are, those artists constitute the fundamental story about European modern art.”

Central characters in both 20th-century Spanish and European art history include Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. The names and work of all three are recognizable today, even among people who don’t otherwise know a whole lot about art history, Mendelson said.

“Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and cubism, and Dalí with (widespread publicity surrounding) his centenary in 2004 … most people are familiar with those artists,” Mendelson said. “But when they get written into the narrative about European modernism, often times, they’re written within a narrative that highlights their relationship to French art.

“In the case of Picasso, Miró and Dalí, they really are written into a story that revolves around Paris. But those artists in particular, and other artists like Luis Buñuel, a filmmaker, have entrenched connections to the history of modern Spain. Even though most of those artists will look to find fame elsewhere, they are not disconnecting themselves from Spain. They’re deeply connected with political events of their times.”

Mendelson said the 1930s was a dynamic period in Spanish history, characterized by the rise of fascism, spread of communism and economic hard times brought on by the Depression. All within the span of a decade, the people of Spain saw the fall of the monarchy, witnessed the declaration of the Second Republic, were divided by a civil war, and lived under two dictatorships.

Interestingly, Mendelson said, parties on opposite sides of the political spectrum often had similar socioeconomic and educational pedigrees, so it was not surprising to find dissidents and members of the bourgeoisie employing the same strategies, technologies and tools to communicate their ideas and visions to the masses.

Furthermore, she wrote: “The form and subject matter of documentary during this period cannot be separated from concurrent debates in the arts, literature, social sciences and political theory. Spain was driven by its largely rural economy well into the 20th century. The Everyman, who visited his local theater to watch documentaries, and the politician, who reviewed official publications of government projects with photographic illustrations, shared a bank of images that were created by artists from the cities of rural inhabitants for readers and viewers in both the city and the countryside.

“Documentary became the visual means though which connections were forged between the center and periphery, both within and outside of the nation’s borders. During these encounters, those from the cities introduced the most advanced technologies in mechanical reproduction (photography, film and the phonograph) to rural inhabitants, while using these same devices to record Spain’s traditions, customs and dress.”

In presenting her interpretation of how artists and others used documentary to shape and reflect Spain’s internal and external dialogues about national and regional identities, Mendelson organized the complex, often overlapping content of her book in chronological order. “Each chapter,” she said, “centers on an individual or work and moves outward from there to consider the dynamic interplay that existed between single artists and a larger community of artists and images.”

The book begins with a chapter on El Pueblo Español, a model village commissioned by Spanish officials for display at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, and concludes with a discussion of another major exhibition, the 1937 Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition, which featured Picasso’s “Guernica.” In between are chapters on the documentary films of Buñuel and Dalí and the government-sponsored Misiones Pedagógicas, or education missions, which spirited young artists and writers out of the city into the countryside. The author also focuses attention on the work of pictorial photographer José Ortiz-Echagüe and graphic artist Josep Renau, and on Dalí’s book “Le Myth tragique de l’Angelus (The Tragic Myth of ‘The Angelus’),” rediscovered and published more than 20 years afar it was completed in 1938.

Mendelson is in residence this semester at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where she is working on an exhibition and book project on Spanish Civil War magazines. The exhibition is scheduled to open at the Museo Nacional Centro de Art Reina Sofia in Madrid in January 2007.