“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” said Susan Sontag in her 1973 book On Photography. The late Spanish artist Juan Genovés did both in his powerful political paintings that draw on photography and film techniques to point up state atrocities of the Franco era. In “Juan Genovés: Reconsidered,” Marlborough Gallery brought together some 30 works made between 1965 and 1975 that evoke with unsettling freshness the terror of totalitarian regimes. Executed mostly in grainy black-and-white or sepia to resemble newspaper images, Genovés’s paintings depict anonymous multitudes running under fire, or focus on panicked individuals. Circular “spotlights” structure the compositions as if to suggest these scenes are witnessed through a zoom lens or rifle scope. The images are presented with the apparent objectivity of news, but raw fear is conveyed by the figures’ postures and by titles such as Los gritos (The Screams) and La caza (The Hunt), both 1967. Occasionally the artist focuses the eye by adding color to his borders or washing the image in pink, reinforcing the impression of bloodshed.
Born in Valencia, Spain, in 1930, Genovés experienced a childhood defined by the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s fascist dictatorship. As an adult, he made art that was unabashedly political, committed to democracy and the working-class struggle. Rejecting what he considered the elitism of abstraction, Genovés found his voice in a distinctive figurative painting style that borrowed tools from Pop art, such as stencils and stamps, to create accessible eye-catching images. Having seen a 1962 exhibition of American Pop art in Madrid, Genovés said, according to the Marlborough catalogue, “I began to understand that painting could be used to truly say things,” that it need not be “just stains of abstraction.”
Crowds were Genovés’s signature subject, and they populate the majority of works in this show. In the catalogue, the artist is quoted acknowledging the Odessa Steps massacre sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin as an inspiration: we find nightmarish paintings of running hordes hemmed in by walls (El muro, 1967) and throngs crawling along the ground like animals (El zoo, 1965). In several works, the canvas is divided into sections, allowing Genovés to present different perspectives on an event, with no place markers other than a white line that seems to demarcate a threshold of danger; crossing it leaves bodies sprawled along the line, felled by sniper fire.
Spotlights are another effective narrative device. In La caza, a running man and woman are caught in a semicircle of light in the upper left section of the painting; in the bottom right, another spotlight highlights this couple being arrested, their hands raised against a wall. At other times the viewpoint is aerial, the figures microscopic, like moving ants, as if observed by an omniscient eye. These are generalized, often stenciled depictions of silhouetted or faceless figures, yet Genovés sought to dignify each of them with individualized brush strokes and airbrush markings. One might ask, instead of evoking photographs in paint, why not simply use photographs? Perhaps by starkly stylizing his compositions, which are largely devoid of locational details, Genovés strove to capture the essence of what ordinary Spaniards were experiencing during this brutal period; the lack of specificity made his images more widely applicable, and arguably more potent.
Deviating from the crowd and spotlight format is a series of acrylic works on canvas from 1973 painted in a darker palette. They show individuals being escorted, dragged, and beaten by state agents, perhaps under cover of night. Also included was a life-size mixed-medium relief from 1965, Contra la pared (Against the Wall), depicting a man and woman with arms raised, and a 1974 pencil drawing of a man in free fall, which could be read as a metaphor for life under Franco’s dictatorship.
After Franco’s death in 1975, Genovés continued painting crowds but shifted to exuberant colors, individualizing the figures by affixing bits of detritus, such as a USB key or an earphone. These paintings were presented in a separate room upstairs. Although lacking the impact of the artist’s earlier works, they offer an uplifting addendum, replacing the theme of shared terror with the joy of communality. “Juan Genovés: Reconsidered” revisited rather than shed new light on the artist’s important oeuvre, yet the show’s timeliness is striking; viewers will inevitably find disheartening echoes between these charged paintings and current threats to human rights and individual freedoms worldwide.