Time tends to limit the appreciation of surroundings; even the exceptional melts into the patterns of the daily grind, and making sure to look up becomes a chore evaded by hurried steps. I try at times to remember the thoughts and impressions that arose during my first visit to Barcelona. I recall threading the city, judging to turn one corner rather than another, unwittingly discovering the trait which, for me, defines this city and its people – gumption. It can be found in the proud monuments and buildings erected within the city’s periphery, in the defiant graffiti which line the streets, in the rebellious history of the Catalan people.
MACBA – Barcelona’s contemporary art museum – is no exception to this rule. Designed by Richard Meier, it exudes a virginal self-containment in its elegance and its smooth luminous body, a shimmering white and glass. And yet it is boldly placed in the well-worn, shoddy neighbourhood of Raval. This juxtaposition is also suggested by the work of its current temporary exhibitor, Eulàlia Grau.
Eulalia Grau, Misses i gàngsters (Etnografia), 1973, Emulsió fotogràfica, anilines i pintura acrílica sobre tela 108,5 x 115,8 cm; Col•lecció MACBA. Consorci Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona Crèdit fotogràfic: Tony Coll.
Born in the city of Terrassa, twenty kilometres from Barcelona, Grau’s early to mid adulthood was marred by the oppressive regime of Franco. Much of the work in the exhibition is from the 1970s; its crude directness is a cry of indignation, an attempt to punch in the face a regime which was its enforced provenance. Indeed, Grau did state that in this work “...the ethical contribution is more important than the aesthetic.”
Grau saw collage as the appropriate medium through which to achieve this sought-after level of impact and presented some of her collection under the title of Ethnography. Grau’s work contains a critical depiction of two predominant themes: gender inequality and the inconsistencies of the capitalist system. Within the exhibition there are several works which play on the former theme. One such work is Nuvia i rentaplats (The Bride and the Dishwasher) (1973) in which a bride, her head severed by the frame, her body poised and graceful, advances through the image as if making her way down the aisle. Along her path she will walk by black and white images of dishes. The heavenly, light graciousness of the bride dressed in white and blue is contrasted against the clunky expectancy of the daily grind – of what she can expect her life to be reduced to. To make such a statement at the time in a work whose ambition was to propound the ethical, one had to be bold, daring and have gumption.
One of the most striking of Grau’s work on this theme is a piece entitled Tumor (1972). Here, a cancerous tumour lays menacingly alongside two pregnant women whose blossoming forms are touching, their heads severed by the frame as their hands tenderly support their bumps. A viewer may consider the image shocking and unnecessarily blunt. And yet, put into the socio-political context of its creation – at a time when women’s roles were firmly limited to that of housewife and mother, their position one of subservience to sometimes capricious masters – its crudity, and its uncompromising frankness can not only be understood but also deemed necessary.
Grau sees gender inequality in good part as a consequence of the dynamic of capitalism, which is railed against in her work, and has been an enduring theme since the 1970s. El cost de la vida or The Price of Life (1977-79) is presented as a quadrillage and discusses the three stages of capitalism under the subtitles of protocapitalism (such as that which envelops Spain, Italy and France), post-capitalism (Germany) and pre-capitalism (Third World). It encapsulates the subtle journey of control through the capitalist system, and stresses society’s acceptance and legitimisation of that power. It is this system, according to Grau, which leaves people, especially women – such as the protagonist of her 2011-12 work, Me gustaria morir en un lugar donde nadie me viera. Maria (I would like to die in a place where nobody can see me. Maria) – reduced to wandering the streets, searching through the residue of others, in an effort to survive. Maria’s daily journey is presented in clips of film alongside that of Mariano Rajoy (the current Spanish Prime Minister) and others accused of corruption.
Eulalia Grau, Nixon (Etnografia), 1973 Emulsió fotogràfica sobre tela, 112,5 x 57 cm; Col•lecció particular / Crèdit fotogràfic: CRBMC Centre de Restauració de Béns Mobles de Catalunya. Enric Gracia Molina i Joan M. Díaz Sensada.
This control which Grau speaks of was obviously suffocatingly prevalent during Franco’s dictatorship. But she was also keenly aware of the more subtly pernicious operations of capitalism in apparently more benign political systems. She recognised that there was just such an inherent contradiction in the more liberal governance in the USA and in 1973 she produced a work depicting President Nixon giving an impassioned speech, while under him there lays a cheeky monkey relaxing in a hotel bedroom (Nixon ).
There is a strong anti-establishment insistence in Grau’s work; a characteristic all the more laudable during a dictatorship. And yet, for this viewer upon seeing Me gustaria morir en un lugar donde nadie me viera. Maria (I would like to die in a place where nobody can see me. Maria) wonders whether, now, in our present state of troubled capitalism true gumption lies beyond description, beyond criticism, beyond rage; in the provision, that is, of solutions and their enactment, or at least in a more transformative ethical-aesthetical experience.
(Image on top: Eulalia Grau, Núvia i rentaplats (Etnografia), 1973, Emulsió fotogràfica i anilines sobre tela, 62,5 x 108 cm Col•lecció Pazos – Cuchillo; Crèdit fotogràfic: CRBMC Centre de Restauració de Béns Mobles de Catalunya. Enric Gracia Molina i Joan M. Díaz Sensada.)