Carles Fontserè, poster artist, photographer and nosy parker

Photo: Pere Virgili.
Fontserè at home in Porqueres, 2003, next to his best-known poster, Llibertat! (Freedom!), which he made in 1936 for the National Confederation of Labour – Iberian Anarchist Federation (CNT-FAI).

On the centenary of his birth, we remember Carles Fontserè for the posters he designed during the Spanish Civil War, but we also want to highlight his dedication to set design, photography, writing and to life itself: the many interests of an artist, a true character, who defined himself as a real nosy parker.

Poster production during the Spanish Civil War was a huge activity. In the three major cities on the Republican side alone (Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid), around 1,750 different posters were designed, printed and distributed during a thousand days of conflict. The creators of this vast collection of impactful images whose identities are known numbered more than 300, without taking into account the numerous posters made by unknown artists. Almost half of them worked in Barcelona at one time or another (including those that moved with the central government from Madrid to Valencia and from there to Barcelona). Given these numbers, it is difficult to state unequivocally that he was “the” most important poster artist of the Spanish Republic. But in the past forty years, the study and dissemination of Civil War posters have meant that certain names have begun to stand out from the others, owing to the quality and the impact of their work or other factors that have put them in the spotlight: Josep Renau, Mauricio Amster, J.J. Parrilla, Manuel Monleón, José Bardasano, Lorenzo Goñi, Helios Gómez and Martí Bas. And of course, a very special place belongs to the artist we are celebrating now: Carles Fontserè.

Fontserè became a popular public figure during the transition to democracy as one of the more visible faces of the war poster phenomenon, which around that time was starting to be re-examined and vindicated. His prophet-like, peasant and revolutionary appearance reinforced his aura of a survivor that had lived to tell the tale of one of the strongest artistic periods of 20th century Catalonia. As it happens, Fontserè was just twenty years old when the war broke out and was therefore one of the youngest members of a group of enthusiasts who left their colourful political messages all over the squares and streets. He lived a long life, to the ripe old age of 90, which allowed him to pass on the history of the period he played such an active role in, after returning from exile in 1973.

We all also remember his firm convictions when calling for the civil war documents kept in the Salamanca archives to be made public. It was a call he took a leading role in, as someone who was directly affected. What is less well known was his generosity to everyone who came to him for information about those extraordinary times. I can speak from personal experience and recall my own visit, more than twenty years ago, to his home in Porqueres, near Lake Banyoles. Without knowing me from Adam, he welcomed me and agreed to answer my questions. He also gave me the contact details of the few surviving poster artists, which I tried to make good use of. He was a real character who is remembered with great affection.

Photo: AFB.
One of his political propaganda pieces during the Spanish Civil War, for the General Workers’ Union (UGT): Treballa per als que lluiten (Work for those that fight), one of the first three posters for the war.

Nevertheless, the life of this illustrious Barcelonian went much further than his fifteen-plus Civil War posters, even if he was the creator of some of the iconic images of the time, such as the Llibertat! (Freedom!) poster with the robust reaper raising the sickle, and its strong Catalan nationalist and revolutionary connotations. The three volumes of his published autobiography (and we wish the fourth, unfinished, volume could be added to these) are an excellent guide to his experiences and his creative work.

Born one hundred years ago to a Carlist family, the young Carles began his artistic career in the most conservative of political spheres (the Carlists were also known as “traditionalists”), and he even designed some electoral posters for the Catalan Right-Wing Coalition for the 1932 elections. But the sheer energy of the Republican years and his readings (he referred in particular to the works of Tolstoy) gradually led him towards an anarchist stance, with which he would always be associated in one way or another, and to an unswerving Catalan nationalism. Before the war he also worked assiduously in commercial art, specifically in advertising and labelling.

Photo: Collection of Posters at the Pavelló de la República / CRAI-UB
One of his political propaganda pieces during the Spanish Civil War, for the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC): Dones! Treballeu per als germans del front (Women! Work for our brothers on the front).

Committed to an ideology

The outbreak of the war triggered his ideological commitment. Like other poster artists, he joined the Union of Professional Illustrators, which was behind many of the images that papered city walls at the time. He claimed to have produced one of the first three posters of the war, the simple but effective Treballa per als que lluiten (Work for those who fight). This was one of the posters created on the artist’s own initiative, aside from the political parties, in those first heady days of revolutionary fervour, giving rise to a series of pieces that he managed to produce despite his own eventful private war alongside the International Brigades and the Air Defence. He also worked with the Catalan Regional Government’s Propaganda Department.

The defeat of the Republican armies drove him into exile (he crossed the border with Lluís Companys, the President of Catalonia) and, like so many others, he was held in one of the notorious refugee camps set up by the French in the part of Catalonia located in France. Fontserè managed to escape and settled in Paris, which was soon to be occupied by the Germans but where he survived (together with his friends, poster artist Martí Bas and painter Antoni Clavé) by drawing American-style comics and taking any job he could to put food on the table. In his memoirs he describes himself as a third-class exile, because he was never the recipient of any of the funds sent by the Catalan and Spanish Republican governments to so many politicians and intellectuals: he had to scrape a living as best he could.

In 1948 he was offered the chance to go to Mexico at the invitation of Mario Moreno, the famous comic actor known as Cantinflas, to design sets for his shows and films. He went not as a political exile but as an economic migrant, on a temporary basis. There he socialised with the many Catalan exiles.

Documentary photography

It was in Mexico that he really set to work on his other great passion, documentary photography, which was to occupy him from then on. This discipline allowed him to indulge his interest in a diverse range of subjects or, as he used to say, his inner nosy parker.

Photos: Carles Fontserè / Pla de l’Estany District Archives.
In 1948, during his exile in Mexico, Carles Fontserè started out in documentary photography. The photos above page were taken by him between 1961 and 1964 in New York, Paris and Mexico City.

From 1950 and for more than twenty years, Carles Fontserè lived in New York, where he continued to work in photography. It was in the Big Apple that he also developed a concept of historical documentary or “graphic account” based on his own photographs and reproductions of historical documents to explain how New York had evolved over the centuries.

There he also met Terry Broch, who became his inseparable companion and collaborator. As I write these words, I receive news of Terry’s death, she who has kept the artist’s memory alive by organising and digitising his numerous works. Fontserè’s centenary may also be the time to remember her contribution.

Back in Catalonia in 1973, aware of the importance of his work and the circumstances that had made his career possible, he played an active role in all the initiatives to highlight this artistic heritage and published several written works. One of the most important was the article on the Union of Professional Illustrators (the SDP) included in Josep Termes’s book Carteles de la República y de la Guerra Civil ((Posters of the Spanish Republic and the Civil War) published by La Gaya Ciencia in 1978. He also published several articles in the newspaper La Vanguardia on his generation of poster artists (such as Lorenzo Goñi) and debated the influence of antifascist propaganda with the artist and communist revolutionary Josep Renau. He also produced some new posters for the festival of Banyoles, where he settled; for the Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular, a centre for historical and social documentation; and for a Catalan government campaign on the history of Catalonia, etc.

From 1995 he began to publish his memoirs, which tell the story of his life and works during the Spanish Republic and the Civil War, the miserable years of exile in France followed by the sunnier phase of his life in Mexico, and the early days in New York, about which he would go into greater detail in the fourth volume.

For all this and much more (his activism, his long life, and so on), he has come to be thought of as a true icon of poster art, a pioneer, patriarch, apostle and prophet or, simply, “the poster artist” of the Spanish Civil War. The occasion of the centenary of his birth may also be a good time to revisit his graphic and photographic work, reread his writings and remember the life and times of this passionate nosy parker.

Santi Barjau

Doctor of History of Art. Curator of the graphics department, Historical Archives of the City of Barcelona (AHCB)

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