1940-1980 The long and arduous post-war

Jordi Falgàs

 

The period between 1940 and 1980 is the longest and concentrates the greatest amount of Colomer’s work, above all due to the large number of drawings and sketches he made. The first thing we notice is to show that the end of the Civil War, apparently, did not represent a break or radical change in his visual language. There are some landscapes from the forties that could perfectly well be from the late thirties. Colomer continued going out to paint in different spots of Girona, and when he went to live in Banyoles with Carme Sanz he added the lake and its town to the repertoire. Later on, when the Colomers spent the summer on the coast, he would incorporate a large series to the corpus of work, especially sketches, inspired by coastal towns such as Tossa, Cabrera, Premià de Dalt and Premià de Mar, s’Agaró, etc. The few works dated help us to tackle a chronological ordering of a whole series, and at the same time enable us to observe a slow but clear formal evolution by Colomer. One could even speak of sub-periods, divided by a year that seems crucial in the evolution, 1955. As we will see, it was around this time that Colomer’s painting experienced an important stylistic change, after the backward movement caused by the trauma of the war and the first years of the dictatorship.

In the post-war sketches and drawings, an enormous desire and skill of the artist is seen for the simple act of observing and noting down, and it is in these works that one can better appreciate the innate talent that he possessed for drawing. Colomer was fascinated by capturing the gesture, the expression of the face, the posture and movement of the human body—seated, lying down, walking, resting, chatting, alone, in a couple, in a group, and from all possible points of view—. The architecture and the decorative elements of the buildings, the perspective, the volumes and the interaction of human beings with the constructed spaces also held a special interest for him. It is clearly no coincidence, since throughout this time he made his living from interior design and furniture design. Perhaps this fact can give us a clue about his method, which would explain that Colomer made the most of holiday periods or bank holidays to paint and draw, and for this reason there are so many works devoted to festival attractions and stands, processions, people on the beach and on the terrace of a cafeteria. These sketches are also rich in chromatism, and in some of them we can see that Colomer noted down the name of the colours or, if he could, coloured the drawing with marks of watercolour, ink or gouache.

Although we do not have an exact chronological sequence of the works, it is not hard to observe how, gradually and by insisting on his strategy, Colomer achieved increasingly more satisfactory results. A very interesting series, for example, is that which he devoted to the Plaça de les Rodes in Banyoles, where one can often recognise the facade of the church of the Sagrada Familia (cat. no. 79-94, p. 134-147 and 317-323, p. 212-215). Taking advantage of the setting-up of the fair stands of the annual festival, Colomer explored the forms and colours of the architecture, the stands and the people who strolled by. Plaça de las Rodes was very close to Can 65, the shop that Carme Sanz’s family had at one end of Plaça de los Turers, another of Colomer’s favourite settings (cat. no. 141-150, p. 156-163). There, due to the crossroads that made up the square, and the cafés and guest houses around, he was also provided with an extensive formal and chromatic range. The same occurs with the four paintings he produced in the early fifties of the entrance to the Devesa Park in Girona (cat. no. 152-155, p. 164-165).

Holidays and market days, the facades of the buildings, the canopies of the cafés and people in the street—seated, walking, chatting—he gave them everything they needed to produce spontaneous and fresh paintings, also thanks the fact that most probably they were produced, or at least started in situ, based on a careful and frequent observation of people’s behaviour in specific urban spaces. The brushstroke is thick; the lines, fast and clear, applied without hiding the gesture of the hand. Colomer also sought the dynamism of chromatic contrast, often altering or forcing the shades of the colours, with a lively and broad palette.

Despite the economic poverty and the difficulties of the post-war, Colomer sought refuge in the cheeriness of holidays and celebratory spaces, where for a short time children and adults abandoned their usual behaviour amidst structures that also temporarily altered the everyday landscape. Nevertheless, in some works these festive scenes and settings did not lack a certain coldness, as if the poverty of the post-war years could not be concealed from even the most enjoyable moments. In the final analysis, Colomer wanted to express the silent happiness that can come from our relationship with the public spaces that are most familiar to us. It was, however, happiness not free of bitterness, when the reality obliged him to record, to verify by means of painting, the survival of the closest and most familiar people and places, beings who survived and tried to forget the tragedy they had suffered and which endured within the setting—just as the artist himself did.

Surviving, subsisting and adapting to the new circumstances. The formats of Colomer’s works in this period are small and, despite the insistence on certain themes, the series never finish in a grand work. It was not the time for big challenges. For Colomer, drawing and painting in these years
—always, in fact—was a natural, vital and spontaneous practice, which he could face with great ease. His talents could lead one to think that he had continued drawing and painting as if nothing had happened. But the regression he experienced in the early forties is evident, as if the social and cultural regression caused by the dictatorship had made him start anew, to reinvent himself. One just needs to compare, for example, the way he dealt with the same subject matter, a female face, in 1930 (cat. no. 1, p. 84) and in 1941 (cat. no. 28, p. 114). Examined in an isolated way, both are excellently drawn. However, all the strength that the former gives off, with its economy of lines and the wise use of black on white, have vanished in the latter, of conventional production and resulting anodyne. In 1941 the drawing he had done in 1930 must have seemed like the distant past. We should not forget that at this moment in time he decided to exhibit ten works in a group show with Roca Delpech, Riuró and Varés in the Municipal Library of Girona, the only exhibition hall in the city. The mere fact of exhibiting in this space represented a high level of connivance with the local apparatus of the regime; by no coincidence, the exhibition was closed by the civil governor “and with the assistance of our authorities”.
[1]

For Colomer this could not have been an easy patch, and the other works dated during the forties which are conserved show a disoriented artist, who moved between a mediocre formulaism (Girl and mandolin, cat. no. 31, p. 116; The river, cat. no. 39, p. 121) and the adoption of forms that are not his own, without doubt due to the confusion before the success of his friend Frederic Lloveras, who was very present in Colomer’s life throughout the decade. Only from 1949 do we begin to see that, as I said at the beginning, he reencounters a refuge of inspiration in the people on the street, the café chats and the scenes he knew well in Girona and Banyoles.

From 1952 one painting stands out, until now unknown, dedicated to the Last Supper (cat. no. 161, p. 169). It is one of the few works by Colomer that takes an episode from the Evangelists as subject matter, and is possibly the only painting. This singularity, as well as the format (100 × 80 cm: it is the biggest canvas we have until this date) and the fact that it is well finished, leads us to think that it was a family commission. The composition is also well studied and structured, despite the fact that no preparatory study or sketch has appeared. Colomer chose to draw Jesus and the apostles at a round table; the former, standing at the time of cutting the bread, and the others, seated around him. Loyal to the iconographic tradition of the scene, to one side of Jesus he represented the apostle Peter, and on the other side, John, the youngest, with his hands on his chest and appearing to be asleep. They are in an architecturally covered but roomy space—such as a terrace or gallery—, which enables us to see all the figures and, in the background, the landscape through some large windows. The symmetry of the composition is broken by two figures represented in the foreground of the scene, in which an angel pointing towards the sky threatens Judas for the betrayal he is about to commit —a gesture underlined by a climbing plant that follows the rising direction—. To draw the table, Colomer, who we know had a good knowledge of technical drawing, altered the perspective, so that the point of view does not correspond to the rest, but the dislocation enabled him to enlarge the weight of the central white circle. All the elements—the bodies, the faces, the clothes—are very stylised, with which Colomer put into practice a realism in which the elements have a touch of abstraction that corresponds perfectly with the religious symbolism of the theme. Even in the choice of colours we can appreciate that Colomer was very meticulous using a range dominated by reds, purples and blues that were very well balanced between each other. The title of the painting, The Crosses, comes from the chapel of the Creus or of the Calvari, in the valley of Sant Daniel, on the outskirts of Girona—close to where Colomer would build his house and study some years later—, which is surrounded by a series of chapels that were used as a model for those that appear in the background landscape.

From then on, and particularly from 1955, Colomer began to stylise the human figure based on geometric forms, using a language deriving from caricature, post-cubism and the kinder expressionism in equal parts. There are a series of small format paintings mainly dedicated to the female figure, seated or reclining in an interior, in which the artist begins to adopt the parameters of mature work (as from cat. no. 297, p. 205). In Easter Week (cat. no. 316, p. 209) he did an interpretation of one of the scenes of the Easter procession in Plaça de los Apòstols in Girona applying this treatment, and the result is highly dramatic, due to the angular forms, the effect of overhead light and the cold colours. When he returned to his favourite colours (the stands of the fair in Plaça de las Rodes in Banyoles, Plaça de los Turers, and the old Girona and the city outskirts, cat. no. 320-332, p. 212-217), he also did it with a generally cold palette and with unusual contrasts for him, almost renouncing the drawing, with patches of colour that were often not well defined pictorially and showing scenes that were now without people.
A painting such as
Urban landscape (cat. no. 330, p. 217) is the expression of an existentialist Colomer who returned to the nameless, shapeless and colourless urban architecture to speak of the coldness and sordidness of his environment. We must suppose that this and other similar works formed part of the thirty small format pieces that he exhibited in March 1957 in La Artística in Girona. Along the same lines are Facade of the cathedral of Girona, Sant Daniel and Thoughtful woman (cat. no. 342-344, p. 219-225).

But for every step that Colomer took forwards, he took two steps back, through which—above all during these years—his work can be seen as disturbing. Among these cold and dark paintings of the fifties, for example, stands out a series of drawings and paintings that he devoted to the subject of the Three Graces, a classic of western art history since ancient Greek times which he presents with his typically cartoon-like treatment (cat. no. 334-341, p. 220-223). It is interesting to observe how he approaches the arrangement of the composition—of the characters, the contrasts of colours—from the first sketches until arriving at the paintings, placing the three female nudes in a modern interior, contemplated by a young man. Did he want to turn the divinities into prostitutes? For what reason? As occurs often in him, the ambiguity of the works reveal his own creative dissatisfaction and the sudden abandoning of lines of visual investigation that it seemed he wanted to undertake.

In a small notebook, from those that Colomer would always carry in his pocket, we have found another of the numerous surprises that his sharp sight has left us: a series of drawings of the iron railings of thirty-nine balconies of Girona and Banyoles, the majority with a note of the address or the name of the house or mansion (cat. no. 373-393, p. 240-243). On his walks, Colomer the illustrator and decorator made a record of the work of some anonymous artists, creating almost a catalogue of forms and of a heritage that by then had already begun to disappear, victim of the abandonment of the old quarters of the cities and of the dehumanisation of craftsmanship and architecture.

During the sixties, Colomer flirted, fleetingly, with geometric abstraction (cat. no. 437-441 y 445, p. 251-255). It is one of the surprising experimentations that he would undertake, on this occasion who knows if he was tempted by what a language that until then he had left to one side could offer him, or due to the emergence of abstract geometry into the world of decoration, which was so familiar to him. A third possibility could be that these works were the result of his new philosophical knowledge and of his early interest in graphology and the symbolism of geometric forms and flat colours. There are few works like this, but curiously of a much bigger format than was usual in Colomer, and at least reveal that he was not impermeable to some of the changes in the paths of contemporary art. Although he did not explore abstraction very extensively, it is also clear that from the end of the decade Colomer began to deal with his eternal themes in a new way (the female figure and constructed landscapes), showing a willingness, or attempt, to break with a series of academic conventions that he still maintained in his paintings.

Driven by the challenge that a new solo exhibition involved, in this case that of 1970 in La Gàbia, and certainly also due to the contact with a group of young artists from Girona—closer to avant-garde painting and committed to activity in opposition to the dictatorship—, during the last decade of this period Colomer’s visual language began a double process, on seeming much more burdened by doubts and tentative questions than at any other time in his artistic career. On the one hand, it was an exercise in looking back, with the desire to put to the test and revise a large part of what had been the evolution of modern painting (from Impressionism to Pop Art), and on the other hand, he applied some of those findings with the aim of creating a painting that was loyal to the role that specific philosophical questions had taken on in his life.

Thus, in works such as Homage to Picasso (cat. no. 457, p. 269), Kitchen (cat. no. 488, p. 276), Woman smoking inside a bar (cat. no. 490, p. 277) and Interior (cat. no. 501, p. 282), we can see how Colomer began to alter the laws of perspective, to break the rules of the proportions of the human body that he had always respected, and showed himself to be interested in the representation of the effects of artificial light and the relationship between spaces (doors, windows, stairs). Yet he insisted, and applied all these changes, on the subject that always captivated most deeply: the representation of the human body—the female model—in relation to architecture. It is useful to observe, moreover, that for some years before Colomer had abandoned oil in favour of acrylic paint, which naturally gave a new look to his paintings. The shades and contrasts are more nuanced and the brushstroke almost totally disappears. Even the contours of the figures and the forms fade and, generally, the images have a blurred aspect that is similar to pastel.

This investigation led to a series of large works at the end of the decade. I classify them as large in the sense that they are not only of a larger format than was usual for Colomer until then, but also because he left them well finished, with an execution that denotes he had worked on them and finished them with a higher degree of satisfaction than he normally felt. I refer her to The model (cat. no. 515, p. 286), Untitled (Girl at the window) (cat. no. 516, p. 288), Banyoles (cat. no. 518, p. 289), Figure (cat. no. 519, p. 286) and Untitled (Banyoles II) (cat. no. 524, p. 291). The model is without doubt a reflection about a subject frequent in the work of many artists past and present, and which Colomer himself dealt with insistently. The easel and the white canvas, that is the artist, confront a model converted into a large machine and of an unpleasant appearance, but without doubt intriguing and captivating—a metaphor for the dehumanisation of life and the changes in the rules of artistic beauty—. In
Banyoles and Banyoles II (which are almost identical except for the fact that the latter also includes the model and the canvas on the easel), Colomer managed to create the harmonious effect of shades, colours and forms which, as he explained in 1986, he had always searched for in painting:

 

I have always liked the figure with [sic] interiors […]. What interests me deep down is an order, a calm, a pleasant atmosphere, if possible profound, where people find something pleasant, and more so in a period like ours, in which everything seems to tip out towards the exterior. Painting that tries to be intimist […]. The atmosphere has the same importance as the figure that is immersed in it. Simple, traditional architecture, like a part of the climate one seeks. [2]

 

He had already expressed this in similar terms some years previously when he stated that, both in his designs and his paintings, what he endeavoured to do was “communicate wellbeing”. [3] At the age of over seventy, then, Colomer had finally defined his objectives and marked out his own visual vocabulary. Unfortunately, the eighties began with serious health problems which forced him to start again almost from scratch.

 

 



[1]  “Solemne clausura de la Exposición Colomer, Riuró, Roca, Varés y Capa Sacristán”, El Pirineo, 1 May 1941.

 

[2] Miquel Gil Bonancia, “Entrevista amb… Josep Colomer i Martí”, Los Sitios-Diari de Girona, 17 January 1986.

 

[3] Anna Carrascal, “Pep Colomer Martí. Espiritual i exigent”, Punt Diari, 19 May 1979.