The Spanish Civil War, which for almost three years from 17 July 1936 tore the European nation apart, resulted in 1939 in the establishment of a military dictatorship under the formidable General Francisco Franco. During World War II, the Spanish autocrat provided strategic support to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, repaying the countries’ backing of his Nationalist rebels during the Civil War. But in the advent of the Cold War, Franco found himself courted by the West, as the devoutly anti-communist state proved an uncomfortable though useful ally in efforts to resist Soviet influence in Southern Europe.
Espionart has previously explored how the United States used the visual arts as a means of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Spain in the 1950s. The Franco regime meanwhile hoped to obscure memory of its wartime alliance with the Axis powers by encouraging its artists to embrace a modern Western style. This favourable atmosphere led to a surge in abstract art groups in Spain, from the surrealist Dau al Set in Barcelona and the non-objective painting of El Paso artists in Madrid, to the constructivism of Parpalló in Valencia and Basque artists aligned to Gaur.
Although many of the artists associated with these groups were anti-Francoist, at the same time a counter movement arose among artists who felt that, if the regime favoured abstraction, then resistance required them to reject the avant-garde. While the state adopted popular American artistic narratives of art for art’s sake, projecting art as free, individualist and apolitical, artists explicitly against Franco emphasised art as collective and socially-engaged.
The Estampa Popular (‘Popular Press’) group was founded in Madrid in 1959 by José García Ortega (1921–1990), a social realist painter and engraver who was also a prominent member of the outlawed Spanish Communist Party (PCE). Ortega’s politics resulted in him being jailed in the late 1940s and then exiled between 1960 and 1977, during which time he lived in Italy and France, and befriended Picasso. In the founding manifesto of Estampa Popular in 1959, Ortega stated “that an art at the service of the people must reflect the social and political reality of its time and requires above all the union of content and realist forms”.
Rapidly gaining support, Estampa Popular grew into a complex artistic network that extended to cities across Spain. The movement brought together a broad range of artists who shared a wish to use their art to bring down Franco’s dictatorship, which would continue until his death in 1975. Printmaking was its primary artistic medium, in line with other anti-elitist art movements around the world, and drawing in particular on the graphic art that thrived in revolutionary Mexico.
Estampa Popular workshops were established in numerous Spanish cities, providing artists with access to cheap printing techniques that made art affordable to all, while increasing the speed and ease with which they could produce protest posters. While working in a variety of styles, Estampa Popular artists tended to favour bold, figurative designs that were accessible and clearly comprehensible. In content, the prints bore witness to the dark side of Francoism and exposed false narratives of the regime, highlighting brutal political repression and the economic hardship imposed on rural communities and industrial labourers by the relentless drive towards modernisation.
Estampa Popular started to dwindle in the late 1960s, gradually replaced by groups such as Equipo Crónica and Equipo Realidad, which blended anti-Francoist sentiment with styles inspired by the global pop art movement. But it would prove to have far-reaching influence on art in Cold War Spain, empowering artists to seek alternatives to compliance with the regime’s vision of modern art.
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