Autumn 2000

Sculptured letters and public poetry

Sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs and poet Joan Brossa had little in common but a fierce pride in the city and culture of Barcelona, where their open-air letterforms grace the streets, squares and parks

In recent years, in both the British and American design and typographic press, there has been something of a revival of interest in what might be termed “environmental lettering”. Some of this is no more than a faddish affectation for that which is gritty, malformed or un-designed; some, too, is plain nostalgia. Despite a strong tradition of environmental lettering in Britain, described most prominently by Nicolete Gray and Alan Bartram, good contemporary lettering of a permanent or semi-permanent kind is not as evident as it might be. There are several reasons for this: the reluctance of architects and planners to commission lettering; the ease with which lettering can now be “produced” rather than “made”, with its consequent loss of individuality; and the isolation of lettering and other arts from each other.

On my first visit to Barcelona last year, as part of the Primavera del desseny festival, I came across the work of the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs and poet Joan Brossa and was amazed by their large-scale public arts commissions using letterforms as an essential and integral part. In ten years of photographing lettering I had not seen anything quite like it: in Britain we have lettering, and we have sculpture, but seldom both together, and not on this scale. When I returned a year later to document this work and meet Subirachs this view was reinforced.

At first glance the link between the two men is simply location, and that part of their working output is in the same field. The differences between them are certainly striking. Their whole approach to art seems opposed: Brossa is reductive, disliking decoration; Subirachs creates layered historical narratives. Brossa’s most successful letter sculptures exist in places, Subirachs’ on buildings. At a personal level they did not get on: they were from different generations and enjoyed quite different levels of public and critical acclaim. All of the people I spoke to were partisan.

But there are factors which unite their work and make it different from the other street art commissioned from more famous international artists – such as Caro, Lichtenstein and Serra – from the 1970s onwards. Both share a great pride in Barcelona, their city, fiercely independent with its own customs and language. I got the sense that the work was created for the city and its people, rather than the specific client. The particular location is crucial, too, and the way they relate the combination of letterforms, materials and scale to that context. What their works show is how important that relationship is. None of the work shown here could work elsewhere, it would lose all meaning.

Joan Brossa 1919-99, poet
Brossa was born in Barcelona and first started writing during the Spanish Civil War, when he fought for the Republicans. From 1940 onwards he began experimenting with the form of his writing, creating what he called “visual poetry”, and became involved in several avant-garde magazines with artists such as Miró and Tàpies.

Whatever else he later turned to – theatre pieces, ballets, performance, sculpture, magic, posters – the poetry remained central. He declared: “I am not an artist, I’m a poet. Someone I can’t remember once said ‘poetry is like electricity: it’s everywhere’. What one must know is how to grasp it. Life, if observed, is poetic. I’m trying to say that people are naturally poets, right? Without knowing it. There is poetry without words, there is the act.”

His first “object poem” dates from 1943. Typically, these were small constructions of apparently unrelated objects and they relate closely to the surrealist ideas of free association that were also changing his written poetry, reducing its reliance on traditional forms. As his work progressed, both the structure and form were simplified, any decorative artifice being removed to focus the viewer’s comprehension. At times, the work has the flatness of a dictionary definition and an almost accidental quality. Pepa, his widow, remembers one of his favourite sayings being “a headline is the alphabet with the letters in the wrong order.”

From 1975 onwards, commercial posters became an increasingly important means of expression, and gave his work a social dimension it had not had before. They further refined the process of simplification, and in this respect he is similar to many other artists using words, as well as to post-war graphic design Modernism or the “idea graphics” popularised by Fletcher Forbes Gill from the 1960s on. At times, the posters come dangerously close to the latter but what saves them is wit and intelligence: his work is simple but not simplistic.

For the posters, Brossa had to rely on typesetters and artworkers, he was a perfectionist, and carefully checked everything to ensure the fidelity of his ideas. For the later, large-scale letter-sculptures this close monitoring was not always possible.

Underpinning the visual side of his life was cultural identity, exemplified by his use of the Catalan language. Celebrating that language’s difference to Spanish was one of many ways in which Catalonia was strengthened, and one large installation (in Círculo de Lectores) is simply a homage to the extra letters in the Catalan alphabet. In 1970 an anthology of his poetry from the 1940s and 1950s – Poesia rasa – was published and had a considerable impact on critics and contemporary Catalan poets. Official recognition of his work followed in 1987 when the socialist city council (Ajuntament) made an agreement whereby his work was bequeathed to the City of Barcelona in return for a modest salary, a studio and living accommodation. Brossa’s popularity at this time was no doubt helped by the controversy raging over Subirachs’ work at Sagrada Familia. An exhibition at London’s Riverside Studios in 1991 was one of many international shows which underlined this recognition. In Barcelona, he continued working in all the forms of his artistic practice. He was now a public artist and settled into a routine, with clearly delineated times and places for the various aspects of his life. Daytime was for his art and the public, evenings were for Pepa, his wife. There was also a small group of friends, involved with the arts in some way, with whom he’d dine regularly.

One new strand of work emerged at this time: the translation of several “visual poems” into large-scale public sculptures. Although sited in public places around the city, the cost of their realisation had to be met by him or other patrons. These letter-sculptures draw mainly on ideas explored in the visual poems. With one exception, they are not architectural but environmental pieces whose form is dictated as much by the idea as the location.

Joan Brossa died after a fall at home in 1999. Pepa, his widow, has now been thrust into the limelight as Director of Fundació Joan Brossa, which was set up in the October of that year to document and promote his work. A large retrospective exhibition, promoted by the Generalitat de Catalunya, will be held in the Fundació Miró, Barcelona from 16 February to 6 May 2001.

Phil Baines, designer, tutor: typography, Central Saint Martins, London

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000

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