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Journal of War and Exile, Spain-France, 1936-1939 by Agusti Centelles Presented at Jeu de Paume
Agusti Centelles, Camp de réfugiés de Bram, 1939. Tirage argentique. Archives Centelles, Barcelone / © ADAGP, Paris, 2009.

PARIS.- This exhibition retraces the career of Catalan photographer Agustí Centelles (Valencia, Spain, 1909-Barcelona, 1985) between 1936 and 1939, including his experience of the Spanish Civil War and his internment in the Bram camp in France.

A renowned photojournalist in the troubled pre-war period, Centelles reacted to the putsch of the Extreme Right by joining the Democratic defence effort in 1936. In 1937 he was taken on by the government propaganda office, becoming one of the great image-makers of the Republican resistance.

Like thousands of other Spaniards, he reacted to defeat in 1939 by going into exile over the Pyrenees. He was interned in the Bram refugee camp, where he continued to take photographs in spite of the extremely difficult conditions. When he decided to flee occupied France and make his way secretly back into Spain, he was forced to hide several thousand negatives in a house in Carcassonne in order to protect the identities of people who might have been recognised by Franco’s police. Forty years later, after the Caudillo’s death, Centelles returned to France and reclaimed many of his archives.

The exhibition presents some hundred photographs, taken during the Civil War and during the nine months at Bram. Most have never been seen in France. There is also a collection of documents (magazines, letters and notebooks).

Agustí Centelles (1909-1985) was always a photographer first and foremost. The diary that he kept in the extremely difficult conditions of his exile in France is not the work of writer so much as the record of a collective experience from one of the most critical times of the 20th century. Unpublished for seventy years, this diary is a key document in the cultural memory of the Republican exile during those harsh months in the fateful year of 1939. Like so many others, Centelles had to cope with both the trauma of defeat and the inevitable humiliation of confinement in a refugee camp, where a precarious, isolated existence brutally brings home the collapse of hope and personal prospects. The diary begins on 12 January 1939, in Barcelona, and ends on 19 October, more than a month after the outbreak of World War II, which time Centelles was working in the Boussions photography laboratory in Carcassonne.

When he set out on the agonising journey to the border in the first week of February 1939, Centelles took his camera (the Leica that had made him the most highly rated photojournalist in Barcelona) as well as the thousands of negatives he had accumulated during the years of war against fascism. For the first weeks of the flight into France, Centelles was so deeply demoralised by the signs of defeat that he didn’t have the strength to photograph the exodus of his own people. The feelings he described in his diary – “my journalistic spirit has vanished,” he wrote – hint at the role that writing would now play, allowing him an elementary form of expression at a time when his camera was “blinded” by suffering.

In March, Centelles was transferred to a camp at Bram, in Southwest France. There, after a while, he managed to summon up the energy to look beyond his refugee status by taking photographs and writing. In the camp, he not only recorded the daily routine of his comrades; he also managed to set up a small photography laboratory in his hut where he could develop some of his films as well as the numerous portraits of refugees, gendarmes and soldiers that he took during this gloomy sojourn. His diary and his images thus constructed two parallel, mutually illuminating accounts.

The exhibition “Agustí Centelles: journal d’une guerre et d’un exil, Espagne–France 1936-1939” will introduce the public to the life and work of one of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th century, a man whose photographic archives were kept secret during the forty years of military dictatorship in Spain. These represent an extraordinarily rich visual resource, one that still offers researchers and photography lovers the prospect of new discoveries.

Jeu de Paume | Agustí Centelles | Barcelona | World War II | Leica | France |

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