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The MACBA presents the first retrospective of Luis Claramunt
Luis Claramunt, LC D 4-99, 1999. Cortesia de la família Claramunt. Fotografia: Vanessa Miralles.

BARCELONA.- Known almost exclusively for his work as a painter, Luis Claramunt (Barcelona, 1951 – Zarautz, 2000) produced a multi-faceted body of work which encompasses photography, drawing and self-published books. The Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona presents the first major retrospective of an author who understood and practiced painting and life as experiences of radicalism. Luis Claramunt. The Vertical Journey is a comprehensive review of the oeuvre of this artist, who lived in Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Bilbao, and made long and frequent trips to Marrakech in a life geography he never tired of representing in his work. Curated by Nuria Enguita Mayo and with more than 1,200 pieces on display (including paintings, drawings, books and photographs), the exhibition represents the most complete display to date of the artist’s production. This journey through his career shows us how his initial expressionism was gradually discarded over time and his work transformed into a kind of minimal calligraphy. But, at the same time, the exhibition reveals a hitherto unknown Claramunt and sheds new light on the broader scope of his artwork, which includes drawings, photography and self-published books.

In parallel to the exhibition, in one of its galleries the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) presents the project Nonell and Claramunt. Urban Registers, co-organised by the MACBA and the MNAC.

A self-taught artist, Claramunt maintained his distance from all generational inertia. Born in Barcelona, he started painting in the early seventies when the country was immersed in the politicisation of art against Franco’s dictatorship. In a Barcelona abounding in experimental initiatives in the spheres of art and culture, his would be a different approach. Having shed his bourgeois social origins he went to live in the Plaça Reial and formed close contacts with the gypsy world, Flamenco and other popular sub-cultures, avoiding any reference to the avant-garde and concentrating on painting. More than with other authors of his day, Claramunt’s painting developed a subtle complicity with German expressionism and Catalan modernisme – especially Nonell – while also encompassing Goya’s Black Paintings and Disasters of War.

A keen reader of literature, Claramunt made travelling a structuring element of his life and work. After Barcelona he added successive scenarios to his life, moving to Seville, Marrakech, Madrid and Bilbao. His painting evolved in line with the changes in his living and human environment, and every new location combined with literary topographies to develop a body of work which has been largely ignored until today.

Luis Claramunt. The Vertical Journey is structured by series and aims to show the extent to which, for Claramunt, living and painting were one and the same experience. Though as a whole the exhibition maintains a chronological order, it starts with a broad selection of the drawings and books he produced as from the nineties, one of the less-known facets of his production and one which serves as a preface and privileged frame of reference with which to interpret his pictorial work.

The drawings and self-published books
Displayed in blocks or sets, the drawings are a very direct approach to the universe of Luis Claramunt: they concentrate a huge creative energy and a working method that arise out of the immediacy of perception. Although drawing was present throughout his career it would take centre stage in a compulsive way during the last five years of his life. From 1994 to 1999 Claramunt made hundreds of drawings that capture how he lived in the different settings to his life. They refer to such cities as Bilbao and places as the Barcelona Zoo, or take as their subjects literary references like the tales of Joseph Conrad or Robert Louis Stevenson. Also on display are his illustrations for texts by Albert Camus such as The Stranger and The Plague, as well as others made to accompany works by Henry de Monfreid.

Claramunt did not usually frame his drawings or exhibit them in galleries, nor did he extol their physical qualities or their ‘originality’. Rather, he often photocopied them onto coloured paper in order to highlight their graphic nature and sequence. For him, though they had no exchange value and were not conceived as original pieces, they marked the line of his creative discourse. A good deal of the drawings made in those years were bound together in books which he self-published and gave to friends. Claramunt produced more than 30 such editions, which today make up a priceless reference archive of the artist’s work.

Pictorial career
Though the exhibition opens with a space dedicated to Claramunt’s drawings, the core of the display focuses on his pictorial work, from the early seventies in Barcelona up to the sea paintings of the late nineties. A journey that begins with a series of portraits from his first period that form part of the MACBA Collection and with the “hanging” compositions, works that correspond to his years in Barcelona, where Claramunt lived until 1984. His urban neighbours in the Plaça Reial and the Ramblas, together with his wanderings through the streets where life is lived on the edge combine to create a highly personal gaze which is translated into paintings of the interior of Flamenco tablaos, gamblers, drunks and city scenes such as railway stations, bridges, suburbs and streets. This was a phase of feverish graphism which escapes from the perspective and illusionism of the space. Rather than objects or people, Claramunt was interested in relationships and correspondences in space. Thus, he constructs scenes in which the line between figure and background becomes blurred, merging architecture and bodies. He paints deformed bodies that depict a kind of urban living and literary imagination. In his last years in Barcelona and early period in Seville in the mid-eighties, the canvas becomes almost monochromatic and Claramunt relies on the abstract mark as a structuring element. These are paintings that show how the artist begins to focus on strictly compositional elements.

The series produced between 1986 and 1988 on Morocco and on the world of bulls represent a turning point in Claramunt’s work. The monochromatic mark gives way to the line and to the emptying out of space. In his paintings of bulls and livestock markets, as well as in the last phase of his Moroccan period, this tendency towards stylisation becomes more radical and his painting becomes more concise, more cerebral. In the interest, basically, of composition, Claramunt renounces colour and texture in a marked process of simplification.

Already in the late seventies Claramunt had introduced photography into his walks around the city. Though this is a little-known facet of his oeuvre, taking photographs enabled him to implement a working method based on immediacy as the creative element. The series of photographs taken in Barcelona and Bilbao in the nineties reveal his fascination for the city, with images of the port and railway stations, Bilbao estuary and its hanging bridge, abandoned factories and empty streets. They are series that highlight the register of his urban experience.

The journey comes to an end with Claramunt’s last production, from the nineties, when his work had gained international renown with an intense though brief period of recognition abroad. In those years the sea was omnipresent in his work, with series such as Mar Rojo and Mar Negro (1997) and Naufragios y tormentas (1999), his last paintings. From the latter series, Tormentas de hielo closes a pictorial production which shifted between the figurative and the abstract and which, seen as a whole, represents a highly significant process of emptying. In his last period, Claramunt replaces the abstract mark on his paintings of seas, storms and shipwrecks with a calligraphic graphism reduced to black on white in the series dedicated to Bilbao and Madrid. If Claramunt’s paintings and their visibility remained on the fringes of generational gestures and today may seem distant, access to their internal grammar enables a different history of contemporary art to be told in a visual account which was hitherto unknown.

Claramunt reading
Luis Claramunt. The Vertical Journey ends with a reading space which includes a selection of the books that inspired him, a large number of the catalogues from his exhibition career, and some audiovisual recordings of Flamenco, the music that always accompanied him.

Nonell-Claramunt at the MNAC
In parallel to this exhibition, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) presents the project Nonell and Claramunt. Urban Registers, co-organised by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and the MNAC. The initiative consists in a selection from the series of drawings entitled “The Black Mark”, by Claramunt, in dialogue with a selection of drawings by Nonell which form part of the MNAC’s Cabinet of Drawings and Prints. Although the two authors belong to different times, an affinity emerges between them that is expressed in the distance each of them chose to keep between themselves and the trends of the period in which they lived. The work of Isidre Nonell (1872-1911) was one of Luis Claramunt’s first pictorial references. Despite the distance in time, the dialogue between the production of one and the other artist is evidence of a clear affinity. Drawing is highly significant in both artists’ oeuvre and both considered it an autonomous language independent of painting. On the other hand and against the current of their times, both expressed a special interest in marginal urban environments. Nonell’s interest in gypsies and city fringes attracted the attention of a Claramunt who, in his early years, was a regular visitor to the MNAC.

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