ANTONI CLAVÉ: 1930s

Clavé (middle) with fellow poster artists, Ricard Arenys and long-time friend Joaquim Marti Bas, Barcelona 1936-37 

Antoni Clavé is one of Spain’s most celebrated modern artists. A master painter, printmaker, sculptor and stage and costume designer, Clavé showcased his inexhaustible imagination and artistic vigour through his innovative use of shading, colour, found objects and collage.
Landau Fine Art is privileged to present a rare selection of works from the 1930s when Clavé was a burgeoning artist, and Spain was on the brink of civil war, which laid the foundation for the artist's remarkable career that spanned over half a century.

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Clavé, 1932

Clavé's artistic awakening coincided with the birth of the Second Spanish Republic in April 1931 that resulted in a revolution in poster design. At the time, Clavé was 18 years old and working as a house painter at Tolosa, Plaza Letamendi, while studying art at Barcelona’s Escuela de Artes y Oficios in the evenings. According to his biographer and childhood friend Ferran Canyameres, it was at Tolosa that Clavé learned the first technical rudiments of painting that he later adapted to his poster designs. 

The rise of the Republic provoked a seismic political shift, and a profound social transformation for which the poster became an emblem of freedom of the press, freedom of political thought, of workers’ rights, and for the new mass society.

 

The poster was also the most authentic iteration of popular art and culture, as dozens of young artists were drawn to advertising as both a profitable outlet for their artistic impetus and an instrument of social change. So much so, that in 1931, the first “Asociación de Cartelistas” (Poster Artists Association), was established by Fulgenci Martínez Surroca, Josep Alumà, Josep Morell, Helios Gómez, Solé Boyls, Campillo, Lluís Muntané and Joaquim Martí Bas; Clavé was a member from its inception. 

The following year, Clavé was just 19 years old when he won second prize at a poster competition organized by the Caisse d’Epargne among a crowded field of well-known artists. By that time, the city had a sophisticated graphic arts industry with the tools to disseminate these commercial images, including modernized offset lithographic machines for large format printing and high-quality illustrators, all inherited from a poster legacy rooted in the revered Catalan modernists.

With the available tools and an auspicious cultural climate, the Spanish artists of the 1930s synthesized the formal and technical innovations of the French poster artists with the clarity and restraint of the Russian revolutionary artists to create a uniquely Spanish aesthetic that bridged the technical prowess of the West with the abstract Constructivist theories of the East.

Clavé's prize-winning 1933 poster, Treball, is a remarkable representation of this aesthetic where both Russian and French techniques conflate into a compact yet compelling design as each shape and colour is formalized and poignant.

Treball, 1933

Clavé at work in 1935

Under the new regime, Barcelona's cinemas were not only popular entertainment sites but also cultural havens for the republican avant-garde. In 1929, one of Cinematografica Nacional Española’s (Cinaes) mandates was to become a cultural beacon, an aim they sought to achieve through the distribution of international films to their cinemas, funding for local film projects, and the rejuvenation of advertising and promotions to buttress their effort.
 

Unlike today, in the 1930s, the "official" posters for movie releases were rarely distributed, if at all, so in 1933, Cinaes decided to hire an in-house illustrator to help promote their major studio releases. Antonio Valero, Tolosa's foreman, encouraged Clavé to apply for the job, The artist was promptly hired for 500 pesetas a month to produce five posters a week to entice the public into buying tickets to see the latest films.

Clave applied a different aesthetic approach to his poster designs than his advertising projects. Pared down and stylized, these were affecting compositions, hand-painted on wrapping paper then pasted directly onto the upper-floor windows of the theatres and returned to the artist at the end of the film’s run. 

 
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Mutiny in the Big House at the Capitol Theatre, 1939 

(Film still from Les façanes del Capitol: el cinema d'una altra època, courtesy of Filmoteca de Catalunya)

Clavé's very first poster designs were created for the El Catalunya cinema, followed by commissions for the Capitol and the Femina. However, some of the most well-preserved works from this period were designed for the Femina, which specialized in musicals, including the popular French comedy El amante escrupuloso, 1934.

 

By contrast, the Capitol, located on La Rambla de Canaletes and opened in 1926, was Barcelona’s most prominent first-run cinema that released the major studio films, including thrillers, westerns, police dramas and gangster films, which is how it earned the nickname "Can Pistoles" (House of Pistols).

In fact, the moniker evolved from one of Clavé’s designs. Antoni Solé, the Capitol’s owner, wanted an eye-catching design to promote the premiere of Against the Empire of Crime, 1933, on the theatre’s façade which faced the crowded La Rambla. Clavé's design, charged with simulated bullet holes in the front windows, generated immediate buzz.

By this time, the posters that decorated the theatre's exterior to announce the latest films became a much-lauded weekly event that forged a rich bond between the cinema and the community. Clavé's posters for the Capitol were the most spectacular, scaled to more than two meters high and roughly one meter wide; their striking effect was unparalleled.

 
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The original poster for King Kong, 1933

Clavé's posters were also rapidly completed, ephemeral, daring and executed with technical clarity. The variety and ingenuity of these compositions are not only a testament to the absolute freedom he was afforded by Sixt Illescas, Cinaes' artistic director,  but also the artist's facility for the medium, his curiosity and eclecticism.

 

Clavé drew much of his inspiration from the theories of the avant-garde - surrealism, synthetic cubism and futurism - which he combined with the inventive use of textured materials - rope, printed textiles, cardboard, and newspaper - and a bold, meticulous style that earned immediate praise for its originality.

Consequently, the designs Clavé made for Cineas between 1933 and 1935 marked a watershed moment in establishing the new wave of modern poster design. The artist's natural style was radically different from the sentimental hyperrealism of the classic movie poster; Clavé essentially de-personalized the film's stars, transforming them into sleek silhouettes and geometric shapes. 

In King Kong, 1933, for example, the contrast between Clavé's poster and the North American version is arresting. Clavé removed any concrete reference to the giant gorilla and with it the emotional charge of the original design. Instead, he focused on the visual impact of the shapes, volume, scale and suggestive lines that conjure introspection and a sense of mystery. It was a ground-breaking avant-garde style that he also used to promote the most important fantasy film of his time: The Invisible Man.

El Hombre Invisible, 1934, was designed exclusively for the film's release at The Capitol. As with King Kong, Clavé's poster is both dynamic and engaging: the dark glasses, the plunging vantage point, and the unravelling bandage express the terrifying madness of the protagonist, while his ghostly silhouette, scarcely outlined, attempts to flee. Today, this poster resides in the permanent collection at the National Museum of Catalan Art (MNAC) in Barcelona.

In other posters, the characters or objects are wrapped in a chromatic halo that Clavé created using gouache or, less frequently, an airbrush, whose dynamic contrast imbues the composition with a sense of modernity, as seen in Hollywood conquistado, 1934. In Secreto de una noche (One Night Secret, 1934), recently acquired for the permanent collection of the Museo Reina Sofia, we see the distinctive colour range found in Clavé’s work from this period; a limited, contrasting palette, often composed of blues, blacks, whites and ochres.

Compositionally, these works eschewed extraneous details and were highly structured designs, focused primarily on the essential elements of the film being advertised. Clavé's posters often substituted protagonists with objects and silhouettes, and the artist deftly applied the theories of synthetic cubism drawn from Picasso (whom he met in Paris during World War II and became a life-long friend) and Juan Gris and strengthened with his innate understanding of the new paradigms of French poster-making and Russian minimalism to create rich, multifaceted designs. 

Clavé's El Homre Invisible, 1934, now in the National Museum of Catalan Art collection

Such contemporary innovation extended Clavé's reputation beyond the Spanish borders, and by 1935, he had established himself as the poster artist en vogue of his time. At barely 22 years old, Clavé was considered "the most authentic representative of the poster world in Barcelona."

That same year, Clavé sent a selection of posters to Germany to be reproduced in an article in the Berlin magazine Gebrauchsgraphik that was dedicated to the artistry of Spanish film posters and was exclusively illustrated with his work. The piece aptly appreciated Clavé's posters for their "artistic non-conformity" and described him as "the most popular poster artist" in the Catalan capital, an honour that catapulted the young artist to fame.

With the onset of the Spanish Civil War a year later and the ensuing threat to Catalonian independence, Clavé was distraught that his most cherished and defining works might become casualties of a rising regime. Desperate but unable to learn the fate of the 32 original works believed to still be in Germany, Clavé resigned himself to the thought that they were forever lost, a heavy burden on the artist.

After General Franco's coup d'état in July 1936, Barcelona underwent an anarcho-syndicalist revolution that subordinated the arts in the interests of the Republic. The cinemas which had been a cultural touchstone for the public and a champion for artistic expression were seized by the Union of Public Spectacles.

 

Film promotions were henceforth abolished and replaced with the propaganda of the new regime. In turn, the Barcelona poster artists, including Clavé, felt compelled to use their art in service of the Revolution. 

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By 1937, Clavé had enlisted in the Republican Army and was mobilized to the Aragon Front where he remained with the 14th Battalion of the 133rd Brigade for five months.

By the end of the year, Martí Bas and Clavé had joined the 31st Division Headquarters, where they were commissioned to produce posters to galvanize the fighters and bolster the cause for revolution. They later returned to Barcelona to prepare an exhibition of these works, which opened on February 20, 1938, at the Plaza Catalunya.

The final poster created by Clavé during the Civil War commemorated Catalonia's national holiday, Diada. As an appeal for peace and freedom, the artist used his limited palette and curved lines to depict a female figure, almost naked, at its centre, holding the Catalan flag, the Senyera, in one hand while raising an olive branch in the other. In the background, as a fitting counterpoint, stands the gigantic, dark silhouette of a soldier grasping a bayonet.

11 de Setembre, 1938

On January 26, 1939, Barcelona fell to General Franco which forced more than 500,000 people to flee to France. Among them was Clavé who crossed the French border three days later and was first interned at Prats de Molló, then at a camp in the Pyrénées-Orientales.

 

During his captivity, Clavé produced many detailed pencil drawings that conveyed the steely resolve of his compatriots, as well as the guards charged with overseeing their temporary incarceration. Dessin du camp des Haras is the only available work from this historic and pivotal moment in the artist's career, displaced from his homeland and bearing witness to war-time suffering endured by his fellow soldiers and countrymen rendered in a few delicate and expert lines.

 

In Pyrénées-Orientales, Clavé also met the artist Martin Vivès who, along with the other exiled Spanish artists, organized an exhibition of their camp sketches at the Vivant Gallery and Teahouse in Perpignan, the region's capital. 

Clavé's selected drawings were especially striking and singled out for their expressive range. Moved by his irrefutable talent, Clavé secured his release soon after to pursue his artistic aspirations and used all the proceeds from this first exhibition for his journey to Paris, the aesthetic and cultural Mecca for a talented and reputable young artist in the late 1930s. 

Clavé, Pedro Flores et Martin Vives, Perpignan 1939

Clavé arrived in Paris on April 5, 1939, with no identification papers and the meagre funds left from the exhibition. He managed to eke out a living as an illustrator for children’s magazines and periodicals like Gavroche, Aventure and Jumbo before he found his footing designing sets and costumes for opera, ballet and stage productions in Europe and North American. Clavé's ingenuity and modernist vision for the theatre earned him critical and international acclaim in the late 1940s.

Then, in 1942, the 32 cinema posters Clavé once believed were lost to history miraculously re-appeared rolled up in a tube at his cousin’s house in Barcelona, astonishingly unscathed after years of global warfare and social unrest.

It is an extraordinary feat of chance that Landau Contemporary is able to present these unique works 87 years after they were first shown in public in Barcelona as a career-defining series by one of Spain’s most treasured artists, which have never before been offered for sale. As further evidence of their importance, Clave had these works mounted on canvas in the 1950s to preserve them for posterity, and they were subsequently included in almost every major museum exhibition and retrospective held for the artist, including the Museum Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Although the Spanish Civil War and the artist's arrival in Paris all but ended Clavé's career as an affichiste, his seminal work from the 1930s laid the foundation for a radical transformation in his art that would make him one of the most celebrated Spanish artists of his generation even after his passing in August 2005 at 92 years old. 

Today, Clavé is recognized as one of the most famous poster artists of the Second Republic in Barcelona, along with Josep Renau, and is widely considered the most brilliant and prolific artist of Spanish avant-garde cinema posters.

Clavé in Hollywood, 1952

An artist of indisputable talent and range, Clavé has been the subject of seminal museum exhibitions and retrospectives at the Beyeler Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou and the Picasso Museum in Antibes. His work can also be found in the collection of the world’s leading cultural institutions, including the Tate Museum, London, the Museum of Modern Art, Paris, the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts, Bilbao, and the Museum Reina Sofia, Madrid, to name a few.

We thank you for visiting our online exhibition. All photos courtesy of the Archives Antoni Clavé unless otherwise indicated.
Please contact the gallery to find out more about this exceptional artist.