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Josep Renau and the Politics of Culture in Republican Spain, 1931–1939

Re-imagining the Nation

Carl-Henrik Bjerström is a historian specialising in the cultural history of modern Spain, particularly the Second Republic of 1931–1939. He is currently a lecturer in Modern European History at Birkbeck, University of London. Other research interests include the social history of interwar Europe, modernism, and the history of photography and film.

At once pragmatic and utopian, the Spanish artist, critic and political activist Josep Renau engaged in multiple ways in the volatile cultural conflicts of interwar Europe, which converged on Spain in the Second Republic’s battle to modernise both politics and society (1931–1939). Renau used his idiosyncratic artwork and agit-prop, inspired by the Constructivists and the German avant-garde, to critique the timidity of the Republic’s first democratising reforms. To envision an alternative, he launched arts organisations and magazines whose goal was to begin the work of redefining Spanish national self-image through cultural innovation. The ideas Renau developed would soon come to shape government policy during the war in Spain (1936–39) when Renau served as the Republic’s Director General of Fine Arts. In power, Renau was a tireless cultural innovator, whose initiatives not only helped mobilise tens of thousands of Republicans but also shaped the new collective imaginaries emerging from the conflict.

This book offers the first interdisciplinary and contextualised analysis of the relationship between art and politics in Renau’s work at the time of Spain’s pivotal attempt to pursue democratic forms of modernisation. It traces the connections between Renau’s political goals and the specific visual strategies he deployed, providing a comprehensive historical assessment of his attempts to turn protean theory into effective practice. In spite of the Republic’s military defeat, Renau’s work, and the wartime cultural programme he inspired and impelled, offer fertile material for debates on the dynamic relationship between culture and democracy in ways which remain as relevant and urgent today as they were when Renau took up the challenge.

Published in association with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies


Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-739-1
Hardback Price: £65.00 / $74.95
Release Date: November 2015
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-807-7
Paperback Price: £27.50 / $39.95
Release Date: October 2016
Page Extent / Format: 272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes



1. The Making of an Avant-Garde Artist (1907–1930)
2. The Turn to Politics (1930–1933)
3. Ethics Through Aesthetics: The Politics of Cultural Reform (1931–1933)
4. Art to Guide the Masses: Orto and Estudios (1932–1934)
5. Creating a Cultural Popular Front: Nueva Cultura (1935–1936)
6. Mobilising For Survival: Renau’s Early War Posters (1936)
7. Radical Nation-Building: Popular Culture in War (1936–1938)
8. Propaganda Against All the Odds (1937–1939)



Rather than providing a full biography of Spanish artist, writer, and political activist Renau, Bjerström focuses on the intersections of art and politics in his work during the Republican period, before the Spanish Civil War brought the fascists to power and Renau went into exile. Renau was a prominent critic and polemicist who commented on virtually all artistic trends shaping Spanish cultural life during the 1930s, he says, and in many cases, his arguments represented one of two extremes, showing with particular clarity that was at stake in Spanish cultural debates.

The eruption of full-scale civil war in summer 1936 presented Spain’s young Republican democracy with almost as many formidable internal social and political challenges as it did the more well-known military ones, especially after the rapid internationalisation of the conflict by the end of July. The Republic’s survival in the medium to long-term would come to depend crucially on its ability to mobilise the bulk of its population in the daunting array of new war tasks thrown up by an emerging total war. How might it be possible to achieve this, to make a new Republican national identity, and a new citizenry through innovative forms of mass education and culture? This urgent endeavour, which was at the very heart of the new age of mass politics in Spain, as in so many places in Europe, constitutes the core of Carl-Henrik Bjerström’s wide-ranging, impeccably researched and fascinating new study of the politics of culture in 1930s Republican Spain. Dr Bjerström offers us a rich and perceptive analysis of this specific historical instance of society as cultural laboratory. But in so doing, he also takes an interdisciplinary approach, combining the skills of the political and social historian with those of art history and political philosophy. As a result, he also delivers for readers a thought-provoking, future-oriented analysis of the very possibilities of culture in realising workable new forms of democratic engagement. And in the current moment, these questions about how a mass participatory democracy can be (re)envisioned take on a new and very immediate urgency. In 1930s Spain itself, cultural nation-building was already on the agenda, from the Second Republic’s earliest days in 1931, which is unsurprising given the predominance of liberal educationalists among the Second Republic’s new political elites. But the civil war made it explicit that this task urgently required new eyes, indeed a new vision and above all new techniques and cultural practices.
... Among those who took up this new challenge was the graphic artist Josep Renau who early on in the war would become the key innovating figure in the Republic’s cultural ministry. Indeed the charismatic Renau was by then already the cultural entrepreneur of 1930s Spain par excellence - as traced in the opening chapters of Carl-Henrik Bjerström’s book. Renau was pivotal to the group of Valencia-based avant-garde artists, writers and other cultural practitioners who across 1931-36 launched a multitude of new cultural initiatives which resonated across Spain. Renau’s own particular importance lay, even in the early days, in his acute awareness of the importance of the European avant-garde ideas/artistic practices as a way of reinvigorating and impelling cultural change in Spain. In this way he acted as a lightning conductor; no less important was Renau’s seemingly boundless creative energy, enthusiasm and optimism.
... Renau, while not especially original as a theorist, was an immensely intelligent broker of cutting-edge artistic theory and practice which he shaped to suit the needs of the new cultural environment. He was a very successful envisioner and disseminator of cultural materials and an absolute genius in terms of putting big political ideas into searing and unforgettable visual form. Once the war had erupted he first threw his energy into developing the use of mass poster art and building on his earlier use of photomontage (Renau was a key – and here certainly innovative - figure, Spain’s equivalent of Germany’s famous ‘father’ of the genre, the artist and agitprop practitioner, John Heartfield.) Renau’s really quite extraordinary use of photomontage across the 1930s (amply illustrated in the book) is acutely analysed by Bjerström who indicates its centrality both to his politics and his aesthetic philosophy. Here again this book stands out for its conceptual and critical acuity, when so much of the existing work on Renau tends to cumulative description and catalogue.
... Renau joined the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) during his early days – as did some (but far from all) of the Valencia group who would work with him. But Renau was never a doctrinaire communist – he remained ecumenical and non-sectarian, maintaining personal, political and above all work contacts with a wide range of people across the Spanish progressive left, and he continued to do so across the entire life of the Republic from 1931 until its military defeat in 1939. Renau’s link to the PCE remained for him personally an important one, but in practice the party (in Popular Front mode) gave him and his group of artistic collaborators an astonishing amount of freedom to design and implement the detail of mass cultural initiatives during the war. Obviously Renau and his team worked broadly within Popular Front parameters, but that wasn’t hard, given it was in practice a very ‘broad church’. Renau oversaw a myriad of cultural initiatives. In the new Republican Army there were literacy campaigns, soldiers clubs, wall newspapers; and on the home front these ranged from the familiar literacy campaigns and wall newspapers, through new forms of educational policy (including the ‘universidad popular’) to exhibitions and mass literature and art competitions. (Renau was also wartime General Director of Fine Arts which saw him responsible for the protection and evacuation of Spain’s major national art works to avoid war damage. But that aspect of his career has been explored elsewhere in published form, so is not especially foregrounded in this book.)
... Of the many perceptive analyses offered in Carl-Henrik Bjerström’s book, one of the most impressive to my mind is his subtle and detailed dissection of the popular cultural reception in Madrid of Soviet insignia and images (including films) during the siege and battle to defend the city against Franco’s armies in the winter of 1936-37. He deploys an array of materials and perspectives to underscore the point that what was occurring here was not crude or narrow ‘indoctrination’, as some political commentators still insist, but rather the provision of a raw and varied cultural material which permitted Republican soldiers and civilians in Spain to imagine themselves differently; not in a ‘Sovietised’ future, but certainly as inhabiting a differently configured future for ‘Spain’ itself. This imagining helped to compensate for the ‘missing precedent’ in their own history, not in a reductive way, but as something much more subtle and open-ended, and ultimately dependent on how all of these images and representations were inflected, shaped and meshed as a progressive possibility by thousands and thousands of minds in Republican Madrid/Spain.
... Although Madrid was never taken militarily, the Republic would in the end lose the war, decided as it was in the chancelleries and cabinet rooms of Europe, and according to political calculations inimical to the development of grassroots democracy in any form. But the Republican experience has left a rich and complex legacy both of cultural practices, and also of broader ideas and possibilities for progressive change. Carl-Henrik Bjerström’s always clear and often beautifully written book is a tour de force, both as an incisive analysis of Josep Renau’s artistic trajectory and as an anatomy of cultural change in wartime Republic Spain.
Series Editor’s Preface by Helen Graham

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