On the Embrace

Pablo Gil Rituerto

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A Study for an Archeology of Juan Genovés’s The Embrace: From Amnesty to the Embrace of the Transition

On January 8, 2016, a painting emerged from the darkness of the Reina Sofía Museum’s storage facility to hang in one of the halls of the Congress of Deputies. It had been in storage for 28 years since being moved there from the defunct Museum of Contemporary Art in 1988. Years before, in 1976, Felipe Garín, then Director of Fine Arts under Adolfo Suárez’s government, recovered the painting from the hands of an American collector who, in turn, had acquired it through the Marlborough Gallery. Meanwhile, its creator, Juan Genovés, was being detained and held incommunicado in the prison cells of the Ministry of Governance at the Puerta del Sol, accused of the crime of producing illegal propaganda. Initially, Juan Genovés had ceded the rights for the image to be reproduced for the Democratic Junta’s campaign in favor of amnesty for political prisoners. To that end, 25,000 posters were printed with a reproduction of the painting and the slogan Amnesty!, but government forces seized and destroyed the material nearly in its entirety upon its being declared subversive.

One of these posters was hanging in an office of labor lawyers located at 55 Calle Atocha in Madrid when, on January 24, 1977, it was attacked by a fascist group, and four of the attorneys and one union member were murdered. Across from that law firm, on June 10, 2003, a sculpture was unveiled that reproduces the motif of that same work: a fraternal embrace among a group of militants. The artist made the following statement regarding the work:

To me, that painting no longer belongs to me; its image now belongs to everyone. What is clear is that the painting in question has become a symbol for all of Spain. That symbol belongs to the leftist political forces in this country. I always liked that its spirit was in the street, so that the painting “Amnesty” became the sculpture “The Embrace” in the Plaza Antón Martín.

Recently, on February 24, 2016, political leaders Pedro Sánchez and Albert Rivera used that painting as the backdrop for a press conference in which they were to announce an attempt at a governing pact agreed upon by their respective parties. The agreement, which aspired to inaugurate a Second Transition in Spain, was baptized by the media, and not in vain, as “the pact of the embrace.”

The series of photographs presented here conforms to the dialectic between two types of archive: documentation of the point of departure and of the point of arrival of Juan Genovés’s iconic work—a 40-year transition from clandestinity to institutionalization. At the point of departure, at the very genesis of the painting, we see protests for the amnesty of anti-Francoist prisoners—at the end of this trajectory, the hall of the Congress of Deputies.

The act of erasure imposed on the archive is meant to restore the original meaning of the work, so that negation appears here as a form of reaffirmation. Eliminating the painting from the series of photographs allows us to observe the array of positions established around it. Following the erasure of the image, the artifice of the staging is revealed vividly, making evident precisely the way in which we position ourselves in relation to the images: while the protesters march anonymously behind the images and literally carry them, the politicians pose in front of the painting, turning their backs on it, imposing themselves in the frame. Thus they obscure the embrace among militants in 1976 Spain to convert it into an embrace among citizens in 2016 Spain. An embrace among equals now becomes an embrace among (in)different individuals, in a displacement of meaning that demonstrates the Benjaminian tension between cult value and exhibition value. If the poster distributed in 1976 embodied the modernity of the reproducible and reproduced work, one that takes on value through praxis and meaning through exhibition as a socializing and political act, at the other extreme, the transportation of the original painting, guarded by national security forces on its way from the Reina Sofía to the Congress, represents a regression toward an attempt at an auratic interpretation of the work that returns us to its cult value as a sacred object.

This brings us to the question of whether institutionalization is a far more effective mechanism of power in the neutralization of the meaning of a work than the very censorship to which that work was subjected. Or whether, on the contrary, the potential inscribed in the work is capable of freeing itself in one last ardent flash to make evident those mechanisms of power that try to transform it. We know that the image is a remnant, a trace of the moment in time it attempted to capture but also of other times that subsequently adhere to it, and it is in this movement that the image flares up in its successive moments of contact with the real, in its relation with the context in which it is inscribed. The image burns to unveil itself and reveal itself. And the image, finally, burns until it disappears, to keep safe in its ashes the implicit truth of its genesis. The image, therefore, also burns to rebel.

Images & text: Pablo Gil Rituerto
Translation: Tess Rankin
CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 | 2016

Pablo Gil Rituerto (b. 1983, Madrid) is a film editor and visual artist. He has worked as editor with José Luis Guerin in Recuerdos de una mañana (Jeonju Digital Project, 2011) and La dama de Corinto (Esteban Vicente Museum and Centre Pompidou, 2010). He also edited Mercedes Álvarez’s Mercado de futuros (IB Cinema, 2011), winner of the New Gaze award in the Visions du Réel Festival of Nyon and Jury’s Special Mention in BAFICI. With Mercedes Álvarez he also edited the multi-screen installation 25% (MACBA, 2014) present in the Venice Biennale 2014. He has recently edited Lois Patiño’s Costa da morte and artist Paloma Polo‘s feature film Unrest. As visual artist, his photo montage series Jaque have been included in the photographic encounters Photoespaña 2014 and in the documentary photography festival Docfield 2015, as part of the Crónica 21 Archive.