Fotografia a Catalunya


05.04.2016 — 11:53

Pere Català i Pic, reappraisal of a forgotten master

Daniel Venteo (historiador) i Pablo Giori (autor)

Pere Català i Pic. Fotografia, publicitat, avantguarda i literatura, 1889-1971. Front cover @ Pere Català archive

Pere Català Pic is one of the indisputable names in the history of Catalan photography. He was one of the most interesting and creative artists during the inter-war years and, what is not so well known, also during the period of Franco's dictatorship. He was the creator of one of the most famous posters of the Civil War, Aixafem el feixisme, (Smash fascism), but his contribution to Catalan culture, photography, and advertising was much more ambitious than that, as can now be seen for the first time in the biography published by Rafael Dalmau, Pere Català i Pic. Fotografia, publicitat, avantguarda i literatura, 1889-1971.

The revival of the work and reputation of Català Pic started timidly in 1977, six years after his death in 1971, in the midst of the political transition from dictatorship to democracy. The event that marked it was the exhibition of Republican and Civil War posters held at the Palau de la Virreina and the Miró Foundation, an exhibition which would then be exhibited at the Madrid Cultural Centre in the autumn of 1978. Català Pic's posters for the Republican Generalitat's Propaganda Commissariat occupied a prominent place, and thus commenced the awakening of interest in the rest of his work. This was followed by small-scale exhibitions and homages by other institutions such as the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya in Barcelona (1981); the Centre d’Estudis Catalans in Paris (1982); the Museu d’Art Modern in Tarragona (1988) and the Centre d'Art Santa Mònica (1996). The first important monographic exhibition to be held was in the summer of 1998 at the Valls Museum. It was entitled Pere Català i Pic. Fotografia i publicitat and the curator was Pilar Parcerisas. This exhibition then travelled to Granollers and Barcelona with the support of the Caixa Foundation. Since then there have been but few events to mark his work, with the exception of the contribution made by Jep Martí, a photographic historian and Valls municipal archivist.

Portrait: Pere Català Pic by Pere Català Roca © Pere Català archive.

The biography presented here is the result of more than two years of research at the historical institutions associated with Català Pic and, above all, into his valuable private family archive, which is still kept at the PIC photographic studio in the Carrer Pi, in Barcelona. The archive consists of 40,000 original photographs taken by Català Pic and by his son, Pere Català Roca. It also includes 10,000 written documents of great importance, including correspondence, diaries, and most of the catalogues for the plates and negatives produced between 1910 and the 1960s. The year 2015 marked a hundred years since he embarked on his photographic career on 26 May 1915, in Valls. Now, one hundred years later, it is possible to form an comprehensive appreciation of the man and his work for the first time. 

Català Pic's work is inseparably associated with concepts such as modernity, the democratisation of knowledge, good taste and even happiness. In one of his unpublished literary texts, La Herencia (1939), one of his alter egos, the autobiographical character, Braulio, states quite bluntly that the photographer's job is to "create moments of happiness". For Català this readiness to influence society through aesthetic appreciation was inseparable from his civilising and educational mission. His aim was to democratise photography in order to make it, not only an educational tool, but also one for leisure, and this can be seen in the ambitious competitions and classes that he organised in Valls during the 1920s.


El Retocador, Gràfiques Cantín © Pere Català archive

In 1925, at the height of Primo de Rivera's dictatorship, Català Pic, was working in an attempt to stimulate the urban life of Valls from the perspective of the cultural world. He can not, however, be considered only as a photographer, given his active and prominent involvement in the cultural and economic progress of his birthplace, at that time, the place where he lived. He was totally committed to it and to the modernisation it so needed. In 1926 Català was one of the driving forces behind the creation of a new local organisation, the Friends of Beautiful Things, the manifesto for which proclaimed that, "Between us all we can organise competitions, exhibitions, conferences, musical evenings, humorous events in good taste, theatre productions and literary reading groups". A decade later we can see these traits again in the creation of the Propaganda Commissariat, of which Català Pic was a leading light.

Català Pic's wide ranging interests in the world of culture and the arts was innate. He was passionate about painting in all its aspects, from art history to practicing the art himself, but his interests also included music, cinema, literature, the press, advertising and, of course, photography. He was a veritable cultural activist and in 1931 he left Valls for Barcelona, having spent the latter part of 1928 in Paris, something that had a great influence on his career. He had travelled to Paris to learn more about avant-garde painting, but instead he found and adopted the new international experimental photography as something synonymous with modernity, and he determined to change course, leaving artistic portraiture aside to become a photographic artist. 

While he was in Paris, in September 1928, he encountered another cultural and political activist in exile, the journalist from Figueres, Jaume "Met" Miravitlles. They had little in common, indeed it is likely that they did not get to know each other personally, despite the fact that they frequented the same cafés where Spaniards, fleeing the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, would congregate. Their common friend, Pere Mialet, also formed part of this community. In Paris he had to experiment, almost certainly somewhat uncomfortably given the Bohemian and morally controversial lifestyle of his compatriots, which was the case with Miravitlles himself. 

On several occasions Català tried, but without success, to contact Picasso to explore "photography's possibilities in the field of the avant-garde". In his unpublished diaries about his visit to Paris, which are now kept in the family archive, he describes how meeting the correspondent of the Barcelona journal, El Progreso Fotográfico, the Italian Egidio Scaioni, had a great effect on him. One of the pages contains a note that is, today, essential for an understanding of the transcendental nature of that moment. "Scaioni's work is very cerebral and very modern [...]. I was very impressed and decided to devote myself to work with a modern direction, convinced of photography's great possibilities for achieving, not just Cubism, but also to encroach on Futurist and even Surrealist terrain." It is also thanks to Parisian publications such as Art Vivant that, in March 1929 he became aware of the work of Jean Gallotti, especially his influential article, La photographie est-elle un art?, which was illustrated with fascinating avant-garde photographs and which are reminiscent of Català's photographs, taken some time later.

Upon his return he resolutely adopted photomontage techniques, psychology and the untrammelled use of photography in the field of advertising. This he did through practical research and careful investigation of how advertisements achieve greater visual impact in comparison with extraneous perspectives, such as those created, for example, by Alexandre Chleusebairgue, the director of the Generalitat's Psychotechnical Institute Advertising Seminary. After the outbreak of the Civil War the Propaganda Commissariat was created, directed by Miravitlles, and it published hundreds of posters and books and led him, after 1939, to internal exile. During these months of "compulsory holiday", as he himself described it, enclosed in his own home, he rediscovered the enthusiasm of his youth for literature and writing as he reflected upon his position. Gradually literary circles began to be established again and Català Pic participated in the most important of them, while at the same time launching an influential advertising company with his sons, Francesc and Pere, on whose work he had a decisive influence, unknown about until now. He lived through, and participated in, the modernisation of Catalonia during the first phases of the Franco dictatorship through trade fairs while, at the same time bringing up a family, enjoying his work and indulging his passion for literature.

Pere Català Pic's biography is not intended to be definitive. On the contrary it opens up many new lines for research into the professional dimension of photographic practice and, by extension, into photography, advertising and, in general, the attitude of Catalan intellectuals before and after the Civil War. This research raises more questions than it answers, although it does mark the beginning of well-documented recognition of his importance in the history of photography and the arts in Catalonia. In this regard, the dissemination of the Català family's photographic work has been uneven. Francesc Català Roca's brilliant work, kept at the Historic Archive of the College of Architects of Catalonia, has enjoyed widespread dissemination, not just amongst specialists, but also amongst the public at large. The work of his brother, Pere Català Roca is, however, practically unknown and kept in the family archive. Only ten or twenty of his photographs are well known and the rest of his work, more than 20,000 photographs, await their moment. 

For aficionados of the history of photography in Catalonia this biography demonstrates the need to continue delving into the life and work of Català Pic more than ever, with initiatives such as the great retrospective exhibition he deserves, which institutions have, so far, denied him. This year marks the forty-fifth year since his death and we think it is a good time to begin to redress this situation.

Daniel Venteo (historian) and Pablo Giori (author)

Discover our gallery of photographs of Pere Català i Pic by clicking here

Book launch: Pere Català i Pic. Fotografia, publicitat, avantguarda i literatura, 1889-1971:

23 April, Saint George's day book fair: the author, Pablo Giori, signs books at the Rafael Dalmau publishing company stand in the Rambla, in front of the Liceu Opera House.

10 May, official launch of the book at the College of Architects of Catalonia (Plaça Nova 5, Function Room, Barcelona), 7.30 p.m. with Josep Martí (director of the Valls Municipal Archive), Pablo Giori (author) and Rafael Català i Dalmau (publisher and grandson of Pere Català Pic).