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Alberto, between the tribe and the State


28 December 2020
This month's topic: Material Consciousness

Alberto, between the tribe and the State

Alberto Sánchez is an artist about whom we know a great deal, even though there are some aspects about such a crucial period in his life as his stay in Paris in 1937, at the time when he took part in the Spanish Pavilion, a period of which relatively little is known.

Alberto came to Paris in late April, when the construction of the pavilion’s metal structure was coming to a close and the inside walls were being divided into compartments. We don’t know whether he set to work straight away on what would become his signature sculpture for which he would be renowned: El pueblo español tiene un camino que conduce a una estrella (The Spanish People have a Path that leads to a Star) or he helped with construction on site, or both things at the same time. Thanks to research conducted by Josefina Alix Trueba for the catalogue of Pabellón Español 1937, which was exhibited at the Reina Sofía in 1987, we know that Alberto worked at the pavilion as an ordinary labourer.

On the second floor of the pavilion, the section of Plastic Arts and Popular Arts shared a room together. Separated lengthwise using panels, one half exhibited works of art (paintings, drawings, engravings and sculptures) whose main subject matter focused on the tragedy of war and the hardships of the Spanish people; the other half contained a wide array of pottery pieces, wickerwork, esparto works, a few agricultural tools and a rich collection of folk costumes. One of Alberto’s main tasks at the pavilion, other than producing his sculpture, obviously, was the installation of this section. The term popular arts is nothing but a euphemism for minor arts, those generally not acknowledged or accorded authorship, in stark contrast to Art with capital “A”, defined by recognition, authorship, subjectivity, newness, originality or being a unique piece. Although it was claimed that the Popular Arts section was being granted as much weight and relevance as the Plastic Arts’ it wasn’t actually so. The pottery works were reassembled from two private collections and were no more than one hundred pieces. Here is an excerpt of the letter sent by José Gaos, the pavilion’s curator, to José Prat, Undersecretary of the Presidency, in the wake of the pavilion’s inauguration – on July 12 – where a a lack of planning can be noted in that section.

«The second Section, assigned to the popular arts, is the most unfortunate. While, on paper, it had to be the most important one, it is so far the emptiest one. A few photographs on the walls, some of them magnificent, but that is all. With pottery having arrived yesterday, and still not in place. I’m not sure if that’s because we haven’t managed to properly make sense of this section of pieces of the popular arts and techniques, from pottery to wickerwork, from lace to espadrilles. Is it really impossible to supply a car to a person familiar with Spain and its popular arts for a few weeks and go to a few villages in different provinces to collect some characteristic samples?»[1]

While Gaos referred to the Popular Arts section as “the most important one”, it’s hard to understand why he had such scant resources. One feels that Alberto was the sole person in charge of the section. As a matter of fact, Gaos himself deemed Alberto indispensable, besides Lacasa and Sert (the pavilion’s architects), because of his ability to “rectify flaws such as those produced in popular works”. What was the intention when they reunited the plastic arts with the popular arts on a single floor? Was it the point to demonstrate the coexistence of a modern, avantgarde Spain – as exemplified by Picasso – and an atavistic Spain of craftsmen? What did Gaos mean by “we haven’t managed to properly make sense of this section”? Self-evidently, there was a great difference in budget and infrastructure between the two of them. Behind the Plastic Arts section was the machinery of the General Administration of Fine Arts, led by Josep Renau, who was responsible for its logistics as well as its contents, and of extending invitations to renowned artists such as Picasso, Miró, Calder, Júlio González or Alberto himself. It’s also unclear why, on the one hand, craftmanship was reputedly praised while displaying at the same time photographic panels in the same room as well as on the first floor (the pavilion was to be visited upstairs first) in which that lore was being called into question. We’re referring to a photomontage dedicated to the new role fulfilled by the Spanish woman that we will comment on later, and the panels devoted to the Pedagogical Missions. The Missions were created in 1931 as a cornerstone of the Second Republic’s government cultural propaganda to combat illiteracy. An elite of intellectuals brought reproductions of famous paintings, music, books, talks, theatre or cinema to every corner of the Peninsula to instil “the breath of progress” into unlettered societies. Most receivers of that State-sponsored colonialism didn’t possess the slightest codes to figure out the slogans or messages emanating from those “civilizing” campaigns. As it can be seen in photographs which documented those events and activities, they look more like bemused subjects than receptive subjects. The pictures don’t show any kind of mutual exchange or enrichment. What was proved and displayed with said campaigns – plain and simple – was that urban or State culture was superior to rural or popular culture. A counterpoint of subaltern culture and “cultivated” culture, far removed from Antonio Gramsci’s theories – which he was precisely working on at the time from an Italian prison –. By using the word subaltern, Gramsci referred to the lower classes of societies and their marginal parts. Among these, many groups of craftspeople were included, obviously.


As evidenced by photomontages dedicated to the Missions, there was a will to dominate on the part of hegemonic culture which disregarded the subaltern classes’ “worldview”. That’s why it is hardly understandable that the Popular Arts section was supposed to be so remarkable when, in fact, the societies of potters, espadrille or wicker manufacturers and weavers, were regarded as a barrier to progress. As the Pedagogical Missions prove, the subaltern classes – such as the Lumpenproletariat for Marx – were nothing else than remains of the past whose pre-capitalistic life conditions were an obstacle to the “locomotive of history”. From the standpoint of official or hegemonic culture, crafts were nothing else but archaic resistances which repeated the same stereotypies over and over, with barely any willingness to change.

Besides running the Popular Arts section, Alberto devised, and it is our belief that he also built, a number of shelves as displays for exhibition, two of them consisting of different levels for pottery pieces and a lower one for wickerwork and other objects. It may be assumed that Alberto must have personally built the shelves because manual work, craft, manufacture, the properties of materials and tools, were of great importance to him.

In the catalogue for the exhibition Alberto 1895-1962, shown at the Reina Sofía in 2001, those shelves are hardly mentioned and they are not listed either. Despite having been described by Alix as “wonderful wooden shelves, with sinuous shapes, with drilled openings and which occasionally looked like pottery, or ploughing implements, or a mix of both”,[2] we don’t know if they were considered by Alberto to be works of art or mere displays. It seems difficult to imagine Picasso in this frame of mind since, as an “artist-genius”, he didn’t differentiate between plates or paintings when it came to signing his works. Alberto, however, because of his nature, must have been somehow embarrassed to betray his humble background. The son of a baker and a maid, he became a blacksmith’s assistant at ten years old. At fifteen, he worked as a baker while he learnt to read and write. Unquestionably subaltern origins which made his work at the pavilion as an ordinary worker seem natural. According to Alix, he earnt the same salary as the rest, around 3000 francs per month, which only covered essentials. There is something mysterious, telluric almost, regarding Alberto’s commitment with the section of Popular Arts. Why, earning so little, did he continue to work even after the pavilion’s opening, not merely completing the installation but making changes as materials kept arriving late?

In a speech given by Alberto in Madrid, in late 1932, entitled El arte como superación personal (Art as personal self-improvement), some key features of his thinking can be ascertained which may also serve as an answer to some of the questions raised here. Alberto uses the adjective “artistic artist” for the individualist artist, a slave to himself who eschews what’s simple and natural. He also posits that the “statuary, the painting-picture-theatre and the contemplative poet and the rhetoric writer in history” are only of use to “idle people in the capacity of great lord and master”. On the contrary, he prefers an art with soul that “nurtures the person and elevates it to cleanliness”.

In the Popular Arts section, as it has been mentioned, there was a photomontage dedicated to women’s new role which portrayed a militiawoman wearing an overall next to a young woman dressed in a typical costume of Salamanca, wearing all sorts of beads and ornaments. In that photomontage, the Popular Front asserted their revolutionary potential alluding to the new role assumed by women in contrast to her role in a vernacular and backwards Spain, as represented by the young Salamancan woman. The photomontage included a paragraph which encouraged women to free themselves from superstition and the squalor of the past and become an active part of the future which was being built. Two worlds which appeared as antagonistic and irreconcilable, when they could have actually been complementary. In no way a point is being made of contesting women’s emancipation or the social revolution which was born in 1936, but quite the contrary. One must go beyond rational logic to understand other ways of doing and thinking such as those represented by the young Salamancan woman with her singing, her dancing, her magic or her rituals. Ancient forms of attachment to nature which, as Gramsci said, shouldn’t be considered to be “an oddity, a rarity or a quaint element but something that is deeply serious and must be taken seriously. Only thus education will become more efficient and will really shape the birth of a new culture in the great popular masses. That is, the distinction between modern culture and popular culture or folklore will disappear”.[3] This same space, with no divide between the popular and the modern, was inhabited by Alberto, right in the hiatus between ancestral and modern, between country and town, between tribe and State.

(Images: photomontages by Xavier Arenós specifically for this collaboration)

[1] Alix Trueba, Josefina. Pabellón Español 1937. Exposición Internacional de París. Madrid: Centro de Arte Reina Sofía- Ministerio de Cultura, 1987, pp. 129, 130.

[2] Ibíd., p. 90.

[3]. Gramsci, Antonio. Cuadernos de la cárcel. Tomo 6. México, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 2.000, pp. 205, 206.


Xavier Arenós (Vila-real, 1968) is a visual artist and university professor at the Massana School of Art and Design in Barcelona. His work explores themes such as the ideal, utopia, political memory, exile, redemption and hope.

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