In the catalogues and the publicity, the stated theme of this year’s edition of PHotoEspana is Spanish photography. Implicitly, however, exhibition after exhibition are bound together by a deeper, less instantly definable theme. Whether in highlighting a lost piece of history, bringing an under-appreciated artist back into the public eye or shedding light on a corner where a shadow has fallen, we come to feel that this festival is dedicated to unearthing and celebrating the work of artists who deserve a happier fate than silent, forgotten oblivion.
No single exhibition embodies this better than Arissa: Shadow and Photographer. The exhibition tells the story of Antoni Arissa (Sant Andreu 1900 – Barcelona 1980), an avant-garde Spanish photographer who worked at the forefront of the Spanish artistic establishment before disappearing (almost irretrievably) into obscurity in 1936.
Arissa began his career as a photographer in the early 1920s whilst continuing work as a technician in the family printing business. Initially, he was focused on genre-type themes, working in the style of the pictorialist photographers who were dominant in the day. This early work drew on national literature, depicting the “lost” rural spirit of the noble Spanish peasant.
But Arissa lived in Catalonia—a developed region and a hotbed of modern thinking and avant-garde styles. He rejected these archaic fantasies and began to develop his own dynamic, unadorned style. Soon, Arissa moved towards a vision shaped by the visionary practitioners of Central Europe (e.g. Andre Kertesz). Using a bold approach in his compositions, forms, and lines and drawing upon his professional background as a printer and typographer, Arissa began a journey towards a personal, modern style of photography.
Throughout the first half of the 1930s, Arissa’s career blossomed. His work was published in magazines across Spain and France and was exhibited in several solo shows. And then, just as quickly as it had bloomed, his career was extinguished. With the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the magazine industry disappeared, the market for fine art dried up and Arissa was forced to abandon his career in photography forever.
Thanks to the efforts of Fundación Telefónica and the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya, this exhibition is the culmination of decades of archival research and recovery work. Arissa’s work, which teetered on the edge of disappearing forever, has been resurrected in the form of over 160 prints, shown alongside a few, rare surviving prints made by Arissa himself. Beautiful work in and of itself and a story that makes us appreciate the caprice of history, at its most cruel and most unexpectedly kind.