Homenatge a Catalunya

Frank Horvat

(Abbazia, Italia (hoy Opatija, Croacia), 1928 - )

Frank Horvat and Catalonia


From the moment I decided to ask Frank Horvat to make this collection of photographs, the request embodied an implicit objective: to persuade him to put together a show about how he sees Catalonia as it is today. Almost immediately he came up with the title Homage to Catalonia, in allusion to George Orwell, and I had no hesitation in accepting it.

Frank Horvat’s suggestion tied in a perfectly with my own way of perceiving and engaging with the roots of my culture, but it was also very much in keeping with the principal purpose of the Fundació: that of making know (fent país, as we say in Catalan) and paying tribute to the country we love.

And we love not merely because it is our home, but because this is a place that conserves the living traditions and signs of identity of its culture, its history, its language… A place, in short, that takes pleasure in dialogue.

Creativity is something that manifests itself among the people of the country in each and all of the cultural disciplines, and these days the multidisciplinary artists is an increasingly frequent presence. Here at the Fundació we seek actively to promote our creative talents, in the firm belief that they make up the authentic fabric from which the veritable essence of the Catalan identity is fashioned.

This being so, we see fulfilled today one of the primary objectives we have set ourselves, and fulfilled in this case by another gaze, an external gaze, that of a photographer who is neither Catalan nor Spanish, that of an artist who has multicultural diversity in his very roots. French, Italian, Sephardi… Horvat’s gaze speaks to us of cultures that are not so far remote from our own origins.

Frank Horvat has managed to discern the generic in the ordinary and the everyday a generic. With each of his images he offers us a fragment, a reading that explains itself precisely by means of its absence, of all that we do not perceive directly. His form of expression is always communicated through this most sensory, sensual link with the spectator.

The exact utilization of the language is another of his most important characteristics. Horvat revels himself by means of a gaze, there where the concrete is caught in the meshed lines f a communication without words. Her achieves with images all that escapes us in the direct contact.    

Precise and subtle, Horvat generates images that function as a process of understanding, in this case the understanding of a culture -the Catalan cultures; but at the same time he manages to transport these images to a point where everything is held still in order to express the purely human content.

The generic contact with a surface without territory (some of these details that could belong to any place) dispenses with everything that might be conventional or anecdotal… This is Horvat’s real homage to Catalonia, but also the way we seek to present ourselves as a Fundació, building a bridge between the singular, the different, and this plurality that is present in the gaze of every creative artist.

Antoni Vila Casas

President of the Fundació Vila Casas


The title of this photographic essai is borrowed from the autobiographical account by George Orwell, who happens to be one of my favourite writers and to whom Catalonia has paid homage in return, by giving his name to a square of the Barrio Gótico.

Apart from this reference, the country shown in these images is about as different from the one described by the anti-fascist fighter of 1936, as I am different from the little boy in black uniform, photographed that same year in my italian birthplace. We have come a long way, baby, as the song goes.

Still, Orwell’s title and its association with my childhood resonate so insistently in my thoughts, that I Cannot resist associating present and past. Possibly because their contrast remind me of he other dichotomy, which I found so typical of Catalonia, between a façade of common sense and an underlying streak of madness. Of course he same could be said about Spain in general, as exemplified by the couple Sancho Panza -Don Quijote. Except that in Catalonia common sense is more conspicuous: had Miguel de Cervantes been bon Catalan, he may have named his masterwork after the valet. This predominance of seny over rauxa, as Catalans call it, may explain why heir land became, by reaction, one of the cradles of surrealism (not unlike Belgium, the other stronghold of middle-class sanity).

I’ve said the world: there is no doubt that what often impelled me to click the shutter, in my wanderings through Catalonia, was indeed some recollection of surrealism. Through I have also been influenced -more or less consciously- by references to modernism, expressionism, abstraction, and last but not least to romanesque sculpture (which had ben the theme of one of my previous essays, and whose figures and gestures often seemed to be re-enacted in the daily life of catalan markets and streets).

Recollection is another keyword. The obsession with memory is common to photographers, if only because the flow of time cannot be captured by a still camera, and we try to express it by whatever equivalent we find, much as painters seek equivalents for depth, and sculptors for action. 

Catalonia, to me, is a place of emotions, because whatever I encounter stirs something in my memory. Like those silhouettes, in Gerona, perceived in the backlight of an old alleyway, and immediately associated with my sephardi ancestors (though in fact they belonged o a group of female students from Brooklyn, visiting the judería and dressed in black for the occasion). Or the little shock felt at Barcelona airport, hearing the loudspeaker announce: Salida de Iberia, con destino Tel-Aviv… Who, among the exiles of 1492, could have conceived what is nowadays a daily occurrence?

Possibly my most poignant recollection were the ones that remained subconscious while I photographed, and that only emerged at the time of editing the contacts or finishing the prints. Why did I have to photograph all those dogs, cats, horses and cows? What made me stop in front of those market stalls displaying fishes and mutton heads? Whence my fascination with olive trees? These animals and vegetal specimens are by no means exclusive to Catalonia -but here for some reason, they seemed to me most meaningful, most related to their archetypes and most entwined my personal roots.

The other direction of time -the future- cannot be a subject of photography -unless one extrapolates from certain aspects of the present. In Catalonia (as elsewhere) most of these appearances point in the sense of my fears: pollution, mass tourism, mass urbanism, mass culture. I had no reason for concentrating on these aspects, through I did not exclude them from my kaleidoscope.

Other indicators point towards my hopes, and until particular to the renewal of a common european culture, as it existed until the end of the Middle Ages, before being broken up into the separate cultures of nation-states. The idea of a catalan identity appeals to me, because I see it as a building block to this future. I hope that my photographs express some of this feeling, and shall be grateful to the spectator who shall view them with this in mind. 

Frank Horvat


Catalonia through Horvat’s Eyes

To give a supremely personal photographic vision of Catalonia. This is the challenge that was put to Frank Horvat, and a surprise he would never have expected; the proof of this is that he had more or less given up the profession he had exercised all his working life, after having set himself the ask of producing no less than a photo a day, in order to say his farewells at the historic juncture of the change of millennium (the book 1999. Un Journal photographique contains an image or each day). It was Antoni Vila Casas who presented Horvat with this challenging commission, and although he had been caught with his guard down, he accepted. Actually, he has confessed to me that the best thing an artist can hope for is to fin a patron. In part this is because travel has a special fascination for him, but above all because he recalls an incident from the story of the dwarf king he used to listen to in German as a small boy: the tale of the little bird that commences its flight concealed in the plumage of the eagle, and when the exhausted eagle has soared as high in the sky as it can the little bird, still perfectly fresh, takes wing to fly even higher. Horvat had thought of his work as a photographer as having culminated in that magnum opus in which he paid tribute to two millennia, and felt that he no longer had anything  new to give, in his 70s as he then was, but all of a sudden it seemed that the commission from Vila Casas could be interpreted as the story of the little bird. And he accepted, delighted and simulated by the sense of hope and purpose he needed.

To tell the truth, I don’t think he needed it all that much, knowing as I do the tremendous curiosity that compels him always to look, which clearly shows how young at heart he still is; and knowing, too, the constant willingness to get to know countries and people, because it has been his experience that the best thing to come out of these adventures are the fortuitous human encounters -which he always  initiates- that so satisfy his sensibility, and knowing, too, his readiness to savour difference. It is surely no accident that Horvat should be so quick to take in new human worlds, having ben born at a crossroads of nations (in Abbazia, formerly part of Italy and now in Croatia), and himself the product of a rich mix of cultures, as well as speaking at least six or seven languages. As if that were not enough, he had already visited this country and this city of ours on at least a couple of occasions, determined to see for himself the sites of the Civil War scenarios Orwell has described in a book that, although it paid homage to Catalonia, was not much to Horvat’s liking. He wanted to get know the land and the society that has produced figures of the importance of, for example, Gaudí, Miró or Dalí.

He used to “take” at least some of his photographs twice: once with the camera and then battling with the enlarger, and the framing would often result not just in improvements, but even in one or two very agreeable surprise. Now he takes all of his photographs twice and he couldn’t be happier. Digital technology lets him work his way through a pile and give as many little touches as he wants to what he has captured “in the field”. The fact is that his sensibility -the sensibility of a born photo-journalist to whom the reportage is second natures, which often causes him to rise he camera to his eyes in the most unpromising conditions with the swiftness of a hunter taken by surprise by some unexpected chance- now has the possibility of correcting and improving the image snatched on the wing. For example, the first thing that caught my attention when I saw the first set of these photographs of my country was the colours, which seemed far from Mediterranean. When I remarked on this to Horvat, he observed that the good God Almighty had ben wrong to impose this permanent high blue sky; to put it another way, that his researches and his point of encounter pursue paths very different from the usual conventions. At this point I was impelled to ask him about the colour of Barcelona, and his answer was “Warm, between ochre and pink on a background that is between grey and black”. So this is the landscape we tend to find in the images captured by his eye during his stay in Barcelona, although the photographs he took for the city’s Mercè festivities are a little more luminous. And then, knowing his own particular vision, back home in front of the computer screen he applies himself with all the patience in the world (for him, this is a real pleasure) to introducing whatever finishing touches he thinks are needed, as if he were a painter rather than a photographer. It is in terms of this elective affinity that we should interpret the portrait -not exactly covert or manipulated- of Joan Fontcuberta, a fellow photographer who from the very start chose to devote his talents to the creation of a reality that might seem perfectly authentic, yet only exists on photographic paper.

If city is a million different things, how many go to make up a country such as ours? How, then, would Horvat confront the task of piecing together in images synthesis of this mosaic, this gigantic jigsaw puzzle? He had not the lightest hesitation, given that his age and his maturity allow him to let himself be drawn by the irresistible attraction of the association of references that dwell in his memory, his sensibility, and make up his own particular cultural personality and his unique artistic baggage. A question, then, of instinct of inclination, of passion or reaction, almost like some kind of ultra-inquisitive diviner, it seems to me. He sees certain things with an absolute clarity, I suspect, id I can judge by the care he has devoted to Romanesque sculptures. It is worth recalling here that in France in the late 90s he published the book Figures romaines, a work of painstaking attention to detail, abounding in love and a superbly sure feeling for light that sets in relief all the richness of the work of those sculptors who after the long centuries of barbarism strove to reforge the vital, all-but-severed link with the civilization that had come down to them from Rome and Greece. Yes, but I am aware, too that his penetrating gaze has also noted quite a number of latter-day Romanesque physiognomies moving around our streets and squares; I think this is what we see in his collection of splendidly physical, unmistakably sculptural heads. Is this the Catalan character? We must ask Horvat himself, for all that he is not very much inclined to talk about his photographs. Having said that I have to admit that he is far more willing to comment on other aspects of his work. For example, his way of catching the precise moment, à la Cartier-Bresson. Indeed, he offers me a demonstration: he pick up the camera, so small it is almost hidden between his prehensile fingers, raises it to his eye in the same moment and comes right up to me. The “subjects” were so surprised, he tells me, that they had no time to react. For many years now he has been using his bare-faced audacity as a weapon, above all in the old days, when he did not have modern instant-focus lenses or any of he other devices that make the photographer’s work so much easier.  

Graffiti and walls are also among his points of reference. It seems to me significant, here, that all those scores of years ago there emerged in Paris that willingness to embrace an art povera, an art of the people, an anonymous art that the great Brassaï taught something more that respect for. But Horvat is no more imitator; far from it. What leads him to take notice of these manifestations of spontaneity on these walls is that, from experience, he is well aware that every city in this wide world of ours has its own style of graffiti, even if in the last analysis, for all its diversity, it is still only graffiti. And he permits himself the precision to inform me that the Italians use it principally to declare their amorous passions. Here he has been moved, then, to capture a piece of graffiti that reveals a hint of Miró or a patch of cracked and peeling plaster that seems to evoke Tàpies.

He does not always rely on a single image. His way of working leads him, with his great accumulation of experience, to take full account of the play of counterpoint or the “neighbourly” relationship that are established in the decisive act of hanging -the accrochange- the works in an exhibition, and also the dialogue that finally emerges from situating a given pair of images on the double page that presents itself each time a book is opened. This counterpoint will be evident, and will impose its special sequential logic in allowing itself to be savoured, when the Fundació Vila Casas exhibits this extensive series of photographs that I have had the privilege of seeing in small format, laid our in rows and covering various tables.  

There is one aspect that imposes itself when we look at the body of Horvat’s work as a whole: an aspect that reflects something very close to the Catalan character, such as the touch of humour that appears quite naturally and spontaneously in the street, between people, on coming across by chance some odd abandoned object. Horvat’s sensibility enables him to capture with especial brilliance these things, in which a certain anarchism is also reflected, although now, thanks to the equalizing effects of a more affluent society and a closer relationship with Europe and the wider world, it is a manifested in a far more controlled and less absurd way. This comes to mind in nothing how his gaze has focused on a pile of rickety old chairs on a street corner; he has told me how he worked at it on the screen, finally bestowing on it quality that brings it close to Braque, because that was his first impression. And what can we say about this magnificent spectacle of insuperable civic fervor, the product of decades of poverty and overcrowding in the very heart of what used to be the Barri Xines and is now one of the sides of the imposing Rambla del Raval: the house that stands alone and unabashed, exhibiting its secrets, and crowned by the structure of what in its day the vantage point from which a bird-fancier flew his beloved messenger pigeons. He has fixed this splendid image, prompted by aesthetic necessity and also by the conviction that, sadly, it will soon be the only document that remains to bear witness to that reality, fatally condemned to disappear, swept away by a tide of relentless speculation. The house on wheels of the street musicians, with its rooms in horizontal series, is surrealist in its impact after the defiant verticality of the previous image. But in this order of things I think it will be difficult of match he impact of the bathtubs abandoned on a piece of waste ground, in that these are artefacts that, out of their habitual context, take on an air of something more disturbing. The human fauna is irresistible, but at the same time Horvat lets himself be seduced by what can sometimes be seen in animals, such as the little cats in the Dalí-impregnated ambience of Port Lligat or the splendid horse that trots along the road -against the oncoming traffic?

I can see that he has a general inclination o be tempted by displays of bad taste, whether it be in a shop window, just around the corner, outside a museum or anywhere else, because it is all too frequent; and when I ask him about this he confesses, with a slightly malicious look and a smile of complicity, that as he sees it bad taste can come to be a kind of intelligence, as Dalí demonstrated in his theatre in Figures.

I am surprised that he almost never turns his gaze to the coast or the sea, despite the fact that it constitutes one of the great boundaries of the Catalan territory and, for a large part of the years, provides one of the most picturesque displays, with its beaches and coves, its harbours and its boats. On the other hand, the Mediterranean character manifests itself in all its spectacular polychrome richness as a component of remarkable still-lives in the style of Arcimboldi, with the endless variety of produce hat fills the market. Still fresh in my memory is the surrealist picture of those cuttlefish in a box. Nor does he seem to have been much impressed by he Pyrenees; he has found the stony magnificence of Girona somewhat stale; he admits to being seduced by the attractions of Barcelona, he who has travelled the world and lived in a good few of its cities, some of which -not many- he has loved passionately. And he insists on quality of the landscape of Tarragona, with its tilled red earth and its olive trees and carobs, in which he sees a simpilarity of style and outline with the patch of French soil where he chose to buy a house to balance the effects of living in a París. This, then, is the external vision offered us by a Horvat who came here to nose around, to wander with no fixed route all over Catalonia, with the aim of gathering together all the scenes he wanted of this fascinating human spectacle, present and alive, but at the same time accumulated through the most diverse forms of a dense past by no means devoid of intensity over the course of a long line of centuries. And it seems to me that this nosy, even “voyeur” Frank Horvat -and not only at the cabarets of Pigalle- has observed us with the eyes of someone who starts off with a coolly impertinent inquisitiveness and ends up -as we can clearly see here- feeling emotions and even a certain attraction.

Lluís Permanyer