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Joan Brossa

 

Joan Brossa (Barcelona, 1919-1998) is one of the most important twentieth-century writers in the Catalan language. A poet, playwright and visual artist with a long creative career, he was always linked to an avant-garde conception of culture. A founder of the Dau al Set group (1948), he understood the poetic as something that was not confined to the verbal but included the whole range of artistic expression: visual and object poetry; what he called ‘poetry in action’ when referring to the more or less non-literary performing arts (magic, circus, cabaret); cinema, and so on. His literary works have been translated into a dozen languages. Of particular note in his career as a visual artist was his presence at Art 20 in Basel (1989) and in the official pavilions at the São Paulo Biennial (1994) and the Venice Biennale (1997), in addition to numerous solo and group exhibitions. Firmly committed to Catalonia and to democracy, institutional recognition came to Brossa late: in 1987 he was awarded the Ciutat de Barcelona prize; in 1988, the UNESCO Picasso Medal; in 1992, the Government of Catalonia’s Premi Nacional d’Arts Plàstiques, and, among others, the Gold Medal for Fine Arts of the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 1996. In 1999 the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona bestowed a posthumous honorary doctorate on him.

Joan M. Minguet

 


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Joan Brossa

Novel·la (Novel), 1989

Sculpture | Mixed media
40.5 x 176 x 46 cm.
JB.0002-
Almost all of Brossa’s objects have a literary content, sometimes explicit, sometimes latent. It is no secret that many of his poems, both visual and verbal, play with language (letters, if not phonemes; the alphabet, certain homophonies…) or with literature. Here, the reference to one of the dominant literary genres, the novel, is or appears to be explicit, although Brossa never worked in this particular literary form. The poet had already played on at least two previous occasions with this same highly specific reference, the substantive ‘novel’. In 1965, in collaboration with Tàpies he made an artist’s book that recounts the life of a character, one of the missions of the classic novel, but it was based on a series of official documents (from birth certificate to death certificate) that were not filled out; in other words, it was a novel without narrative content whose hero was absent from the text, for all that the hypertext framed him. (Ten years after the appearance of the original, Edicions El Mall brought out a small-format facsimile edition.) Later, in 1970 Brossa also made a poem-object entitled ‘Novel’, one of a series of Habitable Poems, which was also in the form of a book, in this case with blank pages, though these bear the traces of sentences written in pencil that have then been erased. In this poem-object from 1989 Brossa once again plays with the text and the hypertext that determine the historical reading of the novel and the semantic field in which it is inscribed. But we can say that here, in contrast to those earlier works in book form, in the conventional physical medium of the novel, the image is tensed by the artist’s intention. Brossa, lover of puns, metaphors and the traces of lost meanings, makes a very literal object, the figurative sense of which can easily be missed. Or not? The work is simple in layout, a helix with a bird in the middle. Surely the immanence of the image and the overlay of the two images are aiming at something in particular, perhaps an allegory of the flight? The helix looks like an aircraft propeller and the bird is in flight. But like his much admired Joan Miró, the titles of many of whose works do not so much explain as subvert the pieces, Brossa contrasts the sculptural game with a title that both suggests and restricts the meaning of the poem-object. A novel?

We might suppose that while in the two books Brossa made with the title ‘Novel’ he sought to question the essences of the genre, the ontology of literary narrative as such, in this case there is a double game: one of these is oriented towards the novel proper, the adventure story, and in this possible sense the artist’s enthusiasm for the cinema would not be foreign to this possible sense; the other game seeks to raise a doubt in the viewer. Here, the title and the visual content of the piece would have only a discordant relationship. And Brossa would laugh mischievously at the confusion caused by his piece.

Joan M. Minguet


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Joan Brossa

La clau de la clau (The Key of the Key), 1989

Object poem
8 x 20 x 20 cm
JB.0001-


In his last years, Brossa received a considerable number of awards and commissions, also in the visual field, which encouraged him to design new poem-objects. A number of the poet’s ideas that had been left visually unresolved were materialized, together with new flights of imagination, and were presented on the art circuit, especially through the Miguel Marcos gallery.

 
Although not all of these late objects are easy to connect with Brossa’s earlier work, this is not the case with The Key to the Key, a piece that takes us back to some of the metalinguistic games in which so many of the poet’s literary, theatrical, visual and objectual pieces engage. In this instance the game consists in the disparity between the linguistic register and the visual register. The title of the work is no more — and no less — than a combination of alliteration and homonymy: the statement is alliterated, repeating the same words, but to emphasize that the word and its equivalents in most Western languages have different meanings​​: a key opens a door, and a key can also open other things. We might say that the physical key affords access to the knowledge needed to understand something.


Brossa had played with the meanings of the word ‘key’ in a well-known visual poem, conceived in 1971 and materialized in 1982, in which the teeth or bitings of the key are replaced by letters of the alphabet. In this case, then, the poet is suggesting that these primary particles of signification give access — open the door — to language and thus to knowledge. There seems to be a reference here to Wittgenstein and the famous phrase in the Tractatus, ‘The limits of language mean the limits of my world,’ (5.62). We should not forget that Brossa had absolute faith in the possibilities (and also the impossibilities) of verbal language.


In the 1989 piece Brossa returns to the play of meanings allowed by the word ‘key’. The object itself is a demonstration of the double articulation of language: in this case, of objectual language: a key to unlock is needed another key and so on in infinite regress. It is not absurd to suggest that the piece would have worked without a title: the image is explicit enough for the viewer to capture the visual homophony of a key that opens the lock of another key, which in turn opens another lock… But in common with other artists — Joseph Kosuth, for example — Brossa is so attached to the expressive possibilities of language — in this case, to the expressive possibilities of verbal punning — that he ends up overdetermining the image with a title that precludes any kind of distraction: the key to the key.

Joan M. Minguet


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