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June 09 2011

Jorge Semprún obituary

Spanish communist, writer, politician and Buchenwald survivor

Leader of the communist underground in 1950s Madrid, prize-winning 1960s screenwriter, minister in Spain's socialist government in the 1980s, and novelist and memorialist of deportation to a Nazi concentration camp, Jorge Semprún, who has died aged 87, was an outstanding participant in and witness of 20th-century Europe.

The experience of 18 months in Buchenwald, from 1943 to 1945, underlay all he thought and did. To the end of his life he suffered nightmares of the camp. His last public appearance, in April 2010, was to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the camp's liberation. He spoke then, on the same esplanade where he had seen people killed, of his belief in a united Europe rising from the ashes of Buchenwald's crematoria.

The fourth of seven children, Semprún was born in Madrid into an upper-class family. His maternal grandfather was the Conservative prime minister Antonio Maura. His mother died when he was eight. His father, a devout Catholic, became the Spanish republic's ambassador to the Netherlands. On the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, in 1936, the family fled.

Semprún was educated at the elite lycée Henri-IV in Paris and, from 1941, at the Sorbonne. In 1942 he joined the Spanish communist party in exile, but was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and deported. He survived Buchenwald because of his fluency in German and solidarity among the communist prisoners. After the second world war, he worked for six years as a translator for Unesco before in 1953 accepting the task of organising the banned Communist party in Madrid. Elegant and handsome, as "Federico Sánchez", Semprún became a legendary figure, remaining one step ahead of Franco's secret police. If anyone should doubt the danger, his replacement, when he was withdrawn in 1962, was Julián Grimau, who was arrested, tortured and executed the following year.

In 1964 Semprún, along with Fernando Claudín, was expelled from the Spanish Communist party. The pair thought that the exiled leaders were out of touch with the reality of capitalist development within the country. A few years later, the same leadership adopted much of Semprún and Claudín's critique in its turn to "Eurocommunism", though never acknowledged the fact.

On expulsion, Semprún had just completed his first and finest novel, the memoir of deportation Le Grand Voyage (1963; translated as The Cattle Truck). In this intense book, the five-day train journey frames memories of the narrator's past and future events in the camp.

In 1966 Semprún wrote the script for Alain Resnais's film La Guerre est Finie (The War is Over). He was to work again with Resnais on Stavisky (1974), but it was with the Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras that he had his greatest film-writing success, Z. This story of a leftwing Greek politician, whose assassination was made to look like an accident, won the Jury prize at Cannes in 1969 and became a worldwide hit. He also wrote the script for Costa-Gavras's The Confession (1970), a critique of show-trials in Czechoslovakia.

In the 1960s Semprún published two other novels in French, L'Evanouissement (1967, The Fainting Fit) on the Nazi camps and La Deuxième Mort de Ramón Mercader (1969, The Second Death of Ramón Mercader), where he first tackles the experience of Stalinism. The most loyal of Stalinists in his youth, he moved further away from the creed with his first published work in Spanish, Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez (Autobiography of Federico Sánchez), an enthralling account of clandestine work that won Spain's Planeta prize in 1977. A number of other novels in French followed, exploring Stalinism and the Nazi camps.

Semprún's body of work became one of the great testimonies of the horrors of the 20th century and established his fame throughout Europe as an intellectual insisting on the need to explore the toughest truths. As in The Cattle Truck, his method is to take an event and then spring back to memories and then forward to the event's implications. Though fascinating because of their honesty and subject-matter, his novels suffer at times from over-reflection, slow plotting and baroque sentences.

Unexpectedly, in 1988 Semprún was called from his home in Paris to Madrid, to become minister of culture. He served in this post for three years, handling among other hot potatoes Salvador Dalí's controversial legacy. He published in 1993 Federico Sánchez Vous Salue Bien (Federico Sánchez Bids You Farewell), a remarkable account of his time as a minister. By far his funniest book, due to wicked anecdotes of the pettiness of other ministers, it was particularly rude about the deputy prime minister Alfonso Guerra, "a man with cultural pretensions". A year later, L'écriture Ou La Vie (1994; translated as Literature or Life) reconciled Semprún and Sánchez, the intellectual and the activist.

Semprún married three times: the first a brief marriage after the war; then in 1949 to the French actor Loleh Bellon, with whom he had a son, the post-situationist philosopher Jaime Semprún; and in 1963 to Colette Leloup, who died in 2007. Both Bellon and Jaime predeceased him. Semprún is survived by five children, Dominique, Ricardo, Pilar, Juan and Pablo, by his third wife.

• Jorge Semprún Maura, political activist, writer and politician, born 10 December 1923; died 7 June 2011


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May 25 2011

1937: Franco sends for German bombers to flatten Basque town of Guernica

In less than four hours several hundred civilians are killed. Most buildings lay in ruins and are still burning


The fascist alliance between Franco, Hitler and Mussolini gave the Spanish dictator access to bomber planes, which were used with such devastating effect. The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso tried to capture the horror of the raid in the painting "Guernica", which is now regarded as one of his most famous works


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April 08 2011

Joan Miró: at home in exile

On the eve of the new Tate exhibition, Colm Tóibín charts Joan Miró's travels to the creative hub of 1920s Paris, his refuge in Mallorca and his return to his native Barcelona a hero

There are four buildings which were important for Joan Miró, and each of them in different ways helps us to understand his complex spirit and the art he made. The first was the building where he was born in 1893; it is in a small arcade off Carrer de Ferran, near Plaça Sant Jaume in the old quarter of Barcelona, with the inauspicious address of Passeig del Credit. Miró's father had a business in nearby Plaça Reial mending and making watches. Even though the city was going through enormous changes in the years when Miró was growing up, he seemed as much stifled by its conservative atmosphere as excited by the new architecture or the political ferment there.

Miró had none of Picasso's prodigious and precocious talent. He was, from an early age, more interested in pure colour and structure than in representation. In any case, he could not make academic drawings. Thus when he began to study art in the Llotja, where Picasso had studied, he was not encouraged to stay. At the age of 17, under pressure from his parents, he began work as a clerk; he toiled in an office six days a week from eight in the morning until nine in the evening, and after a year suffered a kind of breakdown.

He was, and indeed remains, an easy figure to misread. He seemed shy and timid, but he possessed a deeply uncompromising spirit. His work may seem apolitical and pure, but he remained all his life a fervent Catalan (his notebooks are in Catalan or French, but not in Spanish), and he made his left-wing sympathies clear during the Spanish civil war and under the Franco regime. He had many friends, but, despite a connection with the surrealists, he was a member of no group, and remained a deeply independent figure.

At the age of 19 he went to study in an art school run by a Catalan called Francesc Galí. He still could not draw, could not, in his own words, tell the difference between a curved line and a straight line. Galí worked with him, tried to make him do still-lives of objects without colour such as a glass of water or a potato. Miró invariably made them look like sunsets. Nonetheless, he admired Galí and made a number of friends in his art school, and, like Picasso before him, began to enjoy the street life of the city.

He became aware, however, that the real world was elsewhere, that there were no cubists or constructivists or surrealists working in Barcelona, that most contemporary art displayed in the city was old-fashioned and dull; he was indignant when an abstract painting by a friend was publicly mocked. He came to see Barcelona as philistine and confining, and, like Catalan artists of previous generations, he began to dream of Paris. His mother and Picasso's mother were friends, and, while he saw the Parade which Picasso designed for the Ballets Russes in 1917, Miró was too shy to call on him. By the time he did so, Picasso had left. Despite his shyness he became friendly with Francis Picabia, one of the leaders of the dada movement who had taken refuge in Barcelona during the war, but Picabia merely whetted his appetite to leave. "I must tell you," he wrote in 1918, "that if I have to live much longer in Barcelona I will be asphyxiated by its atmosphere." Once the war was over, a note he sent to a friend contained just three words: "PARIS! PARIS! PARIS!"

Before he left early in 1919 he went to see Picasso's mother, who gave him a cake to take to her son. The older painter introduced him to dealers in Paris, talked about his work and bought paintings from him. Although Miró disliked the people he met with Picasso, he found great personal and artistic liberation in Paris, in the streets themselves and in the museums and galleries. He was so excited by the place, indeed, that at first he could do no work.

The second building that matters in the life of Miró is a farmhouse in a place called Mont-roig, close to the beach in the province of Tarragona, which Miró's parents bought when he was 16. Just as the atmosphere in Paris would come as a shock to his system, so too this house and the landscape around it, filled with olive groves and with jagged red rock, where he was left at peace to draw and paint, had an enormous impact. He did a number of famous early paintings of the buildings which made up his parents' holding, including The Farm. But he was interested too in the smallest aspects of nature, how grass and trees grew, in the animals and farm implements, in the light from the sea, and how certain local villages in the area were configured.

Mont-roig became a refuge for him from Barcelona; and, once he was in Paris, it also became his refuge from the fierce sensations which that city offered him. Soon it was a refuge, too, from a group of associates there, including some painters, and writers such as Hemingway, with whom he sparred in the boxing ring. In 1923, Hemingway bought the painting The Farm from him.

In the 1920s, as he moved each year between Paris and Mont-roig, Miró's work began to change under the influence of the surrealists, but also because of his own strange limits as a draftsman which became, as he invented his own iconography, a kind of gift. Some of his signature images and hieroglyphics, he later said, were also brought on by the hallucinations caused by hunger. At times, when money ran out and his work did not sell, he returned to the family apartment on Passeig del Credit, where he worked in an upstairs studio. In 1929 he married Pilar Juncosa, who came from a cultured Mallorcan family; in 1931 their only child, Dolors, was born.

As his fame spread, Miró found an American agent, Pierre Matisse, son of the painter, and between 1932 and 1939 had 20 exhibitions of his work in America and Europe, but none in Barcelona. In 1968, as the Franco regime began to liberalise somewhat, he was finally given a retrospective, which took place in the Hospital de la Santa Creu in Barcelona. Miró was pleased at the recognition, but he felt the loss too, of not having been able to show his work in the city of his birth for 50 years. He had taken so much of his inspiration from Catalonia. Now at last he was back in his own city.

He asked for a site where he could build a foundation – the Fundació Joan Miró – and donate many of his own paintings which he still held, and encourage family and friends to do likewise. The authorities were still uncertain about his fame and his status, but gave him the most beautiful site on the side of the hill of Montjuïc, overlooking both the city and the sea. The white building designed by his friend Josep Lluís Sert, who had designed the Spanish pavilion in the Paris Exposition of 1937, is both low key and exquisite in its shape. Its very whiteness seems to breathe in the light. Each room is shaded from the direct glare of the sun; the light is thus both guarded and intense, making the galleries seem like a sanctuary against the world outside. The way the rooms are made seems to add to the strength of Miró's images, but also offers them a sort of mystery and beauty and delicacy. There are times when his work seem filled with a hard-won simplicity, images pared down to a number of pure marks and symbolic gestures. Other paintings are filled with images; they are busy and ominous, or funny and surreal. But some of the work is also beautifully and sensuously painted; the sparseness of the imagery, especially in the work of his final years, seems to serve to emphasise the paint, offering it a sort of transcendent power. Some of his sculptures on the roof are very funny.

Nearby is the Palau Nacional, which is now the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. This houses a collection that had a profound effect on Miró when he was growing up, work that mattered to him as much as any of the contemporary paintings he saw. This is the superb collection of Romanesque wall paintings which comes from small churches dotted all over the Catalan landscape. The collection was formerly housed in the Parc de la Ciutadella, an easy walk from Passeig del Credit. Miró once pointed to the veins running up his arms when a friend of mine asked him if this collection was important for him. His father took him to see this collection during his childhood. He loved the flatness of Romanesque painting, the importance given to small things as much as to angels or saints, and the mixture of simplicity and a sort of deep and deliberate line and use of colour which gave it a stark intensity.

The fourth building that shaped Miró's art was the large, light-filled studio which Sert designed for him on the outskirts of Palma de Mallorca in the mid-1950s. This is now open to the public, preserved as Miró left it when he died, with some of his unfinished work, his brushes, his paint.

Miró's arrival in Mallorca at the outbreak of the second world war requires some explanation. Essentially, he went there because he had nowhere else to go. Since he had made a painting, The Reaper, which hung close to Picasso's Guernica at the Spanish pavilion in Paris in 1937, and had openly supported the Spanish republic, he was in some danger after 1939. Once Franco took power in Spain, Miró therefore remained in France. When it became obvious that a German invasion was imminent, he made his way back to Catalonia, but was warned not to go to Barcelona; instead he went to Mallorca where his mother had roots, but, more importantly, where his wife's family lived.

For Catalans, the Balearic Islands are filled with a sense of pleasure and mystery. The language spoken is very close to Catalan. But there are great variations within the islands themselves. Mallorca, for example, is a bastion of old conservatism and bourgeois values. Unlike Menorca and the rest of Catalonia, it supported Franco from day one; and even since the return of democracy it has generally favoured right-wing parties. Going there with his wife and daughter in 1940, Miró had the best of both worlds. He could live in a Mediterranean, Catalan-speaking country; he could work with the light he loved. But he could also live quietly and safely under the protection of his wife's family. Thus he could be at home and in exile at the same time. He was careful in the years of the dictatorship to make his opposition clear without becoming a martyr.

For more than 40 years he worked on the island, producing paintings, sculpture, ceramics, lithographs. Most of the time he managed, despite the limits of his own systems, not to grow tired, or to parody his own iconography. And when the old dictator died in 1975, he was ready to come back to Barcelona to make political posters and album sleeves, to work with young theatre companies and to relish the success that his own foundation enjoyed. With his soaring imagination, he helped to remake the city of Barcelona, the place he had once despised. He loved, for example, the graffiti that began to appear on the walls after 1975. He made a set of colourful tiles for the Ramblas.

By the time he died in 1983 at the age of 90, he was a hero in the city, one of those who had kept the faith in dark times not by making propaganda but by lifting the Catalan spirit beyond argument, by creating an openness in his own pictorial space, working with a sort of daring innocence with light and paint, figure and line. His work, and indeed his exemplary presence in the world, exuded freedom, the dreaming mind at its most exalted, images at their most pure.

Miró is at Tate Modern from 14 April-11 September.


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