Obituary: Joan Brossa

By Nash, Elizabeth | The Independent (London, England), January 7, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Joan Brossa


Nash, Elizabeth, The Independent (London, England)


JOAN BROSSA was one of those subversive Catalans whose Surrealist vision defied artistic and political convention, tossing aside the boundaries between poetry, literature and art. He pioneered the concept of "visual poetry", defining it as "the expression of a poetic world by means of a visual code". He adored magic and the cinema, and his experimental work anticipated installation art and the anarchic "happenings" of the 1960s.

His "object poems" astonished the avant-garde Catalan art world in the 1940s with their ironic clash of disparate elements. A football crowned with a peineta (the comb that secures a lady's lace mantilla) represented "Pas" ("Nation"). "Conscientious Objector" showed a rifle butt topped with a church candle-snuffer. "Dirty Soap" is a cake of soap bearing a fingerprint.

Through his work he created a cheery and satirical Brossian world: a universe constructed from letters of the alphabet, objects from daily life, personalities of music hall, of silent movies, of strip- tease. "The last of the Utopians," one fan called him last week, "a great idealist who still had the ability to make us laugh". Another relished his "fine taste for the absurdities of existence". Brossa was a restless youngster from a modest background whose family thought he would become an office clerk. In 1936, aged 17, he left his studies to fight for the republicans in the Civil War. Brossa marched to the Lerida front with a book by the poet Federico Garca Lorca tucked in his pocket. Brossa's first poem, about a battle at Segre, so pleased his commanders that they read it aloud to the whole battalion. On his return to Barcelona he started to sell books banned by Franco. He imported them from Argentina and sold them to friends who then invited him to dinner. They introduced him to the Catalan poet J.V. Foix, the arts patron Joan Prats and the artist Joan Mir, who introduced him to Surrealism. Brossa founded the Surrealist magazine Dau al Set in 1948 with a number of Catalan artists including Antoni Tapies, with whom he shared a passion for Wagner. His poems, in Catalan, were first published in 1951 and his last book appeared in 1987. Brossa formed the link between the modernist movements of the early 20th century and the faint breath of artistic renewal that stirred the Francoist cultural desert of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Like many of his generation who spent his youth in war and his adulthood squeezed by censorship, Brossa was an old man before his work was widely appreciated. His theatrical works were performed clandestinely, on improvised stages, in friends' houses. They included Or i sang ("Gold and Blood") with sets designed by Tapies, and a number of experimental films including Cua de cuc ("Worm's Tail"). As censorship eased in the Sixties, Brossa published plays and collections of poems. He read his poems at the Berlin Festival of 1978, and at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

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