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Challenging Paintings

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

Joan Miró is one of the most important artists in Spain’s history, with a distinctive symbolic style combining motifs of birds, women and constellations. Born in Barcelona in 1893, Miró would live through the Spanish Civil War and both World Wars. Unsurprisingly, his work is infused with politics and conflict of the era. As a young man, Miró moved to Paris and befriended Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. His first masterpiece, The Farm was hanging above Hemingway's bed as the author wrote Farewell to Arms, and may have inspired its opening lines.

“the bed of the river…pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun”

Whilst Hemingway would go on to immerse himself in the Spanish Civil War as an anti-war journalist, Miró used his art to criticise the Franco regime. At the peak of the conflict, Picasso and Miro (now both internationally revered) were commissioned to decorate the World Fair’s Spanish Pavilion. Miró painted The Reaper, a rebellious Catalan peasant wielding a sickle. This powerful pro-republican image echoed his 1936 comments during an interview: "freedom has meaning for me… and I will defend it at any cost."

In the 1930's, Miró embarked on an attempt to ‘assassinate painting’. This process started with trawling through markets for paintings by unknown artists. He would then purchase attack them with his own visual trademarks, scrawling abstract, biomorphic forms over the canvas. These hijacked pieces of art form a body of work known as his ‘Challenging Paintings’.

Cheveux mis en fuite par un oiseau

Four of these are currently kept in in Madrid, housed in the Fundacion MAPFRE gallery. Visitors can enjoy Spain’s cultural heritage in air conditioned comfort, never more than 50 metres away from an artisan coffee. However, there is a new set of ‘Challenging Paintings’ to encounter, immediately outside the gallery - Acampada Derechos Ayuntamiento (The City Hall Camp for the RIghts).

For the past days, a community of 70 homeless activists have been living in a tent city on the upmarket Paseo del Prado boulevard. This protest camp is literally under the shadow of the City Hall, in direct sight of politicians and tourists. The protesters have appropriated the advertisement billboards and banners along the street to transmit their own messages.

"600+ PEOPLE ARE SLEEPING OUTSIDE IN MADRID". Resident - Paint on advertising hoarding

Under Article 47 of the Spanish Constitution, citizens have the right to decent and adequate housing. Furthermore, public authorities have a duty to ensure the necessary conditions for this right to become reality. However, the citizens of Acampada Derechos Ayuntamiento are protesting in amidst unprecedented socioeconomic deterioration, in a city where mounting numbers of people are unable to access housing.

Between 1997 and 2007, Spain built more houses than France and Germany combined. The proportion of GDP attached to the real estate sector swole to 30%, and building accounted for 13% of all jobs. This surge of construction coincided with the mass availability of cheap loans from the banks, directly cashing in on the public valorisation of home-ownership. Meanwhile, a particularly virulent rash of speculation led to millions of uninhabited homes, acting as empty vessels for projected future profits.

Successive Spanish government’s cultivated the reliance on construction and owner occupancy as a cornerstone of the economy. The first ever Minister for Housing commented in a 1957 speech: “We want a nation of home owners, not workers.” More recently, Beatriz Corredor presided over the Ministry during the global financial crisis. At a time when hundred of thousands of Spaniards were facing eviction, she noted "This is a good time for anybody who wants to buy a house or for a family that wants to change homes." This amounted to a mass confusion between easy credit and right to housing.

“Man, when he doesn’t have a home, takes over the street, pursued by his temper, becomes subversive” – José Luis Arrese (Minister of Housing under Franco regime)

I had the opportunity to speak with some of the residents, who were keen to explain their demands for City Hall. Firstly, they call for the implementation of the 'Choque plan' for Homelessness and Social Exclusion. This policy has already been approved by the Madrid assembly, and was part of Christina Cifuentes' successful campaign to be the President of the Community of Madrid. Secondly, they are protesting that homelessness should be specified in the distribution of city budgets and that the politicians should increase spending in order to face up to the scale of the issue. Finally, they demand that urgent receptions (shelter) should be created, alongside solutions like basic income or work and disability benefits for the homeless members of the camp.

It is unclear if this protest will be successful. However, the settlement is certainly ensuring that the public are unable to forget the situation faced by an increasing number of people in the city. The camp, with its unambiguously challenging paintings and clear political demands, is designed to spark a new focus and urgency among the politicians who commute past it each morning. It is hard and tiring work, to occupy a space on a hard road in the cultural and political heart of the city. There is no doubt, with a growing population of people forced into homelessness, work remains to be done.

“Don’t you think that the revolution of forms can be liberating? Unsettling people, forcing them to wake up” - Joan Miro

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