MoMA presents Pere Portabella, a retrospective of the
films of the veteran Catalan filmmaker who remains at the forefront
of avant-garde Spanish cinema. Over the past forty years, Portabella
(b. 1929, Barcelona) has produced a wide range of narrative and
documentary works known for the formal beauty of their composition
and their complex interrelationship of image and sound—many
of them involving symbolic resistance to the 1939–75 regime
of General Francisco Franco. The exhibition includes films that
have consistently expanded the expressive potential of the medium
through the director's subversion of the notion of genre—particularly
for horror films, fantasy films, and thrillers—and have
served as allegorical critiques of the right wing Spanish administration.
Presented from September 26 to October 6, 2007, in the Roy and Niuta
Titus Theaters, Pere Portabella features the director's
first appearance in the United States for the U.S. premiere of his
latest film The Silence before Bach (2007) on September
The exhibition is organized by Laurence
Kardish, Senior Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern
Art, and Mark Nash, Professor and Head of the Department Curating
Contemporary Art, Royal College of Art, London.
Pere Portabella is made possible with the
support of the State Corporation for Spanish Cultural Action Abroad
SEACEX (Sociedad Estalal para la Acción Exterior, Madrid). Films
and texts for the exhibition were lent by MACBA (Museu d'Art Contemporani,
Barcelona) and Portabella's own production company, Films 59.
I was introduced to the work of Pere Portabella during our planning for Document11 in 2002. It was a great pleasure to view all his films and explore the work of an artist who had developed such a unique cinematic language, but whose work had, for historical reasons (Francoism and the lack of interest in Catalan culture in the new Spain), not received the recognition it deserved. I was familiar with the work of his compatriot, friend and collaborator Joan Miro, but not of the other Barcelona based artists and writers such as Joan Brossa and Carles Santos with whom Portabella collaborated so successfully.
Portabella's concerns with the complexity of language and subversion of cinematic
codes mark him as a key, and until recently relatively unrecognised,
participant in both the political and materialist avant-garde of
the 1970s and 1980s. Portabella's cinema interrogates the indexical
bond between image and referent; his use of structural materialist
devices to loosen this bond serves to focus the viewer's attention
on their role in the political and cultural processes of the circulation
of meaning. His cinematic range is extensive, from the celebration
of the intertexuality of horror cinema in Vampir/Cuadecuc
(1970) to the clandestinely shot documentaries Informe General
(1976) and El Sopar (1974) and the experiments with multiple
narratives of Warsaw Bridge (1990). His work bears comparison
with the best of European art cinema—Godard, Antionini, Straub and
Huillet. There is also a playfulness and lightness of touch in his
work which comes I think from his working collaboratively both culturally
and politically, with a group of artists, all concerned not to compromise
artistic research with false populism.
Portabella understands that cinema can give us tools, admittedly complex ones, for looking at and representing reality, tools that can help construct a critical and complex way of thinking, one as important now as at anytime in his career. I feel particularly privileged that we are able to present the North American Premiere of The Silence before Bach, one of the most important art films I have seen recently. This season would not have been possible without the generosity of Mr Portabella himself and that of Marcello Esposito, the curator of the 2001 MACBA exhibition.
Warsaw Bridge. 1990. Spain. Directed by Pere Portabella