Josep Renau (Valencia, 1907 – Berlin, 1982) excelled in graphic arts, a field he worked with and employed from a media and propaganda angle, with his works, particularly his photomontages and collages, shining a spotlight on his political stance. As general director of Fine Arts between 1936 and 1938, he participated in the programme for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of Arts and Technology of 1937, commissioning works from Julio González, Joan Miró, Alberto Sánchez and Pablo Picasso, among others. Keen to safeguard and protect artistic heritage, Renau decided to transfer the bulk of the collection from the Museo del Prado to Valencia (at that time the seat of the Republican Government), the city from which he would travel to Geneva in February 1939. Due to his support for the Second Republic and his affiliation with the Communist Party in Spain, he was forced into exile, first in Mexico and later in East Germany.
As the embodiment of politically committed art and an authority on the aesthetics and artistic tools of propaganda, the work of Josep Renau stands out through its powerful photomontages and posters, in which he decried and dismantled – as the entirety of his work did — the different forms of fascism and imperialism that devastated the world in the twentieth century. The son of a painter and educated in Fine Arts in Valencia, Renau worked in the 1930s as a photomontage artist and designer, two career-defining aspects. He founded Nueva Cultura, a markedly visual magazine, and participated in publications such as Octubre, Estudios and Orto, and others on cinema. Renau also wrote the essay Función social del cartel publicitario (The Social Role of the Advertising Poster, 1937), and was the most salient representative in Spain on the use of photography, typography and avant-garde graphic design resources, commanding and applying their use as political propaganda, already widely practiced in Soviet spheres. Moreover, he played an integral role in the formation of the Communist Party in Valencia and was fiercely critical of the Second Republic’s approach to education and culture. With the outbreak of the Civil War, his art work and direct participation in the government saw him stand at the forefront of the defence of culture.
Renau was appointed general director of Fine Arts and took charge of visually conveying the Republic’s message in the pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937, designing photomurals to adorn the walls, both inside and outside the building. Under his management, images were deployed to enhance the whole political agenda, with photographs on projects by the government Second Republic concerning heritage, education and popular tradition. The photomurals, as a propaganda support and medium, juxtaposed an image of Spain prior to the Republic with one depicting its subsequent achievements. References to the bombing of Gernika were also present, aiding an understanding of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, widely considered the pre-eminent work at the pavilion.
As a politically committed artist who defended realism as a “new position to the world”, he continued his career as a poster artist and designer whilst in exile, and although he returned to Spain on numerous occasions after the death of Franco, he remained in Germany for the rest of his life. Renau, interviewed at different points on the delivery of Guernica to Spain, maintained that the work belonged to the Spanish people, and in 1982 he wrote Albures y cuitas con el Guernica y su madre, a personal account of this episode, of which only fragments are known.