Obituary: Joan Brossa

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The Independent Culture
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. There followed the book U no es ningu ("One is Not Nobody"), illustrated by Tapies. By the 1980s Brossa was hailed internationally as a quirky eccentric artist who defied attempts to slot him into an "ism", an outsider with finely honed communication skills. Nearly all his theatrical works and dances were performed in this period.

At 70 he stepped into the great hall at the university of Santiago de Compostela to a 10-minute standing ovation from crowds of art and literature students. He began collecting literary and dramatic awards; and in 1989 he created a visual poem that celebrated the high-speed train.

Brossa embraced the main cultural adventures of his time - Dadaism, Surrealism, psychoanalysis, the fascination with the unconscious, zen, contemporary music, magic - and sought to develop a personal response to each. "My work has its own dynamic," he once said, "because I want to see where different creative processes lead me."

He sought to push out the frontiers of poetry, to make it provocative and modern. He explored new methods, first with words, then on the stage, later with images and finally objects. His poetry moved from the literary to the concrete, from verbal to visual images, in which the idea always took precedence over the aesthetic.

Art critics reproached him for blundering into their world, but Brossa reckoned that "today's poet must broaden his horizons, move away from books and project himself through the various means that society itself provides. The poet must use them like unexpected vehicles, infusing them with an ethical content that society does not confer upon them."

He wanted to astonish the viewer and subvert logic. Over the years his assemblages of playing cards, watches, knives, hammers, spectacles, balls, top hats and combs formed a mordant critique of social and religious conventions. He mounted an exhibition in the Joan Mir Foundation in Barcelona in 1986 and held a restrospective in Madrid's Reina Sofia modern art museum in 1991.

His personal style remained that of the unrepentant lefty: dishevelled, ill-shaven and bundled up in an overcoat. He loved travelling on the bus, proudly flourishing his free pass given by the public transport authority of Barcelona, the city to which he donated all his works in 1987.

When he died he had a number of commissions in hand: several urban installations in a Barcelona suburb, a mural in a municipal hall, a sculpture in homage to Lorca at the poet's former lodgings at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, another in Granada.

"I receive a lot of requests," he said, a few weeks before he badly banged his head in a fall, and died two days later. He had been organising a big 80th birthday party where he planned to perform the magic tricks for which he was renowned.

Elizabeth Nash

Joan Brossa, poet: born Barcelona 19 January 1919; married Pepa Llopis; died Barcelona 30 December 1998.