Carles Fontsere

Spanish Civil War poster designer
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Carles Fontserè, graphic artist and poster designer: born Barcelona 1916; married Terry Broch; died Girona, Spain 4 January 2007.

Carles Fontserè was 20 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, and unfolded with particular ferocity in his native Barcelona, and the Catalan artist responded with a fusillade of brightly coloured, boldly drawn posters urging solidarity with his libertarian ideals of freedom, revolutionary socialism, peace and work.

One of his most striking images was that of the combative peasant farmer brandishing a sickle under the slogan "LLIBERTAT!" This was not the Communist sickle of Soviet socialist realism - the scarlet and black anarchist flag billows across Fontserè's poster - but a symbol of the 17th-century Catalan reapers who rose against Castilian invaders. The reapers' revolt is immortalised in the Catalan anthem "Els Segadors" ("The Reapers"), the singing of which Francisco Franco made an imprisonable offence.

"I started drawing at 15, self-taught," the old revolutionary told the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia in 2004:

I saw an advert in the press seeking a graphic artist, so I started designing labels for products, logos for fashion houses, signs for swimming pools and sports halls . . . and classified ads in newspapers.

Like many defeated anti-Francoists of his generation, Fontserè spent decades in exile in Paris, Mexico City and New York, before returning home in 1973. In recent years he campaigned for Catalan archives plundered during the war by Franco's troops, including personal papers and posters stolen from his own studio, to be released from military archives in Salamanca and returned home. Despite his prodigious output, the artist possessed only four original works when he died, all of which had been donated by collectors.

Fontserè produced posters for the socialist and anarchist trades union federations, the Iberian Anarchists Federation (FAI) and the revolutionary Marxist United Workers Party (Poum), during the short-lived republic of the early Thirties, and the three-year civil war.

He did not confine his militancy to pen and ink. He co-founded the anarchist Barcelona Syndicate of Professional Graphic Artists (Sindicat de Dibuixants Professionals de Barcelona), enlisted in the International Brigades and fought on the Ebro front.

The artist carefully distinguished those works produced in the weeks immediately following Franco's military uprising in July 1936, which were "a multicolour testimony of the revolution in Catalonia", from those " more institutional, let's say, commissioned by offices of propaganda" of the beleaguered government of Catalonia after October of that year.

Those defiant early works were "the immediate and spontaneous works of those artists who from the first moment wanted to participate with their work in the struggle against reaction and armed Fascism", he said. Fontserè's posters from that period caught the eye of international observers of the time, and were praised by George Orwell.

After Franco's victory in 1939, Fontserè was imprisoned with other vanquished, exiled Spanish republicans in French concentration camps. But, even there, his skill and enthusiasm for his craft produced an exhibition in Perpignan of drawings depicting the cruelty of camp life. He spent the Second World War in German-occupied Paris, where he scraped a living drawing comic strips. But he also produced and illustrated collectors' editions of Catalan literary classics.

Later, in Mexico City, he became a stage-set designer, collaborating with the Mexican film comic and showman Mario Moreno ("Cantinflas"). They jointly produced a Parisian-style musical comedy performed in the Mexican capital in 1948. Fontserè was as adept at filling the stage with bold designs executed with a gigantic brush as he had been with posters.

He moved to New York in 1949, where he worked as a comic strip artist, painter, poster designer, art editor of a monthly magazine and - sporadically - full-time taxi-driver. He also took up photography, collaborated with Salvador Dalí and met his future wife, Terry Broch.

In 1973 he returned to settle in the Catalan village of Porqueres, near Girona, and declared that the home and studio he built there were his finest works of art. He completed three volumes of memoirs, published in 1995 and 2004, that describe with the verve of a crime thriller the unequal fight against Francoism, the miseries of exiled republicans, and life in occupied France, and 10 chapters of an unfinished fourth volume about life in New York.

"I never ran with the herd," Fontserè said in 2004: "I did what I wanted, enjoying myself to the full. I was neither a masochist nor a martyr. I tried to get on with things rather than complain."

Elizabeth Nash