Spain's biggest bullfight: The militant Catalans waging war against the 'Osborne bulls'

Born 50 years ago to advertise sherry, the 'Osborne bulls' have become such a potent symbol of Spain that militant Catalans want them gone - and they have the saws to prove it.

As an act of sabotage, it certainly showed dedication. So impassioned was the loathing of Catalonian militants for the symbol of everything Spanish that they devoted three hours to sawing through the cast-iron legs of the Osborne bull and bringing the iconic silhouette crashing to the ground.

The giant bull weighed four tonnes and stood 14 metres high, supported on its blind side by a massive structure of scaffolding, and dominating the hillside at El Bruc, near Barcelona. And for a little-known group of pro-independence nationalists, it was a potent symbol of Spain's domination of their homeland.

The group, Catalan Brotherhood of the Black Flag, defiantly claimed responsibility for this spectacular piece of political sabotage, saying "brave Catalans" had "cleaned the sacred Montserrat mountain from the horned Spanish filth that sullied it. The Osborne bull of El Bruc has fallen ignominiously like a giant with feet of clay".

In terms reminiscent of a medieval crusade against infidel invaders, they added: "We will not tolerate any Spanish symbol besmirching our sacred fatherland. Every time a symbol of Spain is raised, it will be crushed without a second thought by Catalan patriots as proof of our irreducible will to defend to the utmost our national rights."

What is it about this former sherry ad that has provoked such nationalist fury? Whatever their political opinions, the Black Flag made an inspired choice in targeting the Osborne bull as symbol of Spain. The bold, timeless silhouette has become the country's best-known image.

It started in 1956 when the sherry company commissioned an advertising agency to design a logo to promote its best-selling product, Veterano brandy, alongside the roads of Spain.

The artist Manuel Prieto presented his two-dimensional but arresting image the following year and it was an instant hit. Prieto's original sketch, scribbled on a scrap of squared paper, is today guarded in the archives of the Osborne bodega in Jerez.

Prieto was a communist, and would doubtless have been persecuted and jailed had he not created the 20th century's most distinctive image of Spain that the fascist right immediately fell in love with and tried to appropriate as their own. An artist for revolutionary militias during the Spanish Civil War, Prieto made a fortune with his bull, and the world of art and design hailed him as a hero before his death in 1991.

Some 500 Osborne bulls popped up in eye-catching spots all over Spain, dominating prominent hilltops and promontories, or in open country where they were visible for miles around, horns curled against the sky. Each consumed 50kg of paint and more than 1,000 rivets.

Originally made of wooden panels, they were constructed from metal from the 1960s and were universally loved by motorists puttering along in their Seat 500s, or lorry drivers trundling along roads winding endlessly through Spain's arid wastes. Drivers looked out for the noble creatures almost as a reflex action, spotting them with glee, craning to watch as they receded out of sight.

The Osborne bull promoted a Spanish product of world renown during the grey decades of Franco's dictatorship, enthusing an increasingly prosperous and motorised nation. At the same time, the image perfectly matched Franco's projection of Spain as a virile, traditional and - most importantly - apolitical nation.

But by 1988, the Osborne bull had become targeted by an establishment precursor of the Black Flag, in the form of the Roads Ministry controlled by modernising socialists. A motorway law ordered that they be removed, as part of a nationwide crackdown on advertising alongside main highways.

Osborne opted to remove the words "Osborne - Sherry & Brandy" emblazoned across the creature's flanks, and paint the image black. This was a shrewd move, since the bull had become so identified with Osborne's fortified wines it needed no words to explain its purpose.

The bull's fame broke free from its original creators, prompting Osborne to sue Sevillian shopkeepers for selling tourist souvenirs decorated with its logo. The judge ruled against the company, declaring that the Osborne bull was "a cultural and artistic heritage of the peoples of Spain".

The judge went on: "Although it may remind some people of a particular trademark, the first visual impact produced is that of an attractive silhouette imposed upon a background that makes it stand out, as something that recalls our fiesta [bullfighting] and emphasises the beauty of that powerful animal." The bull, the judge concluded, "represented shared identities that eventually transcended its origins as a trademark".

It so happens that the company that manufactured all these T-shirts, mugs, coasters and the rest was Catalan. But Osborne still fiercely asserts its rights to the image.

But the controversy refused to die. A general motorways regulation of 1994 ordered that even the anonymous black bulls be cleared from the nation's skyline, because they constituted a distracting hazard to motorists in a country now addicted to the car. But against all expectations, a massive popular outcry broke out, fanned enthusiastically by the media, leading to a passionate "save the bull" campaign.

Opinion polls found that 75 per cent of Spaniards thought the bull a "typically Spanish" artefact that they did not consider as advertising, and should remain.

You would have thought a struggle was being waged to prevent a real animal being threatened with extinction. The authorities backed down.

The Supreme Court ruled the Osborne bull should be reprieved because of its "aesthetic and cultural interest".

Eighty-nine survive from hundreds originally displayed, and still lift the heart of anyone driving through Spain. In Andalucia, the region most closely associated with fighting bulls, 21 examples are catalogued and protected as historic monuments. Probably as a result of this narrow escape, the Osborne bull has become a treasured part of the Spanish collective imagination.

Paradoxically, in view of the fury vented upon it by militant Catalans, the erstwhile sherry advertisement has become a consensual symbol of Spain in circumstances where the scarlet and gold national flag still raises hackles among the nationalist regions, at football matches, for example, or on political demonstrations.

At any sporting event throughout the world where Spaniards compete, you are likely to see the Spanish flag with a bold black bull in the centre, replacing the prosaic coat of arms deemed to represent the post-Franco democratic state. Spain's national basketball team celebrated their recent victory at the world cup in Japan by enthusiastically waving the Osborne bull. But it's still all too Spanish for radical Catalans. The bull of El Bruc had been in place only a week before it was destroyed, having been absent for four years. In 2003, saboteurs sawed the image in half, condemning it for being "a representation of a Spain that is retrograde, fascist, uniform and uninformed".

In 2002, on 23 April, the day of Saint George, or San Jordi, patron saint of Catalonia, the bull was painted with the five scarlet and gold stripes of the senyera, the region's beloved flag and symbol of nationhood. In October that year, on Spain's national day, two youngsters pushed the bull over. Local authorities said yesterday they would not remove the debris from the latest action, since the bull was on private land. The owner said he would sue, and police are investigating.

The only other surviving bull in Catalonia, in La Aldea near Tarragona, was hidden in a cypress forest for 30 years and revealed only in 2005 when the trees were felled. Within days it was decapitated, and its body sprayed with the slogan Puta Espanya (Spain bitch), an action claimed by the pro-independence Movement for the Defence of our Land.

But for the rest of Spain, indeed the world, the Osborne bull became an image synonymous with Spain itself. In 1972, it dominated the front page of The New York Times as a quintessential symbol of Spain. In 1983, it was appropriated by the American artist Keith Haring in a painting that now hangs in a New York museum.

It went on the cover of the catalogue for an exhibition in 2000 of 100 years of Spanish design, at Madrid's state-run Reina Sofia modern art museum. And in 2003, the year the penultimate Catalan example was desecrated, Catalonia's prestigious society for the Promotion of Arts and Design, chose the Osborne bull as Spain's most important image of the 20th century.

Throughout the sex-and-drug-fuelled years of the movida in the 1980s, the artists Guillermo Pérez Villalta and Javier Mariscal, and film-maker Pedro Almodovar paid homage to Spain's best-loved bull, wrenching it from whatever Francoist and fascist associations that still clung to it.

The latest ignominy was perpetrated by the young Andaluz artist Javier Figueredo, who in 2005 transformed a roadside Osborne bull in remote Extremadura near the border with Portugal, into a Swiss cow, splashing it with white spots and adding metallic prostheses in the form of udders. The artist said it was an appeal for sexual equality, but he escaped prison only by doing 10 days of community service.

But what has fascinated Spaniards, covertly or explicitly down the decades, and what guarantees the bull's immortality in a world where fashions and tastes change by the minute, is that vast, dangling mono-testicle, outlined against the Spanish sky, grotesquely magnified when contemplated close-up.

Prieto's bold touch of realism, unbelievably daring for the 1950s, sealed the Osborne bull's reputation as a sexual totem and fertility symbol. Spanish lovers are still reputed to visit any nearby bull to consummate their relationship beneath its towering shadow.

This explosive sexual potency inspired Bigas Luna's classic 1992 movie Jamon Jamon, one of a handful of early post-Franco Spanish films to win international acclaim, in which the young Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz couple steamily on a remote hillside with that pendulous iron testicle looming over their heads.

When their romance turns sour, Bardem beats and beats the offending taurine appendage in a frenzy of sexual frustration, until it crashes to the ground. The director had to reassure an anxious public that only a replica Osborne was destroyed.

The two sexy unknowns became instant Spanish screen darlings, and later world stars as Spain's first Oscar-contenders. But what everyone remembers about Jamon Jamon is the bull.

It is difficult to imagine that an advertising logo that has won and kept such a powerful grip upon the hearts of a nation for 50 years can be subdued by a handful of political militants, however incendiary their rhetoric.

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