José Álvarez Gámez – The Artist that Doesn’t Exist

Poster for the Seville Fair 1966. Photo: aznalfarache
Poster for the Seville Fair 1966. Photo: aznalfarache

José Álvarez Gámez was a creative visual artist born in 1925 in Spain and died in 1997. This is all we know about the man who created the most prolific and commercial art widely available in Andalusia today.

When Gamez was 6 years old, Spain was taken over by the general and dictator Francisco Franco. He rose to power during the bloody Spanish Civil War when, with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, his Nationalist forces overthrew the democratically elected Second Republic, adopting the title of “El Caudillo”. Once in power, Franco persecuted political opponents, repressed the culture and language of Spain’s Basque and Catalan regions, censured the media, and otherwise exerted absolute control over the country. 

Growing up during Spanish Civil War

Life under Franco was difficult, to say the least. Many fled the country in the wake of the civil war, and military tribunals were set up to try those who remained. These tribunals sent thousands more Spaniards to their death; Franco himself admitted in the mid-1940s that he had 26,000 political prisoners under lock and key. The Franco regime also essentially made Catholicism the only tolerated religion. He banned the Catalan and Basque languages outside the home, forbade Catalan and Basque names for newborn babies, prohibited labour unions, promoted economic self-sufficiency policies and created a vast secret police network to spy on citizens.

Advertising of Epoca, Sevilla, Fair 1973. Photo: Todocoleccion.net

At this time art and artists were not tolerated unless depicting a religious scene or working within the catholic doctrine; so it is likely that Gámez fled Spain or worked quietly creating the artwork that was later used in travel advertising, on stamps and posters for festivals. It is likely Gámez lived in Seville, Jerez or Cordoba as his evocative posters appear every year from 1951 to the end of the 1970s 

Aged 25 in 1950 Gámez is obviously inspired by 1950s America, by New York City that became the focus for modernism on an international scale during the post-war period. Many artists had travelled to the city during the Second World War, fleeing in exile from Europe. This led to a significant pooling of talent and ideas. Influential Europeans such as Josef Albers, who emigrated in 1933 after the Nazi closed down the faculty of the Bauhaus, and Georges Dambier, an influential photographer who played a major part in the art produced at this time. 

It’s true to say these talented individuals provided inspiration for American artists in the postmodernism form popular in the 1950s and, much later, with the likes of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Margot Lovejoy, who may have taken inspiration from these talented immigrants. But in the case of Gámez, we may never know.

I wanted to write about Gámez, about his type of commercial art—are the Feria posters of the Golden Triangle—Córdoba, Granada and Seville art or just tourist tat? The answer would have been that like all good arguments not clear cut, it’s a yes and then no. In 1950 the artwork would have been considered kitsch, gaudy and even, in the eyes of purists, exploitative of the culture. Today the work is popular with art houses selling the original posters for thousands of euros. So yes perhaps it was tat in 1950, but today these posters are cult and adorn the walls of many university dorms; and I can whole-heartily say I love it; and so do lots of other Iberiaphiles, they just may not admit it.

Publicidad de Epoca, Sevilla, 1969. Photo: Todocoleccion.net

In Search of José Álvarez Gámez

While researching this article I trawled the internet for background, for substance, expecting to find a biography no matter how brief. I was astounded to find that there is nothing out there about this artist anywhere: no information. Just a brief nod to his existence with a date of birth and then death. In ordinary times I would have taken this as a challenge and left at a minute’s notice to find him and his family in order to give depth to my argument. But we don’t live in normal times, and travel is restricted for the foreseeable future. So I am asking the universe to put me out of my misery and find him – or not. He may, after all, be the artist who really doesn’t exist.

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