Art

Illustrating Spain in Transition Through Underground Comix

Ceesepe’s retrospective at La Casa Encendida explores how the artist’s underground comics offer an alternative view of Spanish life under and after the dictatorship led by Francisco Franco.

Ceesepe, ​El Tacón Cubano en: “María”​ (1980), ink on board, 20 x 45 cm, originally published in El Víbora,​ no. 15 (1980), Barcelona

Murderous thugs, buxom prostitutes, and desperate junkies populate the crowded streets, dirty hotel rooms, and dark alleyways of Ceesepe’s transgressive universe. Born Carlos Sánchez Pérez, Ceesepe (1958-2018) is the quintessential visual artist of La Movida Madrileña, a countercultural movement that emerged in Madrid in the mid-1970s, as Spain transitioned to democracy. Vicios Modernos. Ceesepe 1973-1983 at La Casa Encendida explores how the artist’s underground comics helped to foment and document the movement, and offers an alternative view of Spanish life under and after the dictatorship led by Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975.

La Movida grew out of drastic political and social change that swept the country after Franco’s death in 1975. By then, Madrid and its suburbs had ballooned to 4 million inhabitants, and family and social dynamics were shifting. After 36 years under a dictatorship, a sudden sense of freedom and uncertainty marked the new generation. Young Spaniards like Ceesepe were initially inspired by countercultures in the US and other parts of Europe, but La Movida soon found its own identity.

Unknown, “Untitled (Ceesepe)” (1981), black and white photograph, 13.5 x 20.5 cm

Ceesepe was a self-taught, precocious, and prolific artist. His first comic was published in Barcelona’s Star magazine when he was only 16-years-old. Two years later he teamed up with fellow artist Alberto García-Alix to establish La Cascorro Factory, a comics stand and DIY zine press at El Rastro, Madrid’s 500-year-old open-air market. The stand became a gathering point for local Movida artists and musicians. Ceesepe sold his zines there, as well as American comics that he laboriously translated into Spanish and reprinted by hand.

American underground culture remained a strong presence throughout Ceesepe’s life. He idolized American comic artists such as R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, and musicians like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix appear in his works. He set up an art studio in New York in 1988 and again in 1997, and he produced covers for Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. Ceesepe’s comic Estrellita va a New York (1981) takes place in a dazzling imagined version of the city, and represents the artist’s definitive move away from comics and into easel painting: in Estrellita, each jewel-colored vignette is actually a small oil painting in rounded, Léger-esque forms.

Ceesepe, ​”Vicios modernos (1978)​, ink, collage, and transfer type on vellum, 29.5 x 21 cm, originally published in ​Star​, Barcelona.

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll figure heavily in Ceesepe’s graphic work — sex in particular. Comics including Pornos (1974), Slober (1974-78), and Vicios Modernos (1978) are replete with naked and scantily clad women who are endlessly penetrated, punched, stabbed, and discarded by a string of male antiheroes, crooked cops, and even Nazis. Ceesepe’s helpless, horny women never seem to stray too far from a man’s arms (or fists). His comics portray a grisly, often-repeated fantasy of heterosexual violence set in a dystopian, Transition-era Spain.

Subversion and political incorrectness are cornerstones of La Movida, and Ceesepe’s gory aesthetic was partly a reaction against the facile cartoons he grew up with. The violence against women in Ceesepe’s early comics is shocking and repulsive, but it’s also the product of pervasive Spanish anxieties about manliness, power, and control that didn’t end with Franco’s death. The fascist terror of Ceesepe’s childhood was replaced with attacks by ETA (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna) and GRAPO (Los Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre). More importantly, domestic fear and instability joined a deeply sexist system. The artist grew up in a world where women needed their husbands’ or fathers’ permission to get a job, open a bank account, or undertake other basic tasks. And with the continuing rise since December 2018 of Spain’s ultra-Catholic, anti-feminist right-wing party, Vox, the brutal attacks on female autonomy Ceesepe’s depicted don’t seem too far off.

Ceesepe, ​Estrellita va a Nueva York​,p. 3 (1981), original, ink and acrylic on board, 64.5 x 46.5 cm, Archivo Lafuente.

By its end in the early 1980s, La Movida had spread to Barcelona, Bilbao, and Vigo. Comics are still important to Spain’s underground culture; festivals in Madrid and Barcelona feature such artists as Berto Fojo, Martín López Lam, and Andrés Magán. Crucially, there is also a new wave of talented female comic and illustration artists — for instance, Begoña García-Alén, María Medem, Cristina Daura, and Marta Cartu. Like Ceesepe, many of today’s Spanish comic artists are also connected to music scenes and work in a range of media, including painting and ceramics.

Ceesepe died last September as he was working with La Casa Encendida and the Archivo Lafuente to organize Vicios Modernos. The show brings together original comics, notebooks, magazines, photographs, and films from the first 10 years of the artist’s career. Although he was overshadowed by more famous Movida figures like the film director Pedro Almodóvar (for whom Ceesepe designed movie posters), the artist worked relentlessly to rebel in the cradle of the regime. As Ceesepe explained in an interview just before his death, “I live in the country that I have in my head and that I build here, in my studio.”

Ceesepe, ​Vicios modernos​ (ca. 1980), mixed media on board, 60 x 45.5 cm, Archivo Lafuente

Vicios Modernos. Ceesepe 1973-1983 continues at La Casa Encendida (Ronda de Valencia, 2, Madrid, Spain) through September 22.

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