You wonder if the 18th-Century archbishop’s palace in Arles has seen anything quite like it. The wall of one magnificent salon is draped in black polyurethane, onto which lurid photocopies of rock bands have been taped. Over an ornamental fireplace, where you’d expect to encounter a portrait of a glowering Catholic cleric, there’s a photograph of a young man with razor-sharp cheekbones wearing a black leather jacket, spandex tights, crimson high heels and an expression that is anything but innocent (oh, and he’s brandishing a pistol). In the room next door, there are pictures of someone taking heroin. Given the goings-on depicted, passing archbishops might be advised to look the other way.
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Forbidden fruits are everywhere you look in La Movida: A Chronicle of Turmoil, a centrepiece of this year’s Rencontres d’Arles photography festival. An account of some of the most tumultuous years in Spain’s recent history, from 1978 to the late 1980s, it zooms in close on the work of four photographers who lived through that period, and turned their lenses on it – as well as on themselves and their closest friends. There is only one word for these photographs: loud. Literally so, in fact: one of the back rooms of the show is filled with a large video screen pumping out grainy 1980s Spanish pop.
Pedro Almodóvar’s youthful countenance gazes out from several photographs in the exhibition
Defining La Movida Madrileña is notoriously tricky – it’s most often translated as “the scene”, with connotations of wild nights and pent-up energy. A countercultural youth movement that swept through Madrid in the years following the death of the dictator General Franco in 1975, it was somewhere between party scene, artistic school and heedless free-for-all. In a few hectic years, Spain was restored to democracy, state censorship was relaxed and an influx of US and European punk rock made many young people want to party.
In 1980, the Ramones played to worshipping crowds in Madrid’s bullring. Andy Warhol came to hang out. Rolling Stone magazine dispatched a correspondent to check out what was happening, and printed his wide-eyed report under the headline “Youth reigns in Spain”. The earthquake was felt across Spanish music, fashion, art, photography and film. Given that one of La Movida’s leading lights was the cinema director Pedro Almodóvar – his jowly but youthful countenance gazes out from several photographs in the exhibition – it is arguably being felt still.
Co-curator Irene de Mendoza says there has rarely been anything quite like La Movida. “We can’t say that it was a real movement because they didn’t have a formal manifesto,” she tells BBC Culture. “But there was a kind of energy in the atmosphere. You can see it in every picture.”
One of the four photographers, Miguel Trillo, remembers it as a delirious time, with young people frantically vying to define and keep up with the latest tastes. He spent much of the early 1980s documenting the music scene at a Madrid club called Rockola, photographing both bands and audiences, and producing a cheeky photo fanzine of the same name, one of Spain’s first.
“It was obvious that we were living a moment,” he says. “We didn’t know how long it was going to last: it could be that suddenly everything finishes again, all the lights shut down, and we go back to the darkness.”
What did La Movida feel like, to him? “A kind of militancy, but without militants, without manifestos.”
Black-and-white shots of rural life, a staple of Spanish photography under Franco, were abruptly out of fashion. Shaggy hair, lurid costumes, too-cool-for-school poses, lashings of mascara – for both genders – were in. One evening Trillo came across a couple, in their early 20s, in matching leather jackets, embracing somewhere on a street; the man’s head is burrowed into the woman’s neck, while she looks excitedly out at the camera, her eye make-up glittering in the harsh flash. Elsewhere, he captures another young woman standing coolly in front of a wall covered with Rococo floral wallpaper. Her hair is a splendid leonine tangle and she’s painted her lips a seductive vermilion, but you wouldn’t want to drift too close: the spiked bracelet on her forearm looks like it could do real damage.
Who’s on stage, and who’s in the audience, seems irrelevant – everyone is dressed to be seen
Trillo is particularly proud of a photograph of two female guitarists posing moodily in a dressing room. One seems to be channelling Like a Virgin-era Madonna, in lace skirt, fishnets and gloves; the other resembles a cross between Kate Bush and Slash from Guns N’Roses. Their hair is so wildly spiked it might be hooked up to mains electricity (Trillo points out that such theatrical looks were tricky to achieve in 1980s Spain, where decent hairspray was still hard to find: “it was all handmade with soap”). In many of these music-scene images, the question of who’s on stage, and who’s in the audience, seems irrelevant. Everyone is dressed to be seen.
As well as their outré taste in fashion and rock, young Spaniards’ eagerness to experiment with gender is also impossible to ignore, in ways that look ground-breaking even now. Men reached for lipstick and decorated their nails, in androgynous New Romantic style. Women donned biker-style dog collars and Mod-style boots. Almost everyone looks to be having an indecent amount of fun, both at dressing up and otherwise. There is the sense of a generation trying on costumes and identities that, until very recently, had been impossible.
Frenzied flashes of fuchsia
Colour is everywhere: hot pinks, canary yellows, electric blues, searing scarlets and crimsons. It is as if someone had turned the temperature up on life itself. “Up to this point, life had been very grey in Spain,” De Mendoza points out.
Colour is a major preoccupation of arguably the most innovative photographer in the exhibition, the artist Ouka Leele. Born Bárbara Allende Gil de Biedma in Madrid in 1957, she was in her early 20s when La Movida hit. Yet, instead of photographing the party scene, as other photographers did, she channelled her energies into portraits she painstakingly choreographed and crafted in the studio.
Describing Leele’s images barely captures their joy, or their absorbing strangeness. In one picture, a woman sits grinning at a window overlooking central Madrid, holding a juicy slab of steak – the brilliant red of which matches both her lipstick and the velvet curtain behind her. In another you see a man with hefty sideburns moodily smoke a cigarette, with what appear to be three bright-yellow terrapins perching on his head. A close-up of a woman arrayed in a hat made from yellow lemons, sucking a candy-striped straw, part of her 1978 series Pelequería (The Hair Salon), is printed on this year’s festival poster. Surreal and richly saturated, these pictures have the feel of what would happen if you cross-pollinated mid-period Salvador Dalí with 1960s Robert Rauschenberg screen prints.
We believed it was as important as Surrealism – Ouka Leele
Leele explains that despite their elaborate appearance, the pictures she was making were improvised and homemade, using friends and real-life props. The woman with the straw she photographed lying on the floor, with the lemons arranged around her in an improvised headdress cobbled together by wire. The man with the terrapins actually had live terrapins balanced on his head. “It was all real,” she says (though that depends how you define “real”).
After posing her models and photographing them using black-and-white film, she then hand-tinted the prints with watercolour, taking great delight in their eyeball-zapping hues. “For me, photos were more real when I added the colour. Colour is emotion and feeling.”
Though her photographs don’t explicitly depict La Movida, Leele argues that, for her, they capture its optimistic, anything-is-possible spirit. “We lived on thin air, we didn’t sleep. There was a joie de vivre, a wanting to do things.” To her, she adds, it did feel like an artistic movement. “We believed it was as important as Surrealism.”
Whatever La Movida really was, it didn’t last. Fashions moved on, as fashions do; by the mid-1980s, many of its leading practitioners had migrated to other things. Other changes were less happy. In contrast to the colour photographs elsewhere in the exhibition, in one room you find sombre monochrome portraits by Alberto García-Alix, which document the hedonism of La Movida as it tipped over into self-destruction. There are snaps of friends posing on the street, but here their expressions are anxious and a little absent. He documented the hedonism of La Modiva, as well as the spread of heroin and other hard drugs. At around the same time, the Aids crisis was beginning to claim the lives of gay men in Spain – a toll that seemed particularly cruel, as same-sex relationships had only been legal since 1979, far later than the US and elsewhere in Europe.
Perhaps, too, there was the sense that the movement had reached an endpoint. Quick to catch fire, it was equally quick to burn itself out, particularly once it became less edgy, co-opted by mainstream cultural figures, and when the make-up of the government changed in Madrid towards the end of the decade, it seemed like the end. Says Leele: “La Movida was dying, but they killed it before it died.”
Still, looking back now from the vantage of 40-odd years, Miguel Trillo argues that La Movida has something to teach us – about life, about art, about youth, and even about politics. “The 1980s began with freedom in Spain, and it ended with freedom in Eastern Europe,” he says. “Barriers were falling.”
La Movida: A Chronicle of Turmoil, 1978-88 is at the Rencontres d’Arles until 22 September 2019.
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