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EAUDE, Michael. " Catalan artist loyal to the memory of the republican Spain his work inspired "
Article published on 27 April 2007
last modification on 25 April 2015

by ps
Poster by Carles Fontseré
The initials on the flag – FAI - are those of the Spanish Anarchist Federation

The Catalan artist and writer Carles Fontseré, who has died aged 90, drew many of the best-known posters of the Spanish civil war. Muscular and strong, with piercing eyes and voice - and white-bearded in old age - he looked like the implacable old anarchist he was.

He led a life that reads like a picaresque novel. Self-taught, he started work at the age of 15 in a theatre design workshop, developing his skills with cinema posters, book covers and adverts. When the civil war broke out in 1936, he became active in the union of graphic artists. The walls of Barcelona were plastered with these artists’ posters, as George Orwell noted on his arrival in the city that December: "The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud."

Influenced by the art of the Mexican and Russian revolutions, the expressive force of these posters made them key weapons in the war against the fascist uprising. Indeed, they were known as "paper and ink soldiers" because of their mobilising power. Fontserè was only 20 when he drew his famous Llibertat!, which transmitted its message by allusion to Catalan revolutionary tradition - the raised sickle in the peasant’s hand was the symbol of Catalonia’s peasant-led rebellion against Spain in 1641.

Fontserè was one of many Spaniards who fought with the International Brigades in the 1938 Battle of the Ebro. At the end of the war, he left Spain for exile. Held briefly in the beach prison camp at St Cyprien, in southern France, he escaped and survived without papers in occupied Paris during the second world war. In 1944 he resumed his work in theatre design, moving to Mexico in 1948, where the famous comedian Cantinflas hired him to design a musical comedy set.

From 1951 to 1973, Fontserè lived in New York, working for many years as a taxi driver as well as drawing comics, designing sets and taking photographs. Most importantly, he married Terry Broch, a New Yorker and daughter of Catalans, who was to become his lifelong partner. In 1973 he finally returned to the village of Porqueres, on the shore of Catalonia’s biggest lake, Banyoles, in the pre-Pyrenees. Here, he and Terry built a house and a studio on top of a hill overlooking the village.

Fontserè’s greatest achievements, both inspired by the anarchist flame, came at the start and the end of his life. He was the youngest - and the last survivor - of the revolutionary poster artists of 1936. More recently, he published three volumes of autobiography, Memòries d’un cartellista català (Memoirs of a Catalan Poster Artist, 1995), Un exiliat de tercera (A Third-Class Exile) and París, Mèxic, Nova York (both 2004). These long, excellently written books are detailed, historically researched accounts of his civil war and exile experience.

Fontserè’s memoirs, more about his times than himself, challenge official versions of the 1939 exodus from Spain with a well-researched, impassioned indictment of Catalan, Spanish and French rewriting of this history. Stubborn and uncompromising, Fontserè expressed his intentions with the title of his second volume. The first-class exiles were the well-known politicians and artists of the Spanish republic. Fontserè identified with the third class: interned and dying in disease-ridden beach camps, at best released to work 12 hours a day in French war industries or become cannon-fodder in the second world war. He ruffled many establishment feathers with his denunciation of the abandonment of the civil war’s foot soldiers: "No relevant figure of the republic - Negrín, Companys, Picasso, Pau [Pablo] Casals - had the courage to go to a French concentration camp with the objective of being the last to leave it, as they say that a captain does when his ship sinks."

Throughout his life, Fontserè remained faithful to the libertarian ideals that lit up his 1936 posters. His last campaign was to retrieve the Catalan archives removed by Franco to Salamanca, which included much of his own work. The campaign was won, but he died before his papers actually arrived. Broch survives him.

· Carles Fontserè Carrió, graphic artist and writer, born 1916; died January 4 2007