All images courtesy of the artist.
In the summer of 1970 I was twenty-four years old, single, and living on my own, as I had been since I was nineteen, in my native New York City. The driving force in my life was my art, but I supported myself as a secretary in the music business. I was about to go on a journey that would allow me to explore not only my identity as a single woman in a foreign country, but also my understanding of the women of Spain and their journey to freedom.
In 1969 when I visited Paris, Rome, and Athens, something made me realize that Europe had to become an integral part of my life and art. An opportunity arose with my close New York friends, Kathy and Paco. When they showed me photos of a new condominium that went up a half a block away from the sea in Spain, I decided to buy a one-bedroom apartment. I had never been to Spain nor did I speak fluent Spanish; but these facts didn't intimidate me. To come up with the deposit I organized an exhibition of my paintings. In July of 1970 Spain would become my passion and the inspiration for all my art.
Alicante, located on the southeastern coast of Spain, was my new summer home. When I arrived that first night the apartment had only one light bulb hanging from a wire fixture in the bathroom. Unlike New York apartments, it didn't have a refrigerator, medicine chest, or light fixtures already in place. I had purchased in advance a pine bedroom set which was part of a model apartment. It had no sheetjust a plaid cotton blanket and a large pillow. When I woke up the next morning and walked out onto the nine-by-twenty-two-foot terrace, I looked north and saw a mountain range that stretched from far inland into the sea. In front of me, towards the east, was open Mediterranean. The morning sun was very hot, so I decided it was time to furnish the new apartment with shades and some furniture in order to make it comfortable.
As I shopped in the neighborhood I noticed women were very curious and friendly about my presence there. We had conversations in the lobby of the building, in the supermarket and on the beach. They wanted to know, not only who I was, but where was my husband or father? When I told them I bought the apartment myself they were shocked. I found out women were not allowed to go to work without a husband or father's permission, let alone buy property. Ownership was a male privilege. The concept of a young woman who wasn't from a rich or famous family buying an apartment was not the norm. Family heritage played a significant part in Spanish culture: It signified your status, determined access to education, and informed the way society looked at you. When I told them I worked as a secretary, painted, and lived alone, they were amazed. Then they wanted to know why I didn't come with my mother? I told them the whole idea was to get away from the family. They looked at me and shook their heads in disbelief. They told me, Oh, my God, we could never do that. We never go on vacation without our mothers. I was the talk of the neighborhood. Women ran their households and complained to each other. They found strength in commiserating. The ability to share their dreams with other women made life better. What I admired most was how honest they were about their emotions. They never wore a mask. There was no half way feeling about anything. Whether we spoke about women's chores, men, jobs, family or their dreams, they were direct. I was a stranger, but for some reason they enjoyed letting me know their thoughts. I wasn't a threat or someone who would betray their secrets.
I had arrived during the last five years of the forty-year period of Catholic conservatism under Generalissimo Francisco Franco ( 1936- 1975 ). Men occupied all important positions in government and industry and were also the head of the home. Women worked in the house and were economically dependent on their husbands. Those who were permitted to work were teachers, nurses, or in low paying positions, mainly on farms or in factories.
It was a state of authoritarian power over people's lives, including attempts to control behavior and lifestyle. Franco repressed all sexuality. Homosexuality was considered a crime and all print and film media could not expose the female nude.
The location of my apartment, situated as it was in a beach resort, revealed to me how much I took simple things for granted. For example, I was slim at that time and wore a bikini. When a few women spoke to me at the beach they immediately said, Oh, I knew you were a foreigner even before you spoke. You're wearing a bikini. Only foreign woman could wear whatever they wanted. Spanish women couldn't expose themselves too much. Men were proud of being macho Iberico. Women didn't like it, but couldn't speak out because it was not acceptable. A woman's place was in the home and their husbands made sure the outside world didn't tempt them.
When Franco died in 1975, Spain experienced a culture shock. I watched the society transform itself. For the first time, women could go to work, get a good education, and work at any job for which they were qualified. The image of the macho Iberico was looked down upon and women who had macho husbands were laughed at amongst the others. They said they now had to let the men know that they, too, had rights. Younger men also helped with housework. This I learned first hand from my best friend, Janina. She told me, Oh, I told Miguel I can't do everything now, no more, nada mas, no puedo. He helped with the cooking.
In 1979 I married a fellow artist, John Ferdico. Even though I now had a husband, my life was still different from the average Spanish woman. Our decision not to have children was out of the ordinary. Years later my hysterectomy concretized my choice. Our life together is one of mutual respect and a great love for one another, and for Spain. We have exhibited in Spain over the years and have work in permanent collections.
Over the next decade I saw further changes and conflicts. La Movida began in
Madrid in the 1980s and was experienced throughout Spain as a sociocultural movement
by young people, who wanted to find a way to express their new freedoms. Their punk style nightlife and art forms exploded. In film, Pedro Almodovar gave the world a different view of women, family life and homosexuality.
The young women adapted to the new life style, La Movida. Sexuality was in print, sex shops and breasts were everywhere. Women in their forties had their parents telling them not to live the new lifestyle and the young women didn't want to hear anything about the past. In small towns I saw young women walking around with spiked pink hair, piercings, and torn fishnet stockings. Young people stood around smoking hashish. The elderly ladies dressed in black would look on in disgust and say it was a sign of the times.
My vision of Spain also changed. My art evolved from observation of the landscape into abstract gestural works of painterly colors and forms. For me, abstract painting reflected not only my feelings, but the freedom and cultural history.
In the 1990s I decided to work on a collage series called Post-Franco Spain: A Cultural Metamorphosis. It consisted of seventeen small-scale intimate works containing images that evoked the complex fabric of Spanish society. The themes of these collages came from my own perspective, and I feel they are reflective of the changes most noticeable to an outsider. Changes in traditional practices and sex roles proved to be the most shocking.
The collage works integrated photos, postcards, written text from newspapers and magazines, fabric, wax, sawdust, stamps, and paint. These surfaces act as metaphors wherein the surface and images become one, just as the Spanish culture remains united, unable to separate itself from the political currents or the beliefs and customs of its people. I waited a long time to do these because I wanted to demonstrate the transition with a sense of place and history. Ultimately, I feel that women came to see themselves in a new way.
For example, Francisco Fascismo, 1936 builds upon layers of oils, sand and photos. The three striking black crosses represent Franco's use of the Catholic Church to enforce his morality and ideology. Above his face is the jeweled crown. Franco saw himself as an heir to the Catholic monarchy. I juxtaposed this image of Franco with photos from the Spanish Civil War. It shows where women stood in the new social order of 1936. Women stayed within this framework of society until 1975.
Traditional Changes is a satirical piece questioning women's role in society. No longer obligated to stay at home and raise children, women are here represented by typical feminine materials such as lace and mesh in lingerie juxtaposed with the cross because, for many women, their faith creates conflict. The old guilt about sexuality cannot be forgotten. How can a mother be sexy in this new society?
Female Images reveals old photos from the 1960s of workers and nuns as they clash with the Post-Franco liberated female. The lace represents the ideal of purity and tradition. The naked breast represents the topless Spanish women on the beach.
Spain 1936 contains newspaper, wax, old photos and movie stills that emphasize the role constructed by the public image of women. During Franco's rule, women were homemakers. Now, with democracy, women have a choice in their career and lifestyle. An example is the female police officer in the mid-right area from Alicante. The movie stills are from Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Here women are depicted as erratic and non-conformist, defying traditions and the law.
Today Spanish women possess prominent government jobs, businesses, and property. After these past three decades I still stop and talk to the neighborhood women. All of us take the same place on the beach year after year. The women I met in 1970 are grandmothers now and have changed for the better. Not only do they have a sense of self, but they have passed the attitude of the post-Franco period on to their children and grandchildren. Daughters are made to feel that their desires are just as important as those of their brothers and sons. I love the changes and now I finally fit right in. I listen to stories of their granddaughters, who now have their own apartments. They say, Diane, just like you, remember?
The transformation between 1970 and 2005 made it possible for women to discuss their dreams in the open and be themselves. There is tolerance for all lifestyles. The government reflects that desire and even acknowledges gay marriages. Franco must be turning over in his grave.
Spain has inspired and enriched my life for the past three decades. It's funny, but Spain is the place where I have always felt the most free. It liberates my soul to create and the environment and people have always given me that gift.
The journey to freedom was paved by women who survived the Spanish Civil War. The famous Spanish anarchist and intellectual, Federica Montseny ( 1905 - 1994) stated in her passionate speeches, As women and mothers, we have to carry out our human, individual and collective duty by fighting against oppression for freedom and justice Spain showed the world how their women achieved a sense of self to become anything they wanted. A song once sung by women imprisoned in Bilboa says it all, When I open the window at night I see the stars shine and my longing for freedom encourages and strengthens me.
Diane Leon is an artist, writer and Adjunct Associate Professor of Arts at New York University, SCPS, adult degree division. For further information, visit www.manhattanarts.com click on artist's profiles.