Manel Surroca, a life dedicated to art

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The testimony of an ARTIST

Exile in Paris

18. VII.1936

When the war started, I went to Paris because I considered that, politically, it was not interesting for me to confront or fight against my friends or brothers. I admit that it is no heroic act to leave without being in any of the two sides, but it was not at all advisable to serve one side or the other, as they were both dictator driven. They were fascism and communism and as I have already said: I was not interested in any of them!

And therefore, on a Sunday, maybe the 22 or 24 July, I went to say goodbye to my parents and my brother; I took only a painting notebook and with the excuse of going out to take some notes I managed to go through the first militia check point. The militia already knew me; they were at the exit of Camprodon. I was a bit scared because as you can imagine, I carried no luggage with me because they would no have left me go through...

I was wearing two t-shirts, two jumpers, a blazer, two trousers and a coat. So in fact, I was actually ‘wearing’ the suitcase!

Having gone through the checkpoint, I walked towards a narrow gorge of the mountain without stopping, going through impassable paths. In the early morning, I arrived at the French border; exactly at the small village of Fabert and from there I went to Prats de Mollo. I walked all this distance. When I arrived in Prats de Mollo I went to the French police, they registered me and I left for Perpignan on a bus.

A few days later, the police caught me and I was confined in a concentration camp in Montpellier. While I was locked there, the police came to ask if anyone could speak French. I could and they used me as interpreter to make the list of particulars of all those that had arrived that same day, over forty of us.

At the end, I had become friends with the police prefect and three days later he called me and said to me: “If you have any chance of leaving to Paris or any other place, do it tonight. Tomorrow it will be too late!”

The following day they would all be sent back to Spain, letting them choose on what side they wanted to be. Having heard the news, I took my few belongings and left Montpellier and travelled to Paris by train.

That is how my Parisian adventure, in exile, begins.

As I got off the train in Saint Germain I went to a relative’s house, sculptor Joaquim Claret, born in Camprodon, who with a warm welcome offered me to stay with him. I worked with him at his sculpture studio and that gave me the opportunity to stay involved with the world of art. I made several friends there from painters, sculptors, poets... to sportsmen! That is why I joined the Saint Germain team. I had always enjoyed playing football.

During my stay, the Paris International Exhibition was held and I had the chance to admire Picasso’s painting, the Guernica.

It was impressive! Let me tell you briefly about its location. The Spanish Pavilion or to say it more correctly, the pavilion of the Generalitat de Catalunya was the smallest and most insignificant of all at the exhibition but was one of the most visited. We must bear in mind that the only things left from the mentioned exhibition are: Picasso’s Guernica, Miró’s “La Ferme”, Calder’s “Fuente de Mercurio”, Julio González’s “La Montserrat” all of them in the small Spanish Pavilion.

The Guernica painting is a declaration of the tragedy suffered by the city as a consequence of the criminal German bombings that served as a test for the Second European war that was being prepared. When Picasso was given this order he got his inspiration from this heroic deed to condemn in a terrifying way the meaning of those criminal bombings that respected nothing! Neither women nor children...

His painting shows in a terrifying way the suffering, the fear, the horror represented by beasts in agony, expressed in pieces or in parts as if that was the precise instant in which the bombs had just exploded destroying an innocent and unprepared village, without any preparation or defence. Everything in it is agony, women, horses, children... they seem to be crying out what is happening to them. Picasso reflected all the feelings of the Spanish citizens that were left in the area not dominated by fascism. Picasso promised he would never go back while Franco continued to govern Spain. And he kept his word. Because he was asked many times to go back and he did not.

Also Pau Casals, considered the best “Cello” in the whole world, found himself in the same circumstances as Picasso, in exile, and not being able to return to his beloved Catalonia. That is why the concerts he gave every year in the Church of Saint Pierre in the little village of Prades, just on the other side of the Pyrenees, became so celebrated.

While I was in exile, in Paris, my parents and my brother were in the Republican area. They did not have to go to war, for being too old and too young respectively. If I had stayed, I would have had to go to war. I communicated and got news from them via ordinary mail. In my letters, I had to pretend I was a girl, I said I was my cousin. I studied Fine Arts at the studio of a friend of mine and some of us got together there to paint. In one of the sessions they took a picture of the group in which there was a girl so I pretended that was me, my cousin. I could send the picture home so they could see me and that made my family very happy.

It was during my stay in Paris when I really fulfilled my dream of being amongst well-known artists and I could take part at a collective exhibition with a small work. As the critics said, I was the youngest.

Names such as Maurice DENIS, André DERAIN, Maurice UTRILLO, Aristide MAILLOL... (One of the best sculptors in the world according to my uncle) and many others took part in this exhibition. You can imagine how excited I was. This exhibition was opened on 22 December 1938 and finished on 5 January 1939.

Apart from that and of attending the courses at “L’ Académie de la Grande Chaumière”, which was a very prestigious bohemian den at that time in Paris, I met there many people even a head policeman. Something that turned out to be quite useful … and I will now tell you why.

I played football with Paris Saint Germain and as I did not have much money, a member of the team told me one day: “You dance so well, why don’t you go to this academy and you can earn some good money...”. And so I did. I went that same afternoon and they took me on. They told me: “You start tonight”. They dressed me up in a dinner jacket and told me: “when a lady or young lady asks you to dance, she will give you a ticket for each dance. For every ticket you will get a commission”. In other words, I was a sort of Gigolo.

For better or worse it only lasted one night because the police arrived when we had only started and arrested all of us. And that is why I was lucky to have met the Paris head policeman, Monsieur d’ Orner. When he saw me he asked what I was doing there. I told him I had only started my new job ten minutes earlier and that I was already arrested. Then he said: Go! Go! Go away! Go home, this is not for you ... and if you don’t go I will have to arrest you"

I was very lucky! ... but this is just one of the many stories of my exile in Paris. There are more.

One day I got to know that at an old nobility mansion, they were looking for a gardener. And I applied for the job. Two affable old ladies lived in that house, they soon found me very pleasant and we established a good friendship. They told me what I had to do, which consisted in cutting the weeds of the paths in the garden. My little experience in this field was soon obvious because after six metres I had already sunk the path by one metre. They saw that and said I had very little experience as gardener, but still a good friendship remained. In the meantime, I told them the reason why I was there, art. And they showed me the whole mansion; it was a superb house with stables still with carriages of ancient times, rooms with marvellous drawings and paintings, among which there were some "Delacroix" line drawings. When they saw my enthusiasm they wanted to give me one. They were quite a big format. I did not accept. I could not take advantage of those real ladies that were so good to me.

One evening, at the beginning of 1939, I was listening to the news on the radio and I had the greatest shock of my life. The report said that Camprodon had been bombed and I thought my parents must have died as they lived in the city centre. Thank goodness it wasn’t that way and whether by mistake or not, the bombs were dropped at a nearby village, Sant Pau de Seguries. The reason for this bombing was that most of the Government - of what was known as the Republic - dwelled in Camprodon. One of them, president Doctor Negrín.

While I was still in Paris, the retreat of the army was announced. It happened in mid February, in winter, after many cities were conquered by the rebel army.

The end of the War was getting closer. Following the fall of Catalonia the Republican government, with Negrin as President, moved to the central area, which they still controlled.

Citizens that has outstood in the Republican side were going to exile, most of them on foot. Poor people, they were misled! (they thought the road to the border went to Prats de Mollo, but it was no true).

They fooled everyone, telling them the road form Camprodon led to Prats de Mollo, that works were completed and that they could drive well. They were lying! You could only get to Mollo via a regional road. They had to walk a lot in the cold and with snow to be able to reach the border. The procession of people walking through the streets of the village without a clear destination lasted several days.

On those mountains, when the road was cut cars could not continue and plunged to ravines and all the area was packed with cars. Once the war was over, a great business resulted from these cars. A sort of mafia group known as “los de la recuperación” was created and their work consisted in taking all the usable pieces from those cars. And that is what was needed in Barcelona and at all vehicle repair shops in order to do repairs, as it was impossible to import any pieces due to the blockade from other nations.

Most people, afraid of the reprisals from Franco’s regime, fled frightened to the French border (as I said before), the only place those who had been in the war or had taken sides in one way or another could escape to. Those who had reached “Coll d 'Ares (border area) were detained by the French army, disarmed and locked in concentration camps established in the beaches of Arles, Ceret and other places. They all lived in open air, that is to say, with no shelter whatsoever and it was hell for them.

When the end of the war was announced (1 April 1939) my parents went to take shelter on the mountain and when they saw nothing was happening, they went back home. They were artisan shoemakers and produced made to fit shoes.

A few days after the war was over and the refugees had gone through heading to France and with a previous warning I sent, my mother came to find me on foot through the mountains; she came alone as my father would not have been allowed to get out of the country to Prats de Mollo. I travelled by train from Paris to Prats where we met with great enthusiasm! And then, with the suitcases on my back and following again the way my mother had followed through the mountains, we arrived home in Camprodon.

I had a brother and that night neither of us slept and talked about all the things that had happened to both … it was a night of confidences.

Among the many curiosities I got to know that night, one was that during the Republican regime, all the names of villages starting with “Santo” such as Sant Joan, Santa Maria were changed because there was no sense of religion. They burnt churches, there were no masses and funerals and weddings were secular.

One of the changes was very shocking: "Sant Josep de la montaña" (Saint Joseph of the mountain) was changed to a surprising "Pepe el Alpinista" (Pepe, the mountain climber), "Sant Andreu" (Saint Andrew) was changed to "La armonía del Palomar" (The dovecot harmony) and many others ...

A few months after the war was over, I started the military service. I had to be some months in La Coruña but after that all Catalans were sent to locations to carry out office work as quarters were in need of this kind of staff. I was then sent to Leon where I immediately started to work as clerk at the company’s office.

I was a member of the military football team and from there I joined the second division Cultural Leonesa football team.

Unfortunately that was the beginning of a very tough period, a time of suffering …... the post-war period.

As Franco was not too well considered by foreign nations, Spain was isolated and therefore the country experienced the lack of all kind of products and that is the reason why the rationing started. Everything, absolutely everything was rationed. Bread and all sort of basic food, tobacco... People then started working in what was known as "The black market".

There was need for everything and that is why there were people who earned a leaving running across the mountains, trying to find food they could buy (potatoes, cattle, vegetables and even flour) at the farms or country houses. They then took it hidden to the city and sold it there at abusive prices to those who could afford it and thought they were fortunate to be able to pay for it, as hunger spread in many houses. Even the poorest went looking around the dustbins for potato skins or anything eatable.

Those were very bad times. There was no petrol, as it was not imported from anywhere. Cars were equipped with machines in the boot called "gasometers" that worked with wood. With the resulting combustion and steam they managed to start the engines. But it was always a difficult matter.

There was no cotton either and that affected manufacturers badly and in consequence factory workers. The price of clothes increased a lot and there was not much variety to choose from or buy.

Then the 2nd World War started and the fear that Spain would participate in the conflict was very evident. But it did not happen, although it seemed most probable that we would have to face this misfortune.

A volunteer division known as the "división Azul" (Blue division) was created to join the German fight against Russia. Some said it was not voluntary at all!! I was doing the military service, as I mentioned before, and we were asked if we wanted to go voluntarily but no one wanted to go. "Three men" from my regiment enrolled. I am not aware that anyone else joined and I can say so because I was the one who made the list. Soldiers got food and there were little complaints. And l had less reason to complain because being part of the Regiment football team -as I said before- and because we were sportsmen and had to be fit, we were very well fed. And separated from the troops! We were overfed. That is how I finished the military service, playing football and as the company’s clerk. So, for me, it was not a trauma like for many others. For me it was just a waste of time.

Once that was over I could start working at the studio of "Frederic Mares", after finishing only one course of the School of Fine Arts, where Frederic Mares was the manager and teacher.

That was the starting point of my career, nevertheless it was in sculpture and not in painting, which is how I have finished it for the reason I explained before. My brother was a good painter and I changed to sculpture which I did not dislike. I was at Mares’ studio for a few years. One of the works I carried out was the moulding of General Prim’s equestrian sculpture, located at present at the Ciutadella Park in Barcelona. In this time interval I prepared a painting exhibition for my brother. Nevertheless and all of a sudden he became very sick and died in little time. He was 25. He could not see his dream of having an exhibition in Barcelona accomplished. I did one with my paintings in his honour.

Mr Mares came looking for me in Camprodon because he did not want me to stay there. I went back to Barcelona and Mr Mares wanted me to present some drawings at a contest organised by the Real Círculo Artístico. I did so and I was lucky to win the first prize. I won 3,000 pesetas, a lot of money at that time!

I spent all the money on paint, easel, canvas and colours. Once I had all this I went to tell Mr Mares that I was leaving the studio; I wanted to make an exhibition and I had already rented the exhibition room. And it would be a painting exhibition. He said he had always wondered if I were more of a painter rather than a sculptor and encouraged me to do so. I did not have a single painting. I went to Camprodon and began to paint like a mad man. I had quite a bad time, because what I had in mind and the final results were quite different. I finally managed to do it and in February 1949 I inaugurated my first exhibition at Sala Rovira, alone; and I was presented by famous painter and critic Josep Maria de Sucre.

“The testimony of an artist”

Meritxell Vilar