Melodrama, Kitsch And Excess: The Art Of The Movida Madrileña

© finsterfeld/YouTube
© finsterfeld/YouTube
Following the death of Franco in 1975, the repressive dictatorship gave way to a spirit of collective hedonism. Pornography was available from kiosks and cinemas, and ‘snogging bars’ popped up, where people could engage in activity forbidden in their parents’ front room and inadvisable on a park bench. It was a far cry from the days when kissing your lover on the street could get you the attention of a policeman. This political awakening coincided with an economic boom, meaning that, amongst other things, these newly liberated youngsters could go out from dusk till dawn, and a blossoming of artistic creativity was fueled by drugs and alcohol. This hedonism was a straightforward rejection of the conservatism and conformism of the Franco years.

The movida madrileña, as it became known, is the youthful expression of fun for a generation throwing off the shackles of fascism. The word movida carries connotations of commotion, uproar, fun, something problematic, and something lively or unexpected. If this definition seems like it carries a few contradictions, don’t worry, as they only add to its accuracy. The political freedoms that seemed to have been won following the death of Franco looked, for one afternoon in February 1981, increasingly precarious as Colonel Tejero strode into the parliament and fired into the air shouting ‘get on the floor, sit the fuck down’ in an attempted coup.

Though it might seem paradoxical, Tejero exhibits exactly the same kind of melodrama, kitsch and excess that can be found in the films of the movida’s standout figure, Pedro Almodóvar. The manic extravagance, an unhinged character slightly out of touch with reality makes him seem like he would fit in perfectly with the personalities that populate Almodóvar’s technicolor universe.

Pedro Almodóvar

In Almodóvar’s early films, transvestite fathers express firm moral principles, prostitutes are pious, and the most impossibly complex characters, a deviant masochist lesbian rock star with a secret desire to sing boleros, are capable of the most menial conversation: ‘I personally am from Murcia, and you?’ In doing so, he demonstrates that the old cliché of the two Spains – one conservative, rural and the other liberal and metropolitan – cohabit within the same people, often, that it must be admitted, to great (tragi)comic effect.

To say that Franco’s dictatorship made the Madrid scene backward, meaning that the sexual freedom of swinging ’60s London and the political tumult of the soixante-huitards simply arrived a decade later in Spain, is perhaps an easy one to make. Yet stylistically, la movida owed much more to London’s post-punk scene. Almodóvar’s aesthetic is an irresistible mix of high camp and religious iconography, a gloriously colorful antidote to the drab grey Franco years.

Like a Sunday-schooled Sid and Nancy, like Vivienne Westwood drunk at a holy week procession, rather than completely throw out their conservative heritage, the young artists decided to simply strip these icons of all their meaning. In many senses, they are a perfect artistic follow up to the twee postcards of the ’60s when Spain tried to promote itself as a tourist destination and managed to strip its monuments of much of their human content in the process.

Many of the other figures of the movida are overlooked in favor of Almodóvar, perhaps out of a conviction that only film could capture the velocity of the whole movement. However, there is a kind of kaleidoscopic vertigo encapsulated by the movida that a feature film, hemmed in by the usual constraints of plot and coherence, fails to convey. Pedro had many contemporaries in the plastic arts, often friends and collaborators, whose work tells us just as much about Madrid of the time.


Ceesepe produced several posters for Almodóvar’s early films, garish jerky affairs, with lashings of sex, where the viewer feels like they might fall into the picture, or the figures might fall out.

His work El Beso (The Kiss) is a short of paintings and drawings recorded on film with a slight animation effect. Watching it feels like reading a comic on video, the intensity of ‘bam!’ and ‘kapow!’ replaced by the forceful transitions from drawing to drawing, the appearance and disappearance of characters. It begins with an exaltation of the kiss, first innocent and romantic, before taking a turn for the sordid.

The author scopes out the lovers in a vibrant cityscape, only to give up and take us to a bar. We see a closeup of a woman playing a saxophone in a way that can only be described as suggestive. All the usual suspects are there, the ladies man enthusiastically drinking beer, a woman in a slinky red number hangs, or falls, off the arm of her overweight companion, a dark-eyed femme fatale stares blankly into space, nursing her beverage of choice, cigarette jutting sideways out of her hand. Women transform into horned beasts. A whole series of faces flash before our eyes only to disappear seconds later.

The bar scene in El Rivera continues, maintaining a tone that is somewhere between a Bacchanalian orgy and Dante’s Inferno, with a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. Naturally, things take a turn for the surreal, and a wave of murders means that the surviving patrons must leave the bar in order to dance in the street. The visual cues here move from the decadence of Weimar Germany to 50’s America, tattooed vamps and slicked back hair, through harlequins and painters. Bar interiors, cars and cityscapes whirl past like blurred memories of a big night out.

These days, you can end up following the transitory creatures of a drunken evening on social media, and any allure they might have had initially will be later dispelled by their mundane posting. In Ceesepe’s time, however, these characters disappeared back into the anonymity from which they emerged, a night out was a whirl of faces, never to be seen again, onto which the wildest of fantasies could be projected.

Las Costus

Las Costus, the moniker of artistic and romantic partnership Enrique Naya and Juan Carrero, whose tireless dedication to painting led them to take their name from the seamstresses whose work ethic they emulated. Their house provided the backdrop to Almodóvar’s first feature length film, Pepi Luci Bom…, and their aesthetic was very much at home with the movida philosophy.

For their series Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), which takes its name from Franco’s colossal tomb, built with the labor of Republican prisoners, they took the Spanish tradition of religious painting and replaced the customary virgins and saints with the famous artists, painters, directors, musicians and general personalities of swinging Madrid. Enrique paints the figures in all the sinewy realism we would expect for a Baroque saint, while Juan creates backgrounds in all their fluorescent glory. They might seem decadent, frivolous maybe, but following 40 odd years of austere dictatorship, decadence was a powerful political statement.

The good times couldn’t last forever, and AIDS and drugs took many of the young people driving the movida. The vertigo present in many key works seems testament to the fact that there was a feeling that such pace could not be sustained. Without a doubt, the kind of expressionist realism present in Spanish art of the Baroque masters, not necessarily contradicted by Picasso, Dalí or Miró, a preoccupation with existential conditions, the terrible, the fantastic and the surreal, is a driving force behind the art of the movida. Above all, the melodrama associated with bearing the contradiction of the two Spains is like a kind of unsolvable dichotomy.