When Rene de Costa introduced Joan Brossa and Nicanor Parra to each other at a reception in Madrid, he expected something to happen. An embrace, an argument, some name calling, maybe some flattery. Something. De Costa, a professor of Romance languages and literature at the University of Chicago, and his colleague Sonia Mattalia were hosting a party to launch an exhibition of the two men’s work. This was the first time Brossa, who’s from Barcelona, and Parra, who’s from Santiago, Chile, had been together in a show, but de Costa, who had long studied them, could not imagine them apart. Indeed the similarity between their works was startling; something like the coincidences in the lives of identical twins separated at birth, the ones who both become engineers and marry people with the same name.
Brossa and Parra are both poets as well as artists. They both work in styles distinctly different from those of their local peers. And though they had never met and had never laid eyes on each other’s creations, they produced bodies of work that are remarkably similar, in some cases interchangeable. Yet de Costa says that when these two wonderfully funny and challenging artists finally met, nothing much occurred beyond polite handshakes and “How do you dos.” If anything the two men avoided each other, fearful perhaps that someone might think they were collaborating.
Their exhibition, which recently arrived at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum, is both intellectually challenging and rewarding. Their pieces have a cleverness that rewards the viewer’s own. Puzzling through them is something like decoding puns sent over a cryptograph. There’s the thrill of the mental chase, which ends in the wonderful reward of being let in on the joke.
As de Costa and Mattalia point out in the show’s catalog, Brossa and Parra began as poets in the 1940s, a time when the 20th century’s avant-garde literature had developed patterns, much as traditional literature had. Both had turned to works that combined wordplay with sight gags–Brossa called his “visual poems” and Parra called his “object poems.” They took found objects and combined them with ready-made text, such as copy from a tourist’s postcard or an advertisement, playing the visual off the textual. The results have so many layers of meaning that one never quite knows when to stop contemplating a given work and move on to the next. Too quick a shift and the most profound philosophical point or the best joke might be lost.
Brossa’s and Parra’s approach seems to lend itself particularly well to certain themes. Each has returned repeatedly over his long career to the same territory. De Costa and Mattalia list the themes: “the upheaval of ideologies, the transitory quality of consumer society, the ineffable quality of individual association in daily reality.”
The humor in their work, though visual and verbal, transcends their respective languages. Brossa’s Sense atzar is a deck of cards secured in a pile by a padlock. Its translated title is “No Chance.” An elegantly simple piece, two maple leaves joined by a paper clip, is called Burocracia, playing on the Catalan and English pun about leaves of paper. Parra’s sculpture of a tomato with a nail driven through it is called Naturaleza muerta (“Still Life”). In one of the coincidences that must have unsettled them, Brossa and Parra each outlined on paper the physical shape of a sonnet but left the paper free of text–jabbing at the traditional constrictions of poetic rhetoric. Parra entitled his Visual Sonnet, while Brossa called his Sonnet. Parra told de Costa he felt Brossa had the better title. It was not as verbose.
Both artists worked in periods of political repression. The majority of Parra’s pieces in the show were done while Pinochet ruled Chile, most of Brossa’s while Franco ran Spain. Franco had outlawed the use of the Catalan language, and Brossa found an outlet in the visual arts. He was supported for much of his career by Joan Miro, who helped him financially and shielded him from persecution. Both artists strove to condemn authoritarianism with art and poetry that would outsmart the censors–not with hidden messages, but by exploiting cliches used by their governments. Parra and his fellow Chileans grew accustomed to Pinochet’s frequent refrain “mission accomplished,” which the dictator declared every time he discussed a government initiative to address a national problem. His speeches were filled with statistics and pronouncements that had little bearing on daily experience. Parra knocks this tendency in a piece called Mission Accomplished, in which he makes a fictitious tally of trees planted, children born, and other items of state interest. But the individual sums are lumped together, and like state propaganda they don’t add up.
Brossa and Parra also used ready-made text to point out the absurdity of their countries’ regimes. Brossa made a metered poem out of a letter from the Spanish ministry of information telling him his work had been censored. Parra took a similar course by quoting from an evangelical preacher who had tacit government support. The poem, taken verbatim from a sermon, reads: ” . . . To be Frank . . . / there is only one / who is completely above suspicion / you know who I’m talking about / a lie / no matter how big / coming from Him / is the Sacred Word. / Woe to whomever thinks the contrary! / For he shall be executed on the spot / provided he hasn’t already been executed!” Chilean readers didn’t have to strain to come up with who besides Christ fit the preacher’s description.
Not all the pieces in the exhibition work without some knowledge of the artists’ native languages. Even translations won’t help. A small marble egg placed by Parra on a slab of polished black stone is entitled Descubrimiento de America (“Discovery of America”). It’s a pun on the Spanish expression “the egg of Columbus,” which means something like “piece de resistance” but is also a comment on the meager spirit behind colonialism. Yet sometimes a smattering of Romance languages or a willingness to learn on the spot is enough.
In another coincidence that might have ruffled the artists, the exhibition offers almost identical jokes that play on the name of Karl Marx and mar, the Spanish and Catalan word for “sea.” Brossa took a volume of Marx and renamed it Oda a Marx (“Ode to the Sea”), and Parra labeled another volume Los rollos del Mar(x) (“The Dead Sea Scrolls”), both playing on the moribund dreams of communism, both reaching for powerful ideas through visual and linguistic wit.
Visual Poetry: Brossa/Parra is on view through December 13 at the Smart Museum, 5550 S. Greenwood. The hours are 10 to 4 Tuesday through Friday and noon to 6 Saturday and Sunday; admission is free. Call 702-0200.