Aesthetic Emotion, 1927
YO (self-portrait), c. 1932
Untitled (burning Falla fesitvity), c. 1932
Portrait (man with glasses), c. 1932
Untitled (Cut paper silhouette collage), c. 1929
Still Life with Dog, 1932
Vicente Martínez Sanz began working actively as a photographer in 1905 and, thus, counts among one of the very earliest Pictorialist photographers in Spain. After his wife’s tragic early death in 1911, he established a photographic studio in the attic of his new home and devoted himself fully to photography. Photography was in its infancy and, while Sanz imported expensive equipment, he also used his experience in his father’s glass and crystal factory to devise his own methods of preparing and processing glass negatives. Sanz has the distinction of being the first photographer in Spain to work in color, using grains of starch imbued with primary colors.
Like many Pictorialist photographers Sanz was trained as a painter. He had a comfortable upbringing which, in Spain at the time, would have made a degree in law a natural pursuit—Sanz chose to study fine art. Sanz was trained by the Spanish painter Joaquín Agrasot y Juan, and remained lifelong friends with the painters he worked alongside. Agrasot painted in the Costumbrismo tradition—depicting Hispanic scenes of everyday life, mannerisms, and customs—and Sanz largely carried these approaches over to his embrace of photography. Sanz focused heavily on portraiture, often dressing his sitters in traditional Spanish costumes.
Spain’s artistic culture remained somewhat insular during the early 20th century, much of the country had been impoverished due to a lack of trade during WWI and the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic was followed by a decade of dictatorship under Miguel Primo de Rivera. In photography, this relative cultural isolation translated to Pictorialism remaining the dominant mode of art photography in the 1920’s. Sanz resided in Spain his entire life but he actively participated in international photo salons where he regularly won recognition. These circumstances are reflected in Sanz’s work, where the traditions of Spanish Pictorial photography are gradually blended in with more modernist influences that weren’t yet broadly embraced in Spain.
Sanz’s portrait photography from 1932 shows the clear influence of the concurrent activities of the Surrealists. Sanz’s experiments with photomontage, as well as creative use of cast shadows, lends his portrait work in the period added psychological depth and directly parallels the Surrealist’s depictions of dreams and the subconscious. Sanz’s surrealist portraits show a particularly strong resemblance to those being made at the same time by Maurice Tabard who, along with Man Ray, pioneered Surrealism in photography during the period. Sanz’s work in this style received recognition from the 14th Annual Competition of American Photography, which awarded his 1932 surrealist photomontage Vision a Commendation. The Spanish press had spread border awareness of the Surrealists in 1928 when they fanned the flames of a scandal that had arisen when a painting by Dali was rejected by the Barcelona Autumn Salon. While the Surrealist movement was centered in Paris, the direct involvement of Spanish artists such as Picasso, Miro, Dali, and Buñuel meant that there were strong Spanish ties to the movement.
Like his countrymen Piscasso, Miro and Dali, Sanz was deeply traumatized by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. With the end of the war in 1939, and the rise of Franco’s dictatorship, Sanz retired from photography and withdrew from a society he felt he no longer recognized. Even then he was embraced as a pioneering figure in Spanish photography, the Valencia Photo Club made him its president, holding a collective exhibition which showed his work alongside that of other Valencian artists.
Because Spanish photography developed to some degree along its own trajectory, photographers like Vicente Martínez Sanz have been omitted from most official histories. As such, Sanz’s pioneering works are well suited for Laurence Miller Gallery’s ongoing exploration of neglected Pre-War photographers.