March 3, 2021

SIM, the face of the Republic

The artistic defense of the Second Republic in the skin of the Spanish Civil War crystallized in a legacy of expressionist watercolors with thick lines in black and white under the enigmatic initials of SIM, pseudonym of the artist José Luis Rey Vila (Cádiz, 1900-Paris, 1983) between the years 1936 and 1937, in which he became one of the most prominent and relevant artists in the period of the war.

After decades in the shadows beyond the borders of the art market, the Juan Negrín Foundation opens its doors to the first retrospective exhibition in Spain on the life and work of the Cadiz cartoonist, nicknamed as “the face of the Republic” by part from the Berlin collector based in Gran Canaria, Johannes Peter, to whom this valuable list of 120 testimonial pieces belongs, which includes drawings, lithographs, prints, posters, covers, publications and newspaper clippings.

The exhibition is divided into three different phases in Cádiz, Barcelona and occupied Paris


This historical-artistic exhibition constitutes an absolutely unprecedented exhibition project in Spain, which has only seen the light for three days in Saarbrücken (Germany) last September 2020, but whose release at the Gran Canaria institution is postponed until the situation prospers epidemiological.

An illustration by Rey Vila, signed by Sim, from 1937. | | LP / DLP

However, the collector already undertakes the exhibition assembly in one of its rooms, where he divides his itinerary into three different stages: the biographical context of Rey Vila from 1900 to 1929, from his early years in Cádiz to the publication of his first drawings, at the age of 18, in homage to the soldiers of the First World War (for which he inaugurates the thematic axis on which his entire creative career would pivot); his establishment in Barcelona between 1928 and 1937, consolidating himself as the first great artist in defense of the republican cause; and finally, his first stage in exile in Paris, from 1940 to 1944, an exceptional witness to the German occupation and liberation of the city by the Allies.

Johannes Peter’s immersion in the Rey Vila archive, alias SIM, started four years ago in the framework of an investigation into art in the Spanish Civil War. “In this context I discover SIM, who remains in the shadow of Picasso, but who became the true republican face of the Civil War until the end of 1937, when the international anticipation of Guernica in the Pavilion of the Republic of the Exhibition Universal, in Paris, where both artists coincide, would be established as the international claim in favor of the Republic and cause of the revolution ”, he points out.

Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ took over in Paris as an international claim


But the truth is that, since the coup d’état of July 18, 1936 surprised the artist in Barcelona, ​​where he lived and worked as an illustrator, Rey Vila took to the streets to draw the atmospheres, bodies and scenes in the heart of the city, where he sketched the folders of drawings Estampas de la Revolución Española. July 19, 1936, spiral bound in three languages ​​to promote the defense of the Republic abroad; and later the 12 stamps of the war.

The folder of drawings ’12 scenes of war ‘, signed by Sim. | | LP / DLP

Member of the Union of Professional Cartoonists of UGT, the international success of the first prints, published by the CNT-FAI union in the Graphos Workshops, translates into the second commission by UGT. In both folders, the cartoonist camouflages his identity under the SIM signature in India ink, which Johannes Peter attributes to the abbreviation of Simone, by the writer and leftist activist Simone Weil, whom Rey Vila met and photographed in Paris. To this collection are added numerous posters, postcards, drawings and illustrations for important progressive newspapers, which cover republican articles such as, among others, a piece dedicated to Federico García Lorca in the magazine Nova Iberia.

After his exile in Paris, Rey Vila did not return to Spain, but took up his real name to sketch, not without risks and with reminiscences of his years in Barcelona, ​​the occupation and liberation of Paris as an artist and refugee. Entire columns of Gestapo soldiers and vehicles parade in this series, but it culminates in the artistic celebration of liberation in 1944.

Release postponed

The Juan Negrín Foundation today commemorates the 129th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Juan Negrín López -which occurred on February 3, 1892 in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria-, for which it had planned the opening of the SIM retrospective exhibition. The face of war, about the life and work of the cartoonist José Luis Rey Vila, who put a face to the Second Republic. However, the sanitary restrictions imposed due to the pandemic force the Gran Canaria institution to postpone its inauguration until the health situation allows it. For his part, the German collector Johannes Peter, based in Gran Canaria, owner of the Rey Vila archive, advanced yesterday in the assembly process of the exhibition that “this is a very important exhibition for Gran Canaria and, in general, for Spain ”. “The work of SIM is less well known, but it continues to be reproduced to this day and has a very important historical significance, also linked to the career of Juan Negrín”, he explained. The exhibition will see the light for the first time in Spain at the Juan Negrín Foundation, although Johannes Peter reveals that he has already made contact with the embassies of Madrid, Barcelona and Cádiz, as well as with Paris, to promote it on a large international tour. | NN


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