Rafael Alberti

Member of the 'Generation of 27' who moved on from painting to reinvigorate Spanish poetry

With the death of Rafael Alberti at the age of 96, Spain has lost the last representative of the outstanding poets of the "Generation of 27", who renewed the spirit and forms of Spanish poetry, and included such figures as Federico Garcia Lorca, the Nobel laureate Vicente Aleixandre and Luis Cernuda.

Rafael Alberti was born in the Andalucian port of Puerto de Santa Maria near Cadiz. He has written movingly of the town and the Andalucian traditions in which his childhood was steeped in his autobiography, La Arboleda Perdida (The Lost Grove). The bright sunlight, the ever-present ocean, and the proud southern Spanish spirit were to leave indelible marks on his life and work - as did the revulsion he felt for the religious schooling he was forced to endure.

His family, involved in the sherry industry for several generations, moved to Madrid in 1917. At first, Alberti was more attracted to the idea of a career as a painter, and spent a great deal of time studying and copying old masters in the Prado. In the early 20s however, he decided to abandon painting and to devote himself to poetry. He met with success almost immediately, winning Spain's national literature prize in 1925 for his first collection, Marinero en Tierra (Sailor On Land). His early work varied from simple songs influenced by the Andalucian and Spanish romance tradition, to more complex modernist imagery that he drew from the cinema and daily life in Spain. One poem from this period is in praise of a famous football goalkeeper; another is a homage to Laurel and Hardy.

In 1927 a number of Spanish poets came together in Seville to celebrate the third centenary of the death of the poet Luis de Gongora, whom they saw as being unfairly neglected and whose name they championed as a means of declaring their own creative freedom. This group quickly became known as the Generation of 27; outstanding among them were Alberti and Garcia Lorca, who were hailed as bringing a new musicality and lightness to Spanish verse, which made their public recitals as popular as their written work. But another of Alberti's collections from this time, Sobre los Angeles (Concerning the Angels) showed that his work had a commitment to deeper, more complex emotions as well.

With the declaration of the second Spanish republic in 1931, the political atmosphere in Spain darkened. Like Garcia Lorca, Alberti was a committed republican. He joined the Communist party, started the revolutionary magazine Octubre, and his poetry became more explicitly social in tone. After Franco's uprising in 1936, Alberti, with his first wife Maria Teresa, became one of the leading figures in the Alianza de Intelectuales Antifascistas (Alliance of Antifascist Intellectuals). Together with Pablo Picasso he organised the protection of the art works in the Prado and other Madrid museums. He finally left Spain for exile in France in 1939.

When France fell to the Germans, Alberti set sail for Argentina, where he was to live for the next 24 years. His collections, which include notably Entre el clavel y la espada (Between Carnation and Sword) show him still obsessed with his native land and the trauma of the civil war and its aftermath. As a release from these emotions, Alberti returned to painting, producing simple, glowing forms that celebrated life and freedom.

In the mid-60s, Alberti and his family moved to Rome. He was still the official poet of the Spanish Communist party, producing mellifluous occasional verse as well as love poems.

It was only in 1977, a year after Franco's death and 38 years after leaving, that Alberti set foot on Spanish soil again. "I left with my fist closed and return with my hand open as a symbol of peace and brotherhood among all Spaniards," he said. Soon afterwards, he was elected to the first post-Franco parliament as the member for Cadiz, but gave way to a younger person after only four months.

In recent years, he continued to give public recitals of his work, often touring with the actress and director Nuria Espert. He won the Cervantes prize in 1983. At his death though, it was his early poems which still held the greatest appeal for younger generations of Spaniards, thanks to their inventiveness and emotional intensity.

His second wife, Maria Asunción Mateos, was at his side when he died. He is also survived by his Argentine-born daughter Aitana, who lives in Cuba and was named after the boat that had taken her father into exile.

• Rafael Alberti, Spanish poet and painter, born December 16 1902; died October 28 1999

Nick Caistor

The GuardianTramp

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