When Spain’s repressive dictatorship finally came to a close with the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, the counterculture that had been bubbling away for years elsewhere in Europe arrived with a bang.
“After years of repression there was an immense desire to do things; people were desperate to express themselves,” said Pepe Ribas, the curator of Underground, an exhibition that celebrates the intense but brief flowering of counter-culture of 1970s Barcelona.
The exhibition at the Palau Robert brings together about 700 artefacts ranging from books, magazines and theatre bills to concert posters for Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones, as well as some black and white footage of music festivals.
The floor of the exhibition is papered with reproductions of front pages from the era covering events such as Nixon’s impeachment, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s wedding.
Ribas said it was not just a matter of embracing sex and drugs, and rock’n’roll, but an entire counter-cultural movement that stretched back to Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Poets of the 1950s and beyond.
“We wanted to recover all the libertarian movements – feminism, naturism, homosexuality, communes, cooperatives – all of which flourished in Catalonia between 1910-30,” said Ribas, who in 1974 founded the magazine Ajoblanco, which for many years was in effect the house journal of Spanish counterculture.
“We took to the streets because we wanted to change the way we live and the way we think. We wanted to have sex, make different music and read everything from American counterculture that we could get our hands on.”
Ribas said that for a while Barcelona enjoyed more freedom than Madrid because it was something of a backwater then, marginal to the political process and a place where fewer people were dependent on the state for their livelihood.
“For a while, there was a particular freedom in Barcelona because the Franco regime focused its repression on political parties and less on people who wanted to change the way they live,” he said.
“It was a time of incredible creativity, without any imposed norms, lived at the margin of parties and institutions. The inconsistencies of the declining Franco regime, with persecution concentrated on Marxist and pro-independence political parties, added to the geographical distance of Barcelona from the centres of power. All this made it possible to open cracks which restless young people could sneak through and connect with the countercultural movements in other countries.”
The exhibition recalls the iconoclasm and sheer joy of the time, as well as the sense that, after years of isolation, Spain was rejoining the world. Radical theatre groups sprang up, there were feminist meetings, subversive magazines and comics appeared, the Stones performed at Barcelona’s Monumental bullring, King Crimson was up the road in Badalona.
However, this golden age was brief as optimism gave way to disillusionment, a change Ribas said was exemplified by a shift in drug culture, from LSD to the nihilism of heroin. By the early 1980s, Spain was in the grip of a heroin epidemic.
“At the end of 1978 disenchantment set in, partly because it became clear that, while you could transform your daily life, you couldn’t change the institutions once the politicians had made a pact with the franquistas over the transition to democracy. We went from thinking about us to thinking about me.”
Ribas said he was astonished to discover, while preparing the exhibition, that thousands of his contemporaries had abandoned the cities at the end of the 1970s “to be village schoolteachers and doctors and to live an alternative way of life in small villages in Menorca, the Pyrenees and in Las Alpujarras in Andalucia. I was amazed how many people from that era had managed to go on living in accordance with their principles.”
The struggle for change was not in vain. Spain has undergone astonishing changes in the past 50 years, from being a confessional state to a secular one, from being a byword for sexual repression to becoming one of the first European countries to legalise same-sex marriage.
The seeds of all this change, Ribas said, were sown sometime in the mid-1970s, in a handful of streets off La Rambla in Barcelona.
Underground is at the Palau Robert until 28 November. Admission free.