The story of Dau al Set is as unlikely and magical as its very name. Dau al Set refers to a six-faced die falling on the number seven, a happening as improbable as six young people, barely in their twenties, coming together in Barcelona to create an artistic and philosophical movement that represented a window to freedom at the peak of Francoism, when not even a decade has passed since the end of the bloody Spanish Civil War.
In the late forties, Europe was beginning to rebuild itself after the Second World War. Many countries were setting off on the road to consolidating their fledgling democracies and the world was polarised between the capitalist and communist systems. Pollock was splashing paint onto canvases he named with just numbers, Giacometti was creating his stylised figures, Dalí’s elephants and formalist juggling were forging their way with surrealism in decline, and the Biennale di Venezia was bringing North American abstract expressionism to Europe. Meanwhile, Barcelona was under the hold of the Francoist dictatorship, and the city’s avant-garde artists either went into exile or stopped producing art in this conservative, fearful society.
Dau al Set was born in this grey Barcelona in September 1948. The movement was made up of Antoni Tàpies (1923–2012), Modest Cuixart (1925–2007), Joan Ponç, (1927–1984), Joan Josep Tharrats (1918–2001), poet Joan Brossa (1919–1998) and philosopher Arnau Puig (1926–2020), the last surviving member of Dau al Set, a living piece of history and an intense, lovable character who left us in March 2020, at the height of the coronavirus crisis. Later, Juan Eduardo Cirlot would join them as a collaborator (1916–1973).
These six young people, of very different philosophies and aesthetics, had met two years previously through a short-lived yet significant review called Algol (named after a star discovered by Arab astronomers who nicknamed it the Demon Star, because it appears and disappears constantly).
After the first few issues, the contents of the Dau al Set publications went far beyond the social reality in which its creators lived: it included texts by Arnau Puig with reflections on the future of humanity, sonnets by Brossa in the form of visual poetry, pen paintings from the oneiric world of Joan Ponç, and illustrations by the still-formalist Tàpies.
Dau al Set put out scientific and philosophical articles mainly in Catalan, despite the ban on publishing in the language in place during the Francoist dictatorship. Dau al Set’s references revolved around surrealism, Dadaism, psychoanalysis, Dalí and Miró – especially the latter, who maintained a more honourable position in the post-war period – Magritte, Francis Picabia, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Sartre and existentialism. Dau al Set focused on the latest trends arriving from Paris, while incorporating an attentive local perspective, publishing texts on Gaudí and Catalan Romanesque art.
All issues of the review shared a burlesque, sardonic, sometimes cryptic view of the world, building an intellectual refuge that shunned constraints and dodged all moral prejudice in a time of darkness.
Although, at first, its followers were few, Dau al Set stirred up a lot of interest in artistic circles. Intellectuals of a prior generation, like Josep Vicenç Foix, contributed to the review and helped its young creators to access international scenes, so that bit by bit, the group’s influence broadened.
The last issue of the Dau al Set review was published in 1953, but that group with such diverse gifts began to disperse in late 1951, just after its first joint exhibition in the Sala Caralt in October 1951.
The affinities that brought them together quickly became the reason behind their disbandment. The transition from surrealism to informalism and abstract expressionism led to disagreements, and each of them decided to take their own path. Tàpies went on a long journey exploring material, experimenting with conglomerates and assemblies until reaching his position as one of the key international informalist figures. Cuixart swung between informalism and figurative lyricism, also accumulating many significant international achievements. In 1953, Ponç moved to Brazil, where he lived for almost a decade, but he never allowed international art trends to influence his tremendously personal style, with unusual characters, reptile men, top hats, nocturnal harlequins and eyes that spy on everything and everyone. Brossa carried on with his poetic games and associations, which, almost seventy years later, continue to surprise us with their modernity today. Tharrats, who took care of most of the review’s graphic design, also gravitated towards informalism, investigating the creative boundaries of materials.
As a movement, Dau al Set was as fleeting as it was fruitful. Dau al Set certainly left its mark on Barcelona and Catalonia, acting as a wake-up call that inspired generations of both contemporary and future artists, and paving the way for the avant-garde movement when the city’s wounds from the war were still raw.
Despite its exclusively masculine authorship and perspective (a characteristic that, unfortunately, would reign among the creators that shaped the artistic canon until well into the seventies, with very few exceptions), now, over seventy years since the first issue of the review was released, and not long after its last surviving member left us, its excellent artistic quality has endured the passing of time and leaves no question marks around the relevance of Dau al Set in the history of art and of thought.
Dau al Set is not just a central, significant movement in the Catalan context. It also plays a key role in universal history, as an example of how art can make the world a better place in dark, turbulent times.