The Daily Heller: Cesc, Barcelona’s Stealth Satírico, Did Posters Too

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Cesc (1927–2006), the nom de crayon of Francesc Vila i Rufas, was one of the most beloved visual humorists in Catalonia for over 30 years. He published tens of thousands of cartoons in his homeland, London and Paris, including a daily spot in the Diario de Barcelona. He often represented men and women on the street in a lighthearted yet subversive manner that allowed him to get away with harsher criticism of Spain’s fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.

He also did a bevy of advertising and light editorial. Cesc never archived this commercial work, and it has taken the contemporary Barcelona-based designer and newspaper cartoonist Jordi Duró four years to compile the new book Cesc Cartellista (his first book was Cesc Without Words).

Although some of Cesc’s posters define Catalan culture of the ’60s, he was known mostly for cartoons, and hasn’t been considered a poster artist (until now). Cesc, says Duró, belonged to the tradition of artists who would draw a cartoon in the morning, a poster by noon and a label in the evening.

Currently in Spain there is a revisionist exhibit about Franco’s 1964 campaign 25 AÑOS DE PAZ (25 years of iron-fisted peace); Duró’s mission with his book is to focus on the only designer who refused to take part, Cesc. I asked Duró to introduce us to the art and artist. (The images below focus mainly on Cesc’s commercial work.)

I know you do a daily political cartoon. Is that what inspired your interest to document Cesc?
I had him sign some posters for me when I was a young graphic design student, but it wasn’t until I started to publish political cartoons—right when I turned 40—that I started to look at him for his thinking, not just his talent as an illustrator. This led me to edit a book on his cartoons, and the research continued as more and more graphic items turned up and I realized there was a whole body of work that was undocumented.

Is he the most revered of the Spanish cartoonists?
He was very respected in Spain, but as he mostly published in Catalan newspapers, he might be more popular locally. He was up there with El Perich or Chumy Chúmez. He did dozens of covers for the children’s monthly Cavall Fort, so he made a big impact on a whole generation of future illustrators.

Was he able to freely work during Franco’s regime?
He was heavily censored. There is even a book on his censored cartoons. But his humor was subtle enough to avoid going to court for it. When the Franco propaganda campaign “25 years of Peace” wanted to use one of his posters, he refused. He was the only one to do so, as far as I know. The fact that he often got away with criticism, and his steady resistance, made him very dear to the public … and at the end, all the commission work in the book comes from this popularity. Everyone who wanted democratic change saw him as the perfect vehicle, and he helped them all. No matter what political color.

I recall his work appearing in French and British satiric journals. What made his humor so European?
He truly belonged to the post-war generation of André François, Sempé and Tomi Ungerer (both Cesc and Tomi as children drew the war they lived through and witnessed first hand), and I think they all shared a deep humanist take on life. They had a deep love for their anonymous characters and a distaste to any kind of authoritarianism. Cesc’s father was a book illustrator and a very well-traveled man. So he came from a cosmopolitan background even if they had very little means after the Spanish civil war.

What did you learn doing this book that you had not known?
The learning voyage was twofold: First I discovered that I could explain a time in history through the work of an artist, therefore I had to do something more than a “picture book.” Second, it was an intimate trip to discover my own heritage, to find out where my set of values came from.

Can Cesc’s type of work—his style, his wit—still be done today?
Yes, there is a lot of talent and wit out there today. … There are many extremely talented artists working, but one thing that I feel cartoonists have lost today is context. Before they had a whole publication where they could voice an opinion; today their work is shared and it loses all the nuances of context. Cesc sometimes did not agree with the editorial line of some of the publications he worked for, and this made the publication all the more richer for it. The reader could see these subtleties. This nuance is totally lost when you share online a cartoon out of its editorial context today.

What is your hope for the book? What do you want it to accomplish?
First of all I wanted Cesc to be recognized as a poster artist. I felt he was overlooked as such. He was seen solely as a cartoonist, and labels tend to narrow the scope of the work of the artist. Then, as I started discovering the cultural depth and relevance of the oeuvre, I saw that I needed to write a book about design that would appeal to the general reader, not only to designers. I think it does both things: compile the artwork and, through it, explain a time and a place.