Technological mysticism

An epistolary testimony of José Val del Omar’s relationship with the San Sebastian Festival (1958-1959)

On 6 June 1958, Antonio de Zulueta, Director of the San Sebastian Festival, writes to the inventor and filmmaker José Vale del Omar. As we can see from the letter, they have met at the Festival de Cannes that same year where, after attending a screening of Aguaespejo Granadino (La gran Siguiriya) (José Val del Omar, 1951-1954), Zulueta understands that the creator of this unwonted piece is, without a doubt, the person he is looking for to help him organise a series of experimental film sessions at his festival. This is the start of an epistolary relationship (the one featuring in this exhibition) which will eventually lead to the inventor from Granada’s two collaborations with the San Sebastian Festival. Said collaborations will finally take the shape of two events (held in 1958 and 1959) in which, under the generic heading of “Information on technical progress”, reflection will be made on the possibilities offered by technological innovations in the field of cinematic and audiovisual experimentation.

While what makes Val del Omar an essential figure in the history of Spanish cinema is his filmmaking facet — his Tríptico Elemental de España is one of the heights of Spanish experimental cinema — it must be remembered that the director of Fuego en Castilla (Tactilvisión del páramo del espanto) (José Val del Omar, 1957-1959) spent most of his time developing (with very few means and completely by himself) a variety of technological innovations. In fact, Val del Omar’s filmic practise cannot be properly understood if we forget that his films are, to a large extent, concrete applications of his own inventions and patents. In the letters he exchanges with Antonio de Zuleta we clearly perceive that Val del Omar’s concerns are above all technological in nature. And this is why what were initially intended to be experimental film screenings finally gave rise to something that the filmmaker himself labels in one of his letters as the “Val del Omar programme of techniques” in which the screenings (of Aguaespejo in both editions and perhaps, although it is not clear, also a fragment of Fuego en Castilla in that of 1959) serve to illustrate his innovations in the field of sound (Diaphony), in that of relations between light and relief (TactileView) and in that of using blank film (the Bi-standard system).

As we note above, the letters are also a witness to the difficult situations in which Val del Omar has to develop his research (both filmic and technological) in the Spain of the autarky. From the end of the war and until the late the fifties, experimental cinema is practically non-existent in Spain. Only some of the works of a Cine amateur movement that will remain active, fundamentally in Catalonia, during the time of the autarky or some of the short films shot at the Instituto de investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográficas during the fifties (an educational institution, incidentally, which will provide material and economic cover for some of his experiments) can be included in this category. But the feeling of loneliness and lack of support do not only affect his work as a filmmaker. In a letter sent to Zulueta from Geneva, Val del Omar explains in full wealth of detail (and with that pseudo-mystical and somewhat affected prose for which he is known) the good reception enjoyed by his inventions abroad, going on to complain about the lack of understanding he receives in his country: “I believe this outing has confirmed that God has placed me at a good vantage point. And I would like to give it all to Spain where, as you well know, I am all alone”. Be that as it may, the letter ends with a few lines in which he comments, not without some emotion, on some of the technical wonders he has discovered abroad and which are, ultimately, those that encourage him to continue persevering, come what may, on the path of investigation: I have seen an exhibition of automatisms and electronic programmers in Paris and I have discovered how an electronic brain analyses the mental order of Saint Thomas Aquinas. What a world is on its way. How I yearn to scale the infinite heights of complexity”.

Exhibition Description: Asier Aranzubia (University Charles III of Madrid)

Documentation and cataloguing: Artxiboa team, Edurne Arocena (Ereiten)