Ramón Masats: Visit Spain

By Martin Macdonald

Spain, the world's second most visited country, registering 83.7 million international tourist arrivals in 2019, is seeing a colossal plunge in foreign visitors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Figures published by Spain's National Statistics Institute show a 97.7% dip in tourist arrivals in June compared with the same time last year. While tourism accounts for around 12% of Spain's GDP, in certain regions, such as the Balearics and the Canary Islands, it represents over 30% of the economy. The country also has the highest numbers of Covid-19 in the EU and is the only EU country thus far to surpass half a million cases of the virus. As such, the few tourists venturing into Madrid this summer may find it somewhat ironic that the Tabacalera art space's new exhibition, which runs from 02.07 - 12.10.2020, is titled Visit Spain

Ramón Masats, Expotur Madrid, 1965

Ramón Masats: Visit Spain installation views, Tabacalera, Madrid, 2020

The expansive show features 145 works by Ramón Masats (b. Caldas de Montbui, Spain, 1931), a master of documentary photography. His black and white pictures date back to 1955-1965, when he collaborated with the Spainish Tourism Board, and various publications, including Gaceta Ilustrada, a weekly created in the style of Life and Paris Match. 

Masats drove a small, locally-manufactured Seat 600 car around Spain to document his country. This early period of his career also coincided with the Franco dictatorship's (1939-1975) decision to look outward to attract much needed foreign investment and bring tourism revenue into what was a socially conservative and economically backward nation.

Franco photographed by Ramón Masats in Huelva, Spain, 1963

Curated by Chema Conesa, Visit Spain presents a bygone era through Masats' masterly compositions, attention to detail, humour, sense of irony and contextual accuracy. His photographs capture religious festivities, bullfights, museums, gastronomy, education, fashion and even tourists themselves, while at the same time reflecting a heavy military presence and what really amounts to an impoverished, prudish and fascist land. 

Ramón Masats, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1961

In the 40s, after the Spanish Civil War, when tourism in Spain was still in its infancy, the Franco regime launched the Visit Spain slogan (yes, in English) to attract international visitors. Both photography and graphic design were in demand by magazines to promote the country's attractions, and the government also relied on creatives for matters of political propaganda. In addition to focusing on traditional themes such as flamenco and Spain's renowned Easter/Holy Week celebrations to draw in holidaymakers, modern concepts such as beach tourism and skiing were also touched upon. But it wasn't until the package holiday boom of the late 60s that tourism in Spain really flourished.  

Ramón Masats, Plaza de Zocodover, Toledo, 1960

Echoes of the past can still be seen in Spanish society today, particularly in the country's continued love affair with religious festivities. But the truth is that while deep religious fervour is limited to a minority in Spain, Easter and any other celebration commerating a local saint, are always a good excuse for a boozy Spanish fiesta. 

Ramón Masats captures a scene during Easter celebrations 

Although tourism has been a key contributor to Spain's economy, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the country's overdependence on the industry. Moving forward, the challenge for the country is to strike the right balance between relying on the international community to Visit Spain and further diversify its economy. In any case, Masats' photography brilliantly reflects the Spain of the 50s and 60s, before it became a modern European country. 

Ramón Masats, Seminarians Playing Football, 1959

Ramón Masats photographs women in flamenco dresses on horseback

Ramón Masats, Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, 1963

Ramón Masats, Vejer de la Frontera, Cádiz, 1962 and Mujácar, Almería, 1963

Ramón Masats, Fashion Show, Madrid, 1959

Ramón Masats, San Antonio Market, 1955

Ramón Masats, Andújar, 1960

Ramón Masats, Pamplona, 1960