The first monument to the Spanish Constitution bears his signature. It is in Vitoria and it was inaugurated in 1983, although the model that is preserved is from 1978. There are four hands that rise and intertwine over seven meters high, as a symbol of union and strength of a people who wrote the norm with the one that put an end to four decades of dictatorship. The monument consists of more than 30,000 kilos of marble, from the quarries of Almería, and four decades later the pristine white has become dirty. Pepe Noja had just turned 40 when he designed the first sketch and tonight he has passed away, aged 85.
Pepe Noja, the sculptor who carved the Largo Caballero plaque: “I never thought that at 82 I would experience this”
The public sculpture of Vitoria has lost its impeccable whiteness. The lack of care, the passage of time, public exposure… it is difficult not to find a simile between that Constitution and the state in which it finds itself four decades later. Pepe Noja was the sculptor of the Spanish Constitution and one of the first cultural victims of the extreme right. In 2020, the mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida accepted as valid the historical arguments that Vox had built to legitimize the destruction of a plaque dedicated to the memory of Francisco Largo Caballero, in Chamberí square. The memory was placed on April 1, 1981 and was torn off on November 6, 2020, when some workers destroyed the piece with hammers for almost an hour.
Three years later, the Martínez-Almeida decision, which was presented by Vox and supported by PP and Ciudadanos, adds three sentences against the mayor’s order. All three agree on the same point, the “illustrative” lack of documentary evidence of the accusations with which the extreme right acted. According to the magistrates who have reviewed the case, the resolution lacked “motivation” and was “arbitrary.”
Contraprogramar a Franco
Justice has ruled against the legends that Vox exposed in its day due to a lack of evidence that would make possible the events that the party invented against the work of Pepe Noja. The sculptor from Huelva, who released his freedom four decades ago with the government of former President Felipe González, at the end of his days had to defend his work from the enemies of freedom of expression. Noja was part of the Transition machinery that raised the symbols that counteracted the Francoist street and its monuments. Spain kept Franco in the squares and the first statue to fall happened in Valencia, on September 9, 1983.
The Constitution emerged in the squares while the dictator was overthrown. What the sculptor of that new Spain did not expect to see again was the return of the ultra-right to the institutions. When he found out about the destruction of the plaque, he wrote to Martínez-Almeida to inform him of the status of his creation and against the aggression to which the mayor had subjected his work. In the letter he also demanded his commitment to defend his statue of Largo Caballero, which rests in Nuevos Ministerios, and which had also been pointed out by the extreme right.
Noja did not like to talk about what he had had to run in front of the police or those who died on the road, but he did not forget that his generation had to go from repression to freedom. “It was an extraordinary turn and these statues remember it,” he shared with this journalist in the days of the destruction of his works. “I demand respect for the integrity of my work, and I require you, in your capacity as mayor of Madrid, to prevent any act that involves deformation, modification, alteration or attempt against my work, warning you that, otherwise, I will make use of the legal actions necessary to defend my rights,” he wrote to Martínez-Almeida.
a rebel sculptor
Noja did not understand how the administration decided to attack Democratic figures. Largo Caballero was President of the Republic (between September 1936 and May 1937), worked as a plasterer and was the first worker to become Minister of Labor and Social Welfare. The historian Julio Aróstegui wrote of the character that his political tactics had as their horizon “the vindication of class as the sole objective of all workerist action.”
Pepe had not been to the studio and foundry for years, but he dedicated himself to drawing daily and never forgot his “rebellious” essence, as his closest relatives described him. He did not understand how while in the US the citizens rose up against slave-owning sculptures, in Spain it was the mayor’s office of the capital that proposed to demolish protagonists of the democratic history of Spain. The destruction of his work against oblivion also happened the same year that the president of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, bought an old statue of the artist Víctor Ochoa, to give it another meaning: that being with a mask, thrown away in the sculptor’s workshop for years, came to represent a tribute to the “victims, heroes and heroines of COVID-19”.
The magnificent sculpture of the socialist leader, owned by the State, is the creative heritage of the teachings of his teacher Pablo Serrano, who has one of Indalecio Prieto close to the other. Largo Caballero was one of his last steps before definitively abandoning figuration and surrendering to constitutionalist abstraction, with which he showered Spain with monuments to solidarity, equality or freedom. “Everything that is culture annoys Vox. That sculpture is a memory of what happened in democratic moments. Largo Caballero was elected by the people, in a democratic country, a country where you could vote. Nobody voted for Franco and his dictatorship was one of murders and crimes. Some do not find the difference, ”Pepe Noja explained then. Three years later there is a wave of cancellations and censorship similar to the one suffered by the sculptor. Noja was warning the population.
The piece of cubic volumes that disfigure the real body of Largo Caballero is still standing in Nuevos Ministerios, although it is regularly attacked by enemies of freedom of expression. For a few months he has had a new neighbor, the statue that Martínez-Almeida has placed in homage to a soldier of the Legion created by Millán-Astray. This monument has already been identified as a reason for “denial and exclusion” of the Riffian citizens, who suffered from the bombardment with toxic gases launched by Spain during the invasion of the territory. Historians such as José Álvarez Junco have pointed out that the Legion was a body that introduced “a degree of violence in the way of waging war” that caused “the fight to be so bloody.”
Noja said that it was not known how he arrived at the public solution of sculpture without attachment to reality. “One day you are making a piece, you start to deform it and when you realize it, you have found the beauty of total abstraction, which is delirium, and you can’t get out of there anymore”, she said. “I like that my art is for the people, not that it is in the chalets of the rich. It is the people who have to enjoy the culture”, recounted Noja, an artist who dedicated himself to sculpture in the street all his life.
He was the promoter of the Open Air Sculpture Museum in Alcalá de Henares and, above all, a commercial pilot for KLM. But a chronic illness ended his future in aviation and he was awarded a scholarship by the Dutch State to study at the Famous Arts School of California. And there he began to shape his new life, which coincided with what he called “the years of the explosion of freedom.” The need to vindicate democracy and honor it in the squares made him the sculptor of the Transition. “It was a very beautiful moment, we breathed freedom. Now some do not take it very well: democracy is a stick for Vox, ”he told this journalist.
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