Val del Omar and the pocket cinematographer

Elena Duque
José Val del Omar

Flames. Happiness and the sun of a road trip compressed into three minutes, the towns of Spain follow one after the other. The fountains and the tourists at the Alhambra. Colourful, oscillating, blinking abstraction. Superpositions and ghostly worlds. The red of a fruit standing out against the blue of the sky. Laser rays. Signs, the lights of a funfair, television, the world around. These are just some of the things contained in the Super 8s of Val del Omar, perhaps the most complete journey to his universe, that of the unique and exceptional Spanish “cinemist”.

Three in one, poet, inventor and mystic, José Val del Omar was born in Granada in 1904 and became a cult figure thanks to his most publicised work, Tríptico Elemental de España [Elementary triptych of Spain], which contains his two best-known films, Aguaespejo granadino ([Mirrorwater of Granada] 1955) and Fuego en Castilla ([Fire in Castile] 1960). Both are, somehow, practical demonstrations of several of his theories, based on the immense power of film to create unity between all individuals by means of spiritual ecstasy. A state that could be achieved by means of what he terms meca-mistics—that is, mechanics as an instrument to help create this revealing, purifying trance by means of various ad hoc inventions. Aguaspejo granadino, with the primary power of its fountains and the immortal aura of the Alhambra, demonstrated two meca-mistic inventions that produced enveloping experiences: the Apanoramic Overflow of the image, a system of lenses by means of which the film goes beyond the screen to colonise the entire projection room and the peripheral vision of the spectator, and Diaphonic Sound, a particular system of binaural stereo divided into one channel for the scene’s natural sound (flowing from the screen) and another for a soundtrack aimed at the viewer’s psyche, rumbling from the back of the projection room to maximize the all-encompassing experience. Both techniques were devised in the forties and fifties, years before Gene Youngblood wrote his foundational Expanded Cinema, or another total scientist-visionary-filmmaker, Stan Vanderbeek, unknowingly a kindred spirit of Val del Omar in more ways than one, began his activity. The second film, Fuego en Castilla, involved TactilVisión, a system in which light would be like “fingers that touch the surface” of things to draw their relief, by means of flickering changes, shadow and light play giving volume and ghostly life to the carved figures of Berruguete and Juan de Juni at the National Sculpture Museum in Valladolid, to the rhythm of pounding on wood of flamenco dancer Vicente Escudero, that make up the most forceful part of the film.

Just watching the Tryptic gives us an idea of how singular Val del Omar was, particularly in the context of the Spain in which he lived, with first the post-war years and then the cloud of Francoism as ill-disposed backdrops to his avant-garde ideas that prevented him from really spreading his wings. Some of these ideas were born of the warmth of the French impressionist cinema that he discovered in Paris in the early 1920s (particularly thanks to Marcel L’Herbier), and in his work at the Misiones Pedagógicas, which made him realise the potential of film to move and, accordingly, to be used as an instrument to spiritually elevate and improve people’s lives. But is just the tip of the iceberg, the visible head of the galaxy that was his mind.

Without end

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to explaining who and what José Val del Omar was is the elusive nature of an infinitely progressing body of work. The “Without end” with which he closed his few completed works is indicative of how difficult it is to fit this whole galaxy into a thimble, to store in a filing cabinet the fluid time of this character who was as multifaceted as he was lucidly delirious, the true and authentic Spanish visionary of film who devoted his life to imagining a brilliant future. This is why it is so important to compile and to show, in simple succession, this outpouring of notes, essays and experiments that offer a way into his mind. This was the purpose of the vital compilations of notes and articles Val del Omar sin fin (collected by Maria José Val del Omar and Gonzalo Sáinz de Buruaga) and Escritos de técnica, poética y mística (compiled by Javier Ortiz Echagüe), Val del Omar’s own attempts to order his thoughts, and a sample of his prose and poetry, which did not hesitate to invent words when necessary. Another landmark was the exhibition :desbordamiento de Val del Omar, curated by Eugeni Bonet, which even showed his famous laboratory, which I will talk about later. We now have the possibility of revising his most ineffable and inflamed notes, his visual experiments and his itineraries in Super 8 format—an authentic visual notebook—in an edition put together by Gonzalo de Lucas and Marta Verheyen.

Recording the ineffable

These Super 8 films, like Variaciones sobre una granada (1975), show the result of Val del Omar’s intensive hours of work in the seventies and early eighties. When the laboratory he had in the sixties at the Official Film School was dismantled, Val del Omar set up another centre of operations to continue his experiments independently (and almost clandestinely): the PLAT, or Picto Lumínica Audio Tactil, a fairly accurate description of what went on there. This laboratory also coincided with the popularization of Super 8 film, an economical domestic format which, as well as giving Val del Omar a new lightness of filming, records some of his tests and experiences.

In what could have been a film performance, Val del Omar put in front of his Super 8 camera some of his devices, which formed part of the many-tentacled instrument he called his “truca”, or trick camera. For example, the Cyclotactile Energetic Bionic Optic was a mechanism he used to evoke the vertical tendency of El Greco’s paintings, using a rotating anamorphic lens, at variable speeds, on the same axis as a normal lens. In this way, we see images that twist, distort and stretch, aspiring to infinity. The adiscopio was another of the bases of his work: this is a projector of a certain type of quadruple slides called tetrakinas (four images in a single frame), invented by the engineer Luis Adiego de la Parra, a device that Val del Omar modified by mounting in it three filter wheels, with a circle divided into four quarters, with the three primary colours plus white. Each circle turns at a variable speed and is independent of the others. This was the source of the rapid successions of images that fade to give way to others. In some cases the product is a sensation of depth, in some way anticipating Ken Jacobs’ Nervous Magic Lantern, thanks to the way he mounted some of the slides: glue, dust, threads, and pieces of acetate between the two sheets of glass. Various automatic movement mechanisms were gradually incorporated. As Eugeni Bonet explained in his article about the PLAT for the catalogue of the exhibition :desbordamiento de Val del Omar, what he called his tetraprojector was joined by “a system of programming that used magnetic tapes bearing all manner of orders or instructions (direction and speeds of rotation, light and colour effects, sounds, laser, fans, jets, etc.) or the use of prisms to divert the projection of the images to the four cardinal points”.

Then there were his experiments with laser. For him, laser rays “are above all disquieting images that reveal a world that was not previously visible”. This is an intuition that speaks of the unity of the universe, which he explains thus: “the image that I have to date been able to extract, using the poor resources available to me, decidedly brings me to the conclusion that the entire universe, our planet, myself, are a single electric drop, something without feet or ground, a thing, a love-cohesion-being.”

Memories and impressions of a passenger on spaceship Earth

But the fascinating thing about the Super 8 films is that another Val del Omar, less “meca-mistic” and more earthly, comes to light. A deep-seated love of life, a sunlit immersion into nature and a frenetic passage through the urban state relate these essays with Jonas Mekas and Marie Menken. Mekas, in works such as Travel Songs and the ones about Sundays in the park or holidays in nature. Menken, in the light and dark of Lights (1966), in the road speed and urban life of Go! Go! Go! (1964), and in her gazes at plants and flowers in Glimpse of the Garden (1957).

A freer Val del Omar, no longer in search of the official status to which he aspired for so many years and that cast him from its bosom: Val del Omar presented his revolutionary projects at audiovisual and technology congresses, to the Spanish channel RTVE, to the Empresa Nacional de Óptica (ENOSA), and to various institutions, not realising that his elevated goals and his passionate, poetic side had nothing to do with the deep-seated bureaucratic tradition and the utilitarian ends they pursued. Without abandoning this idea of the common good and public service, the domestic format of the seventies and eighties allowed him, as we will see, to find space for pure visual enjoyment (though many of the images we see may have been intended for successive experiments). His speeded-up, parodic shots of tourists visiting and filming the Alhambra urged us to contemplation, to throw our respective watches into the waters of the Moorish fountains. “The water in the spout, with its grand illusion of rising and its reality of falling, is a great mirror of the life of humankind”, as he said in the programme notes for Aguaespejo granadino.

The world around him was just beginning to reach Val del Omar with his visionary ideas by means of an open-minded younger generation: the “guras” (as he called some of his followers of the time), who can be seen in the Super 8 films, in these portraits of women with faces interspersed with patterns and landscapes. His interest in television (for which he saw future potential by exploiting its “commotional” and community-creating power, which he tried, unsuccessfully, to convey to the management of TVE) stands out in the accelerated television inventories of his Super 8 reels, at a time when his theories were ratified by the studies of Marshall McLuhan.

Val del Omar and El Niño de Elche

On this occasion, at Xcèntric, Val del Omar’s Super 8 films are accompanied by the sound work of El Niño de Elche, who took flamenco out of its pigeonhole to make it total avant-garde which, like Val del Omar’s version, sinks its roots into the ancestral earth and the idea of using art’s power to shake up and pound, socially and politically. El Niño de Elche explains how he discovered the artist from Granada: “I discovered Val del Omar thanks to the work of artists such as Andrés Marín, Lagartija Nick and Pedro Gé Romero. The first thing I remember is seeing Fuego en Castilla and using the idea of covering myself in plastic as a religious image for a performance related with the greenhouses in Roquetas de Mar. The play of light in his films was the first thing that struck me about his work.” His way of approaching work with Super 8 film, a delicate and fiery material, is based on the power of his voice: “My idea was to use the voice as a sound base. Val del Omar was the first to give flamenco voices an electronic treatment, and with this idea, and with the means the present day offers, I wanted to conserve the mystical idea of voice as connection”. A new approach to a body of work that was already inspiration and guide: “No doubt about it. Val del Omar has been a point of reference for some of the work I have done recently, most of all for the internal rhythm in his use of images, but there were other aspects of his work that I was not familiar with, which this meticulous approach allowed me to decipher. Hopefully I am so intoxicated that it will stay with me forever.”


By way of trivia, the only invention to bring any income to our unparalleled “cinemist” (with over 60 registered patents to his name) was the Mini-Carrousel España, or castanet, which he described as follows:

“Slide projector in Super 8 format, in three forms:

Memorizer of TV and cinema images.

Children’s ‘launch tower’ to project images onto the ceiling of a bedroom, turning it into a spaceport set to ‘zero gravity’.

‘Souvenir of Spain’ castanet, with 50 images of tourist posters, Spanish craftwork memorizer, natural beauties, dances, bullfighting, etc.

Note: Altogether, images viewed on paper, viewed in transparencies, and projected from a distance have a magical value that children love.”

The same value that excited the open-mouthed children photographed by Val del Omar as they saw cinema for the first time thanks to the Misiones Pedagógicas, and the same value that enthrals us and keeps us chained to the cinema screen, a portable Aleph by the grace of Super 8, a spaceport that launches us into the Val del Omar galaxy.

Elena Duque