Val del Omar, a river whose joy is spilling over

A review of some of the reasons to consider the work of the cinemist amazing and an invitation to visit the recently opened exhibition at LABoral

Published: Sep 28, 2015
Val del Omar, a river whose joy is spilling over

José Val del Omar, Diakina de la serie Maniquíes, ca. 1977-1982. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. © Archivo María José Val del Omar & Gonzalo Sáenz de Buruaga

By Laura Cano (@Via_di_uscita), La Caja Revuelta.

Writing about something you admire seems to be easy. It should be as you have a deeper insight of his work, his life, the details of the geographic-psychologic map that you have sketched in your head and that make this person more human, closer, and far from the myth. At leas this is what happens in my case with José but, opposite to what I though first, this article has become a challenge: How can I convey my amazement without being repetitive, boring or obvious? Hou can I write about someone about whom experts like Bonet or Erice have already written about (not much though, but very well?

You can also learn from vertigo, and after reflecting upon it, I decided that the talent of Val del Omar was too big and important for me to try and portrait it, so that all I can do is explain the reasons why I love the work of the cinemist, just like any one that discovers his work. I love it because:


1. "No estoy. Me desvivo y soy".

There are people with an overwhelming and visionary imagination and a huge generosity. Val del Omar was exactly one of those. A man who could do magic. His tenacity and blind faith in what he did turned his life into a quest that used art as exhaust valve.

He was born in Granada in 1904 and in the 1920s he travelled to France, where his imaginary was permeated by the artistic currents that where then at their highest peak in that country. His creative capacity starts in this early maturity and when he is 25 he is fully involved in his artistic and film making experimentation. At this moment he launches his first inventions: The "variable angle temporary optics" that, around 30 years later, we call "zoom"; the "apanoramic concave widescreen", a projection system that overcomes the screen; and the "relief cinema", later known as "tactilevision", a technical resource that uses pulsed light to enhance the being filmed.

During all his life, Val del Omar will invent technical resources, not only in the visual field, but also in sound also with a clear purpose: He is not directly interested in formal experimentation, this is why some of the experts that have researched on his work argue that it should not be labelled as "experimental film making"; He mainly focuses on putting the technique at the service of his cinemist mission (film maker + alchemist). Because his film making is a total art, a concept seen in several art currents since Wagner's operas and, quite in line with the German author, could be the most elevated and complex way to express gut feelings and emotions by combining several media that appeal to all or most senses.

His film making intended to be an immersive work, perhaps anticipating virtual reality. His film making establishes a close dialogue with viewers (the fellow man, in the author's words), as it demands the attention of the instincts thus making it universal. A film making that make us see what is real and authentic around us, where faces or structures cease to be and turn into an idea, an element, an essence. Val del Omar is a misplaced mistic. A non-religious mystic, rather a poetic one, whose complex work was aimed at portraying the essential, the immense, the sublime...this are concepts that dance in a connection with the universe and with each one of us.


2. “I wanted to scape the black ink of books. I wanted to go to the luminous image. Like a butterfly attracted by the light”.

During the 1930s José joined the Misiones Pedagógicas. A project of the Second Republic that travelled throughout Spain as a "roaming school". The missioners, relevant characters of the time like Luis Cernuda, María Zambrano, Federico García Lorca, with whom he became great friends, took the villages and hamlets of the country books, films, theatre plays and cultural activities with the purpose of democratising culture and taking it to the people that were deeply rooted, impoverished and excluded from the centres were the culture of the time was created.

He took part from 1932 to 1937 as a projectionist, an activity he registered in many photographies. The faces of these people, especially of the children, faces of joy, discovery, amazement convinced him of the true power of cinema. Moreover, he even considered it the ultimate revolutionary educational, democratic and fundamental tool. In a conference addressed in 1932 to the school teachers of the Free Teaching Institution, he said:

"Can learners be free from conscious education? Can perceptive and non-perceptive activities be distinguished and harmonised? Can the teacher contribute to the education of the child without limiting its impulses with symbols and norms, without killing its creative conscience? Is it possible to start up each individual on his path? Is it possible to educate the instinct? Can one communicate with the human being by a channel that is not subject to the review of our conscience? Teacher, educators, I think it is possible, I say it is, I assure you that the machines that follow a principle of automatism, a principle of economy in our psyche have worked the miracle. And I say more, I know these machines and therefore I must start them to serve this initiative."

It is therefore cinema, that only exists troughg the ue of those machines he knows so well ore invents, the great revolution for education and for life. In this period that finished abruptly with the Civil War, he made more that forty documentaries, of which almost nothing is preserved now-a-days.


3. "The technique is not alien to poetic creation and must be fully mastered in order for ideas to be generated and flourish. The technique is the crystallisation that must observe the structure of the substance."

Val del Omar's inventions covered several fields: Electronic devices for projection or shooting, footage, sound, lighting and even a made-up jargon to give sense and coherence to his entire creation. These new words he made up, usually resulting from the combination of two existing words like mecamística (mecánica+mística) o aprojimarse (aproximarse+prójimo); neologisms like cinegraphy for documentary; or already existing words with a new meaning like “elemental” to refer to the gender of his films, show an idealistic concept of cinema as the best fitted medium to reach the ineffable.

Regarding technical inventions, in addition to the aforementioned, his contributions to the world of sound must also be mentioned. During the dictatorship, when he stopped his filmmaking activity and worked for the regime (Unión Radio, Madrid or Radio Mediterráneo, Valencia), he developed one of his main inventions: Crosstalk that consisted of placing two sound sources in the projection room, one over the screen broadcasting the “objective” sound of the film, and another one behind the viewers broadcasting the “subjective” sounds (noises, effects, etc) of the cinegraphy. The two would collide over the seating area creating, in combination with the over-flooding images, a truly surround effect.

José Val del Omar, Laboratorio PLAT (1975-1982). Vista de su ubicación original. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Foto: Raúl Lorenzo Cano. © Archivo María José Val del Omar & Gonzalo Sáenz de Buruaga


During the last years of his life, after the death of his wife, he becomes practically an ascetic. In Madrid he moves to a basement where he builds PLAT: Pictórico-Lumínico- Audio-Tactil, in other words, his lab, the place to put into practice all his filmmaking experiments and, in addition, his home


4. "I try to communicate the strange feeling of trying the senses out for the first time."

Indeed, because the film making of José Val del Omar is designed for the senses and instincts. His works, which are just a few but very relevant, go beyond his time. He is the bridge between the 1920s avant-garde and the new underground film making of the 1960s.

His most significant cinegraphies are the ones that make up the Elemental Trilogy of Spain: Aguaespejo Granadino (1955), Fuego en Castilla (1960) and Acariño Galaico (1961). This tryptich should follow Ojalá, that would explain the key to understanding this set of works but unfourtunately he never made it. Besides, he decided to leave Acariño Galaico unfinished due to the intensity reached during its conception. It was years later, in 1955, that Javier Codesal decided to reconstruct and finish the work following the tapes and notations found in his atelier.


José Val del Omar, Aguaespejo granadino, 1953-1955, captura de película. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. © Archivo María José Val del Omar & Gonzalo Sáenz de Buruaga.


The Elemental Trilogy is a declaration of intent and the visual summary of his whole theory. Images that are almost 3D thanks to TactilVisión; Diaphonic sounds that surround and capture viewers (obviously, non-perfectible in the video copies), the mixture of colour and black-and-white, positive and negative images that confuse and prevent narrative. Traditional music like flamenco or pieces by Falla, noises or just beat. His own poetry or taken from Poets such as Lorca. Characters from the street, improvised actors or sculptures by Berrugue or Juni; "elemental" due to the elements represented in each documentary: Water, fire, mud or earth (this last in Acariño Galaico that first wanted to be air). This three vortices outlined an emotional trip through the Iberian peninsula, north to south (in opposite direction of the shooting trip).


5. "He who loves, burns. And he who burns, flies at the speed of light. Because loving is being what one loves”.

Val del Omar profoundly loved his work and his family. This love resulted in the documentaries showing family scenes loaded with tenderness and loving. The kiss with his wife in La Mayor Transferencia is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful kisses in the history of cinema. Glances of complicity, nervous laughs, hugs, words we cannot hear… the kind of kiss we all want to receive at least once in life. A kiss that overflows the screen and this time not because of the technique but due to the love it releases.


La Mayor Transferencia [El Beso] from Val del Omar on Vimeo.


Without the support of his family, neither Val del Omar nor his work would have survived. The archive created by his daughter María José and his son-in-law, Gonzalo Sáenz de Buruaga, has ensured the dissemination of his legacy. They say María José supported financially many of his father's projects, his trips to festivals, his life, in summary, Franc's regime ignored him, denying him a support that was utterly necessary to continue researching and creating. Nevertheless, he was well-recognised: Experimental Film Making Festival of Brussels 1953, Berlin 1956, Cannes 1958, Bilbao 1961 (Silver Medal), Contest of Experimental Film Making of Universidad Autónoma de México 1960 (First Prize), Cannes 1961 (Mention by the High Technical Committee of French Filmmaking), Melbourne 1962.


6. The Mecamística.

The exhibiton at LABoral, curated by Cristina Cámara, cinema and video curator at MNCARS and a great expert on this creator will be open until January 2016, offering a tour through the works of Val del Omar from the concept of mecamística (mecamysticism). It is aimed at showing his inventions, his material legacy, and especially the spiritual, mystic and artistic side of his work. This roaming show corresponds to what is exhibited at Reina Sofía since 2012 in 6 of the rooms devoted to the collection of the museum. Visitors can gain an insight in the amazing world of José thanks to his photographies, collages, devices, manuscripts, films and the brilliant reconstruction of his laboratory, PLAT.

This is a unique opportunity to discover this genius of the art of the 20th century, as obscure as brilliant, discovering and recovering his mastery. If you had never before heard of him, you will love him because all of us who have approached his work, have been mesmerised. If you already new his work, this is the perfect occasion to better understand the actual meaning of all that he invented and wanted to communicate.

José Val del Omar, Dibujo para los títulos de crédito de Aguaespejo granadino, 1953-1955. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. © Archivo María José Val del Omar & Gonzalo Sáenz de Buruaga



1. Erice, Víctor, El llanto de las máquinas. Ínnsula Val del Omar (Visiones en su tiempo, descubrimientos actuales), coord. G. Saénz de Buruaga. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Semana de Cine Experimental, Madrid, 1995.

2. Bonet, Eugeni. Amar : Arder. Candentes cenizas de José Val del Omar. Revista Trafic, nº 34, verano 2000.

3. Russo, Eduardo A. Conjeturas sobre José Val del Omar El que ama, arde. De la pantalla al arte transgénico, edición de Jorge La Ferla. Buenos Aires: Universidad de Buenos Aires - Libros del Rojas, 2000.

4. Val del Omar, José. Sentimiento de la Pedagogía Kinestésica (Sedimento emocional de mis experiencias), junio 1932. Fuente: Gonzalo Sáenz de Buruaga / María José Val del Omar (ed.), Val del Omar sin fin. Granada: Diputación de Granada, 1992.

5. Val del Omar, José. Manifiesto de la Asociación Creyentes del Cinema, Madrid 1935. Fuente: Gonzalo Sáenz de Buruaga / María José Val del Omar (ed.), Val del Omar sin fin. Granada: Diputación de Granada, 1992.

6. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (sitio web). Consulta 25-09-2015.

7. Val del Omar (sitio web). Consulta 25-09-2015

*Val del Omar Facebook fanpage.

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