Typewriting as an art

View of the Cathedral of Barcelona

It may not be your cup of tea, but Montserrat Alberich‘s art undeniably is striking. Using the typewriter as a paint-brush she created a large number of realistic paintings of landscapes, monuments, rural scenes as well as portraits. Her work won admiration among a broad national, and international public and museums and libraries acquired some significant pieces.

Professional typist
When Montserrat was born in 1912, typewriters were already common in offices for some thirty years. At that time more and more women began to enter the field of typists, thus playing a major role in liberating them from the domestic role that had been assigned to them.

At the beginning of the 20C being a typist gradually became the right choice for a “good girl”, meaning women who present themselves as being chaste and having good conduct. So schools, like the Acadèmia Cots of Barcelona, had to adapt their politics and open up their curriculums for young girls.

As early as 1879 Ramon Cots had foreseen future demands of typing and secretarial courses and had grasped the opportunity. His school at the Portal de l’Àngel, 38 offered education from general culture to specialized classes, such as bookkeeping in accordance with tax laws. The advertising poster emphasizes the ‘different classrooms for separation of both sexes’, the target group being ‘selected classes’.

Young Montserrat enrolled for learning ‘Typewriting in all its aspects’ and she turned out to be at the top of her class. When she was 15, she won the gold medal in the typewriting contest organized by the academy, not only for her typing abilities, but also for her faculty to compose images with the keyboard.

Report dedicated to Montserrat in the official newspaper of the International Exposition 1929

Two years later, in 1929, the Barcelona International Exposition was held with the intention to highlight the city’s further technological progress and increase awareness abroad of modern Catalan industry. For this occasion Montserrat presented to the Graphical Arts Centre her latest masterpiece: a luxurious book of 110 cm high dedicated to the novel Don Quixote by Cervantes that contained nine sheets in colour adorned by 26 illustrations with borders and floral motifs, and a portrait of its author Miguel de Cervantes. All created on her typewriter, a brilliant achievement that gained considerable international coverage.

The Dutch counterpart of the Acadèmia Cots was, and still is, the prestigious academy of Schoevers. Its founder Adriaan thought that training should be enjoyed with pleasure and taught the girls touch typing to the rhythm of the Charleston. It also organized in The Hague its own art typewriting contest which in 1932 was won by Montserrat with her interpretation of Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire.

Montserrat's technique
To make her typewritten painting Montserrat Alberich used a wide-carriage machine and a white-coated artist's canvas. She applied a mixture of letters and punctuation marks, although she mainly hit the letter 'm' and the dot varying the strength of the keystroke to get different shades in nearly 20 colours to achieve her characteristic colouration. Therefore she was constantly changing ribbons. 

Another method was superimposing various colours at the same position of the canvas. A brush or pencil retouch was out of the question, but after completing the picture she did blur the keyboard characters with a varnish finish. 

From then on her artistic career really took off. In the 1930s she exposed her typewritten originals in the Barcelona Art Gallery Syra that excelled in the diffusion of avant-garde art in Catalonia. Her work, like the newly finished Monasterio de Montserrat, was also shown in the Galeries Laietanes, a springboard of cultural initiatives and a good showcase for Noucentist art.

A clear indication that Montserrat had become a celebrated artist is her entry in 1935 in the Enciclopedia Espasa, a great and very detailed encyclopedia to be compared with the Encyclopædia Britannica. According to this reference work the recent exhibitions evidenced the huge progress she had made over the years achieving an artistic perfection in her creations.

After the war

The Spanish Civil War entailed a stop to her activities, but after 1939 Montserrat continued to design and make paintings, while she was earning a living as a typist at the Police Headquarters in Barcelona. Till the end of the 1960s her artistic productions could be admired at several exhibitions in Catalonia and elsewhere.

In a 1945 report of the Spanish No-Do (the colloquial name for Noticiario y Documentales), a state-controlled series of cinema newsreels, Montserrat featured busy working at her typewriter revealing a glimpse of her technique. Years later the American magazine LIFE would dedicate an illustrated article to her art and modus operandi.

Still from the No-Do news item of 19 March 1945
Click here to see the program conserved by Filmoteca Española.

Recognition also came from within the industry: the Underwood Typewriter Company with headquarters in New York gave her a typewriter adapted to her creative needs, that was provided with a large carriage (310 spaces) plus keys with some special characters.

Museums and handbooks
Sadly after het death in 1973 her fame declined and Montserrat and her artistic production became as good as forgotten, which was confirmed when the Enciclopedia Espasa deleted her biography in the 2002 edition.

But her creations live on in specialized handbooks and are exposed in museums at home and abroad. Examples of her work are included in The Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry (2013) and The Art of Typewriting (2015). She is also mentioned in the German international dictionary of artists the Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon.

Entities like the Provincial Diputation of Barcelona (it purchased the originals of Montserrat’s Don Quixote version), MUHBA (Museu d’Història de Barcelona), the library of the Harvard University and the Biblioteca Nacional de Uruguay have obtained some of her artwork, while many are owned by private collectors in the US, Great Britain, Switzerland, France and Germany, like the commissioned works El Senyor en la barca and Paisatge del Pirineu (see below).

One of the sources of this post is Enric H. March’s blog article on Montserrat.

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