18 December 2012

Spanish Civil War 1936-9: brave artists

The Second Spanish Republic was the democratically elected government of Spain from April 1931 on. It was pro-workers, anti-Church and luke-warm on monarchy. The new constitution established women's rights, allowed divorce, supported unions and took education away from priests in favour of professional teachers. The banks and railways were given back to the Spanish community.

Inevitably the conservative groups who had seen their power base slip away in 1931 were going to fight back - the Catholic Church, the pro-German Fascist Party, the nobility and especially the Army. In July 1936, the most bloody of Civil Wars broke out in Spain, under General Franco.

Art and politics came together in one of the most complex relationships in the history of art. So says the book Art and The Civil War from the Museu Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia Madrid, edited by Juan Jose Lahuerta and published by Ediciones de La Central in 2009. In painting, sculpture, photography and film, these artists denounced the indiscriminate massacre of the civilian population and the destruction of Spanish cities. They celebrated the courage of ordinary men and women fighting behind the barricades; and they bore witness to the bravery of the Republican side and the murderous brutality of the Fascists.

Joan Miro
Aidez Espagne, 1937
32 x 49 cm

In the pre-Civil War years, late Cubism, abstract and Surrealist art coexisted with the emergence of 1930s social realism that was becoming popular in Fascist Germany and Italy, and in Communist Russia. Which style did Spanish Civil War artists eventually choose? It seemed that abstract art would probably not work - it could not be political, didactic or direct enough.

Joan Miro was very direct, simple and passionate about publicising the Republican cause. He designed a colourful print in 1937 to raise money for the Repub­lic­ans, showing a Catalan peasant raising a thick, defiant fist and the slogan Help Spain. This print in turn created a poster sold at the Spanish Republican Pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. Visitors could purchase it after viewing Picasso’s Guernica and Miro’s own monumental mural, The Reaper (now lost).

Artists Antonio Rodriguez Luna and Horacio Ferrer were politically and artistically engaged in the Civil War from the Republican ranks. Alberto Sanchez was a Spanish sculptor who turned his creativity to the victims of this war. Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz in Paris became one of a number of foreign artists who became involved in Spain's struggle, producing works in solidarity with Spain's ordinary working families. Hungarian photographer Robert Capa travelled around Spain during 1936-9, taking stunning photos from behind Republican lines.

The biggest surprise for me was from the French architect, Le Corbusier. He anguished over the bombs being dropped on Spanish families and produced some wonderful paintings and drawings called The Fall of Barcelona. He was devastated when his town planning project for Barcelona was cancelled because of the war, and even more devastated when his close friends died during the war.

Another source of information was the International Exposition Dedicated to Art and Technology in Modern Life, in Paris in 1937. The pavilion of the Spanish Republic was very telling. It was designed by Joan Miro, along with important contributions by Alexander Calder, Julio Gonzales and Pablo Picasso. The Republican government used Paris' World Fair to mount concerts, theatrical performances and dancing groups as symbols of popular Spanish culture and as a propaganda weapon against Fascism. They displayed traditional Spanish ceramics and textiles, and above all, they hung the famous anti-war work by Picasso, Guernica.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica
1937, 349 x 776 cm
Museum Reina Sofia, Madrid

Pablo Picasso's famous painting revealed the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He created this huge image in protest against the aerial bombing and the catastrophic slaughter of civilians in Guernica in 1937 by German bombers. Picasso used symbols and images of broken people, with most of the faces looking up to the sky from where the bombs fell.

In a world where almost every country remained neutral on the Spanish question, propaganda opportunities were to be firmly grabbed by the struggling Republicans. (The Russians and Mexicans supported the Republican government; the German and Italian fascists sent equipment and money to the Spanish Fascists). "Espagne 1936" was a film that was screened in the Spanish Pavilion during this World Fair. The battle cry of the Republic, "They shall not pass. Madrid will be the grave of fascism" was clear from the film. Wrong! Fascism survived brilliantly; Spanish mothers and children were slaughtered by Fascist soldiers.

Could some painters, sculptors and photo journalists have been on General Franco's side in the war? Salvador Dali, for example, was known not to have liked the Republicans. So yes, there may well have been some artists whose works are not represented at Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum, in their permanent exhibition on the Civil war. But perhaps not. The artists wrote at the time that "it is our hope that all art produced in the revolution, and passionately in agreement with the revolution, would respond ideologically to the human content of this revolution" (July 1937, International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture in Valencia).

courtyard of Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid
opened in 1988

The Reina Sofia Museum opened in 1988 and is home to ALL the important 20th-century Spanish avant-garde artists, the pioneers of cubism, surrealism and abstraction like Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and Juan Gris. But the proudest part of the collection relates to the Spanish Civil War. In fact the opening of the museum reflected Spain's long await return to democracy, well after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975. Finally the many artists who had left the country because of their passion for the Republican cause could finally come home.


Dr. F said...

Did the artists represent the rape and murder of countless nuns? For balance, see George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

Hels said...

Dr F,

I don't think so. Not that one can tell from the paintings, photos and sculptures who the individual figures represented, but It seemed that most of the objects in the collection represented workers, farmers and mothers with small children.

I will have a look for the Orwell reference, thanks.

Andrew said...

I had no idea who Miro was when we bought a print because we liked it. I am pleased to hear he was on the correct side.

Deb said...

Why were the artists brave? Did they leave the country after the Civil War ended

Hels said...

of course you liked his work... lots and lots of people do. The surprise for me was that he expressed his politics in his art. He could have happily sat out the Spanish Civil War and World War Two, in France, without earning the ire of the new regime.

Hels said...


Artists, writers and professionals, who had supported the Republic during the Civil War, fled into exile. But did they jump or were they violently pushed?

I am guessing both. After the end of the Civil War in 1939, Franco’s men oppressed and killed tens of thousands of political opponents, trade unionists, socialists and Catalan supporters. Even those who weren’t harmed physically found themselves removed from their old jobs.

ChrisJ said...

Whenever I hear people talk about "namby-pamby, sissy" art (happens a lot in my resource-economy town!), I think of all the artists banned or worse because their work has the power to undermine authority.

Hels said...


what is radical about your statement is not that artists could be banned, or worse. That was clearly true. But that their work had the power to undermine authority.... amazing!

What could a powerful general, with the full backing of the army, church and aristocracy, possibly have to fear from writers, painters, sculptors and musicians?

I might have asked the same about the Nazi Party in Germany between 1933-39. Why did they spend a fortune and endless man hours, weeding out "degenerate" art and music from every public gallery and concert hall in the country?

Dr. F said...

There were atrocities on both sides in the Spanish Civil War. Before anyone considers that there was a “correct” side in the conflict, they should consider the role of the Franco government during WWII. Spain was a neutral during the war and it was almost alone in offering sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Moreover, it insisted that all Jews who could claim Spanish citizenship be given safe conduct back to Spain from Nazi occupied territories. The Franco government even went so far as to offer Spanish citizenship to all Jews who could trace their ancestry back to the time of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.


Hels said...

Dr F

Spain did prepare a list of all its Jews and did give it to the designer of the Nazis' Final Solution, Heinrich Himmler. Himmler also requested that the list include Jews who had converted to Christianity! HAD Spain and Germany joined in the Axis alliance, it would have been a disaster. But in the end, as you said, Spain remained neutral throughout WW2.

So while General Franco's personal anti-Semitism was very nasty, Spanish diplomats throughout Europe defied their government and did save thousands of Jews. Those diplomats were the true heroes.

Emm in London said...

Wow, this is a truly incredible article. There is just so much to comment on, I don't even know where to start. I guess I'll start with Miro's The Reaper, I Googled it and just shocked to see that it was simply 'lost'. How is that even possible?

I think your article has mostly ignited a fire in me to learn more about the Spanish Civil War. I really hasn't realised what was at stake before. I have always loved the political messages and protests from artists such as Miro, Dali and Picasso.

It is so interesting what Chris said about artists being banned. I spent a lot of time in South Africa concentrating on Apartheid and the atrocities of the past and can't wait to start sifting out my thoughts about that. We had a great legacy of artists being banned and persecuted.

Hels said...


Everyone who has lived under a repressive regime, or under a democratic regime being torn apart, knows the risks of opening their mouths. For most people, it is simply easier to keep their heads down, their mouths shut and their paintings/literature neutral.

I am not personally familiar with the artists/writers banned or persecuted by the South African government, but I bet that they run huge risks with their family's safety, or they went into exile. It reminds me of the Degenerate Artists in Germany from 1933 on, and the House UnAmerican Activities in post WW2 USA.

Civil War Art said...

This is a brilliant piece of work.

Hels said...

Civil War Art

many thanks. I warmly recommend a trip to The Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. Impressive!

Judy Barnes said...

Beautiful art! I learn a lot with your blog :)
Terry Redlin Prints

Hels said...


thank you. I knew a great deal about 17th century Spanish art and have given many lectures on Murillo, Zurbaran, Velazquez etc.

But Spanish Civil War art was an entirely different world, wasn't it? We all have a lot more to learn, I suspect.

Judy Barnes said...

Wow! great to hear that Hels. Yes agree spanish Civil War art was an entirely different world as compare to American civil war art and others.