07 April 2015

Spanish Civil War: pro-Republican, anti-Fascist art

Spain's boom period had been WWI when it had remained neutral. But after the war (in Sept 1923), the military dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera grabbed power. The agricultural boom soon came to an end because tariff barr­iers were thrown up against Spanish ex­ports. Of the industrialisation that had taken place, most (70%) of all industry was limited to Catalonia.

The timing could not have been worse. The Wall Street crash came in 1931 and the quickly spread around the world. Yet 1931 was the very year the Spanish Republic was born and King Alfonso XIII went into exile. Spaniards were jubilant. Women were given the vote in 1933, divorce was legalised and the Spanish nobility were strip­p­ed of their special powers. The right wing could not have been angrier.

The workers and peasants, having gone through years of poverty, hoped the coun­try would be modernised and their living standards would improve. Sadly the new govern­ment watched as unemploy­ment and prices sky rock­eted, and employment fell. And if Spaniards had expected the Church to help, they were to be sadly disappointed. The Jesuits alone owned 30% of the country's wealth. What had happened to the dream of peasants and workers building a newer and fairer society? Nothing!

In the 1933 election, the republicans fell and a right-wing coal­ition came to power. Work­ers organised as best they could against the government but the Fascists went feral; workers’ risings were crushed. Thousands of workers were executed by the right wing government now in power. Rebellions by independence-seekers in Catalonia were also suppressed. Brutally.

At the next election in February 1936, the Republicans were returned to power. While the Republican government did all it could to get the situation under control, there were still hundreds of strikes. This time, the ruling classes had had enough of parliamentary democracy; they decided to smash the workers' organisations.

When an initial military coup failed to win control of the entire country, a bloody civil war soon commenced, fought with a viciousness that only a civil war can evoke. The Nationalist Rebels, received aid from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Rep­ublicans received 40,000 volunt­eers across Europe in the International Brigades, and equipment from Russia and Mexico. Leadership of the Nationalists was gradually assumed by General Franco; in October 1936 he named himself head of state and set up an alternative government in Burgos. Franco initiated a relentless war of attrition against the Republican government in Madrid.

Felicity Ashbee (1867–1956)
They Face Famine in Spain: Send Medical Supplies, 1937
lithograph published by the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief 
Photo credit: People’s History Museum

Yet even as late as 1940, Franco's prisons still held hund­reds of thousands of political prisoners, who were being executed as fast as they could be tried. Not counting soldiers on the Repub­li­can side act­ually killed in the fighting, the probable total of ex­e­cutions carried out by Franco was c2 million.

The civil war had mobilised many intellectuals to take up arms against the Fascists. The rest of the world knew about the novels Man’s Hope (1938) by André Malraux, Homage to Catalonia (1938) by George Orwell, The Adventures of a Young Man (1939) by John Dos Passos, and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) by Ernest Hemingway. Stephen Spender and WH Auden also contributed greatly. Two of my cousins, both novelists who could not shoot a gun if one was handed to them, went to Spain to write about the Republican cause.

Literary artists yes, but what about the visual artists? I have already examined the book Art and The Civil War from the Museu Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia Madrid, edited by Juan Jose Lahuerta in 2009. Now something new. Earlier this year Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex presented the first major exhibition to examine the response of British visual artists to the Spanish Civil War. The exhibition was called Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

Note that Pablo Picasso’s well known depiction of the aerial devast­ation of the Basque capital, Guernica (1937), toured Britain in 1938 and 1939, including some time in a car showroom in support of the Manchester Food Ship for Spain. The exhibition also contained Picas­so’s Weeping Woman (1937), based upon his lover, Dora Maar, whose cubist face expressed the conflict’s destructive agony. And Joan Miró’s print Help Spain (1937) became a one franc stamp to raise funds for the Republican cause in France.

The work of Frank Brangwyn and his British colleagues are less well known than Picasso and Miro. Walter Nessler expressed fears about war from the air with his 1937 canvas, Premonition. Portraying a gas mask on top of a bombed out London skyline, Nessler had no idea he was anticipating the Blitz just a few years later. Works depicting pro-Republican political protests in Britain included Demonstration in Battersea (1939) by Clive Branson, who had fought in the International Brigades. The painting depicted workers waving flags and banners in support of Spain.

Also included was May Day (1938) by the Bloomsbury artist Quentin Bell, son of Vanessa Bell. It was difficult to look at; Quentin Bell’s brother Julian was killed in Spain whilst serving as an ambulance driver. He was not alone. Altogether 500 British and Irish volunteer fights died in the Spanish Civil War.

Clive Branson (1907–1944)
Demonstration in Battersea, 1939
A committed socialist, Branson actively recruited British volunteers for the International Brigade

This progressive culture was connected internationally to modernism. The surrealist Roland Penrose was a close friend of Picasso, and once he saw Spain early in the war, he returned committed to the Republic. Martin Evans suggested that for Penrose, it was good versus evil; he wanted to use art to 1] counter Francoist propaganda, 2] win support for the 2,500 British men and women who went to fight in Spain and 3] denounce Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

In all honesty I must add that a number of British artists were supportive of General Franco, including Francis Rose and William Russell Flint. The exhibition included these men as well.

The exhibition Conscience and Conflict aimed to recreate the polit­ical culture of the 1930s, which was moving left in the wake of the Depression, the Labour defeat of 1931, oppression of workers and farm labourers, and the international rise of Fascism. Although the Pallant House Gallery exhibition ended in February 2015, viewers will be encouraged to keep on analysing the connections between history, politics and art.


Andrew said...

I mostly know about the Spanish Civil War post 1936 but as usual you have educated me with the pre 1936 history which is clearly very quite important.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen,

The Pallant House gallery in Chichester houses some excellent exhibitions and he one you mention here was a particular triumph, we think. Although we could not get to see it personally, we saw much about it online and Simon Martin writes so engagingly as well as informatively about it all.

It was most intriguing to read all this background information about the Spanish Civil War. Our knowledge of the events was sketchy, mainly through the works of the anti fascists whom you mention, so it has been helpful to have the extra details.

Deb said...

You are not going to believe this, but there is an impressive Spanish War memorial next to Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. This is not in the formal Australian War Memorial.

Hels said...


normally I wouldn't bother with the lead up to the Civil War. But if we don't understand how angry the Military-Church-Nobility-Right Wingers were in the years following the establishment of the Spanish Republic in 1931, their brutality during the Civil War wouldn't make sense.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

well done Pallant House! British Art of the Spanish Civil War is still a fairly risky programme I think. Although the artists and writers were almost entirely anti-Fascist, I imagine that many of the politicians back then were more fearful of Russia than of Fascist Spain and Germany.

I must get hold of the exhibition catalogue.

Hels said...


excellent! Monument Australia says the Canberra memorial is a wall of sandstone blocks with red brick courses. On the wall is a bronze plaque, headed AUSTRALIANS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR 1936 TO 1939 above a bas relief map of Spain showing towns where major battles took place during the war. 70 Australians took part!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It seems that the 20th century has produced such distinctive political/war-related art. I wonder how true this was of earlier times. For example, although I have seen quite a bit of art from the U.S. Civil War, it just seems an extension of the art of its time, even when illustrating the war itself; not a new look to espouse the issues central to the conflict.

Hels said...


war images to be sure - battle scenes, soldiers on the march, generals planning, damaged cities etc. I think I have seen war-art from time immemorial, including more remote wars like Crimea.

But civil wars were usually the business of the nation that was being divided in half, not so much the business of concerned outsiders. The Rep­ublicans alone received 40,000 volunt­eer fighters from abroad, not counting people raising money, sending food and equipment, writing books etc. I am still in awe!

Student of History said...

I wish we were offered Spanish history in school. Just Australian, British and two revolutions (French and Russian).

Hels said...


my school experience was similar. Even at university I did British, French, German and Italian history, but nothing about Spain. How strange.

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

Hels said...


100% correct - violence has always been used to achieve the aims of the church, state or military decision makers. However this was Spanish citizens slaughtering other Spanish citizens.. and for what outcome?

Joseph said...

The Queen Sofia Gallery in Madrid was brilliant. Both the permanent displays and the special exhibitions. I would have liked another few hours there.

Hels said...


Normally visitors to Madrid would spend time at the Museo del Prado and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and think they had seen all the quality art objects that the city owns. But Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía adds a whole 'nother dimension to 20th century art.

In fact the Paseo del Arte ticket is a great way to see the three galleries, which are all located in Madrid's Art Triangle.