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Aidez Espagne (Help Spain) Joan Miró, 1937

We often look back at history and its more unfortunate major world events and think we could never make those same mistakes again. But if the global rise of fascism in the 21st century and the war in Ukraine has taught us anything, it’s that we are slow learners. I was reminded of this recently while watching Luis Buñuel’s ‘España 1936’ with its images of a bombed Madrid, bloodied broken children lying in the street, young boys helping to dig up the pavestones in the road to build the walls they hoped would keep the fascists out. There’s a banner stretched across the road that reads, ‘THEY WILL NOT ENTER – Madrid will be the tomb of fascism’.

All our perceptions of historical events have come via the written word or visual representation - through the interpretation of individuals. Before World War I, the battlefield was a place of glory and bravery, of triumphant soldiers riding on horses, painted as propaganda for the elite. But then the invention of photography took the average citizen to the trenches to witness the realism of war and this coincided with an art movement that was not afraid to accentuate the horrors of modern warfare now seen so graphically in newspapers, magazines and news reels.

Calls for a new world order

Since the 19th century, Modernism has been synonymous with social changes – growing industrialism, capitalism, urbanisation and new sciences and technologies. With these changes came a rejection of the old way of doing things; the established systems had failed and it was necessary to introduce a whole new world order. Contemporary artists were responding to these changes and felt an obligation to represent the rights of minorities, women, the poor, through the mediums of art and literature.

Hell of the Birds by Max Beckmann, 1938

Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, De Stijl, and Dadaism are just a few of the avant-garde styles being developed by artists in Europe during the early decades of the 20th century. The Modernists were avant-garde artists, writers, musicians and architects who challenged the status-quo and sought to understand and analyse the human condition through their own unique interpretive style. The forward-thinking French mathematician and social reformer, Benjamin Olinde Rodrigues claimed in 1825 in his essay, “The Artist, the Scientist and the Industrialist”, that the power of the arts was the most immediate and fastest way to social, political and economic reform. The radical thought engines of the present create the mainstream thought of the future.

The threat of change

The Spanish Civil War was an international war of modern ideology. Dynasties, empires and monarchies were collapsing from the Far East to Western Europe. Socialism and Communism were seen as answers to the prevalent inequality and social injustices, so it’s no surprise many artists and writers would embrace their doctrines. Spanish artists, alongside their other European counterparts enthusiastically accepted the people’s revolution and the new industrialised modern world and their art reflected these changes. For the more conservative, these changes were unfamiliar and threatening; film, photography, cars, telephones, radios, X-rays, phonographs that played modern music, women and their newly acquired independence and fashion, advances in physics and psychiatry, changing family structures…it was all too much too soon.

The reactions to these social changes were particularly strong in Spain where the culture was deeply entrenched in tradition. Spain at the turn of the new century was one of the most backward countries in Europe, ruled by the Catholic church, the monarchy and the wealthiest of society. The medieval feudalist economic system meant a mere 7000 landowners owned 15 million acres of land and the peasantry lived on the edge of starvation. The social democrats and republicans were angry at the politicians’ inability to pull Spain out of its poverty. Luis Buñuel’s film “Land Without Bread” highlighted, though also exaggerated for political purposes, the destitution of the people living in the village of Las Hurdes, Extremadura – so poor and isolated they had only recently learned what bread was.

A history of social woes

Most of Europe was affected in some way by the Great Depression, but Spain’s economic woes go back much further. The seeds no doubt had been sown long before Queen Isabel II who reigned from 1833 to 1868, but whom all sides of the political spectrum agreed was the country’s biggest problem, though probably for different reasons. When she was eventually exiled there was the dilemma of who would take over the royal role, and after a couple of years of trying out an Italian king, Spain considered the idea of a republic. This did not suit the deeply monarch-minded and they decided that Isabel’s young son, Alfonso XII, was probably better than nothing. Spain wasn’t ready to be king-free just yet.

But as with the rest of Europe and much of the world, times were changing; politics was becoming more polarised and social unrest was manifesting itself in riots, strikes, coups and very angry discussions over copious cups of coffee. Political parties all thought they held the answers and knew who to blame. When things are not going well, it’s easy to find a scapegoat, and there were enough of those to satisfy every sector of society. The left-leaning socialist-minded blamed the church, the landowners and the monarchy while the right-leaning conservatists blamed the Bolsheviks, separatists, Freemasons and modern liberal values.

When King Alfonso XIII abdicated in 1931, a second republic was proclaimed, and efforts were made to trim back the church’s powers and introduce the long-awaited land reforms. Sufficient land reforms weren’t forthcoming and the working class were becoming restless, prompting another election in 1933 which brought in a right-wing party bent on undoing the previous two years’ worth of reform and policy.

Popular Front! Front of Victory of Freedom! poster. Illustration by Martí Bas i Blasi

After another two years of political and social strife, a new election was called and in February 1936, the Popular Front – a new party made up of left-wing groups such as the Socialists, Communists, Republicans and Separatists - won by a narrow margin. A subsequent political assassination and a military uprising led by General Franco in Spanish Morocco plunged the country into three years of brutal civil war.

The war was a battle between age-old traditions and modern cultural changes. It was a war between fascism and democracy, but it was also so much more complicated. It was peasant against landowner, secularists against the clergy, progressives against traditionalists, fascists against communists, republicans against monarchists, democrats against totalitarians, nationalists against separatists, Carlists against Bourbonists, anarchists against governments of any kind, working class against the bourgeoisie, capitalists against socialists and it became deeply personal, pitting neighbour against neighbour, father against son.

A global concern

These battles made it very much an international war. With the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, other European countries were getting nervous and they knew something was brewing. The inevitability of another world war was a much-discussed subject and artists and writers everywhere felt it their responsibility to do their bit to avoid it. Pressure was put on Great Britain and France to get involved but after the devastation of the Great War, they were determined to avoid plunging Europe into another one. In August 1936, a month after the Civil War in Spain broke out, a Non-Intervention Agreement was signed by 27 countries pledging not to get involved, among them Germany, Italy and the USSR.

This was unfortunate, because while the UK and France kept their word, Italy and Germany very quickly violated the pact by sending modern weapons, soldiers and fighter planes to assist the Nationalists, while the USSR sent out-dated soviet artillery and military advisors to the Republicans. UK and France still refused to budge but that didn’t stop 35,000 volunteers from 52 countries around the world to join in the fight or volunteer as nurses in military hospitals. Known as the ‘International Brigade’, many who came to fight alongside the Republicans were Jews or communists, determined to stop the spread of anti-Semitism and fascism. There were others, particularly from Catholic Ireland who came to help the fascists in what they felt was a ‘holy war’. All of them were convinced that the outcome of this war would determine the future of civilization.

A picture paints a thousand words

Among the international influx were writers and photographers, notably the famous war photographer Robert Capa who, alongside his partner and companion, Gerda Taro, felt, probably rightly, that photography could change the world. For the first time, cameras such as the Leica were compact and portable with flash bulbs, enabling the photographer to move quickly with his subject and get up close to the action – which is what they did. During the Spanish Civil War and later World War II, Capa and Taro took some of the greatest combat photos in history and changed photojournalism forever. Capa once said, "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Unfortunately, being close enough is what killed them both – Taro in 1937 during the Battle of Brunete in Madrid and Capo by a landmine in Indochina in 1954.

Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Robert Capa, 1936

This "Golden Age of Photojournalism" was about the ability to tell an objective story through pictures, and photographers Erich Salomon, Romano Cagnoni, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White and W. Eugene Smith, among many others, were in demand by agencies all over the world. Magazines and newspapers such as Life (USA), Vu (France), The Daily Mirror (UK) and the New York Daily News (USA) were a few of the first to create the illustrated news format that we still use today.

Hemingway (moustache and glasses) in a front- line trench. Image: Smithsonian Magazine

But while “the camera never lies” was an effective way of spreading news of the war around the world, correspondents and writers from all over Europe, USA, South America, Canada and Australia were busy licking their pen nibs and hammering on their typewriters to help get the message out. Ernest Hemingway and his third wife Martha Gellhorn went to Spain in 1937 where his experiences as a war correspondent prompted him to write “For Whom the Bells Toll” and his only play, “The Fifth Column”.

Authors take sides

Writers and poets felt it their duty to become, if not physically, then emotionally involved. By not opposing fascism by writing non-political poetry was tantamount to not defending human beings. The British-American poet, W.H Auden, believed that “In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act”, and also wrote, “Poetry cannot be separated from current social and political events. Poets must take a stance”. Auden became an ambulance driver in the Spanish war and his poem “Spain” published in 1937, was described by George Orwell as "one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war".

Orwell himself went to Spain to help fight fascism for “common decency” and almost died from a bullet to the throat. Known for the famously critical novels ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Orwell was a staunch supporter of the democratic socialist ideology and in 1946, wrote, "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it." His book, “Homage to Catalonia” was about his experiences in Barcelona and Aragon and his eventual escape to France.

Auden and Orwell were not the only writers to take a vocal stance against the war; in 1937, the committed anti-fascist Nancy Cunard, patron and mistress to writers and artists of the 20s and 30s, published the answers to a political questionnaire, 'Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War'. The questions had been directed to 148 prominent writers asking them to share where they stood regarding the war - among them, T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.H Auden, Rebecca West, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Samuel Beckett. Unsurprisingly 127 supported the Republicans while only 5 were against. 16 writers claimed to be neutral on the matter, most of them admitting their dislike for both fascism and communism equally.

The generations of Spanish poets

For Spanish writers the war was obviously far more personal, and their work reflected the national sentiments that had been building over a long time. Most famously, Federico Garcia Lorca, part of the Generation of ’27 movement that aimed to discuss and combine Avant-guard styles such as Surrealism and Dadaism with Spanish folklore, was assassinated early in the war due to his outspoken political views and sexuality. His short yet productive career revitalized folkloric poetry and has continued to inspire artists and writers long after his death. His murder provoked outrage in the literary world both around Spain and internationally. The Chilean writer Pablo Neruda became a fervent communist, largely as a result of the way his friend had died, and in 1938 wrote a passionate collection of poems titled, ‘Spain in our Hearts’.

Generation '36

Miguel Hernández Gilabert was another member of the literary group, Generation of ‘27, as well as the Generation of ’36 - a movement that documented the difficult experiences of creatives under the on-going political circumstances. Included in this group were Luis Rosales, María Zambrano and dramatist Antonio Buero Vallejo. Miguel Hernández was a self-educated poet and playwright and member of the Communist Party. He was a prolific writer, even while fighting in the fields for the Republicans and later in prison, where he eventually died in 1942 at the age of 31. In ‘To the International Soldier Fallen in Spain’, Hernández writes of the comradery between the Spanish and International soldiers:

“Around your bones

the olive groves will grow

unfolding their iron roots in the ground

embracing men universally, faithfully”.

(trans. by Ted Genoway)

Protesting in Paris

So while writers and poets were describing the abominations of the Civil War on paper, Spanish painters Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, among many others, were trying to convey them on canvas. In January 1937, Picasso was commissioned to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair. For three months he worked on a few sketches, uninspired and no doubt distracted by the events transpiring in his homeland, until word came through of an aerial bombing of a small Basque town by the German Luftwaffe. Hundreds of civilians who were out at the public square that market day, Monday 26 April, died in the subsequent bombardment. Perhaps for the first time, the full realization of the price civilians were paying in this war horrified the world and galvanised Picasso into creating the famous masterpiece, ‘Guernica’.

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, 1937

“In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.” Picasso

Picasso worked frenetically on numerous sketches, drawing on his cubist and surrealist studies, before finishing the painting within a month. At over seven and a half metres wide and three and a half metres high, painted in bold black and white images of screaming women and dead babies, Guernica caused an immediate sensation. It was exhibited to the public alongside newsreels and photographs documenting the fascists’ atrocities.

Besides Picasso, several other Spanish artists showed their work in support of the Republicans; Joan Miró’s ‘The Reaper – A Catalan Peasant in Revolt’, another giant painting in Miró’s characteristic surrealist style, was unfortunately lost or destroyed in 1938. The sculptor Julio Gonzalez exhibited ‘Montserrat’ – a peasant woman standing defiantly with a sickle in her right hand and a child on her left arm. The sculptor Alberto Sanchez Perez contributed with a 12-metre-high totem pole crowned with a star, called ‘The Spanish People Have a Path that Leads to a Star’. The American Alexander Calder was commissioned to create a sculpture that denounced the siege of the mining town, Almaden, by Franco’s forces. At the time, Almaden supplied about 60% of the world’s mercury and was an important source of revenue for the republican government. The sculpture is titled, ‘Mercury Fountain’. The collective works were an opportunity to raise awareness of the devastating events unfolding in Spain.

Mercury Fountain by Alexander Calder, 1937. Photo: Jeremy Brooks/Flickr

“It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words. The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.” Picasso

Degenerate art

Meanwhile, Hitler was waging a war on Modernists in Germany and two months after the opening of the Paris World’s Fair, he launched his own major exhibition of “Degenerate Art” - maybe a little rattled at the emotional response the art in the Spanish Pavilion had provoked. Hitler was well aware of the power that words and images had - he had worked as an artist himself in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, trying twice to enter the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He would not have been blind to the influence of the famous Bauhaus art school and the Modernist art of the time.

Degenerate Art Exhibition, July 1937

But Hitler was quick to nip it in the bud, belittle, and accuse them of degeneracy. He made good use of the average person’s inability to understand the baffling new images and concepts by convincing them the so-called artists didn’t know how to paint due to their inferiority, abnormality and racial genetic defects. The Degenerate Art exhibition was a chance to deride what he knew could be a powerful propaganda tool. And it worked. 650 works of mostly German art from 32 German museums were chosen - artists such as Paul Klee, Georg Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Georg Kolbe, Franz Marc, and Otto Dix, who by then had all fled the country to continue their “subversion” elsewhere, were tossed into the figurative (and literal) garbage bin.

"Art does not reproduce the visible but makes it visible…..The more horrifying the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.” Paul Klee

Posters as propaganda

But every war needs propaganda and propaganda that convinces the working class masses. Poster Art as a way of spreading information took off from the mid-19th century when printing techniques were perfected, allowing for mass production in the commercial, political or artistic sectors. The art style has always mirrored the aesthetics of the time, such as Art Nouveau, Cubism, Art Deco, Constructivism and Social Realism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the more modern and colourful hippy posters popular in the 1960s. World War I was the first time poster art was widely used for political means to encourage recruitment and convince civilians to do their bit. At the same time the communists in Russia were effectively using posters as propaganda for the masses, using symbols of the peasant and working man and woman to defy the bourgeoisie.

The Church, the Bourgeoisie and the Military holding onto the coattails of Fascism.

The fascist posters of the Nationalists used similar imagery as the fascists in Germany and Italy, focusing on national pride and patriotic slogans, while the Republicans found the revolutionary spirit of the Soviets had worked well for them and considered it appropriate they also adopt the peasant and sickle and the defiant clenched fist of the oppressed worker in their propaganda. Republican posters outnumbered Nationalist posters mainly because many of the artists came from Barcelona and the predominantly anti-fascist cities had the monopoly on the printing presses. The images were bold, colourful and relatable and sent a clear message to the largely illiterate masses.

Nationalist posters: (left) For Homeland, Bread and Justice and (right) Spain Revival, with images of military strength and patriotism.

After three horrific years of barbarism from both sides, the Civil War came to an end – four months before the start of World War II. Despite the heroic efforts of liberals, republicans, communists, socialists, and anarchists from everywhere, The Popular Front government was ousted and Franco, the conquering hero of the new religious Crusade set himself up as jefe nacional (National Chief) of the new FET (Falange Española Tradicionalista) party. There are many reasons why this happened. But that is for another post.

For anyone interested in learning more about the Spanish Civil War, the wonderful blog ‘Spain Then and Now’ has comprehensive articles on the lead up to the war, the war itself and the years following the war.

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