Exhibition: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

Review of an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, West Sussex.

The more that historians arrive at an understanding of the 20th century, the more the Spanish Civil War stands out as a pivotal event. This is because, if the 20th century was, to cite Eric Hobsbawm, an ‘age of extremes’ driven by ideological conflicts between communism, fascism and liberalism, then Spain was at the crux of these conflicts. The fight between the democratically elected Spanish Republic and the rebel Nationalist force led by General Franco was emblematic of the European clash between left- and right-wing forces. The Spanish Civil War was also a conflict of intimate enemies and local massacres where civilians were killed by their own compatriots. As Helen Graham argues in The War and Its Shadow (2012), Spain was a constitutive element in a wider pattern of violence between 1936 and 1947; where mass killing of non-combatants became the brutal medium through which societies enacted structure-shattering forms of change. 

To date, thousands of books have been penned on the Spanish Civil War, which is why Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War is remarkable: it explores a gap in our understanding, namely how British visual artists responded to it.  

As the curator Simon Martin asserts, much has been said about literary reactions of the likes of George Orwell, Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden, but almost nothing about British artists’ engagement in the conflict. In this way the exhibition poses big questions that resonate beyond the 1930s. It asks how artists engage a mass audience with political issues, which in this case was a choice: the Republic or Franco. 

The exhibition draws upon an astonishing array of objects, some of which will be familiar. So the exhibition tells the story of how Pablo Picasso’s depiction of the aerial devastation of the Basque capital, Guernica (1937), toured Britain in 1938 and 1939, including a stint in a car showroom in support of the Manchester Food Ship for Spain. It also contains Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937), based upon his lover, Dora Maar, whose fragmented face expressed the conflict’s agony, and Joan Miró’s print Help Spain (1937), where a Catalan peasant raises his clenched fist in the Loyalist salute, originally envisaged as a one franc stamp to raise funds for the Republican cause in France.  

But most is unfamiliar. The work of Frank Brangwyn, Clive Branson and Ursula McCannell has long been forgotten, while many of the banners, leaflets, tracts, photos, textiles and posters are presented for the first time.

Conscience and Conflict recreates the political culture of the 1930s, which was moving left in the wake of the Depression, the Labour defeat of 1931 and the international rise of fascism. In this context, for so many of the artists on display, as either Communists or fellow travellers, the Soviet Union was seen as the answer to all these ills. Importantly, the exhibition shows how this culture was connected internationally to modernism and how the key conduit was the surrealist Roland Penrose. His friendship with Picasso led him to Spain early in the war and he returned committed to the Republic. For Penrose, it was good versus evil and he wanted to use art to counter Francoist propaganda, win support for the British men and women who went to fight in Spain – of whom there were 2,500 – and denounce Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.  

Conscience and Conflict also shows the impact of the Spanish tragedy upon the artistic imagination. In particular, artists expressed fears about war from the air and here Walter Nessler’s 1937 canvas, Premonition (above), is a highlight. Portraying a gas mask on top of a bombed out London skyline, it was a chilling anticipation of the Blitz.  

This outstanding exhibition is accompanied by an equally outstanding catalogue written by Martin. The way in which Conscience and Conflict engages the audience with a complex subject is a model for other galleries to follow. Anybody with an interest in the connections between history, politics and art should go.

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex, until February 15th, 2015.

Martin Evans is Professor of History at the University of Sussex.