Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

November 25, 2014 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Amazingly this impressive exhibition is the first of its kind in the UK to focus on British artists’ contribution in support of the Spanish Republican government in its struggle against General Franco’s fascist coup in 1936. It is surprising that no one had attempted this before, because support for the Republican Government at the time was undoubtedly the last major mobilization of working people and artists in support of any cause, in this case that of the democratically elected republican government of Spain and at the same time combatting the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. If the example of the thousands of international volunteers who went to fight in Spain and the passion with which so many artists lent their support had been followed we may have avoided the inexorable rise of Hitler and the horrors of the Second World War.

Simon Martin, the curator of the exhibition, and the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester should be warmly congratulated on mounting such a fascinating, informative and deeply moving exhibition. They have managed to bring together an amazing collection of works, from Picasso to Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, from Clive Branson to Victor Pasmore, Frank Brangwyn and R.B. Kitaj. And works on display are not just any old second-rate paintings or sculptures but carefully selected and representative works by the artists involved, many hardly seen in public before.

In its breadth of styles, from formalism to surrealism, constructivist to expressionist and social-realist, the exhibition demonstrates how this campaign inflamed the passion and commitment of artists who may have been poles apart in terms of their artistic sensibilities and goals, but were united in seeing the struggle to support Spain’s republican government for what it was: a turning point in European history and a decisive battle to determine whether the continent would move forward on the basis of democracy or be swamped by barbarism.

The coming together of so many leading artists and the thousands who actually volunteered to fight, as well as the hundreds of thousands who attended rallies and donated food and money, was in sharp and shameful contrast to the attitude of western governments and our political elites who, under the guise of neutrality and non-intervention, sabotaged the efforts of the democratically elected Spanish government to win support and defeat fascism. The consequences, as we well know, were apocalyptic.

Apart from the art works themselves, the accompanying texts are extremely informative and devoid of the usual reactionary prejudices or retrospective patronization of the movement in support of Spain. They also pay due respect, without pulling any punches, to those in the Communist and Labour Parties who were in the forefront of that campaign.

This cohesive and meticulously mounted exhibition provides a salutary history lesson through the medium of art, as few manage to do.

The exhibition also includes the showing of an evocative short documentary made by Ivor Montagu at the time, sadly with its sound track missing. It eloquently conveys the hopes, the heroism and atmosphere of the period with its black and white, ‘cinema verité’ imagery. It incudes shots of a mass rally addressed by Clement Attlee, and of Harry Pollit, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, talking to International Brigaders in Spain itself and the first volunteers, smiling and waving, as they march, full of hope, along the platform of Liverpool Street station on their way to France and bound for Spain.

It is impossible to single out any individual work from this rich collection of cartoons, paintings, sculptures, posters, photos, banners, pamphlets and documents, but I will mention several as examples of the riches in store for those who make the effort to visit the exhibition.

There are heart-wrenching photos by the talented Austrian-born photographer Edith Tudor-Hart of refugee Basque children fleeing the fighting and arriving in Britain – a country they have never visited, don’t know and whose language they don’t speak.

A series of sensitive charcoal drawings of militia men and women by Felicia Browne have a particularly emotional force when one knows that they were the last works of art completed by this Slade-trained and very talented artist. She was one of the first of the international volunteers to fight in Spain, and one of the first, and certainly the first woman, to be killed, on 25 August 1936, at the Aragon front near Tardentia. She was a member of a band of raiders that attempted to dynamite a fascist munitions train. The party was itself ambushed and Browne was shot dead while assisting an injured Italian comrade.

There are several paintings by Clive Branson, like Felicia, a Communist Party member, who chose a straightforward, socialist-realist style for his brightly coloured paintings. They may not represent everyone’s favourite artistic style, but they certainly powerfully reflect the social and economic relations of the period. He also completed some fine drawings of a number of his fellow International Brigaders in Spain. Edward Burra surreal painting, ‘War in the Sun’ (1938), represents a totally different take on the issue.

There is a moving if somewhat sentimental poster printed from a lithograph by Frank Brangwyn and designed for the Spanish General Relief Fund, with its central stark figure of a working class mother hugging her baby and surrounded by other desperate children tugging at her skirts; the allusion to religious paintings of the Madonna and child is deliberate.

Edward McKnight’s haunting poster appealing for medical aid to be sent to Spain utilises a copy of the gaunt head of a saint by El Greco to haunting effect. Other, powerful posters in the show are by anonymous artists.

Many of the artists represented in the exhibition belonged to the Artists International Association which brought together hundreds of British artists who were determined to use their art in the struggle against fascism.

Also available is a wonderful and richly illustrated catalogue, with text by curator Simon Martin and with an excellent introduction by acknowledged expert on the Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston.

This exhibition will remain at Pallant House Gallery until 15 February before touring to Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle 7 March – 7 June 2015


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This post was written by John Green

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