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Images of a dress-rehearsal war

08 May 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees a Spanish Civil War art exhibition

Courtesy of the Edward Burra Estate, Lefevre Fine Art, London

Death stalks Spain: The Watcher by Edward Burra, exhibited in Newcastle

Death stalks Spain: The Watcher by Edward Burra, exhibited in Newcastle

"I AM British and live in Richmond. The reason I enjoy Cervantes and Shakespeare in equal measure is because this is my story (on both sides)." The exhibition under discussion marks the 75th anniversary of the ending of the Spanish Civil War, an event that, in Hemingway's words in his 1940 book For Whom the Bell Tolls, was the "dress rehearsal for the inevitable European War" that followed.

The conflict is not always easy to understand, as a conspiracy of silence still veils much discussion of it in a divided Spanish society, since it was General Franco who appointed Juan Carlos to be king in 1975. Simon Martin, a co-director of Pallant House, Chichester, where this extraordinarily profound and intensely moving exhibition was first staged last November, is to be congratulated for an even-handed survey of artists in this often overlooked conflict.

It is reckoned that some 6800 religious, secular priests, and members of communities were killed between 1936 and 1939. Thirteen bishops, including those of Barcelona and Cuenca, were put to death, all of them having determined to stay within their dioceses despite facing danger from Republicans.

Some 4172 parish clergy are known to have been killed, some for supporting the Nationalist government, others for simply being priests. The massacre of the religious is yet more telling, including 165 De La Salle brothers, 226 Franciscans, and 132 Dominicans, for instance.

Britain had signed a non-intervention pact with Spain, and the exhibition traces the story of how artists, among many others, defied the ban in an effort to help the afflicted. Some 2500 volunteers travelled to Spain, including writers such as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Julian Bell, to fight against Fascism as mercenaries; nearly a quarter died in the field. The British Government, to uphold the pact, invoked a 19th-century Act to prohibit foreign enlistment.

Henry Moore, who had been refused a visa, was among English artists to inveigh against this, and the exhibition charts the response of British artists to the unfolding humanitarian crisis that tore out the heart of the Iberian peninsula.

At a May Day rally in 1938, Roland Penrose, a friend of Picasso, who founded the ICA after the Second World War, and the artist and print-maker Julian Trevelyan (1910-88) were among those who wore Chamberlain masks, devised by the British surrealist sculptor F. E. McWilliam (1909-92), to call for the Prime Minister's resignation.

Later that year, Penrose helped Sir Herbert Read to organise the British tour for Picasso's outrageous Guernica, an exhibition sponsored by, among others, Virginia Woolf, Victor Gollancz, and both E. M. Forster and A. P. Herbert, designed to show the plight of Republican Spain. Penrose bought Pablo Picasso's Femme en pleurs of 26 October 1937 (The Tate), a dominating presence in this show.

Non-intervention always costs lives. Although this exhibition was conceived three years ago, at the suggestion of Dr Jeffrey Sherwin, a great collector of British surrealist art, it is wildly relevant and deeply provocative. It is impossible not to view it against the background of the recent beheadings in Libya of Coptic Christians, or in the light of the chilling honesty of the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil's address to the General Synod (News, 13 February) and the Russian invasion of Ukrainian sovereign territory.

When a little girl, Maria Santiago Robert, was killed at Getafe in an air strike on 30 October 1936, the Republicans circulated an image of her body the next day. Her face is trapped in a wordless scream, her eyes as if alert to the disaster. The poster, "The 'military' practice of the rebels", was sent to France and Britain to try to prompt an international response: "If you tolerate this, your children will be next." Coventry and Dresden would follow.

The London Passenger Transport Board even refused to display posters for the Winter Relief Fund painted by Felicity Ashbee, objecting that the stark depictions of contemporary suffering were too "political". The RC pacifist Sir Frank Brangwyn, in a poster campaign for the General Relief Fund for Women and Children in Spain, a non-partisan relief fund supported by the Chief Rabbi as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, RC clergy, and leaders of the Free Churches in England and Scotland, turned to Spanish images of the Virgin Mary for succour.

The British Government relented, and more than 4000 Basque children sailed on The Habana to Southampton, arriving on 23 May 1937, ten days after the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. One gallery visitor had brought her mother, a niña vasca, to see the exhibition in Chichester, and feelingly wrote that her mother "would like to thank the British people for their support and care". How many Syrian refugees have we now brought to safety? Are Iraqi Christians welcomed here in 2015?

Besides paintings and drawings, we are treated to a range of artefacts including a banner made by the Women of Barcelona for the British Battalion at the Farewell Parade of the International Brigades in October 1938. It has been draped over the coffins of all the known battalion survivors since. There is even a souvenir Spanish fan signed by members of the International Brigade from Cyprus, Canada, Britain, Hungary, Ireland, and South Africa, true comrades-in-arms.

"Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War" is at the Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, until 7 June. Phone 0191 232 7734.


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