Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War.

R.B. KITAJ (1932–2007), La Pasionaria, 1969
La Pasionaria, Kitaj

So finally I made it to Pallant House Gallery to view Conscience and Conflict. A much anticipated viewing of any exhibition always runs the gauntlet of anti-climax, but there was no such trouble at this seminal showing of British artist’s responses to the Spanish Civil War. As the daughter of a Spanish exile and an artist working with this very history I was particularly keen to view and cast a post memory eye over the artistic milieu of the country in which my father found himself exiled at the mere age of eighteen.

To recap for those who don’t know my history, my father José García Lora, was a Republican journalist, and I am here – British born – both because of the dictator Franco, and a philanthropic Quaker Spanish Medical Aid Committee (SMAC) volunteer called Alec Wainman who rescued him and fourteen others from the Barcarès camp in the Summer of 1939. I have written about this and made a film this Summer with artist Jonathan Moss about my father’s rescue Link text here...

It’s important to say that my father left Spain (as half a million Republican Spaniards did) in fear for his life, a fear entirely justified. This was no ordinary exit, and there was no return, and so England became home. My father never was reconciled to this situation but nonetheless there was immense reason to feel gratitude, for while the British government took the exiles in with huge reluctance, there was an extraordinary community of volunteers like Alec Wainman and the International Brigades who not only supported the Second Republic in the fight against fascism but were also willing to act, often putting their own lives at risk. Indeed many fell for a free Spain. This exhibition explores the artistic effort which itself involved casualties, Felicia Browne being notable not only for a handful (which remain) of beautifully executed drawings but also for her tragically early death in 1936 in action on the Aragon front. These drawings brim with promise and her self portrait presents us with a bold gaze – here was a woman of obvious talent and resolve. The loss of young lives to fervently held ideals lends a further layer of emotionality to this show and to modern day comparison. Conscience and Conflict thus has an urgent contemporary relevance and begs questions of us all.

Felicia Browne, Self portrait. Not dated
Felicia Browne, Self Portrait, date unknown.

The hang in the opening room emitted order and reverence lending an immediate reassurance that the grave nature of much of the material before us was in safe hands. So often in this kind of exhibition the visual hang can be sacrificed on the altar of knowledge and works are cramped, there is excess verbiage and an over emphasis on didacticism. Here the balance between visual appreciation and informative comment was perfectly gauged and this standard continued throughout.

I had arrived feeling that what would matter most was not so much the artistic quality of the work as the groundbreaking bringing together of this moment in history, in which artists stood up in significant numbers and declared allegiance to a cause. A moment, revealed to us for the first time here, when great creativity was lent to the war effort for both the raising of funds and awareness, and in which artists were also moved towards thematic sympathy with Republican Spain in their work through a connection with ideology or exposure to the culture. I left feeling overwhelmed by the truth of this perception and thus the weight of British artist’s contribution, yet also that I was mistaken about quality. This exhibition is of great importance in showing us what British artists achieved in response to the inhumanity of this particular war, and has many excellent pieces to surprise us with, and some true gems. There are many new friends to be made and old ones to admire, thus I came away both moved by the riches of human solidarity before me and enthused by some wonderful discoveries which are of interest in their own right. Above all I was charmed.

This is also an exhibition of great art historical depth and rigour which seeks to detail works and influences of both earlier and contemporary Spanish artists Like El Greco, Picasso and Miró, on British artists. It thus also presents us with a visually exciting moment of cross cultural pollination in which new ideas and motifs are lent to the cause or woven into an individual artist’s work. There are approximately 80 pieces on view so this blog review provides only highlights and observations. Of course we must also deal with the rather large elephant in the gallery. Picasso’s The Weeping Woman (both versions) purchased directly by Roland Penrose and needing no introduction from me, apart from to observe Picasso’s obvious dominance in this context as in most others. The gallery plays this nicely however, and here it’s not about Picasso as protagonist so much as his influence on the British artists whose response is allowed to shine in it’s own way.

I particularly liked the showing of works by Goya to contextualise, as in the 1938 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition of prints and drawings by Goya, the print series ‘The Disasters of War’ were shown. Pallant House maintains that showing them at this time “.. was politically charged as they provided a historic parallel to the contemporary conflict and the brutality depicted served as a highly relevant inspiration to many contemporary artists.” Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ are of course without equal and I found their inclusion almost overwhelming in this context. Their mournful implication is that we learn nothing, bringing us up short to the contemporary once more.

FRANCISCO DE GOYA (1746–1828), ‘Nada el lo dirá

 Nada el lo dirá, Goya

All of the above speaks highly of the curation of this show, which I am not alone in noting is outstanding. Simon Martin is to be greatly applauded in drawing together so many disparate works and contextual material from such scattered sources, and in his knowledge and sensitivity to his subject. The thematic organisation is inspired and empathic enabling the viewer to move through the various narratives of this show with ease.

For the reviewer there are two general categories of art to deal with, one being propaganda art, notably on posters and other design based artefacts, and the other being fine art responses in drawings, prints, painting and sculpture. But I’m not a fan of design/fine art boundaries so my highlights appear from across the board, all the works on show are after all the fruits of inspired creativity and enough good will to warm the coldest heart. The only exceptions will be the sprinkling of Nationalist works whose presence, while important for context and balance, are given the cold shoulder by this most partisan of viewers. The Spanish exiles were to all intents and purposes excommunicated by fascist Spain and suffered beyond Franco’s forty long years dictatorship with it’s silent erasure of them from the public memory, as the negotiation of democracy was built on a pact of forgetting which further prolonged the agony of the abyss that was their negation. Inroads into this orchestrated public amnesia are recent and slow. I don’t think I can be blamed for staunchly refusing these minority Nationalist sympathising artists even the last dregs from this blog’s reviewing teapot. Not a drop of tea or sympathy from me.

Pere Català Pic “Aixafem el feixisme” 1937
Aixafem el feixisme Pere Català Pic 1937

In very many ways this injustice to the memory of exiled and executed Republicans is touched on in this show. Through these British sympathisers their story is taken up at one remove. The Basque children rightly appear here, as just under 4,000 were rescued from the threat of further vicious bombing raids after Guernica in 1937 and brought to England. Their story is now well rehearsed among insiders but needs to break out and become part of the national memory in Britain. Too long overshadowed by WW2 and the evacuee narrative, this was also ultimately the fate of all the Spanish exiles, to be ejected by one war and buried by another so close on it’s heels. Posters using images of child victims were almost too much to bear yet I know they made a vital contribution to the propaganda war. They made Pere Català Pic’s “Aixafem el feixisme” elegantly mesmerising poster of an espadrille clad foot crushing a swastika look tame by comparison. The British artists here are revealed to be brimming with compassion and displayed a raw emotionality in the designs shown, such as the wonderful Felicity Ashbee poster (see below) which exhibits extraordinary draughtsmanship and design but was deemed too distressing for it’s purpose.

FELICITY ASHBEE (1867–1956), They Face Famine in Spain: Send Medical Supplies, 1937
Send Medical Supplies, Felicity Ashbee 1937

It is interesting to observe both hints of Picasso’s blue period in Felicity Ashbee’s work and to compare it with Pic’s. In Pic’s there is optimism about the rising up of the people (el pueblo) to crush fascism and it is a call to arms, in Ashbee’s there’s a desperate victimhood and it is a cry for help. Both were vitally needed yet tragically neither was enough. These British artists lobbied and laboured for a free Spain against the backdrop of their government’s fatal and dissembling policy of ‘neutrality’ which assisted Franco in demolishing the Republic thereby contributing to the national bloodbath.

In my own practice objects form my materials, hence I was drawn to the objects in this show, most especially Julian Trevelyan’s painted papier-mâché “Horse’s Head” from the Surrealists’ Float at the 1938 May Day Procession. I’m sad not to find a photograph to share with you as I found it extremely moving to observe the care of it’s construction and it’s conservation as it is a delicate creature of immense charm. The excitement and resolve of this piece of street theatre is also contained in a large black and white printed photograph in which the horse’s head can just be observed in the distant right hand side of the picture. This is precisely what this show does so well, assembling connecting fragments of the history and arriving at groupings which add layer upon layer to our understanding of this rich moment.

There is so much more to talk about here, and so it is with a sense of regret about the many worthy omissions that I press on to my own personal favourite work. Before doing so I must note that the Kitaj work at the top of this review was a very close second, showing the most sensitive of lines in rendering the profile of La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibárruri, the revered visionary Basque Republican leader. The subject and treatment both have me wishing I could tuck it under my arm and take it home. It’s a precious piece, which demonstrates the continued influence of this war and elements of it’s iconography on one British artist’s imagination.

I turn then to Henry Moore, an artist whom I’ve had on a slow burner for some years. Over time I’ve come to appreciate Henry Moore more and more (excuse the irresistible urge to use more three times in a row!). Having dismissed Moore as a stolid pipe and slippers kind of guy it was with a true sense of revelation that I encountered a large and exciting collection of works at Toronto’s AGO this Summer. I had revelled in texture and form with Henry so it was with a sense of joy and deep gratitude that I discovered his response to the Spanish exile’s captivity in the internment camps of France.

Henry Moore, Spanish Prisoner 1939
Spanish Prisoner, Henry Moore 1939

For me this work signified a kind of arrival for the show, from my own perspective. It was the moment when my (post memory) history truly intersected with what is on offer at Pallant House and we were in that instant at one contemplating the same memory site, the gallery, Henry and me. Spanish Prisoner was my father, and my own work has been to reconstruct this hideous moment in his history, which had remained buried under the sands of Argelés and Barcarés. The silencing by the Franco regime and of the traumatising brutality of life in these camps rendered my father mute on the subject. Also it is my huge regret that I didn’t know and therefore didn’t ask. He died in 1989 not knowing that I would one day take up the threads, compelled to do so by a handbag. As a playwright and admirer of Oscar Wild I’m sure he would appreciate this unusual catalyst.

So now seventy five years later I find myself in a curious position, on inheriting my grandmother’s handbag a Proustian cache of memories have revolutionised my artistic practice and I inhabit a duel existence journeying between 1939 and 2014 uncovering the history of my constant travels as a child between Birmingham and Barcelona. So powerful is this experience of immersive practice that at times I find myself rubbing the sand from my eyes and prone to traffic violation due to intense distraction. I am learning to switch out of 1939 mode while driving.

I am of course intensely moved by Moore’s poster design and wonder if my father’s rescuer set eyes on it in 1939. It’s very possible. The barbed wire is of course wholly accurate and I was interested to see the progression to lithograph of this work in which two further faces appear, the lower of which surely alludes to the children in the camps many of whom didn’t survive the unsanitary conditions and starvation due to lack of food supplies.

I have a feeling that there is more to come from this encounter and in turn, in some form I will respond to my new friend Henry and his Spanish Prisoner through the project. I was with a guest at Pallant House and we had a booking at El Castizo tapas restaurant in Chichester and thus it was that I left this airy gallery longing to return again, but grateful and in need of a smooth and full bodied glass of red on arrival at this Chichester gem. Emotionally drained by Conscience and Conflict (in a good way) my guest and I fell into the warm arms of genuine Spanish hospitality at El Castizo and put ourselves into James Pound’s cheery hands for wine choice and a selection of tapas recommended by the house. I highly recommend El Castizo and experienced in combination with Conscience and Conflict it was perfect.

Reflecting on this important exhibition I return to Spanish Prisoner and observe that while this is but one aspect of the multi-stranded narrative before us it is entirely under told in Britain. It is almost beyond me to imagine the grief of washing up in foreign shores never to return to live in the home you left behind and never quite to feel you belong in your adoptive land. Exile is about having no choice and inhabiting a curious no-place or no man’s land. Displacement of this kind can be permanently disorienting to the psyche, an observation of continued relevance as civil wars rage all around us. It matters to keep talking about this.

I came away feeling that a final room holding many examples of Kitaj’s later work in response to the Spanish Civil War provided a link to contemporary practice and that Jonathan Moss Link text here... and myself with our current focus on the camps of France are part of a tradition of British artists responding to this history, that the echoes of this ghastly conflict continue. I felt enormous pride in British artists and sense of responsibility for my part of the story. It’s therefore with a genuine sense of guardianship that I carry on. Conscience and Conflict will be one of my beacons.