Saturday, 14 February 2015

'CONSCIENCE AND CONFLICT: BRITISH ARTISTS AND THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR'

... and another art exhibition reviewed just as it ends!


“Intervention in the field of politics, intervention in the field of the imagination. The revolution which we can bring about must have as its object the development of consciousness and the wider satisfaction of desire.”
- Surrealist Group of England

Spain Shows The Way

I am starting to wonder if the Pallant House gallery have happened upon some device for reading my mind, for this seems an exhibition built to feed two of my fixations. First, and most obviously, the relationship British artists had with developments on the continent. But beyond that, we have not just Modernism’s relationship with the politics of the day but specifically with war. In an earlier piece on Henry Moore (who of course features in this show), I gave vent to “the theory that Modernism was inextricably bound with War, the extremity of the World Wars burning away the old world, driving art to more radical reactions, creating an urgency where art and politics could not be separate”.

Looking around this exhibition is clearly looking back to a time where visual art felt more vital. Before the days of live video feeds, art played a great role in the attempt to stir up public awareness of political events. And in the case of the Spanish Civil War, a wealth of art certainly rose to fill this gap. As well as paintings and sculpture there's posters and poster-ready prints, banners and masks made for political rallies, plus photographs and references to murals. But even the paintings of the day weren't consigned to the rarified atmosphere of art galleries. We're told for example how Picasso's 'Guernica' toured the country as a Republican fund-raiser, and was popularly received. All of which, in Emma Crichton-Miller's words, “reflect[s] how deeply the conflict and the ideological passions it aroused penetrated all aspects of visual culture”.

Of course, some might be given to question the premise behind that title. Why British artists? Why go to outsiders to ask what happened in a Civil War? If we want the word from the horse's mouth shouldn't we be going straight to Picasso's 'Guernica'? It's a good question. But it has a good answer. Let's tease it out by looking at two early pictures, both by Clive Branson. (Yes, apparently some relation to Richard Branson. Not a hoax, not an imaginary story!)

'Noreen and Rosa' (1940) takes place inside the most English of living rooms, the titular two women oblivious to the domestic environment but simultaneously intent upon reading a book on Spain. So does this underline the differences between the two countries? Actually, no. The book cover isn't scenes of Spain, like some Thirties antecedent of the Rough Guides. It's solid block of bright orange would have immediately marked it to contemporary audiences as a product of the Left Book Club. The contrast between that bright block and the pastel shades elsewhere is in some way reminiscent of William Roberts painting of the launch of the Vorticist manifesto. It isn't the exoticism of Spain or the thrill of adventure that's being held up. What's enthralling is ideas. (And, perhaps to underline the point, if the work's date seems late seems a little late for a war that ran between '36 and '39, after going to fight Branson had found himself interned for the war years themselves.)

Similarly, his 'Demonstration In Battersea' (1939, up top) couldn't be a more British setting. But this time things are relocated to the street. With its Belisha beacons and background gasworks, a 'Beano' character could even pass by. Rather than an orderly procession, its a tumult of figures, such a jumble you might even think it a collage. And the orange of the book cover is replaced by the red of the banners. Spain might have in those days been geographically distant, but commonality of issues tied us to it. As the show's introductory blurb puts it “it went beyond being an internal conflict between Republicans and Franco's Nationalists... to being a battleground for ideas in the years before the Second World War”. And those ideas were, according to co-director Simon Martin, “whether they supported the democratically elected Republicans or the Nationalists and their fascist allies.”

Except of course it was nowhere near so simple. The problem words in the show title aren't 'British' but 'Civil War'. For things went beyond Republicans vs. Nationalists pretty quickly, and arguably left all that behind. The limited gains made by the Republican Government were soon exceeded if not superseded on the ground, with workers seizing control of their factories and peasants collectivising land across wide areas. Moreover, when the fascist coup was first attempted it was stymied by a popular uprising that happened outside, and largely against the wishes of, the Republican government. It's perfectly arguable that from that point they became little more than a chimera, in effective charge of nothing at all. This 'Civil War' was in actuality more of a revolution.

And this, the feeling that Spain showed the way, brightened the oranges and reds of the book covers and banners, this became the pull that caused so many foreigners to go and take up arms there. (The show gives an estimate of two and a half thousand combatants from Britain and Ireland alone, despite escalating state attempts to prevent them.) To fight in Spain was to fight for something more than the mere status quo.

As is par for the course these days, the show says little to nothing of this. Words like 'communist' and 'anarchist' appear from time to time, including on one of Branson's banners, but they're assumed to be reducible to the word 'Republican'. (And as the focus here is the show, I'm going to have to ape that lack of distinction myself much of the time.) Instead it focuses on another and admittedly genuine separation. Though it doesn't use these terms itself, let's borrow from the show's title and call the two groups conscience and conflict.

Conscience Versus Conflict


Frank Brangwyn's lithograph 'For The Relief of Women and Children in Spain' (1937, above) could be taken to represent 'conscience'. It centres its composition around (for want of a better term) a 'modern Madonna', eyes closed non-judgementally as she suffers the little children to come unto her. She virtually radiates light. (The show suggests he may have been attempting to 'reclaim' the Catholicism he professed from association with fascism.) It's a great work, by far the best Brangwyn I've ever seen. And it should be acknowledged that the mass carnage of the First World War had understandably driven many to a kind of default pacifism, where conflict had proved too terrible to be allowed to break out again. But it is reminiscent of the way Third World conflicts are often presented to us now, the causes of famine airbrushed out to avoid those difficult questions, and thereby making future famines almost inevitable.

Whereas 'conflict' , as the word might suggest, involved going and fighting the fascists – or at least encouraging others to do the same. Felicia Browne, for example, determined to be a machine gunner but ended up a stretcher bearer. While some of her fluid observational sketchbook drawings survived to be on show here, in August '36 she alas became the first British casualty of the war. She stares with quiet insistence from a self-portrait (below).


Not that these distinctions should be taken to be neat. Felicity Ashbee's series of propaganda posters 'They Face Famine In Spain' (including 'Send Medical Supplies', 1937, below) similarly call for “winter relief” with images of child victims. They were made for the National Joint Committee For Spanish Relief, a group chaired by Conservative MP the Duchess of Artholl. But their design is far starker and more graphic than Brangwyn's, the mother's hand allowed to elongate into almost a skeleton shape. Herself a communist, Browne was most likely attempting a form of entryism. If so it was not to be a successful one, for her work was banned by the London Transport Board.


”We Ask For Your Attention”: Surrealism and Revolution

One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the response to events by the British Surrealists. They are of course often overlooked in favour of their continental brothers, to the point where any mention of them can seem refreshing. But what's significant here is what they did. Surrealism was long ago rewritten as a purely bohemian movement centred around accessing a private dream-space, often even as a mere precursor to blissed-out hippiness or frothy pop art.

Whereas in fact they actively supported, propagandised and raised funds for the Republican cause, pinning their colours to the mast with the unequivocally conflict-based slogan 'Arms For Spain'. The show includes a picture of them on the '38 May Day procession giving ironic fascist salutes from behind appeasing Neville Chamberlain masks, a hapless copper inadvertently making up their ranks (below).


Of course as the British contingent of an international art movement based in France, they had reason to feel continentally connected. And no less than three of the main surrealists were Spanish - Miro, the film-maker Bunel and (then) Picasso. (The more vexed question of Dali, a vocal Franco cheerleader, could perhaps be explained away by Surrealist Pope Andre Breton excommunicating him in 1934. Though notably he still took part in the 1936 International Surrealist exhibition in London.) However, it shouldn't be underestimated the way surrealism saw itself as a political project, a dedication which intensified as the political atmosphere of the inter-war years grew headier. As far back as 1930 Breton had changed the title of his periodical 'The Surrealist Revolution' to 'Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution'.

On the other hand, wishing isn't necessarily getting. While the British Surrealists should be commented for their defence of Spain, did they come up with artworks which were the measure of the occasion? At least initially, the short answer would seem to be no. Throughout the period, factory and office workers demonstrated for the Republic. And of course to do that they had to take time off their day jobs. And with the Surrealists, you can't help feeling it's much the same thing.

The show itself dryly notes of Merlyn Evans' 'Torturing the Anarchist' (1937/8) that “the... abstract form of this work does nor reflect the violence of the title”. FE McWilliam's sculpture 'The Long Arm' (1939) is a semi-abstract sculpture somewhere between Hepworth and Giacometti, with a clenched fist appended like some kind of afterthought. McWilliam acknowledged himself “my first isn't quite clenched because... I was only a fellow traveller”. It certainly pales beside the Popeye-sized bulging biceps dominating Miro's 'Aidez L'Espagne' (1937) in the same room. They both feel like works drafted into the cause at the last minute, and not entirely whole-heartedly. Certainly the best politically charged work in this room is Andrew Masson's anti-clerical drawing 'Mass in Pamplonia' (1937). But neither was Masson British nor is the drawing in any way surreal, it's more a scurrilous political cartoon in the tradition of Gilray.

And what would you expect? A bunch of bohemians set out to shock a bourgeoisie which would literally think nothing of mass murder. (In the case of Germany and Italy committing such, with Britain and France happily turning a blind eye.) Of course they were always much more capable of shocking you. The Surrealists were effectively onto a loser from the start.

Inevitably, they're at their best when they don't try that hard. Laura Gasgoine comments the works “look more like style statements than revolutionary manifestos” (a slightly ironic line to come from 'The Spectator'). But perhaps that's more description than critique. Colin Middleton's 'Spain Dream Revisited' (1938, below) is of the post-Dali and de Chirico 'slick Surreal' school, so smooth as to almost look like vector art, the style we're now used to disdaining. But it's an effective enough piece.


With the central figure clutching an empty red frame, with it's endless receding doorways and windows, it's clearly constructed around holes and absences. Both the nun and the woman outside the window have the same inverted triangular space for a face, while the latter pulls back curtains as if the folds of a dress to reveal a leg-shaped aperture. The Surrealists loved their Freud, and never more so than when he was being misogynistic. This piece is most likely built around his concept of “the lack”. Female genitals can appear to men as merely an absence, and this can become a generalised symbol for their supposed inferiority – as if they're 'incomplete men'.

But there may well be an anti-clericism at play as well, the nun being held in comparison to the other woman who is presumably some kind of prostitute. (At least that's normally a good guess with the Surrealists.) The empty frame becomes an insistent atheism, further underlined by the cruciform figure in the foreground, trapped in some kind of frame. With the title and the post-de Chirico Mediterranean setting, we might even want to make of it (as with Masson) an attack on the Catholic church's ties to Franco. But the words of the title really need reversing, it's clearly another Surrealist dream image before its any kind of political polemic. And, at least as a work of art, it's more successful for that.

Art After Guernica

But two events were to cause a conceptual leap in artistic responses to the conflict, and in order of occurrence they were Guernica and 'Guernica'. It's now perhaps hard to appreciate the significance of the fascist bombing of the town of Guernica in April 1937. Certainly, it marked more than a turning point in the war. In the same way that World War One had been a first for mass machine-gunning, Guernica was a first for the mass bombing of civilian targets. Now they didn't even have to conscript you before they killed you.

(Though, much like the First World War itself, the horror now happening here had actually being going on in the colonial world for decades. For example in 1920, as further evidence there's nothing new under the sun, Britain had ensured acquiescence in Iraq by bombing it. Though there they'd used poison gas over explosive bombs as Churchill considered that option more “humane”.)

In a pre-echo of Adorno's question of how it was possible to write poetry after Auschwitz, it was a stark new reality which demanded an artistic response. It no longer seemed all that appropriate to say “anyway, I had a funny dream the other night”. The show says of Henry Moore that he was “seeking a vocabulary of forms with which to convey the darkness and violence of the times”. But that description holds for pretty much everybody.

With photography and poster art the answer came quickly, and part of the answer was speed. If death now came more quickly, so should our response. The reports of George Steer soon spread news of the atrocity, including German Nazi involvement, countering nationalist propaganda. And the Republican posters such as 'The Military Practice of the Rebels' (1936, below) and 'What Are You Doing To Prevent This?' (1937) used the image of airplanes in a patterned formation – fascist order equalling systematic death. The problem was for the painters.


And then came, at least apparently, the answer. Picasso's painting 'Guernica' was first exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish pavilion of the Paris International Exhibition. (Spain still, at least for the moment, being represented by the Republicans.) After which it travelled (as we've seen) Europe and then the world. It became something of a sensation, with 15,000 visitors in London alone. The speed at which it was completed and the way so many got to see it so quickly, in an echo of Steer's journalism, was doubtless as significant as the work itself. This was modern art on modern events seen by modern means.

It responded to the atrocity not with an impossible literalism but with a twisted expressionism. (Though some did criticise it, with its focus on the victims, as a variant on the 'crying child' images seen earlier by the 'conscience' brigade.) Respecting Picasso's wish, it went to Spain only after Franco's death and now can no longer travel. It's represented here by a replica tapestry and a painting and etching from the same 'group', 'Weeping Woman' (1937). (Some claim to see bombers reflected in the subject's eyes. Sounds fanciful to me.)

As was often the case with Picasso, the response was often imitative. McWilliam's sculpture 'Spanish Head' (1938/9) is a good work, certainly much better than the earlier 'Long Arm', but it does seem much like an element wrenched from 'Guernica' and realised in 3D.


But, as was also often the case, others found smarter things to do than try to be another Picasso. John Armstrong's paintings are almost the polar opposite of 'Guernica's' visceral shock, and closer to the haunting, elegiac quality of Nash's post-World War One works. Painted in tempera with their limited palettes offering just the right degree of naiveté they look almost soft, like they're of things which should be bright but somehow aren't – more ghost-like than ghosts. His urban environments almost taunt us with the absence of the human figure, a solitary stiff-backed chair in 'Revelation' (above), a flurry of paper in 'The Empty Street' (both 1938). Though Guernica was a crowded town, here the stripped-back remnants of the buildings are alone in a vast, empty expanse. (Several reviewers have remarked on Armstrong as the 'sleeper hit', for example Laura Cumming in the Guardian describing him as “by some way the discovery (or rediscovery) of the show”.

Despite only arriving a year later Merlyn Evans' 'Tyrannopolis (The Protestors)' (1939) seems a world away from his earlier 'Torturing the Anarchist', with its title so divorced from the actual work. Evans said that Guernica presented “the aggressive instinct for power and destruction”. However, while other artists had looked to 'Guernica' as the measure of such technological barbarity, his two parallel amorphous figures are more akin to Dali's Civil War painting 'Autumnal Cannibalism' (1936). Yet where Dali's figures are plasticated, seemingly morphing into one another even as each devours the other, Evans are brittlely crystalline. A set of dissembling parts, sections of them are already littering the ground like leaves. And, despite their clawed hands and feet, each seems to falling apart without any outside assistance. Bones and veins are visible, like an x-ray image. The equally crystalline towers behind them look more science fictional than anything actually to be found at Guernica, as if resembling their own occupants. About the only suggestion of hope is the bird flying off to the upper left.


Walter Nessler's large painting 'Premonition' (1937, above) is Gothic beyond Gothic. Himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, his message post-Guernica was clearly “can happen here”. Rather than substitute symbols for landmarks, he substitutes landmarks for landmarks. Familiar London skyline sights such as St Pauls are re-staged in a jarring and fragmentary fashion, in lurid reds and oranges, over a dark sky mottled like combat camouflage. Gridlocked buses go this way and that, as if seeking an illusory escape. The nearest to a human figure is an oversize gas mask, topping a tall building like a sculpture, a pair of human eyes as if trapped within it.

And of course this terrifying premonition was to come true. The famous by-line in the Republican poster above was “If you tolerate this your children will be next”. And we did. And they were.

History Versus Politics

If the show should be criticised for not considering what was revolutionary in Spain, it should be applauded for exploring the other end of the political spectrum. Not all artists were even Republican, and you need to tell it like it is. In Edward Burra's solo show, we looked at how the timelessness of his Spain paintings had the counter-intuitive effect of de-historicising them, of making war never decisive but merely timeless and cyclic. Though this fresh exhibition chooses new works, they would seem to confirm the thesis. 'The Watcher' (1937, below), for example, features two sinister robed figures in an ominous kind of faceless face-off. The long, narrow frame cuts away almost all else.


Burra's is most likely the 'apolitical' conservatism that, through refusal to take sides, always effectively gives the right a free pass. (Though note that, in the mailing comments to my review, his biographer Jane Stevenson argues he was more sympathetic to the Republicans than he is sometimes given credit.) Whereas the Vorticist artist Percy Wyndham-Lewis, who didn't blanche at directly supporting Hitler, was triumphant over Francoist victory in 'The Surrender of Barcelona' (1937, below).


The defeat of Barcelona, an anarchist stronghold, is morphed with the fifteenth century siege of the town, in a work many consider as referencing Velazquez ''The Siege of Breda'. The gates lie open, the bridge lowered across the moat. The painting's arranged in neat layers, from the knights in the lower foreground, to the rooftops and the white sailboats out on the bluest of seas. It's mostly composed of upward motifs, the lances of the knights, the tall towers. In fact, with their high windows like visors, the towers almost resemble the knights. Bizarrely for an artist normally so dedicated to dynamism its so ordered that it might as well have been called 'The Restoration of Order', misrule put to an end. Like the pyramids before them, the towers here come to stand for the order that comes through social hierarchy.

Strictly speaking, Wyndham-Lewis is historically comparative while Burra is ahistorical. But still the similarities are striking. It may be worth noting that Dali, a native Francoist in every sense, commented that he saw the war as “a phenomenon of natural history ...as opposed to Picasso, who considered it a political phenomenon”. Putting aside for the moment that all three artists, at least in this period, worked in Modernist styles, what could be going on?

In the Mexican Revolution, the art was often about reacquainting yourself with your indigenous culture and history - an antidote to the colonial years which had cloaked all that. While the art of the Russian Revolution often taken inspiration from local folk art. But Spain seems to have been different.

It's not just that pro-Republican art was Modernist. It's that Republicanism itself was modernist – finally it gave us the chance to make a clean break from the past. (Perhaps ironically given the prominent role the peasants would play in the revolution.) But fascism, then still a new phenomenon on the European stage, was like a nouveau riche family keen to give itself credibility through claiming historical roots. The Francoists' name Falange itself came from the Roman military formation of a phalanx. Earlier, Mussolini had flirted with Modernism through Futurism, only to ditch his allies once in power for a full embrace of pseudo-classicism.

It became almost an aesthetic agreement. (Particularly if you take the more muddied aesthetics of the 'conscience' brigade out of the equation.) The Nationalists could have history (and with it tradition) and the Republicans the modern (and with it, at least implicitly, the future). Notably, in the text below his 'Aidez L'Espagne' print, Miro calls the fascists “just the outdated forces” against “the people whose immense creative resources... will astonish the whole world”. While Henry Moore described fascism as “the beginning of another set of dark ages”.

So what had to happen for historic influences to reappear in Republican art? The answer's simple. The Republicans had to lose.


Ursula McConnell had a fairly good reason not to take up arms – she was only thirteen at the time. But she did visit Spain with her family and despite her youth later produced some extraordinary paintings. Perhaps most significant is how classical her pictures look, such as 'Family of Beggars' (1939, above). Their dark and sombre palettes, the fixed gestures and impassive expressions of the peasants have been compared to El Greco. They stand barefoot on barren land, one leafless tree in sight. Rather than being agitational like many of the other works here, they present an unchanging state. Yet McConnell came from a left-aligned family and her work doesn't feel ahistorically conservative like Burra or Wyndham-Lewis. There is something sullenly accusative in those peasant faces, at the same time as there's the sense that there's no longer hope for them. They're the faces of those who know they must bear the unbearable. They're reminiscent of Marx's quote: “the heart of a heartless world... the soul of soulless conditions”.

In a way, this modernism... in fact everything that was positive about the situation in Spain simultaneously came to be its undoing. What made it all important was the very reason the fascists came to win. Only Stalin was arming the Republicans. While most foreign volunteers came through the International Brigade who, organised through the various national Communist parties, were effectively under his command. And he was soon to reason that the victory of a genuine form of communism would be a bigger defeat than defeat would be. In October '38, with battle still raging, the troops were simply ordered home. And those fighting outside the Brigade... well, if you want to know what happened to them go and see the Ken Loach film 'Land and Freedom'. It isn't pretty.

With the war ended, any distinction between 'conscience' and 'conflict' essentially collapsed and the pressing new issue came to be care for refugees. The British government originally refused entry, later amended to demanding financial securities for every entrant. (Essentially saying “we won't stop them bombing you, but we won't let you flee the bombing either”. That's neutrality for you.) So most of the posters in the latter part of the show are devoted to raising funds or otherwise caring for the refugees. One of these, with the now-standard fascist airplane patterns in the sky, carries the slogan 'Help Them To Forget' (below).


And forget is what we did. At the same time we're being asked to buy into the fiction that the First World War was in some way fought against imperialism, we're being asked to forget that either the Spanish war or World War Two was fought for anything more than the status quo. This exhibition is, perhaps understandably, more adept at demonstrating the art of the conflict than the politics behind it. But it still contains enough to undermine such absurd notions. It's not merely that it contains a wealth of great art. (Though it does, in quite a rich variety and with great works by several artists previously quite unknown to me.) It's that it covers a period where art was not just a series of gimmicks proffered by egoists and self-publicists, but where artistic and political innovations were essentially in a positive feedback loop.

Should anyone be interested in why the Spanish Civil War wasn't really all that civil...

'Freedom Fighters or Comintern army? 
The International Brigades in Spain'
…or you could do a whole lot worse than Orwell's 'Homage To Catalonia'. It's somewhat ironic that this remains the best-known book on Spain, when it scuppers about every popular misconception about the conflict.

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