FEBRUARY 4, 2002 | NO.4
It was in Spain," wrote French author Albert Camus, "that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward." That, Camus added, is why so many people around the world came to regard the Spanish Civil War as a personal tragedy. "It was a war that, rightly or wrongly, seemed very pure and worth fighting," says British historian Paul Preston, one of the world's foremost authorities on the 1936-39 conflict. On both sides, "people had absolutely no doubt about the moral choices that were at stake."
Against the backdrop of the latest international ideological confrontation, and to mark the 65th anniversary of the International Brigades-the 40,000-plus volunteers from some 50 countries who rushed to Spain to aid the young Republican government in its doomed struggle against the fascist-backed forces of General Francisco Franco-Britain's Imperial War Museum has assembled "The Spanish Civil War: Dreams + Nightmares." Running until April 28, the exhibition focuses on the personal experiences of soldiers and civilians as well as on the war-era art, literature and music that was produced by some of the 20th century's greatest cultural figures. "It is a magnificent collection of objects and ideas that gives a sense of the universality of the Spanish Civil War," says Preston, professor of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics and the exhibition's historical consultant.
Pablo Picasso's Weeping Woman, Robert Capa's photographs, Pablo Casals' baton and Ernest Hemingway's dispatches share space with such items as volunteers' letters, weapons, a campaign map used by Franco, a Basque fighter's bullet-holed shirt, a burned coin found in the rubble of the bombed market town of Guernica, a dress worn by the fiery Spanish communist Dolores Ibrruri (La Pasionaria) and drawings by Spanish children. "There were dreams on both sides, as well as terrible nightmares," says Angela Godwin of the museum staff, who helped to assemble the show. Much of the material has never been seen outside Spain, and other items have come from museums, archives and private collections in Europe and the U.S.
Although the best-known painting of the war, Picasso's Guernica, remains at home in the Reina Sofa Art Center in Madrid, there are other powerful reminders of the 1937 attack on the Basque town-in Preston's words, "the first total destruction of an undefended civilian target by aerial bombardment." Along with Weeping Woman, the display includes a Picasso pencil sketch of a horse and a mother with a dead child-a study for Guernica-and an etching that satirizes Franco, produced by Picasso to raise money for the Republican cause. Ren Magritte's The Black Flag, a dark painting depicting a sky full of strange and sinister forms, gives "a foretaste of the terror that would come from flying machines," Magritte later wrote.
The Basque artist Aurelio Arteta, who was forced into exile, painted Triptych of the War, depicting regional soldiers being crushed in trenches, civilians being killed and still others fleeing by sea. Catalonia-born Joan Mir, who spent much of the war in Paris, produced several works related to the conflict, including The Giant's Awakening. Salvador Dal and Jos Borras Casanova, as well as sculptors such as Julio Gonzlez, are represented by powerful works. So, too, is sculptor Csar Manrique, who fought on Franco's Nationalist side although he was not a fascist.
The complex and controversial Spanish Civil War began as a series of social conflicts-between landless peasants and landowners, industrial workers and industrialists, Catholics and atheists. Sharply factionalized, the country was nearly impossible to govern. Following a series of domestic events in July 1936 (including two political killings and a military coup gone wrong), the internal battles quickly took on international dimensions.
Hitler and Mussolini came to the aid of the Nationalists, while Stalin supported the Republicans. Britain and France declined to intervene. "The Spanish Civil War was more than a prelude to World War II," says Preston. "It was part of it." If the noninterventionists had acted differently, he maintains, "there wouldn't have been a World War II; Britain and France would have clipped Hitler's wings in good time." Instead, "an awful lot of people saw what was happening in Spain, were aware of what had happened in Germany, Italy and Austria [where fascist parties had taken power], and decided they had to take things into their own hands." The International Brigades were born.
Many of the faces of the foreign volunteers peer from photographs, slide presentations and short film footage. Others leap from the pages of diaries and letters mailed home. One of the many black American volunteers wrote from Albacete in 1937, explaining why he was in Spain: "Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part of, a great progressive force on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human civilization ... because if we crush fascism here, we'll save our people in America, and in other parts of the world."
The war in Spain was the first to become known to the public mainly through photographs. Thanks to technical improvements in cameras and film, unstaged action shots became possible and the birth of magazines such as Life in 1936 created a mass market for photojournalism. Giants of the genre -Capa, David Seymour, Agust Centelles and Antonio Campaa-all captured Spain's moments of both brutality and tenderness. "It is not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the sufferings around me," noted Capa. He photographed the exit of refugees from Barcelona to France in 1939, people who were, wrote journalist Martha Gellhorn, "armed with transcendent faith that makes miracles and changes history."
Along with the works of the great image-makers and the recorded testimony of witnesses, "Dreams + Nightmares" is replete with everyday items: Franco's winter cloak, postcards, badges, tickets, poems, news clippings, food tins, Hemingway's press pass. Amid the nightmare of the Spanish war, ordinary life went on and extraordinary dreams took flight.
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