The Spanish civil war and British artists

This video is called Pablo Picasso – Guernica (1937).

By Christine Lindey in Britain:

Exhibition Review: Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish civil war

Tuesday 25th November 2014

CHRISTINE LINDEY recommends an exhibition of art inspired by the Spanish civil war

THE momentous interwar years between 1918 and 1939 galvanised British artists into political commitment. Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution, and appalled by the rise of fascism and the deprivation caused by the great depression, many turned to the left. Defence of the Spanish republic against the 1936 fascist insurrection united the anti-fascist peace movement.

This exhibition about British artists’ responses to the Spanish civil war highlights wider 1930s political and aesthetic debates. Art historian Roger Fry’s dominant ideology of “art for art’s sake” was contested by calls for politically engaged art by socialist and communist artists.

While working as an illustrator in the USSR in the early 1930s Cliff Rowe was impressed by its cultural policies. On returning home he founded the Artists International in 1933. It called for “the international unity of artists against imperialist war on the Soviet Union, fascism and colonial oppression” and its purpose was to spread this message through posters, banners, illustrations, exhibitions, meetings and lectures.

The following year it was equipped with a politically milder slogan and renamed the Artists International Association (AIA). Its membership grew rapidly and in 1936-9 it became the main focus for artists’ defence of Spain by raising public consciousness and funds.

Some artists argued for direct action and Felicia Browne, Julian Bell and Clive Branson fought in the International Brigade. Only Branson survived.

Felicia Browne, self-portrait

Browne, at the age of 32, was the first British volunteer killed in battle and in her self-portrait she returns our gaze squarely as a woman belligerently defiant of social convention.

She became a posthumous communist hero as commemorative exhibitions and publications of her uncompromisingly decisive drawings of Spanish militiamen and women raised money for Spain.

Other artists argued that creating propaganda was more useful and several rejected easel painting in favour of public arts as more effective tools of socio-political change.

The exhibition includes the AIA’s modernist banner for the British battalion of the International Brigade created by James Lucas, Phyllis Ladyman and Betty Rea, James Boswell’s illustrations for Left Review and Felicity Ashbee’s posters. The latter’s emotive portrayals of desperate war victims combine accessible figurative drawing with expressionist exaggeration such as enlarged pleading eyes and skeletal hands. The London County Council provided 22 large hoardings which AIA artists painted in public, so raising media and public awareness for Aid for Spain as they worked.

Other artists conveyed their beliefs through traditional means. Henry Rayner’s powerful print There is No Shelter chillingly reveals the mercilessness of aerial bombing. Of the several figures huddling for safety under a giant umbrella, the one holding it up turns out to be death personified as a skeleton.

Branson’s socialist-realist paintings stemmed from his communist desire to reach a wide audience. His Demonstration in Battersea (1939) celebrates collective action as demonstrators set off with communist and republican flags and banners amid the working-class district’s terrace housing, gasworks and factories.

Some British surrealists also opposed fascism and contributed imaginative masks and costumes to the 1938 May Day procession. Finding and exhibiting two of these props is a real scoop. Yet the meanings of most of their works — such as Stanley Hayter’s — are so elliptical or ambiguous that it is not clear that they refer to Spain, nor indeed even to antimilitarism.

The enervated forms and distorted figures in his Paysage Anthropophage (1937) could equally refer to personal or psychological anguish or to conflicts between unspecified humans or animals. In the 1930, when academic art still dominated, their adherence to abstracted or imaginary motifs were largely incompressible to most people.

Picasso also used modernist distortions in his Guernica canvas of 1937 but the motifs, such as the distraught woman running while carrying her dead child, and the bull as symbol of Spain make the painting’s meaning clear. It toured Britain with related works to raise funds for Spanish Relief in 1938, when it made a massive impression on British artists.

That exhibition’s catalogue is on show, along with Picasso’s Crying Woman and his satirical print The Dream of Franco alongside British works influenced by Guernica, such as FE McWilliam’s Spanish Head, with its anguished gaping mouth and carnivorous teeth.

Also displayed is the recent recreating of Guernica as a large banner in Pallant House. It was stitched by a collective including political refugees, anti-fascists and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to express the continuing need to protest against war and political oppression.

Together with its catalogue, this informative and well-researched exhibition of art, documentation and rare memorabilia makes a valuable contribution to knowledge about 1930s British politically aware art.

It rather overemphasises surrealists and modernists but it refrains from taking the all-too-common patronising attitude to artists with communist and socialist convictions.

It will hopefully galvanise a new generation to create politically committed art.

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish civil war runs at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until February 2015. Free. Details:

Conscience and Conflict is the first major exhibition to look at the response of British artists to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939): here.

No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War 1936-39 by Chris Farman, Valery Rose and Liz Woolley (Oxford IBMC, £8): review here.

6 thoughts on “The Spanish civil war and British artists

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  4. Thursday 31st March 2016

    posted by Morning Star in Features

    PAULINE FRASER reports from a conference, held in Manchester, that celebrated the role of four extraordinary women in the Spanish civil war

    Earlier this month, just days after International Women’s Day, the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) celebrated the part played by a diverse and truly international quartet of women. They came from across the globe, but found common cause in Spain.

    Margaret Michaelis, originally from Poland, the Australian, Aileen Palmer, Fernanda Jacobsen from Scotland, and, towering over them all, from Spain itself, La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibarruri.

    Every year, to commemorate the Battle of Jarama, the IBMT organises a Len Crome Day, sponsored by members of Dr Leonard Crome’s family.

    Speaking to a large audience in the lecture theatre at the Manchester conference centre, Len’s son, Peter Crome, introduced the day with a selection of photos illustrating the life of his father. The latter’s enormous contribution to the medical services in Spain was later highlighted by two of the day’s other speakers.

    Lynn Collins, regional secretary of north-west region of the TUC, spoke about the campaign to get a statue erected of Sylvia Pankhurst, tireless anti-fascist campaigner, who championed the cause of Abyssinia during the savage war waged against that country by Mussolini’s fascist troops some two years before the fascists in Spain staged their coup against the elected government.

    Professor Paul Preston presented Pasionaria of Steel depicting the outstanding leader as mother-figure of the Spanish people, who showed empathy and compassion with the poor and oppressed, while at the same time, as a political leader, she displayed the steely determination, courage and strength that gave the people hope.

    She was one of the greatest of orators of her time, her famous phrases include: “Better to die on your feet, than live on your knees,” which she borrowed from the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, “If the Spanish people is defeated, you will be next,” and most famous of all, “No Pasaran!” will live on wherever there is a battle to be won against fascism and inhumanity.

    It was difficult to imagine Preston lost for words, but on the few occasions when he was honoured to meet Pasionaria, such was the effect she had on him. “In her eighties, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever met,” he said.

    Professor Helen Graham spoke about Margaret Michaelis, who was a complete unknown to most people in the audience. As a photographer Michaelis is not mentioned alongside the greats of Spanish civil war photography such as Frank Kappa and Gerda Taro.

    She worked for the Catalan Generalitat, taking shots of scenes of life behind the lines, such as evacuee children at Montjuic in Barcelona, cutting-edge co-educational schools and home front mobilisation.

    She helped with what Graham called “the psychological conscription of people into the war effort” and also photographed anarchist Emma Goldman during her tour of the front.

    The poetry of Aileen Palmer is relatively well known but Dr Sylvia Martin, also Australian, revealed the exemplary contribution she made to the administration of the medical services of the British Battalion. Dr Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, who headed the first hospital at Granen, said Palmer was “terrific, a quiet, indefatigable worker.”

    Her skills as a linguist were in high demand. She worked in the battlefield hospitals at Brunete and Teruel and became secretary to Crome, who she described as a “tall, genial, comforting figure,” “highly efficient,” with a “devastating irreverence for bureaucracy.”

    Palmer wanted to be where the need was greatest. Offered a desk job in Barcelona, she left for southern France, to help the refugees, then to London, where she worked throughout the blitz as an ambulance driver in London’s East End.

    Called back to Australia after the war to tend her sick mother, she found it difficult to fit into the comfortable life there. “Spain stands out in my life like a beacon light,” she wrote.

    Mental health problems were to dog her for the rest of her life. Ironically, Michaelis was to find refuge in Australia, but not from the demons of war that led to her mental illness.

    Dr Linda Palfreeman subtitled her talk on Fernanda Jacobsen, the colourful commander of the Scottish ambulance unit: “Samaritan or Spy?” Controversy has dogged the history of the unit over the decision that it should be entirely non-political and should give medical aid to whoever was in need.

    Under Jacobsen’s direction, the definition of aid was extended from medical assistance to the provision of soup and porridge kitchens to the starving people of Madrid. She worked with a somewhat shady character called Christopher Lance, who allegedly used the unit to smuggle out Franco sympathisers among the evacuees.

    When Madrid was taken by Franco, Jacobsen risked further controversy by staying on to continue her work.

    The women featured were four of many — both from within Spain and beyond — who came to the aid of the republic. Some, such as the artist Felicia Browne, fought in the militias. She was the first volunteer from Britain and the only British woman to be killed in action. Others worked on the front line as nurses, journalists and hospital administrators.

    Many Spanish woman worked behind the lines as part of the war effort. This year’s Len Crome Day was a unique and memorable celebration of International Women’s Day 2016.


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