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.

Diaghilev, dancing, other arts, politics

Serge Diaghilev, photograph by Jan de Sterlecki, 1916

From London daily The Morning Star:

Diaghilev And The Golden Age Of The Ballets Russes 1909-1929

Friday 03 December 2010

Sergei Diaghilev is best known for creating the Ballets Russes, the Russian touring company whose innovatory ballets first shocked then thrilled European audiences in the years leading up to WWI.

Born into the Russian landed aristocracy in 1872 Diaghilev developed an early fascination for the arts of Russia and the European avant-garde. He devoted himself to promoting the avant-garde at home and Russian arts old and new abroad at a time when they were little known in western Europe.

At the turn of the century the Russian avant-garde was influenced by the previously disparaged pre-18th century icons and the Russian empire’s peasant arts, including those of its Islamic provinces.

These non-illusionistic works held a mystery, exoticism and expressive power which paralleled that of other “primitive” art then being discovered by Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and other pioneers of modernism.

In 1906 Diaghilev amazed audiences in Paris, Berlin and Venice with a large exhibition featuring Russian icons, peasant arts and avant-garde art. He soon followed this with concerts of Russian contemporary music and by 1909 he had merged these influences with innovatory ballet.

The first productions by the Ballets Russes in Paris 1909 caused a sensation. Ballet’s polite traditions were broken. Gone were the naturalistic sets, melodic music and teetering ballerinas in frothy tutus supported by stolid male dancers in classical tunics.

Here was the virtuosity of the charismatic Vaslav Nijinsky leaping, arching, stepping and twisting sinuously as a wild faun to Mikhail Fokine‘s innovative choreography and Igor Stravinsky‘s and Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov‘s swirling music. Leon Bakst’s bold, exotic costumes and sets complemented the raw emotion, sensuality and eroticism the company exuded.

Diaghilev had created innovative total art works which enveloped audiences in complete audio-visual sensory experiences. Much in demand, the company toured a dizzying range of towns and cities across Europe and the Americas ranging from Buenos Aires to Sheffield and from Budapest to Pittsburgh until Diaghilev’s death in 1929, when the Balllets Russes also ceased to exist.

With a finger on the pulse of his age, Diaghilev’s greatest achievement was to understand the expressions of modernity being forged by the avant-garde and to spot and commission a dazzling array of talents.

He collaborated with the leading artists, designers, composers, choreographers, writers and dancers of his era. The Rite of Spring in 1913 was choreographed and danced by Nijinsky, to music by Stravinsky and costumes and sets by Nicholas Roerich. Parade in 1917 had designs by Picasso, music by Erik Satie and a libretto by Jean Cocteau. Such cross-fertilisations ensured that the separate elements of ballet – scenario, choreography, sets, costumes and music – were fused into a spectacle which was greater than the sum of its parts.

The socio-political context of the exhibition is predictably anti-communist. The introductory display quotes the tsar’s rather than the proletariat’s views on the 1905 revolution. Diaghilev’s move to western Europe is attributed to the cessation of imperial patronage caused by this “political upheaval.”

Diaghilev’s cultural stance at the time echoed that of the right wing of the liberal Constitutional Democratic party, formed in 1905. It argued that a cultural elite should function as a bridge between social differences under the guidance of an autocratic state, but this goes unmentioned.

Similarly his statelessness after the formation of the USSR is portrayed as punitive. Yet his reasons for not joining the struggle for socio-political justice, as did other members of the Russian intelligentsia, are not discussed. He had left Russia long before 1917 and the young USSR was rightly suspicious of its mostly hostile emigre bourgeoisie.

But though a political conservative, Diaghilev was an aesthetic progressive. His contribution to European modernism went far beyond his original commitment to promoting an idealised and at times patronising idea of Russian identity.

This V&A exhibition is supplemented by informative music, videos, digital projections and films which complement the original costumes, programmes, posters, paintings, costume and set designs by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

One can only marvel at the consumate skill with which craftsmen and craftswomen fashioned costumes from extravagant materials using techniques varying from embroidery, applique, beading, embossing, flossing, flocking and dyeing.

The rhythm, scale and mood of the exhibition varies. There is an intimate display of four of Natalia Goncharova’s alternative set designs for The Firebird unexpectedly and delightfully dwarfed by the production’s gigantic backcloth itself, which hangs in solitary splendour as Stravinsky’s music plays. Picasso’s enormous front curtain for Parade, on which two joyous women running portray unfettered energy and freedom, is also on display.

The ephemerality of ballet makes it a difficult theme for an exhibition.

But this show and its catalogue manage to convey the daring and magic of Diaghilev’s productions by blending careful scholarship, thoughtful curating and brilliant exhibition design into a whole which echoes the drama and creativity of its theme.

Runs until January 9. Tickets can be booked at

Critic’s Notebook: Ballet Clings to Racial, Ethnic and National Stereotypes: here.