Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War (Pallant House, Chichester)
One of my favourite art spaces is the Pallant Gallery in Chichester, in theory three hours away by train (although Southern/South Eastern buggeration made this three and a half) – via something from the market and a coffee first and then a pint post charity shops. There’s a twenty-first century extension, which either filled a gap or replaced some indifferent building, and the Georgian era gallery complete with squeaky floor boards. The Pallant collection specialises in twentieth century art, mainly British, with London and Sussex artists well represented, plus smart local collecting. That the nearby cathedral was and is sympathetic helps.
I think I’ll have more to say about Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War, which closes on 15 February 2015 but moves to the Laing Gallery, Newcastle from March. I only know the barest outlines of the war, I’m afraid, a bloody struggle between Nationalists (supported by the Nazis) and Republicans (supported by Russians), in effect extending the Second World War back to 1936. It became a rallying cause for the Left in Britain, with poets, writers and artists heading off to fight or drive ambulances, largely on the Republican side. One atrocity led to Picasso’s astounding Guernica, shown in Britain at the Whitechapel, among other venues. A tapestry version was at the UN for many years, and was covered up when Colin Powell and John Negroponte spoke in front of it in 2003 during the lead up to the conflict in Iraq. The tapestry was moved to be shown at the Whitechapel – it was astounding when I saw it – and apparently is now in San Antonio. The Nationalists won and Spain became an authoritarian society until the death of General Franco in 1975.
Aside from participating in the conflict, there were a variety of responses from British artists. Partly there were various posters and portfolios, raising money or drawing attention to the suffering, starvation and refugees, clearly propaganda but bipartisan as the fund raising drew no distinction between Nationalist and Republican. Most artists were pro-Republican, seeking for Neville Chamberlain to change his neutral stance at the point that he was also appeasing Hitler. Roger Penrose and three other artists spirited Chamberlain masks at a May Day protest. (Burra was ambivalent, distressed apparently by the destruction of churches – a number of cartoons in the exhibition critique the Catholic church; one artist whose name I forget was pro-Nationalist, Wyndham Lewis was also broadly pro-Franco). A number of British artists had visited Spain in the 1930s, perhaps drawn by the light, and so there was the sense of a familiar landscape being destroyed. John Armstrong painted isolated ruins against blue skies – in devastating pictures that recall the surreal cities of Max Ernst. Of course, many of these artists were inspired by surrealism and were part of a British surrealist movement, linked to Picasso via Penrose. The Spanish Civil War seems to be the unconscious to their art – and also the work of Moore and Hepworth. The nightmares of the sleep of reason can also be found in Goya’s incredibly disturbing prints The Disasters of War, inspired by the Spanish Peninsula Wars (1808-14), which I first saw at the Whitworth, and which were shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1938 and provided a language for a response to such atrocities.
There are all kinds of striking works – Burra’s watercolours, Walter Nessler’s Premonition (1937) of an apocalyptic London and Clive Branson’s (faux?) naïve socialist realism of Daily Worker selling on the streets. Oddly one of the pieces here – Picasso’s “strip cartoon” The Dream and Lie of Franco I – is also on show at the Rubens exhibition at the RAA.
I’m so glad I saw this before it closed — if you can see it in Newcastle do so.